Great Moments: Hemingway's Captain
F. Daniel Somrack
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97
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Hemingway and Fuentes often sailed in search of worthy prey. Once, they encountered a formidable foe on a fishing trip to Cabo Blanco, Peru. Battling for more than three hours, the two men reeled in a 1,000-pound black marlin, a record Fuentes claims remains unbroken to this day. The fish is still on display in Peru. Fuentes and Hemingway had many nautical adventures together. On another occasion, the two men were docked at Cayo Paraiso, about 50 miles east of Havana, when they noticed an old man and a young boy wrestling with a large swordfish. They offered to help the fishermen but were gruffly turned down. This incident inspired Hemingway to write The Old Man and the Sea.
The sea has played an integral part in Fuentes' life. He was born on July 11, 1897, on the Canary Islands. His mother, Sebastiana Betancourt, was a housewife, his father, Pedro, a laborer on a cargo ship. The younger Fuentes' first adventure at sea, at the tender age of six, had tragic consequences. While on a voyage with his father from the Canary Islands to the West Indies to deliver potato seeds, the elder Fuentes was crushed to death by a falling mast. Pedro Fuentes was buried off the coast of Africa in full Spanish pomp and circumstance. Although his mother and 11 siblings still lived on the Canary Islands, Fuentes opted to stay on board to become a seaman, like his father before him. Although his adoptive father, Don Raul Mediavilla, initially scoffed at him, he soon taught the young but serious Fuentes the tricks of the trade. Fuentes joined a cargo sailing company in Cuba and has lived there ever since, marrying Dolores Perez in 1922 (she died in 1990) and raising four daughters.
But he often returns to his native land. For his 98th birthday, Fuentes was invited by the Spanish government to celebrate in Spain. He accepted, and the Spaniards rolled out the red carpet for him.
Now 99, Fuentes reflects on a long and rich life. He has many interests, many of which he shared with Hemingway. But one which Papa Hemingway never shared was Fuentes' love of cigars. Hemingway never smoked them because, as a fervent hunter, he believed that animals could pick up the scent of tobacco, lit or not. Fuentes, however, is an avid cigar smoker who began smoking cigars at a very early age. He started smoking $2 bundles in Africa and now smokes five to six cigars a day. He is partial to large Cuban cigars such as the Partagas Churchill, the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona and the Romeo y Julieta Churchill.
Fuentes saw his friend for the last time in 1961. Hemingway visited him in Cuba before journeying to Spain, where he intended to take a sabbatical from writing. The writer fell ill while in Spain, returned to the United States and checked himself into the Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed with leukemia. He committed suicide soon after.
When Hemingway died, it was almost as if a piece of Fuentes died as well. Hemingway's wife, Mary, sent Fuentes a telegram informing him of the tragedy. "I felt that when he died, someone in my family had died. And I still feel the same way today," he recalls. "It was because of the kind of a man that he was, the kind of person he was. I haven't found anyone like my friend since."
Hemingway bequeathed Pilar to Fuentes in his will. Fuentes eventually turned the boat over to Fidel Castro's revolutionary government. Today, the boat is dry-docked at the Hemingway Museum in San Francisco de Paula. Pilar has been declared a national monument.
"Upon hearing of the death of my friend Ernest Hemingway, I vowed never to fish again, and I haven't," Fuentes says. "Although many people have asked me over the years, I swore that when Mr. Hemingway died I would never fish upon another yacht. I took Pilar to my house so I wouldn't have any responsibility with anybody again. I knew that I could never have a closer friend then Mr. Hemingway, so I decided never to sail again."
The old man lives on, without the sea. *
F. Daniel Somrack is a film producer based in Southern California.
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