Ernest Hemingway owned
a 38-foot (12 m) fishing boat named Pilar. It was acquired in
April 1934 from Wheeler Shipbuilding in Brooklyn, New York, for
$7,495. "Pilar" was a nickname for Hemingway's wife Pauline and
also the name of the woman leader of the partisan band in his
1940 novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Hemingway regularly fished off the boat in the waters of Key
West, Florida, Marquesas Keys, and the Gulf Stream off the Cuban
coast. He made three trips with the boat to the Bimini islands
wherein his fishing, drinking, and fighting exploits drew much
attention and remain part of the history of the islands. In
addition to fishing trips on Pilar, Hemingway contributed to
scientific research which included collaboration with the
Smithsonian Institution. Several of Hemingway's books were
influenced by time spent on the boat, most notably, The Old Man
and the Sea and Islands in the Stream. The yacht also inspired
the name of Playa Pilar (Pilar Beach) on Cayo Guillermo. A
smaller replica of the boat is depicted in the opening and other
scenes in the TV Movie Hemingway & Gellhorn.
Hemingway acquired the boat in April 18, 1934 after returning
from safari in Africa. The boat was a modified version of the
Wheeler Playmate line. The final price for the boat was $7,495
which included modifications such as a livewell to contain fish,
dual-engine set-up, lowering the boat's transom by twelve inches
and adding a full-width roller on the stern to aid in hauling
large fish onto the boat. A flying bridge was added at a later
date, but not by Wheeler. The boat's hull was painted black as
opposed to the stock white color.
The boat was constructed in the Coney Island yard of the Wheeler
company and delivered to Hemingway at Miami, attached to a
wooden cradle which was part of the purchase price. Hemingway, a
Wheeler representative, and a friend of Hemingway then delivered
the boat under its own power from Miami to Key West along and a
few miles to the east of the Florida Keys, via a semi-protected
passage known as Hawk Channel.
Science on the boat
In addition to hunting, Hemingway was an avid fisherman and a
great contributor to the development of the sport. He also
contributed to the knowledge of Atlantic marine life. During his
first visit to Cuba with Pilar, Hemingway hosted Charles
Cadwalader who was the director of the Philadelphia Academy of
Natural History and Henry Fowler, who was the Academy’s chief
ichthyologist. These two scientists were in Cuba trying to
determine the taxonomy of marlin species. They were attempting
to determine if white, blue, black, or striped marlin were
different species, or just color variants of the same species.
As a result of their efforts on the boat, they reclassified the
North Atlantic marlin variants.
During World War II, Hemingway used his boat to search for
German U-boats in the Caribbean waters. Pilar was outfitted with
communications gear including HF/DF or “Huff-Duff”
direction-finding equipment. He had minimal weapons which
included a Thompson sub machine gun and hand grenades. Most
accounts state that any effort to attack a submarine would be
futile. Hemingway wrote about his intent to attack if he spotted
a sub. Other accounts of these patrols imply that they were a
farce and that he did them in return for extra gas rations and
immunity from Cuban police for driving drunk. His hunting for
U-Boats was inspiration for the third act, "At Sea", in his
novel Islands in the Stream.
Hemingway spent three summers in Bimini, starting with the first
voyage in April, 1935. During the initial attempt at the
crossing, he accidentally shot himself in the leg while
attempting to boat a shark he caught. On a subsequent trip, he
fished with Bror von Blixen-Finecke, with whom he been on Safari
and whose former wife was Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa.
There are ties to him and Hemingway through his books Green
Hills of Africa and Under Kilimanjaro.
During the Bimini trips, Hemingway perfected fishing techniques
for tuna. He was the first person to land a giant tuna
unmutilated. Known as "apple-coring", it had been common for
sharks to attack fish as they tired and were near to the boat.
His technique involved applying constant pressure, "pump and
reel", to the fish wherein previous techniques allowed the fish
to run in an effort to tire it. He would attempt to boat the
fish as soon as possible. He experimented with using a skiff
whereby he would transfer to the smaller boat with the intent of
having the fish pull the boat and then tire. He also discovered
marlin had a defense mechanism in their swords and noses that
made them unattractive to sharks but that tuna lacked such a
defense. He found a tuna's primary defense against the sharks
was speed and as the fish tired they became easy targets. He
carried a Thompson sub-machine gun which he used to shoot the
sharks as the tuna tired and neared the boat.
During the landing of the fish, Hemingway used a Thompson
machine gun to shoot the sharks in an attempt to ward them off.
The effect of the shark blood in the water was to attract more
sharks, which eventually did their damage to the fish. In the
end, the state of the marlin recalls somewhat that of the
monster marlin in Hemingway's later masterpiece The Old Man and
The incident greatly compromised his relationship with Strater
because Strater believed Hemingway's bloody use of the machine
gun against the sharks to be the primary cause of him losing the
largest fish he ever caught.
While on Bimini, Hemingway wrote magazine articles for Esquire
and worked on his novel, To Have And Have Not. His reputation as
a big game angler began to grow. He landed many large tuna and
marlin. He also staged boxing matches with the locals, offering
$100 (this amount ranged upward to $250 based on various
accounts) to anyone who could last a few rounds with him. His
fighting was not contained to the ring. During a dockside brawl,
he punched and knocked out Joe Knapp, a wealthy magazine
publisher. Hemingway at first lived on Pilar. He later moved to
a cottage near Brown's Dock and eventually a room at the
Compleat Angler Hotel, staying in Room Number 1.
Hemingway caught numerous record-breaking fish from Pilar. In
1935, he won every tournament in the Key West-Havana-Bimini
triangle, competing against notable sportsman Michael Lerner and
Kip Farrington. In 1938 he established a world record by
catching seven marlin in one day. He was the first person to
ever boat a giant tuna in an undamaged state. This effort was
attributed to him pulling the fish into the boat before it had
tired thereby preventing sharks from eating it. Hemingway kept
meticulous logs of his fishing to include guests, weather,
current, conditions, fish caught, and other information. During
the first summer of owning the boat, Arnold Samuelson, an
aspiring writer, served as deck hand and recorded the dictated
logs on paper. He subsequently typed the logs which are on
display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Samuelson later wrote an account of the summer in book form
which was published posthumously by his daughter.
Named after him, The Hemingway Fishing Tournament has been held
in Cuba since 1950. It is four day tournament where contestants
go for marlin, tuna, wahoo, and other fish using 50-pound
fishing line. Hemingway won the first three years.