Inside Matthew Rhys' Hemingway-inspired 'tale of madness' to restore a boat
The actor walked in the footsteps of the Old Man and the Sea author by restoring one of the last Ernest Hemingway boats.
To say Matthew Rhys was productive during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 doesn't even sand the surface of what has turned into a full-fledged Hemingway-inspired experience for the Perry Mason actor.
Over the past three years in Jersey City, N.J., Rhys has been restoring a Wheeler Playmate fishing cruiser, a rare boat from 1939 that's of the same class and era as Ernest Hemingway's famous "Pilar" vessel, on which the celebrated author wrote literary works like The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream. The 46-year-old Wales-born, New York-based thespian now hopes to turn his passion project into a charter, which will likely be secured in the next two weeks.
"The whole thing is a tale of madness," Rhys tells EW over the phone. "When I originally saw the boat for sale" — this was around 2017 — "I had this friend who had a wooden boat shipwright. He did the inspection for me. And the whole plan was for him to [restore] the whole thing. He got sick, I got another wooden boat shipwright that didn't work out, and then I got this other guy to come in and look at it. He said, 'You know what? Just do it yourself!'"
Easier said than done. Rhys credits his captain, Kelli Farwell, who completed "the majority of the work." Farwell previously launched "Brooklyn's first dinner boat" dining experience called The Water Table before her boat became damaged and sunk. "So, she joined me three years ago," Rhys recalls. "I have done a lot of work on the boat. We both have. But I have to say the hero's portion has been done by her."
Hemingway commissioned Howard E. Wheeler Sr., founder of The Wheeler Shipyard Corporation, to build a 38-foot Playmate that would become one of the most famous fishing boats in American history. The writer purchased it with help from Esquire's founding editor, who then used that as leverage to get Hemingway to write for the magazine. Hemingway named the craft Pilar — a nickname for Pauline, his second wife.
Around the same time Wheeler's company was making Pilar, it was also making "Rarebit," the boat Rhys stumbled across on eBay that's only one of four documented Wheeler Playmates still left in the world.
"I come from Wales and a dish we are all too familiar with is 'Welsh Rarebit' (melted cheese on toast essentially) and 80 years ago when this mahogany beauty was built with her incredible lines... someone named her 'Rarebit,'" Rhys wrote in a post on his newly started Instagram page that documents the restoration process.
The actor felt dumbfounded when he stumbled upon such a nautical gem. "It can't be a Wheeler Playmate," he thought at the time. "They're not around. You just can't find them." He flew his inspector out to the West Coast who came back with good news.
Rhys says he's always been drawn to the works of Hemingway, and the boat felt like it could mean a number of things. "It's a part of New York history, which I, through rose-tinted glasses, wanted to save," he remarks. He also wanted it to be a business venture. For one, it cost a pretty penny to restore the boat. And for another, it could offer others a chance to have their own "Hemingway experience with good cocktails and good gramophone records," he notes.
It took some time between filling out the paperwork and finding someone willing to ship the ship to the East Coast, where Rhys, currently living in Brooklyn, sought to set this up as a charter for people to enjoy. It was something he and Karwell "picked up and put down" over the years, he says, especially when factoring in his work on HBO's Perry Mason (returning for season 2) and developing a new show with his wife and Americans costar Keri Russell called Wyrd. Now, the dream is finally becoming a reality.
Rhys' new Instagram account links to a website for Moveable Feast, which offers charters of up to six people on the Rarebit from either Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York, or New Jersey for a "jazz age experience."
"It's whatever people want to get out of it," Rhys says. "I can lead it to a degree by saying you can have one of [Hemingway's] famous mojito cocktails while you're aboard, you can listen to the gramophone. But it's mostly individual as to what [passengers] want. We'll try and cater to that. In the simplest form, I just want people to enjoy chartering a piece of New York history of this bygone age."
And also, maybe write the next great American novel. "That's what I'll push for," he jokes.
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