Hemingway’s Wheeler Playmate

Ernest Hemingway Aboard Pilar

Ernest Hemingway aboard Pilar, circa 1950. Wikipedia Commons photo

It may not have been a microskiff but it it certainly showed its owner’s love of customization. Ernest Hemingway modified Pilar–a 38-foot Wheeler Playmate–to suite his flair for the dramatic:  from installing steel plates on the hull for his personal anti-Uboat campaign to replacing the fixed fighting chair with a swiveling barbershop model to pursue ever-larger fish.  (Hemingway was probably the first modern angler to boat a giant tuna on rod and reel.)

The boat also attracted journalists with larger-than-life imaginations.  Now Hemingway’s niece, Hilary Hemingway, wants to set the record straight, and turn the Pilar story into a movie while she’s at it. “‘He loved that boat,’ Hilary Hemingway said. ‘He had it longer than his first three wives,’” writes  Rod Clarke in Florida’s News-Press.

Sixty years ago this month, the Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea was featured in Life magazine and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

I’m convinced that if Hemingway had begun fishing in Keys in the 70s rather than the 30s, it would have been on a flats skiff.

Smuggling Booze Under Sail and Via Skiff: “The Real McCoy”

It wasn’t the picture of the Colt-Browning machine gun on the deck of Arethusa, a Prohibition-era smuggling vessel that ran between Nassau and Rum Row, a floating dept off the U.S. coast, that piqued my interest.  It was the history of Bill McCoy and his dangerous work under sail and in high-powered skiffs.  Charles J. Doan writes for Sail Feed about McCoy–whose teetotalling ways and insistence on being an “honorable” smuggler gave rise to the phrase “The Real McCoy.”

Bill McCoy, the “honorable smuggler.” photo from The Mariners’ Museum

Sloan’s article is focused on a newly republished book, The Real McCoy by Frederic F. Van de Water, which “recounts the career of a rather personable and flamboyant Rum Row pioneer.”

Here’s an excerpt: “Only seamen could have brought them out through the weather they often encountered. Wind and waves never stopped them. In storms there were always two men aboard them, one to steer, the other to pump and keep her afloat. Any other breed but these Jersey lads would have added a third to holler for help, but they were reckless and seamen to the backbone. They always came out full speed ahead, and you could hear the old wagons smacking along over the waves a mile away. Their exhausts were under water, and when running slowly, no one could hear them.”

“When Fiberglass Trees Grow”

“When fiberglass trees grow, I’ll build a fiberglass flats boat.”

That quote is attributed to Willy Roberts by his granddaughter Jean Wiggins.  Roberts was probably the first man to build skiffs specifically for flats fishing, launching them on a small beach on Tavernier Key in Islamorada in the late 1950s and 60s.   He built them out of wood, originally, and was more than hesitant to consider fiberglass.  But by the late 1960s, boat building had almost completely converted to fiberglass hulls, and even Roberts made the switch.

Roberts was born on White Street in Key West in 1914 and died in 1993, and his boats are fondly referred to by collectors and fans as “Willies.”

Thomas McGuane also offers this bit of history on the Roberts skiffs: “The earliest guides like Harry Snow, Sr. had what they called Go-Devils, which were these flat-bottom skiffs that were probably the best poling boat there ever was. But they were highly impractical in every other way—wet, rough, and sinkable. The first of the real dedicated skiff builders was Willy Roberts. I had a Willy Roberts skiff and he built wooden boats on Tavernier Key. He was a conch and a wonderful craftsman whose peculiarity was that he hated painting boats. You could get a substantial discount on one of his boats if he didn’t have to paint it. His family origins were in the Abacos. They had been loyalists during the American Revolution and fled the Carolinas. He came from a long line of boat builders. Most of the guides in the ’60s had Willy Roberts boats.”

Flip Pallot on the Hell’s Bay Whipray and Early Skiff Design

Flip Pallot talks with Hell’s Bay executives Chris Peterson and Todd Fuller about the history of skiff design and the early hull concepts that helped change jon boats into highly efficient fishing craft.