Hemingway’s Boat – Paul Hendrickson’s Book on the Legend of Pilar and Her Captain

This weekend I finished reading Hemingway’s Boat, a biographical account by Paul Hendrickson of the important role that Pilar, a 38-foot sportfishing boat, played in the life of Ernest Hemingway. Early on, Hendrickson lets the reader know that his aim in writing the book was:

“…to try to lock together the words ‘Hemingway’ and ‘boat’ in the same way that the locked-together and equally American words ‘DiMaggio’ and ‘bat,’ or ‘Satchmo’ and ‘horn,’ will quickly mean something in the minds of most people, at least of a certain age.”

Hendrickson mostly succeeds at his goal. He charts the course of the relationship that Hemingway had with Pilar, perhaps one of the longest and most meaningful relationships of the author’s life. After all, Hemingway owned Pilar for nearly twenty-seven years from 1934 until his death in 1961. During that time, he divorced and remarried three times, had multiple literary successes and failures, survived two terrible plane crashes, and won the Nobel Prize. Hendrickson, when he’s at his best, writes some amazingly beautiful passages about Hemingway’s love of the boat, the joy he experienced from hauling record-setting marlin and blue fin tuna onto her varnished decks, and the pleasure he had from sharing his boating adventures with this three sons.

For avid readers of Hemingway’s fiction and students of his life and literary works, it may be worth plowing through the challenging twists and turns of Hendrickson’s entire book. For those interested primarily in the history of Pilar and in the myth of Hemingway the legendary marlin hunter, Bimini rabble-rouser, and gypsy of the Gulf Stream, the first two parts of the book will probably suffice. The second half of the book, in my opinion, veers off course a bit.

So back to Pilar. Hendrickson gives a detailed, intensively researched account of the Wheeler Shipyard, Inc., the Brooklyn, NY based shipbuilder from whom Hemingway ordered his boat. The model that caught Hemingway’s eye was a production cabin cruiser called the Playmate. Hemingway went to the Wheeler yard in early spring of 1934 and ordered a 38-foot version with some modifications. Among the changes were Pilar’s black hull and her two screws and two engines of unequal size. Hendrickson describes the engines as follows:

“Anyone who’s ever paid close attention to Hemingway’s boat knows she ran two engines in her day—the big Chrysler seventy-five-horse Crown reduction gear engine for cruising; the little four-cylinder, forty-horse Lycoming motor for trolling.”

On the first trip from Key West to Havana, the Chrysler overheated while they were three miles off the coast of Cuba. Captain and crew were forced to spend two hours creeping toward Havana harbor under power of the Lycoming alone. While researching his book, Hendrickson apparently read through every line of Hemingway’s boat logs, as well as those kept by guests and hired help. The result is an intriguing chronicle of the voyages of Pilar. Their frequency mirrors the ups and downs of Hemingway’s life. In the final years, as the author was suffering from numerous physical ailments and bouts of depression and paranoia, Pilar left her slip less and less frequently.  The political situation in Cuba had changed by that time anyway, making it increasingly difficult for Hemingway to get to Havana and enjoy the boat as he had in the old days.

After Hemingway’s suicide in 1961, Pilar ended up in the hands of Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway’s longtime first mate. From there, the boat eventually became the property of the Cuban government. Today, Pilar is on exhibit at the Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s old house, which is now a museum. There’s speculation that the boat on display isn’t the real Pilar. Hendrickson has done the research and believes that she is. He doesn’t have irrefutable proof though, and the fact that we won’t ever know for certain what happened to Hemingway’s boat “makes Pilar a better metaphor and storytelling vehicle than I ever bargained for,” Hendrickson writes.

Want to learn more? Check out these references:

A very short video of Pilar as she looks today at the Finca Vigia museum.

Saving Pilar and Hemingway: A very informative article by Peter Swanson in Yachting on Pilar and Hemingway and  on Hemingway’s contribution to sportfishing and the current state of the boat in Cuba.

Wheeler Yacht’s 83-Footers: A short history of Wheeler Shipyard’s involvement in shipbuilding for WWII by Steve Knauth, published in Soundings.

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