BROOKLIN — With the United States deep in the Great Depression, 1934 wasn’t a great year for most people, but it was a winner for author Ernest Hemmingway.
In April of that year, he took delivery of the 38-foot motorboat Pilar, his then wife’s nickname, custom built by the Wheeler Yacht Co. in its Brooklyn, N.Y., boatyard. Company records show he paid $7,495 (about $145,000 in today’s dollars) for the boat with money he borrowed from his publisher.
Hemingway added a control station atop the cabin, and used the boat for fishing, partying and scientific exploration around the Florida Keys, Bimini and Cuba, and for hunting German U-boats during World War II.
Hemingway died in 1961 and the Wheeler Yacht Co. closed its doors in 1965, not long after a disastrous fire destroyed its facilities on the shore of Long Island Sound in the Bronx. Pilar survived in Cuba, but just barely.
Though the Wheeler Yacht Co. was gone, the Wheeler family certainly wasn’t. In 2005, Wes. P. Wheeler, great-grandson of company founder Howard E. Wheeler, reincorporated the company. He hired a noted yacht designer to create a new Wheeler, a 55-footer based on the company’s 48-foot Sportfisherman that came to market in 1952.
That project has yet to come to fruition, but another has.
A filmmaker planning a movie about Hemingway’s life in Cuba approached Wes Wheeler to get the details needed to build a replica of Pilar. That led eventually to a trip to Cuba, where Wheeler took precise measurements from the original boat and, ultimately, decided to build a faithful replica of Pilar using modern engineering and boatbuilding techniques.
Wheeler commissioned yacht designer Bruce Marek to draw plans for the new Wheeler 38 that would look just like Pilar with one key difference. The original boat had a round bottom and its two 75-horsepower gas engines gave it a top speed of about 12 knots. The new boat would have a flat bottom and flat out performance topping 30 knots.
Once Marek finished the hull design, the project went to Bill Prince in Madison, Wis., for details of the house, accommodations and engineering. Prince told Wheeler he ought to talk to Steve White at Brooklin Boat Yard about building the boat and, last year, the contract was signed.
Just after noon on Tuesday last week, nearly two dozen members of the Wheeler clan were on hand to celebrate as the BBY Travelift gently set Legend — the first of what Wheeler said he hoped would be many of the 38-footers — into the waters of Center Harbor. Despite the festivities, family, boatyard crew and a handful of invited guests remained mostly masked and at some distance from one another. But it was hard not to whoop with excitement.
Legend was built using the cold-molded technique BBY uses for the most modern sailboats its usually and features elegantly varnished mahogany pilot shelter, cabinsides and interior joinerwork and handsome teak decks. Custom cast hardware — chocks, cleats, clamshell engine room vents — reflect the fittings on the original Pilar.
Legend has an overall length of 39 feet 4 inches — 38 feet 9 inches on the waterline — a beam of 12 feet and a draft of 3 feet 5 inches. Estimated displacement is 20,600 pounds.
The boat has plenty of giddyap. A pair of 370-horsepower Yanmar diesels turning four-blade, strut-mounted propellers pushed Legend to a top speed of just under 32 knots in sea trials and at the designed 23-knot cruising speed the boat will have a range of approximately 400 nautical miles with 250 gallons of fuel onboard.
Legend should be extremely comfortable underway, even at speed, with a pair of Zipwake automatic trim tabs on her transom and a Seakeeper gyro stabilizer mount all the way aft beneath the cockpit.
While Legend looks like a classic motor yacht from the past, her crew doesn’t have to rely on just a compass for navigation and a coal stove for warm.
The helm station — located to port as on the original boat — is equipped with a full suite of Garmin navigation and communications gear. Below, where four guests can sleep in two cabins, there is air conditioning and heat, a fully equipped galley and a high-tech sound system.
Perhaps the best part, located to starboard opposite an L-shaped settee and pedestal table that lowers to convert the settee to a double berth, is a pair of comfortable armchairs, exactly the kind of seating missing, and most missed, on most yachts this size.
Neither Wheeler nor BBY disclosed the final cost for Legend, but it was certainly a substantial multiple of the $7,495 Hemingway paid for Pilar, or even the contemporary $145,000 equivalent.
Plans call for Wheeler and a crew to take Legend on what should be a rewarding tour of the autumn boat shows — if they aren’t canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic — beginning in Newport, R.I., this coming weekend, then moving on to a stop in Cape May, N.J., en route to the Annapolis Power Boat Show at the beginning of October.
From there, Legend was slated to head for Palm Beach, Fla., with stops en route in: Beaufort and Myrtle Beach, N.C.; Hilton Head, S.C.; Amelia Island, Ga.; and Cocoa Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Key Largo and Miami on the way. The schedule for all stops along the route remains to be determined as a result of the pandemic and what is proving to be an unusually active hurricane season.
Whatever befalls, though, Legend should provide a safe, comfortable and elegant trip south for the winter.