Protecting the Natural Resources of the Florida Straits
John and Patrick Hemingway lay wreath to honor grandfather, Ernest Hemingway in his beloved town of Cojimar, Cuba. Photo by Roberto Leon/NBC News
Click here for full photo album of the trip.
From September 7th-13th, 2014, John and Patrick Hemingway, grandsons of Ernest Hemingway, led a delegation of 13 participants to Cuba to celebrate the strong ties between the renowned author and Cuba. The group commemorated the 60th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and the 80th anniversary of Hemingway’s first journey on his cabin cruiser Pilar from Key West to Havana in 1934. The trip was very moving for the two grandsons of Hemingway, as they were able to visit many of their grandfather’s favorite spots in Havana. This people-to-people trip not only focused on the legacy left by Hemingway, but also on ways in which the United States and Cuba can work together to protect and preserve the natural resources of the Gulf Stream and Florida Straits that Hemingway so passionately loved.
This groundbreaking trip was organized by Ms. Mavis Anderson (Senior Associate, Latin America Working Group Education Fund--LAWGEF) and Dr. Jeffrey Boutwell (LAWGEF Board Member and Secretary, US Pugwash). In addition to John and Patrick Hemingway, the delegation included specialists on the life and literature of Ernest Hemingway, and marine researchers and experts interested in engaging in a dialogue with their Cuban counterparts. This delegation will encourage further collaboration between U.S. and Cuban scientists on marine research in the Florida Straits. On a larger scale, the trip will serve as an example of how cooperative projects between the United States and Cuba are necessary; normalization of relations between the two nations would greatly facilitate such actions. As John and Patrick Hemingway have written, “It’s time to move beyond 50+ years of antagonism to normalized relations.”
You can read the full project description here and in Spanish here.
Reflections on my grandfather's boat, the Pilar
By: John Hemingway
The first time I heard about the Pilar or actively spoke about it was in 1974 when I was living with my great-uncle Leicester in Miami Beach. If my father mentioned it I was either too young to understand what he was talking about or it was just another boat that he and his dad happened to be fishing on when he was a boy in Bimini in the 1930s. Leicester was much more descriptive and in his biography of his brother there was a passage where he sees Ernest sitting in the fighting chair of the Pilar at sunset in Key West taking swigs from a bottle of rum. My grandfather was a tall man, as tall as my great-uncle, 6 ft., and strongly built, and back then his hair was still black and he had a moustache. The white beard would come later and the potbelly too. He was lean and young and Leicester writes that that was the first time that he noticed all the shrapnel wounds in his legs from the Austrian shell that had nearly killed him during the First World War.
It was a powerful image and one that stuck with me as I moved from one house to another from Florida to Connecticut to Los Angeles and then finally to Europe as a man. I could easily see him sitting there and smell the salt water in the bay and feel the slight rocking of a heavily built wooden boat in the waves.
Eventually my father would also write about the Pilar and the Nazi U-Boat hunting expeditions that Ernest would organize with a few friends and his captain, Gregorio Fuentes. Packing everyone aboard the Pilar with supplies and a homemade bomb that they intended to drop into the conning tower of an unsuspecting German sub, they would set out from Cojimar in search of trouble. A slightly suicidal mission if there ever was one. How they ever thought that they might get close enough to the U-boat to pull it off before they were machine-gunned into the Gulf Stream is beyond me, but that was the plan.
Luckily they never found the Germans except for my grandfather’s fatal encounter with them at the end of his posthumous novel Islands in the Stream. They were never shot at, the boat survived and Ernest fished aboard her until he left Cuba in 1960.
Today the Pilar is in dry dock on the grounds of his house the Finca Vigía outside of Havana. It was painstakingly restored in 2007 and is kept under a steel awning that protects it somewhat from the elements. I say somewhat because when I saw it for the first time last Thursday I noticed that the varnish on the wood in the cabin had already started to chip and peel. What impressed me though was the size of the boat, something that photographs can never really convey. I could finally see it with my own eyes and imagine my grandfather standing on the flying bridge above the cabin because it was obvious now that it was strong enough to support someone as big as Ernest. Likewise I could see my Uncle Patrick as a young boy sitting in the fighting chair as he wrestled with a huge marlin for hours, just like the second son of the protagonist of Islands in the Stream does.
But the Pilar itself was an archive of dreams and past lives, which I could not avoid now in her presence. I could feel my father and my Uncle Leicester. I could sense their energy and their pathos and I knew that while they were gone and I missed them dearly that they would always be here in this place, with this boat.
Media Coverage of the Delegation
Carey Winfrey, Key West, FL, retired editor, Smithsonian Magazine
In my time at SMITHSONIAN magazine, we published two articles that have direct bearing on our terrific trip: the first, in 2003, was about Cuba as an unspoiled nature preserve. It was written by Eugene Linden and can be found here. The second, which is about Ernest Hemingway's legacy in Cuba, is by Valerie Hemingway, who was the author's secretary in the early '60s, and later married Gregory Hemingway. It can be found here.
Also, here's a link to some of my photographs from the Cuba trip.
Jeffrey Boutwell, Columbia, MD, US Pugwash and LAWGEF Board Member
Several days after returning from our Cuba trip, I had a long drive to Norfolk, VA and took along an audio version of EH’s True at First Light. Wonderfully read by Brian Dennehy, he brings alive Hemingway’s lyric descriptions of the landscapes, wildlife, people, and rhythms of life and death in the Kenya Highlands of 1953.
What struck me most about the narrative was the purposeful nature of Hemingway’s hunting. This was no macho celebration of bagging big-game trophies. Rather, this hunting is primarily to stop a renegade lion or leopard from terrorizing local villages and attacking domestic livestock, or to supply meat. More generally, True at First Light (much like Islands in the Stream) demonstrates Hemingway’s love and respect for the natural world, much as our trip to Cuba commemorated Hemingway’s work with the ‘scientificos’ in observing and cataloging marlin, tuna and other game fish in the Florida Straits.
On a more whimsical note, there’s a passage in True at First Light that will forever resonate and recall the deeply moving Nobel Prize ceremony we held at Finca Vigia, with John and Patrick holding their grandfather’s Nobel Prize medal (awarded in September 1954), which he dedicated to the people of Cuba. Hemingway was back home at the Finca in the spring of 1954, working on True at First Light, when he wrote the following:
“[Winston] Churchill drank twice what I did if you could believe the accounts and he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature . I was simply trying to step up my drinking to a reasonable amount when I might win the Prize myself; who knows?”
Perhaps Hemingway is being a bit disingenuous here, who knows? But the fact is that True at First Light brings forth a portrait of the artist as an older, wiser, and yes, damaged man, but one with a deep respect for nature and for his own short-comings and those of humanity around him.