“It’s a historic moment — two Wheelers!” said actor/producer Matthew Rhys as his newly restored 38-foot cabin cruiser Rarebit pushed off from its berth at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s One15 Brooklyn Marina on Friday.
Following close behind Rarebit into the East River was a similar cruiser, Legend. The story behind Rarebit and Legend, and the way they came together in Brooklyn on Friday, is itself the stuff of legend.
Rarebit is one of the few remaining original Wheeler Playmates, the iconic wooden pleasure and fishing yachts of a bygone era. She was built in 1939 at Brooklyn’s Wheeler Shipyard, at the foot of Cropsey Avenue in Coney Island. Wheeler Shipyard was founded by Howard E. Wheeler in 1910. Howard’s son, Wesley L. Wheeler, designed all of the Playmates.
Rarebit is a sister boat to one of the most famous fishing boats of all time — Ernest Hemingway’s “Pilar.”
Over the three and a half years, Rhys and his captain, Kelli Farwell (who launched The Water Table, Brooklyn’s first dinner boat) painstakingly restored the historic Rarebit. With an interior of now-rare Honduran mahogany, a structure of white oak, the original fittings, the ice box from the ‘30s and a gramophone, stepping onto Rarebit is like stepping into a different era.
‘A sign from the gods!’
The Welsh-born Rhys lives in Brooklyn Heights with actress Keri Russell (who starred across from him in The Americans) and their son Sam. Fans of Rhys might be interested to know that despite his 100 percent American accent in Perry Mason and The Americans, in the wild he speaks with a delightful Welsh lilt.
In 2017, Rhys spotted Rarebit on eBay. “I knew Hemingway had a Wheeler Playmate — I was a big Hemingway fan. And then I saw she was called Rarebit, and I thought it was a sign from the gods that I should own this boat — Welsh rarebit!” (Welsh rarebit is a traditional dish made from toasted bread and cheese.)
Two Wheelers take a cruise
On Friday, Wes Wheeler, the great-grandson of Howard E. Wheeler, returned to Brooklyn with Legend, the first Wheeler boat built in decades. She is an exact copy of Hemingway’s Pilar, but the interior has been made more comfortable and modern technology is hidden behind panels.
The two Wheelers, built eighty years apart, took an excursion together in the East River, with the Brooklyn Eagle along for the once-in-a-lifetime ride. The two historic yachts cruised side by side on the beautiful sunlit afternoon to the Statue of Liberty and back.
‘The pace matches the cocktails’
Rarebit is now One15 Brooklyn Marina’s official charter boat. (She can be booked by groups of up to six people for two-hour harbor tours.)
“One of the reasons I bought her was I had the idea from the get-go that she would be a charter boat,” Rhys said. “I wanted people to have an opportunity to charter a real piece of Brooklyn history.”
“We try to cruise, as opposed to race,” Captain Farwell said.
“When we lose a deckhand I’ll fill in,” Rhys said, adding that people rarely recognize him. He laughingly imitated a guest snapping their fingers. “Hey, keep the ice cold and keep ’em coming.”
Recreating a legendary boat
Wheeler is the president of UPS Healthcare, busy dealing with the Covid epidemic when he’s not recreating Hemingway’s Playmate. He took the job about 18 months ago. “A month later I was on Operation Warp Speed, with the generals and colonels,” he said.
Wheeler traveled to the former Hemingway residence in Havana, where the original Pilar is on display, to double-check every detail of the original construction.
“Legend is an exact copy of Hemingway’s boat, to the inch,” Wheeler said. “Honduran mahogany is no longer available so we’ve replaced that with African mahogany called Sipo. It’s the same strength as the original and very similar in terms of grain. The structural materials used to be white oak, and we have Douglas fir from Canada.”
Hemingway customized Pilar for fishing, Wheeler said. “He was one of the first to put a flybridge on top so he could see the fish better … And he had a fighting chair, which was made from a barber chair installed in the center of the cockpit. He used to shoot the fish with a shotgun if they gave him trouble.
“Twenty-five years he owned that boat,” Wheeler added. “He loved it more than he loved all four of his wives, they say.”
‘Technically, Ernest never paid us back’
Rhys shared with Wheeler the story of how Esquire magazine financed Hemingway’s purchase of Pilar.
“When the first edition of Esquire came out [in 1933], the first editor [Arnold Gingrich] said, ‘I don’t want this to be a fashion magazine, I want this to be a magazine that’s taken seriously. I’m going to get Ernest Hemingway to write in the first edition,” Rhys said.
“So Ernest says, ‘You put a down payment at a company called Wheeler Shipyard for a Wheeler Playmate, and I’ll do it.’ So Esquire puts three and a half thousand dollars down and they got a chit from your grandfather,” Rhys said.
Rhys said that Esquire told him, ‘Technically, Ernest never paid us back, and we have this chit from the Wheeler Shipyard for the boat.”
“So I said, ‘Go to Cuba, take it up with the government, and tell them half of that boat belongs to you,” he laughed.
Rhys had secretly obtained a back copy of Esquire containing a Hemingway story published in 1934, the year Hemingway acquired Pilar, which he presented to an amazed Wheeler.
“I feel like your family is intrinsically linked to this Esquire story,” he told Wheeler.
Wheeler, in turn, gave Rhys a mounted page from the original Wheeler catalog from which Hemingway ordered his Playmate.
“This is the actual page from the 1934 catalog. He took it to Africa with him,” Wheeler said. The final price for the boat was $7,455, which included modifications. (It was Hull No. 576. Rarebit was Hull No. 1,140.) Wheeler also presented Rhys with hats bearing the Wheeler logo, and promised to send a logo to mount on the bow.
Reuniting people with the water
On September 21, Rhys and Russell, along with Jennifer Votaw, joined the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy’s board of directors.
“I understand boating is a very privileged position; it is associated with wealth and privilege,” Rhys said. “That’s one of the reasons I turned to the Conservancy to work with Nancy Webster. Because what I love about Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy is that one of their real missions is reuniting people with the water, and that to me was one element of it I wanted people to appreciate.”