feels like Moby Dick on this boat. He’d
accidentally shot himself in both legs on
this boat. He’d fallen drunk from the flying
bridge on this boat. He’d written achy, generous, uplifting, poetic letters on this boat.
He’d propositioned women on this boat.
He’d hunted German subs on this boat.
He’d saved guests and family members from
shark attack on this boat. He’d acted like a
boor and a bully and an overly competitive
jerk on this boat. She’d been intimately his,
and he hers, for 27 years — which were his
final 27 years. She’d lasted through three
Clockwise from left:
Hemingway at sea that
first or second summer
after buying Pilar.
Motoring from Havana
Harbor, August 26, 1951.
Key West, 1934 or 1935.
Hatuey beer and the daiquiris, the avocados
and the Filipino mangoes, and, not least, the
freshly landed monsters of the Gulf Stream.
Pilar’s master used to play Fats Waller
records and “You’re the Top” on a scratchy
phonograph while his boat rocked in the
Stream and he waited in his ladder-back
fighting chair, which had leather-cushioned
armrests and was bolted to the afterdeck
and could swivel in a 360-degree circle. He
said the tunes were good for bringing up the
monsters. When the mood was upon him,
he’d sing along in his lusty baritone.
He had named her after a shrine and
feria in Spain that commemorates Nuestra
Señora del Pilar, Our Lady of the Pillar. It’s
in Saragossa, and he’d been to the bullfights
there in 1926. But his boat’s name was also
meant to commemorate the secret nickname
adopted by his second wife, Pauline, before
she was his wife, when the two 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 sides and copper
screens for warding off the nighttime bugs.
Her cabin sides and decks were crafted
from Canadian fir and high-grade Honduras
mahogany, but she wasn’t a luxury craft —
she was ever and always, her owner liked to
say, a functional fishing machine, sturdy,
reliant, built to take the heaviest weather,
“sweet in any kind of sea.”
That was Pilar, who’d come humbly
out of a factory, and a shipbuilder’s catalog,
a “stock boat” of the 1930s, albeit with her
owner’s list of modifications and alterations
for her. Over the decades Hemingway would
add other modifications and innovations and
alterations, further improving the well-built
fishing machine that had already proved
astonishingly durable and dependable.
wives, the Nobel Prize, and all his ruin.
He’d owned her, fished her, worked her,
rode her, from the waters of Key West to the
Bahamas to the Dry Tortugas to the north
coast and archipelagoes of Cuba. She wasn’t
a figment or a dream or a literary theory
or somebody’s psychosexual interpretation.
She was actual. Onto her varnished decks,
hauled in over her low-cut stern on a large
wooden roller, had come uncounted marlin
and broadbill swordfish, tuna, sailfish, kingfish, snook, wahoos, tarpon, horse-eye jacks,
pompano, dolphinfish, barracuda, bonito,
and mako sharks.
He could make her do 16 knots full
out, and he could make her cut a corner like
a midshipman at Annapolis. When she was
up and moving, her prow smartly cutting
the waves, it was as if she had a foaming
white bone in her teeth. When he had her
loaded for a long cruise, she’d hold 24-hun-
dred pounds of ice, for keeping cool the
He used to love standing up on his beauty’s flying bridge and guid- ing her out of the harbor in the morning light. From up there,
when he wasn’t manning the wheel, he
could fight a decent-size fish — not a 450-
pound marlin nor an Atlantic sailfish, but
maybe a tarpon or a recalcitrant barracuda,
smaller catches — good eating, good selling.
Tarpon and kingfish liked to lie in close to
shore and feed around the commercial fishing smacks. Hemingway was after almost