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by Roger Pinckney | May 22, 2020 | FISHING, SALTWATER, Slider
Hemingway’s Pilar – Chasing Billfish and German U-boats

Ernest Hemingway and his first mate, Jose Fuentes, strike a macho pose after bringing in a big marlin caught from Hemingway’s beloved Pilar in the fertile waters off Cuba.
Papa called her Pilar and she was a fishing machine, a 1934 Wheeler Playmate, custom built to his specifications in a Brooklyn boatyard. She was 38 feet at the waterline, with a low-cut transom rigged with a roller for sliding fish aboard. She held a ton of ice, had oversized water tanks and enough fuel for 350 miles. She had two engines of different sizes, the smaller one for trolling for billfish. With both throttles against the stops, a little body English on the helm, Pilar could make 16 knots on a flat sea. Hemingway shelled out $7,500 to have her delivered by a railroad flatcar to the dock at Key West.
Hemingway was far from famous in those days, just another pick-and-shovel writer, four books out and publishing credits in major magazines. For Whom the Bell Tolls, the book that would write his ticket, was still four years and a Spanish Civil War away. Hemingway bummed money from his soon to be ex in-laws and pawned articles he had not yet written to the editor of Esquire magazine.
That unlikely deal made history. First out of Key West, Bimini and later Havana, Hemingway battled sailfish, tuna and marlin aboard Pilar, but especially sharks, which cut up his fish at every opportunity. Here was a man who would not write what he did not know and he learned a lot sliding around the aft deck of Pilar. The Old Man and the Sea, the saga of the poor Cuban fisherman with a giant marlin hooked up and sharks closing in, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel the following year.
Islands in the Stream, published posthumously, is a ripping good yarn of Pilar chasing German U-Boats during WWII. The Germans were ambushing tankers out of Venezuela, stopping Cuban fishing boats on the way home, pilfering citrus, the U-Boat crews driven nearly mad with scurvy.
Hemingway already had his “shark medicine,” a 1921 Thompson with a 50-round drum magazine. The embassy in Havana supplied fuel, grenades, satchel charges, whiskey. Pilar was to fish as usual and if accosted by a U-Boat, Papa would clear the check with his Tommy gun. Then an especially recruited Cuban jai-alai star would loft explosives down the open hatches. What might have happened next is open to speculation. Though a submarine was spotted, no close encounter ensued.
Fast forward a dozen years. Hemingway liked Castro, or at least he tried to. They fell out soon enough when Hemingway saw a burly security colonel help Castro at the reel, and then Comrade Presidente Fidel claimed the prize for the biggest fish caught that day. Then somebody shot his dogs.
Hard to tell which offended him worse, but Hemingway, never a man to cut and run, did just that, leaving his toothbrush, toothpaste, unfinished bottles of gin, taxidermy, reams of unpublished typewritten pages and his beloved Pilar.
Hemingway threw the keys to Jose Fuentes, his swarthy barefooted first mate and the model for the heroic fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. Fuentes lived to 102, was many times trotted out and much celebrated. The Government took the land, house and boat. Plaster fell, papers mildewed and Pilar dry rotted.
But there is an enduring affection for Ernest Hemingway in Cuba. The Cubans, withering under economic sanctions, did the best they could. International help arrived in 2007, when land, house and boat were listed on the World Monuments Fund of 100 Most Endangered sites, and The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Places. If not completely restored, Pilar is now stabilized and on display at La Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s “lookout farm” outside Havana.
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