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Obituaries

G. Fuentes, 104; Hemingway's Skipper

January 15, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gregorio Fuentes, who skippered Ernest Hemingway's fabled fishing boat, the Pilar, for more than 20 years and is said to have been the writer's inspiration for the embattled fisherman in "The Old Man and the Sea," has died. He was 104.

Fuentes died of cancer Sunday at his home in Cojimar, the quiet Cuban fishing village about 10 miles east of Havana where Hemingway used to dock the Pilar.

Until recently, Fuentes regaled tourists with his tales of fishing and drinking with Hemingway while seated on the front porch of his small cottage a few blocks up the hill from the waterfront.

Fuentes was the character of Antonio in Hemingway's "Islands in the Stream," and he claimed to be the namesake for Hemingway's youngest son, Gregory.

But most knew Fuentes as the model for the old fisherman who puts up a heroic fight with a giant marlin in Hemingway's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1952 novella.

Born on Lanzarote, the Canary Islands, in 1897, Fuentes arrived in Cuba alone at age 6 after his Spanish father died en route. His mother had remained on Lanzarote.

Fuentes was taken in by a succession of Canary Island immigrants until he became an adolescent and began earning money cleaning fish and going out to sea with the fishermen.

He moved to Cojimar as an adult and began fishing and piloting cargo boats. In 1928, he spotted a man whose small fishing boat had broken down during a tropical storm. The man was Hemingway, and Fuentes towed his boat to safety, thus beginning a friendship that lasted until Hemingway's suicide in 1961.

In 1934, using a $3,000 advance from Esquire magazine, Hemingway bought the Pilar and made Fuentes his captain.

Fuentes enjoyed telling stories of Hemingway's battles with powerful marlin at a time when fishing gear was primitive.

"You had to be strong for the marlin in those days," Fuentes told a reporter for Salt Water Sportsman magazine in 1997. "And for the big tuna too. If you didn't get them into the boat fast, the sharks got them. Oh, Papa hated that. He would get out his Thompson machine gun and turn the water red.'

While on the Pilar, Fuentes once told Hemingway about the time, in his younger days, when he single-handedly battled a 600-pound marlin in a small skiff. The marlin was so big, Fuentes said, that he had to tie it to the side of the boat. By the time he reached port the next day, the marlin had been chewed up by sharks.

If that wasn't inspiration enough for Hemingway, he and his skipper once came across an old man in a skiff battling a huge marlin.

"Sharks were all around the boat, and we tried to help, but he was crazy and he shouted for us to get away," Fuentes recalled. "He was far out to sea and weary, but he wanted nothing. We finally gave him some food and a few Cokes and continued on. Later, when we heard the old man had died, Papa was very sad. I know that is why he wrote the book. It was a tribute to all the fishermen of Cojimar.'

Hemingway described Santiago, the main character in "The Old Man and the Sea," as "thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck.'

"Everything about him was old except the eyes," he wrote. "And they were the same color as the sea and cheerful and undefeated.'

Fuentes was in his early 50s when Hemingway wrote "The Old Man and the Sea," but he eventually grew into the role he reportedly inspired.

Reporters, along with a succession of tourists, frequently made pilgrimages to Fuentes' bungalow to listen to the old man who wore a black baseball cap with gold letters that spelled out "Captain Gregorio Fuentes.'

So many came that Fuentes' grandson, Rafael Valdes, began charging them $50 for 15 minutes to meet with Hemingway's old skipper, half that if they haggled. But a bottle of rum would do too.

Hemingway bequeathed the Pilar and his fishing tackle to Fuentes, who turned the boat over to the Cuban government, which displays it outside Hemingway's former home near Havana.

After Hemingway died, Fuentes retired as a skipper.

"I loved that man very much, and I didn't want to fish with anyone else," he said in 1999.

Fuentes is survived by four daughters, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

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