- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
El Torreon de Coj�mar is an ancient Spanish fortress that guards a harbor mouth not very far east of Havana. On a recent May morning, a platoon of Cuban troops—grim and trim in their green fatigues, pistols heavy at their hips—gathered on the fortress tower and stared seaward. Out beyond the surf line, an armada of small boats circled and bounced on the steep seas at the Gulf Stream's edge. Suddenly a rocket whooshed out from the tower, snaking fast and smoky toward the boats. The shell burst over them dirty white, and a roar went up from the crowd of eager civilians lining the seawall. Then another rocket—this one exploding closer to the boats, as if it were probing for range, mast-high in the midst of the flotilla....
�Qu� pasa, hombre?
The Bay of Pigs (Part II)?
No way. The rocket bursts were merely a signal that the 15th annual Hemingway Billfish Tournament had begun.
This Torneo de la Aguja ( Hemingway), to give it its proper Spanish appellation, is the first of Cuba's four annual fishing competitions and, in terms of prestige, the foremost. At the signal, 57 boats ranging in size from hulking cabin cruisers to 16-foot fishing smacks scattered into the Gulf Stream, braving the 12-foot waves of a nor'easter. The angling teams on board were, by definition, the best sport fishermen in Cuba. Each member had won the right to compete in the Hemingway by winning a provincial fishing championship. The anglers" occupations were as diverse as their vessels—from high-ranking military officers and government officials to cane-cutting macheteros. The 1976 winner, Mart�n Santana, a short, slim, very serious fisherman from Las Villas in the Cuban interior, is a ticket-taker at a movie theater when he is not out in boats.
The tournament has its roots in a pre-revolutionary contest inaugurated by Ernest Hemingway himself. In 1960, shortly before he left the island for good, Hemingway watched Fidel Castro win the contest with three marlin. "One or another of us kept our big old U.S. Navy binoculars on Fidel's boat," Hemingway's wife Mary writes in her memoir How It Was, "and watched him hook and bring to the gaff two marlin. He was no deep-sea fisherman, as far as we knew, but he followed precisely the big-game fishing rules, hooking the fish and playing them, and his boatman made no attempt to gaff before he could grasp the leader, rather than the line. The second day he caught another marlin, and the combined weight of his fish earned him Ernest's silver trophy."
Still, fishing under a Communist aegis is not quite the same as it was when Hemingway was in his prime, conning his black-hulled Pilar past Morro Castle and out "on the blue water." As Mary put it, "Something sybaritic in the air, of men of means frolicking with their expensive playthings, was missing." So the Hemingways departed from Cuba, he rushing toward a grave in Ketchum, Idaho, and she toward her heavy duties as Hemingway's literary executrix. Their comfortable estate at San Francisco de Paula was donated to the Cuban people and is now a museum.
It is ironic, perhaps, that today Ernest Hemingway—a man who steadfastly refused to get rabid about any political cause ("If you have a message, go to Western Union")—is something of a demigod in Communist Cuba. Nowhere more so than in Coj�mar, the tiny fishing village seven miles east of Havana that served as the locale for The Old Man and the Sea. Just back of the seawall, under the square stone tower of the fortress, stands a monument. The plaque expresses the gratitude of the people of Coj�mar to the inmortal autor of El Viejo y El Mar. Above it stands a bronze bust of Papa, chin up, grinning the old victorious grin to seaward. The style of the sculpture is a bit too "socially realistic," and Hemingway bears more than a slight resemblance to Lenin. But the gesture is sincere, deep-felt, from the heart...from the people.
Hemingway's ghost pervades the Coj�mar scene, but it is a jolly, big-handed ghost. In the early morning, with the sun just pinking the eastern horizon, you can still see the marlin fishermen putting out into the Stream. Few of them row their skiffs anymore (the ubiquitous outboard is present even in Cuba), but the sea is the same—the long combers crashing on the rocks of the harbor mouth, the smell of sea grapes and sweet, thick Cuban coffee filling the dockside plaza. La Terrasse, the little caf� across the plaza from the wharf, is still in business. Roosters crow on the hilltop where the fictional Santiago lived, and if luck is with you, you might bump into Gregorio Fuentes. Gregorio was for many years Hemingway's mate aboard the Pilar. Now 79, Gregorio is still fit, tight-muscled, with only the seams of his face and the hard, line-cut hands indicating his true age. Hemingway would be relieved to know that this man, whose competence and, later, loyalty, he revered, is now the majordomo of the fishing tournament that bears his name.
This year's tournament, though, was a bit of a letdown. A three-day blow from the northeast was only just warming up when the contest began at 10 a.m. of a windy Friday morning. May is not the best month for marlin fishing on the north coast of Cuba—most of the fish present that early in the year are agujas blancas (white marlin) that rarely exceed 50 pounds. Tournament rules specify that line up to 22 kilograms test (48.5 pounds) may be used, so the contest can tend to be unequal. Occasionally, though, an angler may hook up with a castero (blue marlin) in the 200-pound-plus category, and that can be a bit of a giggle. The tournament record for blues was set in 1964, the contest's second year under government sponsorship, by a Cuba�a airlines pilot, Ren� Bustamante. His castero weighed 228 pounds.