A movie about the legendary author and big game fisherman Ernest Hemingway inspired the team behind his original boat to create a modern classic on the same timeless lines, writes Jonathon Savil
Imagine if you had the chance to recreate a world-famous icon, say the Taj Mahal or the Mona Lisa. Bill Prince, one of the world’s leading yacht designers, had just that sort of responsibility when he was asked to redesign Ernest Hemingway’s famed game fishing boat, Pilar.
The original Pilar has been languishing on dry land in Cuba for the last 86 years at the Museo Ernest Hemingway, in Hemingway’s former home near Havana.
It’s fair to say that, as well as being Hemingway’s boat, Pilar is also famous for being one of the first true sportsfishers. The transom was lowered so a roller could be fitted for hauling large fish aboard, it had the first outriggers and Hemingway probably invented the flybridge, building his own raised helm station on the wheelhouse roof using a steering wheel from an old Ford Model T. Pilar was built for fighting big fish.
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The story of this new boat is almost as intriguing. Actor Andy Garcia and Hemingway’s niece, Hilary Hemingway, were working on a film project about her uncle and how he befriended a boat captain, Gregorio Fuentes, who inspired him to write The Old Man and The Sea.
To make it as authentic as possible, they asked the grandson of Howard Wheeler, who built the original Pilar, to create a smaller replica for the film. Wes Wheeler recalls flying over to Cuba to view the original: “Pilar was on Hemingway’s tennis court with a roof over it. We took detailed measurements of the entire boat, came back to North Carolina, compared all the measurements to my family’s catalogue from 1934 and they matched exactly.”
When the replica was finished, the sight of her on the water inspired Wes to recreate a modern day successor with the latest creature comforts and set about assembling his dream team to build it. The hull was to be designed by Bruce Marek while Bill Prince would take care of the styling and engineering. Bill’s pedigree is impressive, having designed a number of models for well known yards including Hinckley, Island Packet, Lazzara, Pursuit, and Tiara, among others.
The new boat would be built at the Brooklyn Boat Yard, started in 1960 by Joel M. White and now run by his son, Steve. Bill Prince explains: “Part of the brief was that the boat would have an authentic exterior design adhering to the same dimensions as the original, but with a luxurious and tasteful interior and modern systems. It conforms to today’s ABS and US Coast Guard standards, and includes all the latest equipment.”
So Bill reversed engineered the original boat to make it even better. He had several advantages over the original Pilar’s designers. “For a start the new yacht is cold-molded, meaning modern wood construction with great strength and much lower maintenance than the traditional plank-on-frame boats. Cold molding was not available when the original Pilar was built.”
Bill is proud of his new creation: “Every inch of this boat is built by hand using the finest wood materials including douglas fir, African mahogany, and teak decks. She’s light and fast, finished to the highest yacht quality extant.”
Part of the redesign includes a new powertrain, a pair of Yanmar 370hp diesels. “The original boat did 12-13 knots but the new yacht hit 34.5 knots on her sea trials. She’s a speed demon.”
The accommodation is designed to reflect the original. It’s all leather and hardwood, reminiscent of a gentlemen’s club. The new boat has four berths, compared to the original’s six, and a full entertainment package including a music system and television controlled by an iPad or iPhone in place of the original’s wind-up gramophone! There’s also a touchscreen navigation system, autopilot, A/C, stabiliser and a Sub-Zero fridge.
The old boat did, however, come close to gaining a few special extras of its own. During World War II, Hemingway approached the American ambassador in Cuba, Spruille Braden, to equip Pilar to chase submarines. According to Braden, Hemingway said, “I can really have myself a party provided you get me a bazooka to punch holes in the side of a submarine, machine guns to mow down the people on the deck, and hand grenades to lob down the conning tower.”
Perhaps understandably, Braden turned down Hemingway’s unconventional request to convert his beloved sportsfisher into a machine of war.
And that’s how it stayed. Hemingway was unequivocal about his own passion for big game fishing: “If you land a big tuna after a six-hour fight, fight him man against fish until your muscles are nauseated with the unceasing strain, and finally bring him up alongside the boat, green-blue and silver in the lazy ocean, you will be purified and will be able to enter unabashed into the presence of the very elder gods, and they will make you welcome.”
Wes Wheeler is equally happy with the new Pilar: “It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to build this boat. I really wanted to do this before my dad passed,” Wheeler says. “He helped me to build the replica for the movie but passed away three years ago before we started work on the new one. It’s really a shame, because he would have loved to see this happen.”
Wes has been obsessive in tracking down suitable fittings for the new Pilar: “We went worldwide looking for a horn, searchlight and compass to match the originals.” Even the wheel was cast from an original 1935 helm.
The new Pilar has the classic lines of the original that even now remain strangely timeless. Like an old Bentley or a Rolex you feel instantly drawn to it. It is more than just a memory though, it is an improved rendition of the original design that oozes class and presence.
The new owner need not worry about its seaworthiness either. In the 30 years that Hemingway owned the original Pilar, it survived four hurricanes by riding them out at sea.
It took Brooklyn Boat Yard over 17,000 man hours to build hull number one of what they hope will become a new limited-edition series. That level of heritage and craftsmanship comes at a price. Wheeler expects to sell just two or three of these craft a year at a cost of around $1.5million each, depending on the exact specification of each vessel.
Hemingway used Pilar as a means of getting away from everyday life. Aboard Pilar he was relaxed and happy. Aboard Pilar he pursued big fish and pitted himself against nature, not as Hemingway the Nobel Prize winning author but as Hemingway the sportsman. If the new owner achieves even a part of that same satisfaction, he will be a very happy man.
First published in the March 2021 issue of Motor Boat & Yachting.