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Wheeler Yachts Reborn

“A functional fishing machine, sturdy, reliant and built to take the worst weather and sweating in any kind of sea.” Ernest Hemingway

When legendary author Ernest Hemingway decided to build his dream fishing boat, he chose Howard E. Wheeler Sr. to build it. Wheeler had founded the Wheeler Shipyard Corporation in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York in the year 1910. He soon developed a reputation for building high-quality yachts up to 85 feet in length. That same skill got Wheeler into building 83-foot patrol boats known as cutters for the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. The earlier cutters were fitted with a tapered-roof Everdur silicon bronze wheelhouse, but due to a growing scarcity of that metal during the war, the later units were fitted with a flat-roofed plywood wheelhouse. A total of 230 83-footers were built and entered service with the Coast Guard during the war. Twelve other 83-footers were built for the Navy and were transferred to Latin American navies. The powerful and rugged patrol boats were powered by two 600-horsepower “Viking 2nd” Model TCG-8 inline eight-cylinder gasoline engines manufactured by the Sterling Engine Company. The massive engines devoured fuel. 100 gallons per hour at a cruising speed of 12 knots, 120 gallons per hour at full throttle. Later on, Wheeler built the Cape-class a 95-foot patrol boat and the 82-foot Point-class cutter.

Ernest Hemingway, famous for his books “The Old Man and the Sea” and “Islands in the Stream” was also an avid fisherman. Hemingway commissioned Howard E. Wheeler to build a 38-foot sedan cruiser. The price was $7,495. Hemingway gave him a deposit of $3,000. Wesley L. Wheeler was the original architect for Hemingway’s new boat.
Papa Hemingway was very specific in what he wanted. The boat had two engines, the main engine for cruising and another engine for trolling. There were six bunks, a shiny black hull and a phonograph. The boat was equipped with a sturdy fishing chair. Hemingway was after big fish and a 1000-pound fish was his goal. The name of the boat was to be Pilar after Hemingway’s second wife Pauline.
In his book, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson and published by Alfred Knopf, the author talks about Hemingway’s love for the boat. “He named her after a shrine and feria in Spain that commemorates Nuestra Senora del Pilar, Our Lady of Pilar. It is in Saragossa and Papa had been to the bullfights there in 1921. But his boat’s name was also meant to commemorate the secret nicknamed adopted by his second wife, Pauline before she was his wife when they were still in adultery. It was the name he would have given his daughter, he once said, if he’d ever been blessed enough to have a daughter. Pilar could fit six in her sleeping compartments, two more in her open-air cockpit with its roll-down canvas side and copper screens for warding off the nighttime bug. In her prime, she’d been known among Gulf Stream anger for her shiny black hull and her snappy sea foam-green canvas roof and topside.”
The actual Pilar is now restored and on display at Hemingway’s former estate, Finca Vigia, It is located in the village of San Francisco de Paul, just a short ride outside of Havana. It was designed by Wesley L. Wheeler, grandfather of the present president of Wheeler Yachts. Hemingway added changes to the original modified version of a Wheeler 38 Playmate, with a live-well, a low transom and a full-width roller on the stern to help in hauling in large fish.
A movie has been considered by Andy Garcia. And it will, if it is filmed, feature a replica of the Pilar built by Wheeler Yachts. The story will be based on a script written by Hilary Hemingway. This incident inspired Wheeler to follow the work of his grandfather and start building a Wheeler yacht for the modern generation.
Mr. Wesley P. Wheeler has resurrected the dormant Wheeler Yacht Company and is in the process of constructing a new model in a shipyard in Brooklin, Maine. The new Wheeler Yacht Co is located at 1020 Pinehurst Dr, Chapel Hill, NC 27517 (Telephone 919 240 7259). Since all the original plans for Pilar were lost in a fire many years ago, the new Wheeler Pilar was reverse-engineered from the original by Bill Prince Yacht Design, of Port Washington, Wisconsin. Bruce Marek designed the hull. It was modified to meet modern Coast Guard requirements. The compass, helm and other equipment were duplicated to be as close as possible to the original. The original hull was wood, the new version is constructed of cold molding. The wood used is the finest quality mahogany teak. The new boat will about twice as fast as the original.
The original Pilar, fitted with a deck gun and a Huff/Duff two-way radio by the Navy, chased submarines during World War II in Caribbean waters. Pilar also carried a Thompson submachine gun and hand grenades. Submariners might agree that it was fortunate Hemingway did not attack a submarine during his patrols. His hunting for U-Boats was the inspiration for the third act, “At Sea”, in his novel Islands in the Stream. Hemingway and his wife Pauline divorced in 1940. Shortly after Hemingway married Martha Gellhorn, they relocated to Cuba and bought their farm Finca Vigia, overlooking Havana. Hemingway kept the Pilar docked at the small fishing village Cojimar east of Havana. That village was where Hemingway had the inspiration for his book Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary left Cuba in 1960. His return was prevented by the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. When Hemingway died, his widow gave the Pilar to Gregorio Fuentes who had been the Captain of the Pilar. Fuentes was a close friend of Hemingway’s and was the basis for the character Santiago in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
The original Pilar was 38ft long, 12ft beam and a height of 17.5 ft. She drew 3ft 6 inch and was powered by the main engine a Chrysler 75 HP Crown Marine and a Lycoming 4-cylinder trolling engine. Top speed 16 knots. The replica will have twin-turbo electronically controlled Yanmar diesels of 370 horsepower that will give the boat a top speed approaching 30 knots.
Health Care Mogul and philanthropist Mike Fernandez restored the old sistership to Pilar he found dilapidated in an old barn. Fernandez restored the old boat and set it up as a replica of Pilar. Fernandez’s restored boat can be seen on YouTube.
Hemingway took Pilar to Bimini for three summers starting in 1935. The first time he fished in Bimini he accidentally shot himself in the leg while trying to board a shark he had caught. Hemingway is recognized as a skilled fisherman and was known for having perfected a technique for catching giant tuna. Hemingway discovered that keeping constant pressure on the fish worked better than letting them run free. He also used his Thompson machine gun on the sharks and a skiff to make landing the big fish easier and faster. Hemingway was an award-winning fisherman. He won every tournament in the Key West-Havana-Bimini triangle, competing against notable sportsman Michael Lerner and S. Kip Farrington. Hemingway established a world record in 1938 by catching seven marlin in one day. He was the first person to ever boat a giant tuna in an undamaged state by his techniques of getting the fish in quickly. Hemingway kept meticulous logs of his fishing to include guests, weather, current, conditions, fish caught, and other information. His friend Arnold Samuelson spent the first summer as a deckhand on the Pilar and kept a record of Hemingway’s logs. Samuelson was an aspiring writer. He subsequently typed the logs which are on display at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.
Wesley P. Wheeler has big plans for the new Wheeler 38. He told me; “We are working to start Hull No.2 in Brooklin Boat Yard in the second half of this year. We will be taking ‘Legend’ to the Maine Boats, Homes and Harbor Boat Show in August, and then to the Newport International Boat Show in September. She will return to Hilton Head in October. We are hoping to enter the Ocean Reef Vintage Show in December, in Key Largo and leave here there for a month or two. Finally, we are working on a 55’ Wheeler right now, the renderings are almost ready, and we will be advertising this summer.”

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