The first time I met Gregorio Fuentes, he was standing crooked in the garden of his small house neatly framed in bougainvillea in the Cuban village of Cojimar. He welcomed me inside and planted his frail body in a stiff-backed chair under a gaudy portrait of Papa and himself by artist Robert Capa. Although he looked about 50 in the painting, he was 98 then, but the creases in his leathery face couldn't conceal the fire still shining in his pale blue eyes. We struck a friendship and as journalistic assignments brought me back to Cuba, we visited several times. Gregorio came to know my daughters who were proud to be the youngest people to sign his ever-expanding guest book. He became something of a tourist attraction in later years as his grandson Rafael Valdez, acting as his agent, realized he could extract precious greenbacks from present-day mariners and other travelers happy to part with a small token for the opportunity to chat with the old man. The last time I saw him a couple of years ago, his eyes were glazed over and his mind seemed to be far away—maybe he was out on the Gulf Stream, fishing with Ernesto aboard Pilar
. Gregorio died earlier this month at the age of 104.
Gregorio Fuentes became a minor celebrity at an age when most of us will have already smelled the flowers on our grave sites, as West Indian sailors graphically describe those days when we sail no longer. Luckily he lived long enough to experience the small crack in Cuba's closed-door communist policies, a crack that was partially pried open by curious cruising sailors. As a living relic of the island nation's pre-revolution past, his stories enchanted those of us too young to have experienced the wild days and nights before Fidel changed everything. And of course, his stories were terrific; he was, after all, Ernest Hemingway's captain, first mate, cook, bartender and most importantly, his friend. Although Gregorio claimed he didn't read his books, he clearly listened to his stories, and despite Hemingway's bluster and boozing, nobody can deny that he was a fine storyteller.
Like most mariners of his age, Gregorio, who was born in 1897, was a sailor first and only later moved over to power-driven vessels, including Hemingway's 38-foot fishing boat, Pilar. Indeed, Gregorio started sailing at a very young age. Born in the Canary Islands, on the low dry island of Lanzarote, he accompanied his father on a sailing passage across the Atlantic when he was just six years old. Unfortunately, his father who was the ship's cook, died before they reached Cuba. There was no money to send the boy back home, so the Canary Island expatriate community in Havana adopted young Gregorio.
While still just a boy he earned his keep cleaning fish and then began crewing on local fishing boats. He moved to Cojimar, which was then a small fishing village and is today encircled by cold cement apartment blocks that would stir the heart of Lenin. Eventually Gregorio procured his own boat, a ragged little sloop with sweet lines named Joaquin Cisto
. He made his living ferrying fresh fish from Cuba to Florida—indeed that's how he first encountered Hemingway.
The year was 1928, Hemingway was living in Key West. He had published the Sun Also Rises, to some acclaim, and was working on A Farewell to Arms, which would establish his reputation as a major writer. Hemingway, a freshwater fisherman as a boy, was tasting the magic of deep-sea sport fishing for the first time, something that he would pursue with passion for the rest of his life. He spent many afternoons fishing with Josie Russell, the "Joe" of Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West. One expedition aboard Russell's boat, Anita, took them to the Dry Tortugas. A sudden storm found them hunkered down in the main anchorage off Garden Key.
"They were trapped by the storm," recalls Gregorio in a 1984 book by Cuban journalist Norberto Fuentes. "They wanted to communicate with Key West and I took them to the lighthouse over on Loggerhead Cay." After sailing over to the Anita and fetching Hemingway and Russell, Gregorio loaded his fish hold with extra water ballast for stability, and then tacked into the face of the brisk north wind. He found a lee by slipping behind the reef and rowed his guests ashore. "When we reached the lighthouse, I asked the keeper, who was my friend, to let them use the telephone. Papa, who wasn't Papa then, was amazed that the lighthouse was connected by submarine cable to Key West. Another thing he didn't know was that the keepers were my friends because I always brought them bottles of Cognac."
The not-yet-famous writer was most impressed with this wiry marinero who also had the good sense to serve him red wine and raw onions, his favorites. Hemingway took Gregorio's name and address and assured him that he would hear from him again. Many years later I asked Gregorio about the story in the Dry Tortugas and he assured me that it was true. When I asked him if Hemingway was much of a sailor, he just rolled his eyes—apparently Papa always relied on internal combustion to make his way out to the Gulf Stream.
In 1934 Hemingway was at last making a decent living as a writer and he felt confident enough to use a $3,000 advance from Esquire Magazine
for a series of articles as a down payment on a boat. Pilar
, named after the patron saint of matadors, whose skill handling rampaging bulls Hemingway likened to the skill needed to land a 1,000-plus-pound bill fish, was built by Wheeler Shipyard in Brooklyn. Sturdily constructed of cedar planks on oak frames, Pilar
measured 38 feet LOA, had a 12-foot beam and a draft of three-and-a-half feet. She plied the azure waters in and out of the Gulf Stream between Key West, Bimini, and Havana. Her homeport, however, for most of her life was Cojimar and her skipper and mate was Gregorio Fuentes—Hemingway had kept his word.
The first time I met Gregorio he denied that he had been the inspiration for Hemingway's classic tale The Old Man and the Sea. "No, I wasn't Santiago, but I could have been." He said that stories of fisherman losing their catch to sharks were common along the Cojimar wharf; he did however remember a specific incident when the idea might have hit home with Hemingway. "We were steaming out from Havana toward Cayo Paraiso when we came across an old man in a skiff fighting a big fish. Sharks were all around the boat; Papa wanted to shoot them, but the man said no, he was crazy, he didn't want any help. We finally gave him some food and a coke and continued on. Later when Papa heard the old man had died, he was very sad. I know that is why he wrote the book—it was a tribute to all the fisherman of Cojimar."
Hemingway's description of Santiago's eyes, the enduring old fisherman in the novella—"they were same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated"—could certainly be used to describe Gregorio's eyes. Yet, although the popular press has rushed to proclaim Gregorio was the "old man of the sea," in their obituaries, it is more likely the character was based on Hemingway's first Cuban captain, Carlos Gutierrez. Gregorio is more likely the model for the character "Antonio," in Hemingway's posthumously published Islands in the Stream.
Literary connections aside, Gregorio Fuentes was first and foremost a seaman. I remember him scribbling on my chart of Cayo Paraiso a crescent-shaped sandy spit off Cuba's northwest coast. He indicated a pass through the reef east of the island and fervently x-ed out the channel to the west. A few days later when I conned my ketch's seven-foot draft through the pass he marked, I tipped my hat to the old sailor.
An Island in the Stream by John Kretschmer
Key West, A Sailing Destination by John Kretschmer
The Forbidden Island by David Schaefer
Buying Guide: Anchors