Restoring Hemingway’s Yacht
By Orlando Matos, Inter Press Service (IPS)
HAVANA, (IPS) – Cultural authorities in Cuba are undertaking what Washington has not done: they are restoring the yacht that inspired the most famous novel of U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).
Ernest Hemingway with a prized Tuna caught off of Bimini.
Ever since he took possession of the yacht “Pilar”, commissioned from Wheeler Shipyards in New York in 1934, Hemingway, who lived in Cuba for 20 years, spent a great deal of time on the vessel, enjoying his passion for sailing and fishing, and mulling over material for his classic novella “The Old Man and the Sea”.
The book, published in 1952, earned him a Pulitzer Prize, foreshadowing the Nobel Prize for Literature which he was awarded in 1954. The novella is considered by some critics to be the second greatest fishing story of all time, after “Moby Dick” by U.S. writer Herman Melville.
The United States has not contributed anything towards the restoration work that Cuban experts began on Oct. 16.
“We have begun the first phase of what’s going to be an excellent repair job on this yacht,” naval engineer René Guerra told IPS; he is directing the detailed restoration work, undertaken by the Cuban Tourism Ministry’s Marlin shipyards.
“Now we’re removing the paint on the hull above the waterline, then we’ll fill the joints with putty, then we’ll apply wood sealant and finally ordinary synthetic enamel, which is what was used at the time she was built,” said Guerra.
Ernest’s fishing boat ‘El Pilar’ on display.
Afterwards, the Cuban restorers will move on to the roof, the internal structure, the bathroom, the lighting and the engine. “We’ll work on the engine, a Chrysler Crown of the period — that is, we’ll replace its fuel system, cooling system and exhaust, which are missing at the moment,” he explained.
Dana Hewson, curator of the Mystic Seaport maritime museum in the northeastern U.S. state of Connecticut and an authority on preserving wooden vessels, inspected the yacht in 2002, and said that although the tropical climate and termites had caused some deterioration, “she looks to be in pretty good shape.”
However, Hewson said a thorough assessment was needed to find out whether the “Pilar” needed just “a cosmetic paint and varnish job, or something more structural.”
Guerra said the goal is a complete restoration, which will leave the boat with as many original features as possible. “The sheer number of details means the restoration will probably take about six months,” he said.
“We don’t intend the yacht to go to sea again, but we do want visitors to see her, if not sailing, at least ready to put to sea, because even the engine will have all its systems connected,” Guerra said.
According to scholars, Hemingway and the boat’s skipper, Gregorio Fuentes, on whom the character of Santiago the fisherman in “The Old Man and the Sea” was modelled, came to a gentlemen’s agreement that after the death of either one of them, the “Pilar” would never sail again.
Gregorio Fuentes, Born July 11 1897, Lanzarote, Canary Islands. Hemingway’s captain was probably the role model for the main character in the ‘Old Man and the Sea’. He had lived at Calle 98 #209 till January 2002. He immigrated to Cuba as a 6-year-old boy onboard a ship in which his father was the cook. Tragically, his father died during the voyage. Another Canary Island immigrant took care of him. Around 1930 Hemingway hired Fuentes to captain his boat, ‘El Pilar’, named after his wife at the time. After Hemingway left Cuba Fuentes donated the boat to the Cuban government.
About six weeks after Hemingway’s suicide on Jul. 2, 1961, his widow Mary Welsh gave the boat to Fuentes, who kept his promise and donated her to Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm), 15 kilometres from Havana, formerly Hemingway’s Cuban home and converted into a museum in 1962.
Hemingway and Fuentes became fast friends during the course of their marlin-fishing expeditions and patrols tracking German submarines during World War II (1939-1945). The U.S.-based International Game Fish Association awarded the rare honour of their “Captain’s” title to the Cuban seaman shortly before his death in Havana in January 2002.
The 38-foot Wheeler Playmate yacht was initially restored in 1965 in Havana’s Casablanca shipyards, and the most recent thorough repairs were made in 1987. A roof was built over the tennis court at Finca Vigía, where the legendary “Pilar” has been stored since 1993.
Ada Rosa Alfonso, the director of the Hemingway museum, did not mention the exact sum needed for the restoration, which will be funded entirely by the Cuban state, but conservative estimates put it at around 30,000 to 40,000 dollars. “Although it will cost us less,” she told IPS without further explanation.
Hewson had estimated that a thorough overhaul could cost up to 200,000 dollars if carried out in a U.S. shipyard, but much less if it were done in Cuba.
Alfonso stressed that the George W. Bush administration has not allowed any financial contribution to the restoration of the “Pilar” from U.S. individuals or institutions interested in making donations. “In spite of the goodwill of many people in the United States, this has not been possible because of the blockade (the four-decade U.S. embargo against Cuba).”
Nor have any U.S. funds been received for repairs to Finca Vigía, which are now almost complete. “We are plastering the house now, and soon we will restore the adjacent three-story tower. When that is finished, we can put in furniture and replace all the museum pieces in Hemingway’s home,” she said.
In November 2002, the Social Science Research Council in New York and the Cuban government’s National Council for Cultural Heritage signed an agreement to salvage the documents, the Finca Vigía buildings and the yacht “Pilar” — in other words, all of the surviving relics of Hemingway’s years on the island.
However, according to Alfonso, so far only technical assistance and materials have arrived to catalogue and preserve the writer’s papers. “Some 18,000 pages” have been preserved as well as completely digitalised, she said.
“It will be a long process,” she said, as there are still 900 maps, 3,000 photographs, and about 9,000 books, magazines, letters and leaflets to preserve. As for the buildings and the yacht, she estimated that the work would be completed in late 2007 or early 2008.
Hemingway lived in Finca Vigía from 1940 to 1960. He bought it from a Frenchman named D’Oron Duchamp, and wrote some of his works, including “The Old Man and the Sea”, at the farmhouse on the four square kilometre estate.
Alfonso said she was very pleased about the ongoing restoration work, because “we are preserving this legacy for future generations” of people in Cuba and the United States.