Gregorio Fuentes, the inspiration for the character of Santiago, was the captain of Hemingway's boat, "Pilar," during the years that Hemingway lived in Cuba. The two developed a strong friendship while Fuentes was Hemingway's captain and cook for nearly 30 years. They met in 1928.
Fuentes was born in the Canary Islands in 1897; when his father died during their journey to Cuba, Fuentes was taken in by other immigrants at the age of six. He died in 2002 at the age of 104 in the house he had always lived in while preparing to go to church.