I received a call in January from a surveyor to deliver a boat from Jensen Beach to Ft. Lauderdale, a distance of about 90 miles. The boat was a 1960 34-foot Wheeler, a name that immediately conjured up memories: my parents purchased their home in Amityville, N.Y., from the Wheeler family of the Wheeler Shipbuilding Company in 1951.
An Internet search revealed that Ernest Hemingway’s boat Pilar was a Wheeler. When I e-mailed the surveyor about these two coincidences, he replied that this boat was going to be used in a new Hemingway movie, “Papa,” to be filmed entirely in Cuba.
Adding more to this, my mother attended the University of Havana in 1942, and I am a board member of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. Destiny and fate were clearly knocking at my door. I was hooked, and signed on for this exciting adventure.
This wasn’t the original Pilar , which was a 38-foot fishing boat built in 1934. Pilar was a nickname for Hemingway’s wife Pauline, and he fished with this vessel in the waters off Key West and in the Gulf Stream off Cuba. He also took her three times to Bimini where his fishing, drinking and fighting exploits drew much attention and remain part of the history of the islands.
As usual with deliveries, we had problems right off the bat. After driving up from Ft. Lauderdale and getting on the boat in Jensen Beach, the port gasoline engine would not start. We left instructions with the mechanic and returned two days later to cast off.
All went well until we were about 500 feet from our destination, Angler’s Avenue Marina on the Dania Cutoff Canal, just west of the I-95 bridges and the CSX railroad trestle. Inching toward the trestle, we were about 2 inches too tall, so we turned around and docked for the night at the Lauderdale Small Boat Club where I know the guy in charge. We returned the next day at low tide and finished the delivery.
A few months later, on April 14, e-mails started flying back and forth between Michael, one of the film’s producers from Canada, and myself regarding delivering the boat to Cuba.
Someone else took the book to Key West and during a sea trial, a bottom plank “popped” and she started taking on water. After a mayday call, the Coast Guard arrived with a high-capacity gas pump, which prevented the boat from sinking. They took it back to the marina and took her out of the water.
Fiberglassing the bottom would take a week, which the production company did not have. Filming had already begun and it needed the boat in Havana as soon as possible. They decided to plank the bottom in various spots with plywood, bolting them in place along with 5200.
I flew to Key West on April 20. It was decided to tow us to save wear and tear on the gas engines and so that we had someone to accompany us in case of an emergency. Andy, a local fisherman, would tow us to 12 miles off the Cuban coast. A boat from Cuba would come out and accompany us into Cuba.
The production company obtained a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to bring the boat to Cuba for the filming and all participants were automatically covered, including us, the crew on the boat.
The production crew in Cuba were getting anxious for us to get going, but Andy would not leave until the winds subsided to below 15 mph, which they did on April 22. We left the marina at 5 a.m. and drove out Key West harbor heading south and then southwest. Andy met us about an hour southwest of Key West where we attached a tow harness and began the tow to Cuba.
The crew on board was me, the captain; John, the mechanic; and Rob, who was a friend of the movie’s director/producer, Bob Yari. Rob did a huge amount of organizing, coordinating and many other tasks associated with the entire project. He liked to call himself the cabin boy.
I established a waypoint that I determined was 12 miles from the closest Cuban shoreline and sent that to Cuba before we left. When we approached that spot, I notified Andy to release us. The Cuban boat was nowhere to be seen, so we proceeded without them. After about 10 miles, we saw an approaching boat, which turned out to be them. We followed them into Hemingway Marina where we docked at the Port Authority for clearing into Cuba.
Pilar entering Cuba was a tremendous deal. People were lined up along the shoreline waving and cheering, and about 20 people greeted us at customs.
We had no paperwork for the boat. Unfortunately, it got lost somewhere between January and April. But I was not going to let that minor detail stand in the way of me going to Cuba. When customs asked for the paperwork, I told them the U.S. Coast Guard in Key West took the papers during a routine inspection and forgot to give them back to me. It worked. We cleared in, no questions asked.
We left Hemingway Marina and headed directly to the Port of Havana. After a 19-hour day, we docked the boat that night at a large marine terminal behind a Cuban Coast Guard cutter. The Cuban government went above and beyond for the filming of this movie. It painted one of their cutters to resemble how it looked in the late 1950s, and provided access to just about everything the director asked for.
Bright and early the next morning, we arrived at the boat and headed out to sea to meet the production barge, which was the staging area for all the scenes shot on the boat. Several of the actors and the director, Bob Yari, came along, so that added to the excitement of this adventure. (This one rates high on my all-time list.)
A couple of dozen people scrambled all over the place — the director, assistant director, cameraman, make up, costume, caterer, publicity, actors and, of course, the Pilar crew.
Eduardo was the local Cuban who played the part of Gregorio, Hemingway’s captain. Eduardo had no knowledge of boating whatsoever. If he was on top, pretending to drive the boat, I was down below actually doing the driving, and vice versa.
Filming continued until 5 p.m., when we’d motor back around sunset to be dazzled by the islands gorgeous scenery. One day, when a beautiful sunset slowly started to emerge, Yari had me stop the boat. We pulled out a fishing rod and took some amazing shots of Hemingway fishing. It was the perfect ending to a busy day.
We spent several days at sea, filming different segments of the film, including some with a Cuban Coast Guard cutter. In one scene, Hemingway and Gregorio toss guns and grenades overboard before the Cuban Coast Guard, who were fast approaching, could see what was going on.
We had a couple of days off before the final boat scene. We checked the boat every day and one day, the starboard engine would not start. When we popped off the distributor cap, part of the inside had broken off. We superglued it but the engine still did not start.
I carefully marked all the spark plug wires and swapped distributor caps. Still no luck. I then swapped the coil and the engine started. Carefully examining the old coil, you could clearly see a crack, which was the culprit.
Finding a new coil in Cuba on a Sunday could have been very difficult. Fortunately, most of the local production staff were Cuban and they had a lot of contacts. Within two hours, someone showed up with a very old coil, probably from the 1950s. I hooked it up and the engine started right up. We celebrated by smoking Cuban cigars.
With our time off, we were able to explore wherever we wanted, no restrictions. No one was watching us. We used the old American cars, and visited with a family in a small town that John had met on a previous trip. Although their English was as bad as our Spanish, we managed to communicate and enjoyed a couple of evenings with a few rums and cigars to boot.
The fifth and final day of filming would take place in Cojimar, a small fishing village a few miles east of Havana, so Rob and I slept on the boat to get an early start. Sharing the tiny V berth on the 34-footer was not very comfortable, but we made the best of it. We arose at 4 a.m. for the 10-mile trip to Cojimar, accompanied by a local boat for safety.
We arrived about 7 a.m. to a nice, catered breakfast before filming began. Filming consisted mostly of us coming into the dock and leaving the dock to accompany all the fishing scenes shot here.
After 11 10-hour days, we were tired, but happy. We did not get paid but our expenses were all paid. so I didn’t care. I do believe I would have paid them just for this unbelievable experience. I thoroughly loved every minute of it and wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“Papa” will be the first, full-length film shot in Cuba with a Hollywood director and actors since the country’s 1959 revolution. As a board member of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, I invited the director and producers to this year’s festival, which takes place in November. And I plan on attending the Havana Film Festival this December. Here’s hoping the film is finished in time.
Capt. Steven Naimoli is a delivery captain based in Ft. Lauderdale. To see more photos and to access links to coverage of the filming of “Papa”, visit www.naimoli.com/Cuba.