Ernest Hemingway's Boat Pilar Is Back From the Dead, and You Can Buy One
The Wheeler 38 is an authentic recreation from the original architect’s grandson
“Hilary called me one day out of the blue and said, ‘Are you Wes Wheeler?’”
Not many people can say they’ve been cold called by Ernest Hemingway’s niece, but 63-year-old Wheeler has a storied lineage himself. His grandfather, Wesley L. Wheeler, was the original architect behind Pilar, Hemingway’s beloved boat on which he spent much of the second half of his life. That boat is why Hilary dialed him up years ago.
“She says, ‘Stay by your phone, and in 10 minutes you’re going to get a call from Andy Garcia,’” Wheeler tells InsideHook. “So I waited and I got a call from Andy … and he said, ‘Wes, I’m looking to make a movie. The script was written by Hilary Hemingway and I, and I’m looking for an actual boat from the 1930s to look like the Pilar.’”
The movie, about Hemingway and his captain and confidant Gregorio Fuentes, has yet to be made, but something much more precious was born of that serendipitous phone call.
More than 80 years after Hemingway bought Pilar, and more than 50 years after Wheeler Shipyard Corporation shut down, Wes Wheeler is picking up the mantle of both his forefathers and Papa Hemingway and rebuilding Pilar for the 20th century — and you’ll be able to buy one.
The first boat from the new Wheeler Yacht Company is the Wheeler 38, an authentic recreation of the Wheeler Playmate model that Hemingway bought back in 1934. While it may not be what you picture when you read The Old Man and the Sea — it’s a dual motor yacht with a fully enclosed cabin that sleeps two — it is the spitting image of the boat on which Hemingway dreamed up his Nobel Prize-winning work.
If you’ve ever visited Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s former residence in Havana that now acts as a museum, you may have seen the original Pilar, as it now spends its days there on dry land. While Wheeler laments the fact that the boat’s original plans were lost in a fire, he was able to resurrect the Pilar by a painstaking process of reverse engineering.
“Hilary and I went to Havana, because she had been down there several times, she invited me … and I took measurements on the actual boat,” says Wheeler, who is the president of UPS Healthcare when he’s not on Hemingway pilgrimages.
“They allowed us to board the boat, crawl all over the boat, in the engine room. We took detailed measurements of the entire boat, came back to North Carolina, compared all the measurements to my family’s catalog from 1934 and they matched exactly,” he says. “It took me three or four years to get all that engineering done — I was busy doing other things — but we finally decided to build it about a year ago.”
For seasoned yachtsmen, the “we” that has designed and built the new Wheeler 38 is an impressive list, with Bruce Marek designing the hull, Bill Prince finishing out the rest, and a team at Brooklin Boat Yard in Maine making their plans a physical reality. If those names don’t mean anything to you, just know that far from being a vanity project, Wheeler has gone to what may seem to landlubbers like ludicrous lengths to appease Hemingway acolytes and longtime Wheeler fans, as well as the affluent seafarers who will be able to afford such a labor of love.
All the wood, from the Douglas fir to the African mahogany to the teak decks, has been chosen “to make sure the boat would be as rugged and seaworthy as the original but also meet Coast Guard specs for today for commercial use,” Wheeler says. As for the interior, “Everything you see inside the boat is exactly like the period, the 1930s period.” To achieve that, modern comforts like air-conditioning and refrigeration are cleverly hidden behind doors and inside cabinets. As for the finishing touches, well, let’s just say they didn’t order them from a catalog.
“We went worldwide looking for the horn to match, we’ve looked for the searchlight to match, we even had trouble finding a compass to match. I mean, we’ve looked all over the world for these things,” Wheeler says. “We’ve imported them from Europe to get as close as we possibly could to what the original would look like.” Even the wheel was cast from an original 1935 boat.
And while Hemingway purists may notice certain details are missing — like the fighting chair — anyone actually interested in purchasing the Wheeler 38 has the option to add that, and any number of customizations. Just expect to pay a smidge more for the vessel than Hemingway did.
“My father used to tell me the stories of when Ernest showed up at the shipyard and met my grandfather. He didn’t have enough money to buy the boat; he had to borrow money from his editors at the time,” Wheeler recounts. “He showed up with his second wife Pauline in a convertible [Ed. note: “Pilar” was Hemingway’s nickname for her], and had been to Africa and fell in love with the boat and knew a lot about the boat’s history and the family’s history, so he wanted a Wheeler. [He] shows up at the yard, puts down $3,000, I think, out of $7,500, ordered the boat, made some changes to the spec … almost moved to Miami, then he took it to Bimini, and that’s when he started retrofitting it for sport fishing.”
You don’t need to be into sport fishing to buy a new Pilar. And you don’t need to hire a captain like the one Hemingway found in Fuentes — Wheeler says that at about 40 feet in length with two motors, the Wheeler 38 is “a boat that’s easily handled by one person.” But you do need to come up with about $1.5 million. (Although Wheeler adds that if some of the options were taken away, they could probably do it for as little as $1.3 million.)
These estimations are expected. After all, this is the first Wheeler that’s been built since Wes’s grandfather’s operation shuttered in 1965. To prove its salt, the Wheeler 38 is taking a tour of the East Coast from Maine down to Florida starting in September so prospective buyers and Hemingway devotees can get a firsthand look. Plans have been changing as a result of the coronavirus, but those interested can keep abreast of destinations and times on the company’s website.
While only someone as legendary as Hemingway could sustain a monumental project like this, the oversaturation not just of his writing but of the lore surrounding the man will have certain people shaking their heads. Do we really need another grandiose tribute to Hemingway? Maybe not. But that’s also what makes the Wheeler 38 special — Wes isn’t doing it for Papa, he’s doing it for his own dad.
“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. “I mean, he helped me to restore [the boat] for the movie for Andy Garcia, but he passed away about three years ago. It’s really a shame, because he would have loved to see this happen.”