top of page

Other points: Boating terms and Baseball

As a poor fisherman, Santiago has few tools on board his small boat, but he makes the most of what he has. Below, you'll see a display of the various knots that fishermen use, from the Key West Lighthouse museum, followed by some visuals of the various parts of the boat and tools that are referred to in the book. 

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is” (110).


A Spear-like tool used for fishing, whaling, and other marine hunting, primarily used for catching strong, heavy, powerful game. In the book, Santiago loses the harpoon while fending off sharks. This can symbolize how those without faith/devotion/a sense of a drive are left defenseless and feel hopeless. Various artists have depicted this powerful story. 


Skiff: Shallow flat bottom boat with a sharp bow and square stern


Thwarts are struts placed crosswise in a boat to allow the rower and other persons in it to sit.


Gaff: A handled hook for holding and lifting heavy fish, mostly used to lift large catches out of the water after reeling them in.



Thole pins: A wooden peg set in the gunwales of a boat to hold oars


Baseball (Beisbol): The Cuban fisherman's love of baseball is an interesting theme in the novel, and one that deserves more attention. 

The Great Joe DiMaggio: Joe DiMaggio was an American baseball player who played for the Yankees for thirteen years. DiMaggio is referenced several times in “Old Man and the Sea” by Santiago, who reveres him in a way that is almost worshipful, drawing strength and inspiration from his baseball performance. Considered to be among the best baseball players of all time, DiMaggio’s most famous achievement was a 56-game hitting streak from May to July 1941. This record still stands. 

Bone Spurs


Also known as osteophytes, bone spurs are small projections at the edge of a bone, often at the joints as a result of joint damage. Joe DiMaggio’s heel spur during his 1949 season is a point of inspiration for Santiago, who admires DiMaggio’s ability to continue playing with its pain in his foot. While bone spurs often come without symptoms, heel spurs are known to be painful, and Santiago compares the pain of his hands and back with his idol’s foot pain (68, 97). 

In 1947 Joe Dimaggio underwent surgery to remove a three-inch bone spur from his left heel, causing him to miss the end of the 1947 season. He described the pain when swung the bat as an “icepick stabbing his foot.” Later, it was found that he had a bone spur in his right heel as well. The pain from the bone spurs plus other injuries due to his age and two years in the army led him to retire in 1951.

A bone spur is a spiny project that develops on the joints of bones. It is often due to osteoarthritis. While most bone spurs do not cause any pain the ones that do cause a pinching sensation similar to the feeling of pins and needles. The reason some bone spurs cause pain while some do not is due to whether or not the bone spur touches a nerve. In order to fix bone spurs, patients traditionally undergo surgery where the bone spur is shaved off the bone.


National Baseball Library.

Hemingway, Santiago, Their Marlins, and the Sharks That Tore Them Apart

There is arguably a strong parallel between Hemingway and Santiago surrounding what they viewed as their greatest accomplishments and the “sharks” that diminished them. Before Ernest Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea in 1952, he had written another novel that he believed would be his best yet: Across the River and into the Trees. In an interview with Lillian Ross, a journalist at The New Yorker, Hemingway compared the writing process for this novel to a boxing match: “It was fun to be fifty and about to defend his title again. He had won it in the twenties and defended it in the thirties and forties. Now here he was coming into the ring once more” (Baker 479). Despite having several successful pieces of writing behind him, Hemingway believed that with this novel he was going to outdo himself once more. Santiago discusses having a similar goal in The Old Man and the Sea as he chases the large marlin: “I am not good for many more turns. Yes you are, he told himself. You’re good for ever” (Hemingway 92). Both Hemingway and Santiago have their slight doubts, but they believe that—despite any impediment, including age—they can keep catching their fish and prove themselves time and time again. 

Hemingway boasted about having “won again” with Across the River and into the Trees, claiming that it was even better than his acclaimed A Farewell to Arms (Baker 478). He also asserted that several people who read the finished manuscript of the novel—including Mary (his fourth wife), Aaron Edward (A. E.) Hotchner, and Madame Le Gros (who typed the manuscript)—“were all in tears” by the end of the novel (480). This novel was Hemingway’s marlin: a chance to prove himself as an accomplished writer once more, just as Santiago sought to prove himself as an accomplished fisherman. 

Unfortunately, the marlin was torn apart by sharks. When it was published, Across the River and into the Trees was described by American and British critics as “disappointing, embarrassing, distressing, trivial, tawdry, garrulous, and tired” and—contrary to what Hemingway asserted in his interview with Ross—a “parody of his former style” (Baker 486). He was furious with the critics tearing apart his latest novel, taking the negative reception of his return to writing very personally. It seems plausible that following this unfortunate experience, Hemingway would write a novel where the protagonist, Santiago—who has been yearning to catch this huge fish—finally catches a marlin, just for sharks in the water to mangle it in front of him: “When the fish had been hit it was as though he himself were hit” (Hemingway 103). Hemingway viewed this criticism as an attack on his writing as a whole, and by extension, himself. He blamed the novel’s negative reviews on several scapegoats, one of them being the back cover of the original novel, which had a large photo of himself that he thought to be egregious (Baker 487). Another scapegoat was the profile that Lillian Ross wrote about him.

Lillian Ross’ interviews with Hemingway culminated into a profile of him that was published in May of 1950, prior to the release of his newest novel. In Hemingway’s opinion, Ross presented him as a “horse[’s] ass” (Baker 484). During an interview with Ross, Hemingway had an unfinished manuscript of Across the River and into the Trees with him, and Ross asked him whether he believed this book was different from his other novels: “…[Hemingway] gave me another long, reproachful look. ‘What do you think?’ he said after a moment. ‘You don’t expect me to write The Farewell to Arms Boys in Addis Ababa, do you? Or The Farewell to Arms Boys Take a Gunboat?’” (Ross). Ross including unaltered dialogue of Hemingway in her article resulted in an unflattering depiction of him being made public; this negative image fueled criticism of the writer, one that could have been represented in The Old Man and the Sea—with Ross as the first shark that attacks the marlin. Hemingway describes the appearance of this shark as having teeth “shaped like a man’s fingers when they are crisped like claws,” which could allude to Ross’ fingers as she drafted her infamous article about him (Hemingway 100-101). With her abilities to “charm her subjects,” then write a profile of them that was arguably a “vicious parody,” and—in Hemingway’s eyes—tarnish the author’s image right before his newest novel was published, Ross could have been the first shark in Hemingway’s allegory that ripped open the marlin, leaving a trail of blood that lured other sharks to follow suit (Green). 

Though Hemingway himself has said that there is no symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea (“Sea equaled sea, old man was old man…and the sharks were no better and no worse than other sharks.”), it is hard to ignore the strong parallels between Hemingway and Santiago’s struggles (Baker 505). They both vehemently pursued what they believed would be the pinnacle of their life’s work, despite certain odds being stacked against them, and neither of them won the prizes they sought. But though Hemingway never got to see the critical praise he sought for Across the River and into the Trees, he found that success writing about Santiago enduring a similar struggle with his marlin. Perhaps the real marlin Hemingway sought after was The Old Man and the Sea.

The back of the original copy of Across the River and into the Trees, which includes a large photo of Hemingway himself. Hemingway believed this picture made him appear like a “cat-eating Zombie” (Baker 487). Photo courtesy of The Online Guide for Rare Book Collectors.

Shark Liver Oil as a Remedy

Shark and fish oil is a traditional medicine used by numerous cultures to cure a variety of ailments including cuts, scrapes, cancer, and heart disease. It can also be used as an immune response booster. The oil is traditionally dark yellow and has a pungent taste due to its high concentration of vitamins and minerals such as alkylglycerol, squalene, and omega four fatty acids. Therefore, when Santiago – the Old Man– takes shark liver oil he is attempting to support his body in the fight against the Marlin. 

Slave Work in Fishing

Though Americans tend to think of slaves working only on plantations in the South such as Mount Vernon, Monticello, or Fort Hill – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John C. Calhoun's plantations respectively– the reality was that slaves were forced to work a variety of different jobs. This included working in the water on boats and ships. The jobs slaves worked on ships varied from skilled positions like boat pilots and navigators to unskilled labor including throwing nets, rowing boats, cleaning fish, and harvesting oysters from sand bars. Though no matter what job the enslaved person worked they often worked long hours and were rarely, if ever, paid. Therefore when Santiago is talking about slave work on his boat he is referring to the manual labor that enslaved people were forced to do on boats during Cuba’s long history with slavery.  

Tourism in Cuba

Around the time Ernest Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, Cuba was entering a new wave of tourism—notably, American tourism. Fulgencio Batista became the president of Cuba in 1952, and his neutrality toward Cuba’s expanding sex industry allowed Havana to rise to the status of “the world’s top destination for sex tourism” (Moruzzi 127). Batista also strongly supported casino gambling, appointing a government advisor on gambling reform (Meyer Lansky) to prevent cheating in casinos and provide a clean appearance of Cuban casinos for tourists (174). Additionally, many notable Americans visited Havana after World War II. This included entertainment stars like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole and important politicians like Senator John F. Kennedy, prior to his election as president (134). Intriguingly, Kennedy is reported to have gone to Havana’s nightclubs and enjoyed the “sensual aspects of Havana’s nightlife” (136). But many Cubans did not appreciate their country’s weakening economy and new image as “a haven for prostitution, brothels and gambling” (Geiling). 

Some have suggested that Hemingway alludes to this disparity at the end of The Old Man and the Sea. At the Terrace, all that is left of the great marlin that Santiago has caught is “a long backbone…that was now just garbage waiting to go out with the tide” (Hemingway 126). A couple of tourists see the bones and ask a waiter what the animal was. The waiter responds, “Eshark,” explaining what had happened to the marlin, but the tourists misunderstand the waiter and think that the bones belonged to a shark (127). This miscommunication parallels the contrast between the tourists’ view of Cuba and the locals’ perspective: the tourists do not understand the great toil and strife Santiago endured to catch that marlin just for the shark to tear the marlin to pieces; they simply look at the pile of bones and admire the creature’s “handsome, beautifully formed [tail]” (127). Similarly, American tourists in Cuba often overlooked Cubans fighting for their independence, choosing to focus on the beautiful Havana nightlife instead.

Tourism ad from 1950 showing some of the highlights in the city of Havana 

Influences on Cuban Cuisine

As a Spanish colony, Cuban cuisine is heavily influenced by Iberian cooking tradition, blended with African influences, and traces of the Taino people, the indigenous population of the island. During the colonial process, many African slaves were brought to Cuba, resulting in a blend of culture and cuisine we now recognize as Afro-Caribbean. Historical tales persist in the names of dishes, a colloquialism for congri (a dish made of white rice and black beans) is “Moros y Christianos” (Moors and Christians) referring to the Conquista period of Spanish history, namely the end of Moorish occupation of Iberia, which traces back nearly 800 years to the Berber-Hispanic Muslims. Cassava, okra, and goat, all staples of African cuisines are present in Cuban dishes. Dishes such as Fufu de platano (a gelatinous dough made from plantain starch) represent the direct influence of African cuisine on the region, with surrounding nations having variations of the dish that become more altered from the original African meal with time and distance, yet the Cuban type remains very similar to its west African origins. This unique cultural landscape sets Cuba apart from many of it’s neighbors, and leads to situations like the dish arroz a la cubana (Cuban rice) – despite the island nation being the namesake for the dish, it is absent and unknown within Cuba itself, existing only in other Latin American countries as a means of replication the distinct cuisine of Cuba. The foods of the elites display the long history of wealth disparity the Cuban people have faced, with a surprisingly strong French influence being seen particularly in the desserts and confections enjoyed by the upper class, despite only brief French occupation of the island occurring in the early 1800s as French colonizers fled Haiti following the Haitian revolution.

bottom of page