Hemingway, Castro and the Boat Brand They Loved
A Rant About Wheelers, Replicas and Righteous Thinking
Recently, as I was finishing up a story for a history magazine about the remarkable voyage that began Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution, a YouTube video caught my attention. A pair of Wheeler motorboats were running side-by-side in New York Harbor. One was a restored 1939 Playmate, the other a replica of author Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar, a 1934 Playmate 38.
The Wheeler Shipbuilding Company has been described as a “boom-to-bust” operation that went bust for good in the mid-1960s, never having made the transition to fiberglass. War had been good for Wheeler, which thrived on government contracts 1942-45. The peace, not so much.
The replica was a vanity project undertaken by Wesley Wheeler, son of Wesley, son of Wesley, son of Howard Wheeler, who founded the company before World War I. Pilar was nicely made by the folks at the Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine. She was a wood-epoxy build, not planked, but true to the lines of the original. With twin diesels for power, instead of a gas single, she runs nearly three times as fast, too. The pricetag: $1.5 million. Her official name is Legend, so henceforth will be referred to as Legend Pilar.
All things Hemingway have cachet, and boats are no different. For a while a Massachusetts lawyer was doing his own restoration of the only other 1934 Playmate known to exist. Actor Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) bought a 1939 Playmate on eBay and restored her; that’s the boat running next to Legend Pilar in the video. Anyone who has driven down to the keys and stopped at World Wide Sportsman will have seen a display that is misleadingly described as a sister to Hemingway’s boat. In 2013, the premiere antique watercraft restoration yard, Moores Marine, rebuilt a 34-foot Wheeler for a movie about Hemingway and his Cuban captain, which has not yet been made.
Rhys, like Wes Wheeler’s father, referred to Wheeler boats as the ocean-going equivalents of a Cadillac, the mid-century standard for luxury, which is nonsense. Author Paul Hendrickson politely rebutted the assertion in his 2011 book Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961. Quoting a maritime historian, Hendrickson wrote:
“You could ask anybody, Wheelers were known as the Cadillac of the industry,” Wes Wheeler told me, with understandable pride if not razor accuracy. “The World’s Finest Yacht Construction” was the corporate slogan Wheeler used to run on its catalogs in the fifties. When I asked Anthony Mollica…what he thought a Wheeler was closest to in automobile paradigms, he said without hesitation: “A Wheeler is a Packard. A prewar Packard. Big and strong and comfortable and sturdy. Beamy. Sea-kindly. Very well thought out. Extremely well made. Some sly, deceptive speed. Its own form of beauty. In other words, right, too.”
What I haven’t said yet was that the original Pilar still exists and can be seen at the Hemingway Museum on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. Florida boatbuilder Ken Fickett and I got special permission to go inside Pilar while on a 2005 visit to the museum, and while the helm, cockpit and house had a yacht finish, spaces down below had been built to what we used to call a “high workboat standard” with a bit of brightwork.
To bring the automobile metaphor into the 21st century, Hemingway’s actual boat was more Honda than Mercedes.
No one can blame Wesley the Younger for wanting to be the first in his family to actually fulfill the ancient Wheeler hype. The Brooklin yard finally built that presumed Wheeler Cadillac 60 years after the fact. Legend Pilar, Wheeler says, is luxurious but in a manly way with décor that is “elegant, yet masculine.” Sadly, despite the Hemingway connection, there is little market for an upscale Pilar, let alone an accurate copy.
Hemingway had a talent for writing good sentences, which he strung together into some pretty good books. Hemingway was also a lifelong Communist sympathizer as best expressed in his so-so novel To Have and Have Not, which could have been better without its Marxist undercurrents. Hemingway could also be a brute, who would drink heavily and beat the crap out of people that pissed him off.
His most legendary knockout was Joseph “Dodi” Knapp, who arrived at Bimini in his yacht Storm King, a vessel more suited to the upper classes than Pilar. Knapp was the idle scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, and he made the mistake of calling Hemingway a “big fat slob” on the dock. The resulting two-second fight became the subject of a Biminian folk song, which you can listen to below.
Mr. Knapp couldn't laugh
Mr. Ernest Hemingway grin
Put him to sleep
With a knob on his chin
To summarize: Wheeler has managed to build a boat commemorating the life of Hemingway but designed to appeal to folks most likely to trigger the author’s worst class-war impulses. My wooden boat friends may disagree, but I would estimate that an accurate copy of Pilar today would probably fetch half the price of Legend Pilar.
My only contact with Wes Wheeler happened after I discovered that the boat Castro had used to launch the Cuban Revolution had also been built by Wheeler. The oddly named Granma had started her life as C-1994 in the U.S. Navy. My search of the National Archives revealed that she was one of 10 “bomb target boats” built by Wheeler 1942-43 for the U.S. Navy. C-1994 has a flat sheer and not much of a deckhouse, just a small helm station. These boats would dodge and weave as dive-bomber pilots tried slam water-filled “bombs” onto her steel plated decks.
After the war, Granma was skillfully converted into a yacht. C-1994 had a cambered deck with toe-rails where the deck meets the hull. Granma has bulwarks, and by their addition, the shipwrights introduced a sweeping sheer onto what had been fairly flat lines.
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I called Wes Wheeler with the news. To my dismay, he wanted to deny his forefathers had built Granma. Wheeler’s granpa, Wheeler said, had never told him about any such line of 60-footers, only the scores of 83-foot patrol boats and other military craft, nothing about bomb target boats. Yet, there it was in the archives, sold to the Navy at $75,000 a copy, and promoted in Wheeler’s own patriotic wartime advertising.
Later, I realized that the Castro connection may have nauseated a man whose title is president of UPS Healthcare. To me history is history. (Did he know that Hemingway supported leftist causes his whole career, once defended Stalin and actually worked a few years as an agent of the Soviet intelligence service?)
Wheeler publicized the fact that he once visited Pilar in Cuba, but did he travel the five miles to the Museum of the Revolution in downtown Havana? That’s where Granma rests, preserved inside a hangar of metal and glass like Lenin in his tomb. A few years ago, the Cuban government allowed me to become the first American since 1954 to board Granma and inspect her inside and out. And I can testify to the vessel’s robust construction—like a Packard, you might say. The Cubans had granted me this access in recognition of my having shared with them the facts behind Granma’s origins (and also her name).
Disowning one of your creations because of the purpose to which she was put, to my way of thinking, is very un-boatbuilder-like.
In 1873, Louis Wagner rowed a dory six miles from coastal New Hampshire to the Maine border island of Smuttynose, where he murdered two young girls living there, and then rowed six miles back. To make a long story short, he was captured, tried, convicted and hanged. If you had asked the builder of the dory about the crime, his response probably would have been, “That boat always did row nice.”
Count the number of boats that have shaped our American identity. I count nine:
—Columbus’ Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria make three.
—The Pilgrims’ Mayflower.
—Old Ironsides, officially the USS Constitution.
—The schooner America, inspiration for the America’s Cup.
—Joshua Slocum’s Spray, of first solo-circumnavigation fame.
As kids we took field trips to tour Mayflower, but she is just a scaled-down replica. Only two of the originals from my list remain. Old Ironsides is on active duty for the U.S. Navy, berthed in Boston and open to public. Pilar is the other. She and a couple contemporaries were prototypes for today’s sportfishermen. Truly, she is an international icon in the realm of sport, art and culture.
And Granma is an equivalent icon in the realm of blood and iron. As I wrote recently for that history magazine:
Within three years (of Granma’s voyage), Castro’s forces had overthrown Dictator Fulgencio Batista and seized control of government, an outcome that would sow chaos across the globe.
Soon after, Communist-fearing America would try to depose Castro, only to be stymied at the Bay of Pigs. The world came as close as it ever would (one hopes) to nuclear annihilation with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Other mischief was to follow, including multiple CIA attempts to assassinate Castro and Cuba’s defeat of South Africa’s military in Angola.
During Castro’s rule, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to the U.S., where their influence in Florida presidential politics became profound, including a significant preference for Donald Trump in that important “battleground state.” And the Miami Herald newspaper recently called Castro “the unwitting father of modern Miami.”
None of this would have happened had a wooden yacht named Granma not successfully crossed 1,200 miles of ocean in 1956.
I went on to write that that Castro’s success had been far from inevitable, given impulsive decision-making and poor voyage planning. What I haven’t mentioned in any of my previous writing about the Granma expedition was the fact that Castro had turned to Granma only after having failed to buy a surplus PT boat in the U.S. (and getting scammed out of $10,000 in the process).
That Castro would have thought that a vessel equipped with three 12-cylinder aircraft engines would ever have the range to carry 80 men and their gear 1,200 nautical miles indicates his naivety in maritime practicalities. Cruising at 23 knots, Kennedy’s PT-109 had a range of about 130 miles, though you could perhaps double or triple that by shutting down the outboard engines and running slowly on the single, center screw.
But Castro got lucky with Granma, pardon the pun. Crucially, the old girl never failed him. (And, for what it’s worth, Castro had not yet embraced Communism at the time of the voyage.)
What should amaze us is that Pilar and Granma rest just five miles from one another, like bookends to our collective 20th century memory. And both just happened to have been built by the Wheeler company at a time when there were dozens of other competent yards competing for the work.