HAVANA, Feb. 3th “We could have bought a real big boat for what we spent on this one,” says Mike Fernandez, seen on the flying bridge of the Pilar, the vessel he refurbished with his friend Andy Garcia.
The name Ernest Hemingway prompts a wide range of reactions, with the legends surrounding the man almost more famous than his esteemed works of literature. Yet one aspect of this complex author’s persona likely comes closest to the truth: His heart belonged to the sea.
And this month, thanks to actor Andy Garcia and healthcare mogul Mike Fernandez, the vessel upon which Hemingway bestowed most of his affection—his fishing boat, Pilar—is coming to the Miami International Boat Show. Sort of.
After Garcia decided to write a screenplay about the 20 years Hemingway spent with his Cuban fishing captain, Gregorio Fuentes (the model for the character Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea), he soon realized that “the boat is a character in the movie,” he says.
The original Pilar, a 38-foot Wheeler Playmate that provided Hemingway with the adventures inspiring his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, currently sits in the Museo Hemingway Finca Vigía in Havana, Cuba. So Garcia knew he would need a replica for filming.
As he worked on the script, titled Hemingway & Fuentes, with Hemingway’s niece Hilary as coauthor, Garcia turned to his old friend Mike Fernandez (also a serious Hemingway fan) for assistance. They decided to employ a team of boat restorers to create a stand-in for thePilar. Three years and almost $1 million later, the two have a vessel that’s the spitting image of what Fernandez calls “the most famous fishing boat there is.”
“We could have bought a real big boat for what we spent on this one,” says Fernandez, who later purchased the $9 million lot adjacent to his Coral Gables home to build a boathouse for the vessel.
The first step, according to Garcia, was to “find a Wheeler Playmate.” They located one in upstate New York, but it was in poor condition. “She’s an 85-year-old lady of the sea,” says Fernandez, founder of the Coral Gables–based MBF Healthcare Partners.
To refurbish it, they pored over detailed photos, studied documents from the Wheeler company, and even contacted the Wheeler family for guidance. Says Garcia, “You want to make it as authentic as possible within the context of what you have access to.”
They added a flying bridge and a fighting chair (Garcia found one on eBay), replaced the decks, bought a 1931 Ford steering wheel (the type Hemingway used as the boat’s wheel) from a museum, and installed plumbing fixtures that “have been manufactured for the past 50 or 60 years and really haven’t changed,” Garcia says.
The process was laborious and their attention to detail uncompromising. A large part of what makes the boat so special—but also so difficult to maintain—is the fact that it’s wooden. “There is a certain sensuality to a boat that’s made out of wood,” says Garcia, “the way it sounds, the way it travels, the way it embraces the sea.” He tips his hat to Fernandez for continuing to maintain it so well: “It takes a particular type of owner to handle a boat like this.”
Fernandez, in return, gives credit to Garcia: “Andy is a perfectionist when it comes to depicting a story and presenting the real image.”
But the two men agree that the true star of this endeavor was the boat itself. “I can go on Pilar or on my other boat around Europe,” Fernandez says, pointing to his yacht, “and Pilar will attract more people. It’s a conversation piece.”
Restoring the vessel was more than just a technical achievement, however; it also aroused some profound emotions. “Being Cuban myself, I have a deep connection to the culture and to the history of that island,” says Garcia. “And also being a fisherman and a lover of the sea and a lover of Hemingway’s work, especially The Old Man and the Sea, all that stuff is intertwined and is the reason why I want to make the film.”
For Fernandez, one of the most successful Cuban- American businessmen in the world, the venture has also been quite personal. He recalls how his first encounter with The Old Man and the Sea reminded him of his childhood in Cuba.
“When I first read the book,” he says, “it brought me back to that time as a kid when I was shirtless lying on the roof and listening to Hemingway on a homemade radio. I knew there was an emotional connection to a happier time when I was little.”
Fernandez still reads the novel yearly, and in fact owns a signed first edition of every one of Hemingway’s books. He has also sailed to the Bahamas, hunts in Africa, and visited Cuba to meet Fuentes in person before the fishing captain passed away in 2002 at age 104; he has even run with the bulls in Pamplona. “It’s like I’m living part of Hemingway’s life,” he says.
While Hemingway & Fuentes is still in development, the new Pilar is “ready for her close-up,” Garcia jokes. Jon Voight is attached to portray Hemingway, while Garcia will direct and play the role of Fuentes. In the meantime, Fernandez plans to take the boat on the same inaugural voyage as the original made—from Miami to Key West—this summer. While Hemingway may have never set foot on this Pilar, his spirit is present, and the boat’s journey is one for the books.