One night four years ago, Matthew Rhys, the actor, was at home in New York, drinking a whisky and scrolling through eBay, killing time, when he saw an ad for a wooden 38-foot, 1939 Wheeler Playmate.
It wasn’t in very good shape, and it was in California, but it was the same model as Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar, and Rhys was a Hemingway fan. It also was one of the four documented Wheeler Playmates in the world.
And both Rhys and his partner, Keri Russell (his KGB wife in The Americans), liked chartering wooden boats. They had just celebrated her 40th birthday on one.
He bought it for $30,000, and figured it would take six months to fix it up and then charter it. Then reality hit.
As an actor, Rhys 46, is at the top of his game. He has won two Golden Globe Awards for his leading role in The Americans, and a third Golden Globe as the lead in Perry Mason. But as a wooden boat restorer, he was a newbie.
After he had the boat shipped to a marina in New Jersey, Rhys ran through three contractors during the early restoration. Finally, he got together with Kelli Farwell, who had hosted Russell’s birthday party on her own wooden boat, Water Table. Unfortunately, Water Table had just been hit by a steel tug while it was docked, and it was ruined. Farwell, who also is a ferry boat captain in New York Harbor (the fourth woman to hold that job), was looking for a new project.
Rhys and Farwell took over the Wheeler restoration, doing almost everything themselves. They hired contractors for the engines and electrical work, but they did the rest. Farwell even cut off part of her thumb with a table saw while working on a railing.
It took four years, and many, many multiples of the original $30,000 price tag, but last October, the Wheeler was restored. Rhys, who’s Welsh, named it Rarebit (Welsh Rarebit). He took it to ONEº15 Brooklyn Marina, just south of the Brooklyn Bridge in the East River, and he started a charter business called Moveable Feast NY (after Hemingway’s book about Paris). When he’s not busy with a new script, Rhys often goes along on the charters himself, enjoying his new old boat. Read more: