Story by Kim Kachmann + Photography by Kim Smith
Sometimes the most sublime surprises are right around the corner…
Docked in Harbour Town Yacht Basin in a sea of white sailboats, yachts and trawlers, a 38-foot antique motor yacht with a long black hull no doubt piques curiosity among locals and visitors on Hilton Head Island. An old-fashioned hardtop permits unobstructed views and protects the cockpit’s varnished deck and couches; the cabin below, which sleeps four; and the raised helm and steering station tricked out in teak, Douglas fir or mahogany. She is a nautical piece of art with a significant place in American history and culture. Her name is Legend.
“For some reason Harbour Town has dodged the big hurricanes,” said Wes Wheeler, the boat’s owner. “It’s a very well-protected marina on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and not so big that you get lost in the crowd of white boats. Legend is the prototype for the new Wheeler 38 yacht series whose predecessor made literary history as Ernest Hemingway’s boat, which my grandfather built in 1934. She is a durable, dense-wood boat furnished with the most advanced smart-boat technology.”
Buoyant natural materials such as oak, cedar, ash and mahogany were the main components of boat building before fiberglass revolutionized the industry. Fiberglass composite hulls are strong, rust-resistant and never leak. People took to the water in unprecedented numbers in the 1970s when it became more affordable than hand-crafted wooden boats. But something was lost, and aficionados who love the classic aesthetic of wood want nothing less. A handful of artisan yacht builders like the Wheeler Yacht Company understand this.
“Although the original blueprints were lost in a shipyard fire, Hemingway’s niece, Hillary, lent us her uncle’s blueprints to recreate Pilar as a prototype and for a film that she and Andy Garcia were making,” Wheeler said.
The century before, Hemingway put down a $3,000 Esquire magazine advance against the boat’s $7,495 price tag. He requested several modifications to the boat, mostly for the sake of fishing, including a ladder-back fighting chair, with leather arms that could swivel 360 degrees, and huge outriggers to support heavy bait. He added a live well that could hold up to 2,500 pounds of ice to cool behemoth blue marlins, plus vodka, daiquiri mix and his beloved “Hatuey” beer. (When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952, the Cuban brewer even threw him a party because he drank so much of it).
The boat arrived by rail in Miami in 1934, when Hemingway reigned American letters. He christened her Pilar after a feria in Spain and took her out into the Gulf Stream. “Once you’re out of sight of land and other boats, you’re more alone than you could ever be,” Hemingway said in an Esquire interview.
Pilar could cruise 500 miles, her long black hull riding low on the water. She had one engine for trolling, the other for cruising at a top speed of 16 knots. Her remake, Legend, has a top speed and cruising range twice that. Hemingway eventually added a flybridge — the first of its kind — with makeshift controls, including a steering wheel on the cabin roof.
During World War II, the U.S. Navy commissioned Hemingway to hunt down German U-boats in the Caribbean Sea with Pilar. The Nazis had sunk thousands of tons of Allied oil tankers needed to deliver diesel, aviation fuel, kerosene and gasoline to fight the Nazis. The military issued all kinds of artillery, including bazookas, grenades and a Tommy gun that Hemingway mounted on top of Pilar’s flybridge.
Hemingway kept Pilar for 27 years through three wives, a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize, as well as U.S. Navy decorations.
Yacht designer Bill Prince wed Pilar’s original dimensions to Legend’s contemporary engineering. Naval architect Bruce Marek reverse-engineered the hull and superstructure. Internationally recognized boat designer and builder Joel White built Legend at Maine’s Brooklin Boatyard. Joel is the son of two American literary icons: the writer E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web fame, and the New Yorker fiction editor Katherine Angell White.
A lot of literary spirit surrounds the boat.
The Wheelers are showcasing Legend in boat shows up and down the East Coast. Last winter they took home the Spirit of Tradition Award at the Miami Boat Show. Wes and his wife, Marianne, have two grown children and live part-time on the island where their boat has a home slip near the lighthouse. They also live in Chapel Hill, where they’ve anchored the Wheeler Yacht Company. For Wes, bringing the boat back to life meant the rebirth of his family’s company. The boat is proud family history.
The stuff of Legend
The new design features indispensable marine technology, including two Wi-Fi routers and a marine network, a boat stabilizer to prevent rolls and seasickness, and navigational electronics with GPS that feature several high-definition maps to plot a route and set a course or access live sonar to see Jaws below or beside the boat in real time — a feature “Papa,” as Hemingway liked to be called, would’ve loved to have, given all his battles with sharks, especially the time he accidentally shot himself.
A running boat produces low-frequency noise that high-quality audio equipment can overcome. Legend features a Fusion stereo, JL Audio subwoofer and amplifier and SolidDrive speakers — a big upgrade in sound from Hemingway’s scratchy phonograph that played Fats Waller.Stabilization is one of boating’s best innovations. The stabilizer’s torque technology senses sea conditions at any yacht speed and counteracts wave-induced roll, pitch or yaw to keep the boat level. The sea is essentially a hostile environment producing fast-moving squalls, lightning strikes and rogue waves. This is one cure that Hemingway might have liked, especially after falling off his flybridge. The rum didn’t help.