The Pilar has had a dubious history following the death of Ernest Hemingway. The boat had many owners during those early years. Most of those sales were short lived and never legally registered or documented.
It seems that the Pilar was smuggled to Miami just before Castro seized Cuba on January 1, 1958. I was told this by a man who owned the Pilar at that time. He told me that the Pilar was bought and sold many times after it was gifted to Hemingway’s first mate by Hemingway’s fourth and last wife, Mary Welsh. During those early years, the first mate was sadly faced with numerous financial setbacks and had to sell the boat.
I don’t recall the exact year I saw the Pilar, but it was sometime during the years 1959 or ’60. It was top secret that this man owned the Pilar, and I was sworn to secrecy not to tell anyone about the boat or its location. I’ve never spoken about this but since it was more then 50 years ago…I will now. Why not?
Back then the Pilar was hidden behind a thick mangrove swamp in a rarely used canal, a couple of hundred feet off the 163rd Street Causeway between US Highway 1, Biscayne Boulevard, and Sunny Isles, Collins Avenue, in Miami Beach, Florida. The area is now called Oleta River State Park. I can still pinpoint exactly where it was docked as I recently did on Google Earth.
On that day, I drove with this man off the busy causeway and onto an indistinguishable narrow and heavily wooded dirt road. The road meandered for a couple of hundred feet then ended abruptly. We walked the rest of the way through a maze of mosquitoes and mangroves then into a clearing.
There, docked to a flimsy and mostly rotted wooden dock, was the legendary Pilar. Its 38-foot black hull was almost foreboding as it floated in the calm, black, brackish water. Huge mangrove trees seemed to hang protectively over it. The heavily leafed mangrove trees threw shadows onto the boat making it look even more ominous. The boat was bigger than I ever imagined. The man said he owned the land and chose this “out of the way place” to hide the boat and to protect it from prying eyes, theft and to shield it from the harsh Florida sun. He said he was going to restore the boat because he was well aware that the Pilar was a priceless artifact.
He told me I could board the Pilar because just seeing it was not enough. One had to actually board it to feel its full effect on the psyche. Obviously, he was a Hemingway buff.
I gingerly made my way across the rotted wooden dock and stepped down into the boat. I’ll never forget the thrill that went through me as my foot touched the deck of the boat. I was touching a relic of twentieth century enlightened scripture.
As I walked the deck, I could see the boat was in need of repair. Some of the wood on the upper deck was missing, glass windows were cracked, and paint and shellac were peeling off in areas. I looked around below deck but don’t recall seeing anything memorable in the dusty cabin.
Before I stepped back onto the dock I thought about the “Old Man and The Sea” and I imagined Hemingway himself walking the deck and pulling aboard some great fish he had caught…and maybe he still was. There certainly was a phantom presence of the great man aboard his beloved Pilar. It was as if his essence had permeated the very structure of the boat making the two entities indistinguishable. The boat screamed Hemingway! The entire experience was eerie at times. There was no denying that!
It has been written that Castro knew Hemingway and loved fishing for Marlin, but it has never been firmly established that the two fished together on the Pilar. They probably did since Castro revered Hemingway.
What a thrill of a lifetime that moment in time was. I shall never forget spending those few precious minutes aboard Ernest Hemingway’s legendary Pilar.
Where is the Pilar now? The last I heard it was back in Cuba at the Hemingway Museum in Havana.