Is This Boat the Ultimate Restomod?

The word “Restomod” has never made me think of a boat before. I used to think of muscle cars with modern engines such as the legendary builds by SpeedKore. Then I heard the craftspeople at the Brooklin Boat Yard had completed a plank-for-plank replica of Ernest Hemingway’s famous Wheeler 38 “Playmate.” Best of all, they upgraded the retro hull with 700+ horsepower of diesel engines and doubled its top speed. And honestly, the resulting hight-tech boat might just be the ultimate restomod.

Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar

Birds eye view of the new Wheeler 38 wooden yacht cutting through a calm sea.
Wheeler 38 | Wheeler Yacht Company

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Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar may be one of the most famous powerboats in history. The author, journalist, and adventurer tried deep sea fishing on his first trip to Key West in 1928, and he was hooked. He even moved to the town shortly thereafter.

As legend has it, when Hemingway got his first advance from the newly-founded Esquire magazine in New York City, he took the check directly to Wheeler Ship Builders in Brooklyn. The check was the deposit for his very own fishing boat.

Wheeler built Hemingway a 38-foot yacht, a modified version of its popular wood powerboat model dubbed the “Playmate.” Hemingway took delivery in 1934, paying $7,495 total.

He named the boat “Pilar,” his nickname for his second wife. His boat improvements included metal Marlin towers for trolling, a fighting chair on the deck for reeling in fish, a lowered transom for rolling fish aboard, and a second cockpit on the roof known as a flying bridge.

The Pilar had one inboard motor: a 75-horsepower Chrysler straight-six. But that didn’t stop Hemingway from sailing it to Florida, out to Bimini, down to Cuba, and even through the Bahamas during WWII in pursuit of German U-Boats.

The Navy appreciated the intelligence on U-boat movements the author provided, but it’s unclear what Hemingway planned to do if he ever caught one. Hemingway also helped with Smithsonian Institution research with the Pilar. Finally, he set multiple deep-sea fishing records aboard the Pilar and even hosted a tournament Fidel Castro attended.

The resurrection of the Wheeler Yacht Company

A wooden boat by Wheeler Yacht Company floating in front of a Maine sunset.
Wheeler 38 | Wheeler Yacht Company

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The Wheeler Yacht Company burned fast and bright. It wasn’t founded in 1910 by Howard E. Wheeler and quickly earned a reputation for building high-quality wooden boats up to 85 feet long. The company built Navy and Coast Guard boats during World War II.

But over the years, wooden boats fell out of favor as yachtsmen opted for fiberglass. Then a devastating fire at Wheeler’s boatyard destroyed what was left of the company and it closed its doors in 1965.

Wes Wheeler, Howard Wheeler’s grandson, dreamed of bringing the company back. Then actor Andy Garcia approached him with questions about a Pilar replica for a Hemingway biopic that’s in the works. Wes started to picture a classic-looking “Playmate” with modern internals.

He traveled to Hemingway’s home in Cuba and took measurements of the original Pilar. Then he contracted the wooden boat builders at the Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine to build a new Wheeler 38.

The all-new Wheeler 38

The Wheeler 38 restomod sailing through the bay of New York City, the Manhattan skyline in the background.
Wheeler 38 “Legend” | Mary Frost via Wheeler Yacht Company

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Wes Wheeler’s new Wheeler 38 matches the Pilar in every dimension, above the waterline. Below the waterline, the boat builders changed its shape to achieve modern speed and efficiency.

Wes insisted on the quality that made his great-grandfather famous. He purchased entire trees to mill and use, to best match the grain. The three kinds of wood he chose were Douglas Fir, African Mahogany, and Teak.

The craftspeople in Brooklin cold-molded the Douglas Fir hull using traditional techniques, then coated it in a thin, clear layer of fiberglass for added strength. They built a teak cabin and decks identical to what Wheeler built for its 1930s yachts.

Wes was precise about every detail: he found a bell, spotlight, and compass identical to the ones Pilar had. He borrowed a cast aluminum steering wheel from the owner of a 1934 Wheeler Playmate and cast an identical replica.

The new Wheeler 38 may look like it just sailed out of the 1930s, but underneath its Teak trim, it is one of the most advanced boats around. Wes chose two 370 horsepower Yanmar diesel engines for the boat. With the modern hull shape and extra horsepower, its top speed is 34 mph, and its cruising speed is 23 mph. That’s double the 15 mph speed of Hemingway’s Pilar.

Wes Wheeler also upgraded the new boat with a Cummins generator, air conditioning, a modern galley (kitchen), and head (bathroom). Yet the interior upholstery, decor, and even dishes are period-correct to the 1930s.

The new Wheeler 38 has all modern electronics, programmed to interface with an iPhone or iPad. But clever teak panels hide all of its screens and switches when you don’t want to see them. Finally, a “Seakeeper” gyroscopic stabilizer keeps it going in rough seas, and a bow thruster helps it slide up to a marina dock with ease.

Wes Wheeler named the first new Wheeler 38 Legend, and it is the very definition of a performance-oriented restomod. The folks at the Brooklin boatyard are ready to build another Wheeler 38, and Wes Wheeler is just waiting for your order.

Watch Wes Wheeler’s tour of his Wheeler 38 prototype Legend here:

See a review of the new Wheeler 38 in the video below:

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