Talk­ing Boats With Billy Joel


Soundings - - Walking The Plank - BY BILL BLEYER

Singer-song­writer and Long Is­land na­tive Billy Joel has al­ways loved the wa­ter. He’s been boat­ing most of his life, and his time afloat has in­spired his mu­sic. Re­cently, he spoke with re­porter Bill Bleyer and the stu­dents and staff at Webb In­sti­tute, the naval ar­chi­tec­ture col­lege in Glen Cove, New York, on Long Is­land Sound, about his pas­sion for boat de­sign and the eclec­tic mix of mod­els that have come and gone from his fleet. How did you get in­volved in boat­ing? I grew up in Hicksville, which is just south of here. My mom would take us to the shore, and we would go to a town like Oys­ter Bay or Bayville, and there would be boats on moor­ings, and I’d think, “Well, there’s a boat. I’ll just take the boat.” I didn’t know you weren’t sup­posed to. We used to just un­clip the moor­ing and go for a row and then bring the boat back and clean it up and make it look like noth­ing hap­pened. I’m not rec­om­mend­ing any­body do that, but if you don’t have any money, how else can you learn?

What was your first boat? The first boat I ever had was an 18- foot whal­ing dory, which I got from a guy in Hamp­ton Bays. It was a leaky lap­strake and it was a heart at­tack to row that thing. I got an old en­gine— I think it was a John­son or Ev­in­rude kicker— to get it to go. The Bos­ton Whaler Mon­tauk was my first ac­tual pro­duc­tion boat. It was a good boat, a wet boat. My first cou­ple of years, I used it for fish­ing. Af­ter that, there was the Sham­rock 20. That was a lit­tle Pop­eye boat. I took it from Hunt­ing­ton, Long Is­land, to Martha’s Vine­yard with my then fu­ture wife, Christie Brink­ley, and she thought I knew what I was do­ing. We ran into a squall com­ing back from Gay Head ( now known as Aquin­nah) and we ran into re­ally, re­ally high seas. I was driv-

ing, so I was nice and dry be­hind the lit­tle wind­shield, but my two friends in the back were soaked. It was a fun boat, and the woman mar­ried me. Af­ter that, I got the Steiger Craft 23, which had an en­closed house. I used to make trips from Oys­ter Bay to Man­hat­tan. It was a good boat, and I wanted to get some­thing built by a Long Is­land com­pany.

Sounds Good was the name of your third

boat, a 33-foot Egg Har­bor. I went in half­sies on that boat with the guy who was my man­ager at the time, and who ripped me off for all kinds of money. You can’t own half a boat. Some­body’s on it, and some­body’s not. I should’ve known that I was go­ing to get screwed. I didn’t use that boat that much, but it kind of gave me the idea to have some­thing like a cabin cruiser where I had more room. I liked the idea of hav­ing a big cock­pit and a nice cabin. Af­ter that, you worked with a builder to pro­duce a 34 Wil­bur sport­fish­er­man. That’s the first boat I ever had made to my specs. Wil­bur Yachts is a builder up in South­west Har­bor, Maine, and they make re­ally nice boats. Most of the time, they’re work­ing from a lob­ster hull that’s full dis­place­ment or semi-dis­place­ment. We wanted a cer­tain turn of speed on this boat, so Wil­bur went to the Ray Hunt com­pany—Ray Hunt was the guy who de­vel­oped the Ber­tram 31. I ended up hav­ing a boat that wasn’t ex­actly what I wanted. I wanted a lob­ster hull, but [this one] had more free­board than I orig­i­nally wanted. So, I built an­other boat. Was that the 46- foot Wil­bur/ Jarvis New­man sport­fish­er­man Sea Ma­jor? It was rigged like a bat­tlewagon. It had the tuna tower, the out­rig­gers and all this fish­ing tackle on it, and we used to take it out to the canyons, which is a good half day’s trip off Mon­tauk. You find the big fish there and I got re­ally into that for a while—fish­ing for tuna. If you caught a big enough tuna, you

could pay for your boat­ing sea­son. That was a nice boat. Af­ter that, there was an El­lis 28 lob­ster boat, Half Shell. It was built for me by the guys on Shel­ter Is­land at Coe­cles Har­bor. (El­lis pro­vided the hull, stringers and ba­sic deck­house en­clo­sure.) This was the first boat they built for me. It’s a great lit­tle lob­ster boat. El­lis is an­other com­pany right near Wil­bur in Maine. I bought the 28-footer af­ter I had the big 46-foot Jarvis New­man, and I ended up us­ing the smaller boat a lot more be­cause I could sin­gle-hand it. It did ev­ery­thing right, but it wasn’t as fast as I wanted. It was very sta­ble, though.

The Shel­ter Is­land 38 Run­about No­mad was built at Coe­cles Har­bor, but did you

do the de­sign? I de­signed it just for me to use, but other peo­ple saw it and they all wanted it. I don’t know why. If I saw a boat that was de­signed by Keith Richards, I wouldn’t want it. There was one guy who didn’t want to wait two months to build his own. He looked at my boat and said, “Whose is that?” I said, “Well, that’s mine.” And he says, “Are you in the boat busi­ness or not?” And I said, “I guess I am.” I sold him the boat, and then I didn’t have one. It was a very pop­u­lar model. We sold about 50 of them, and they’re half-mil­lion-dol­lar boats. I get a com­mis­sion on every boat that’s sold. So, it turned out to be a pretty damn good idea, ex­cept that now I don’t have one. Did you work with naval ar­chi­tect Doug Zurn on the Shel­ter Is­land Run­about? I had asked a ques­tion of a cou­ple of peo­ple who build boats: Why do boats that are fast have to look like, ex­cuse the ex­pres­sion, a pe­nis ex­ten­sion? Does that ac­tu­ally help the speed of the boat?” Those builders said, “No, peo­ple just think it’s sup­posed to look like that, and it helps to mar­ket the boat.” And I’m like, “Can a boat have a pro­file like a lob­ster boat and go fast?” I asked the guys at Coe­cles Har­bor and they said, “It should be able to if you work with a naval ar­chi­tect.” So, we got hold of Doug Zurn and he said [he could build a fast boat] as long as it’s nar­row enough and you got the right kind of power. The 38 doesn’t look like it would be that fast, but it is. It goes 50 miles per hour, which made it a lot of fun. I wanted a nice cabin, and I wanted it to be as dry as pos­si­ble. I did a lot of sketches on cock­tail nap­kins.

And then came your most fa­mous boat,

the 36 Sword­fish Alexa. I re­al­ized that what I re­ally loved was work­boats, lob­ster boats. They look right, and when they look right they usu­ally are right. I spent a lot of time in Maine and stud­ied the work of dif­fer­ent builders. I re­al­ized I like to fish, and I wanted an in­shore and off­shore boat. So, I came up with the con­cept of a cross be­tween a lob­ster boat and a sword­fish boat. I wanted a

tough boat that could take it. I went to a com­pany called BHM, which is no longer in ex­is­tence. She turned out to be the best boat I ever had. She can take a rough sea, and she tracks on a good line. She goes fast enough too—she’ll do in the mid-20s. The boat came first, and then the song. I named the boat af­ter my daugh­ter. I’ll al­ways have Alexa.

You still own Alexa, but not the 65foot Florida Bay Coaster that you bought af­ter her. Where is that

boat now? It’s a steel ship. It’s kind of roly-poly, but it feels like a ship. It was an­other one of my Pop­eye boats. It was slow. Nice look­ing. It’s in Nan­tucket Har­bor now and used as a house­boat. I used it more as a bar to hang out. Have you ever owned a sail­boat? I bought a 14-foot White­hall sail­ing dory for my daugh­ter. I think she sailed it once, and she got all messed up with the rig­ging. Then, I put it on the [ Florida Bay Coaster] and used it as the dinghy. It’s now on my prop­erty here (on Cen­tre Is­land in Oys­ter Bay). I ap­pre­ci­ate sailboats, and I ap­pre­ci­ate the sea­man­ship of peo­ple who sail, but even­tu­ally I want to get back to land. It’s like, “Why are you go­ing this way when the land is over there?”

Would you call the Mun­son 25 Land

ing Craft your most prac­ti­cal boat? It’s kind of our Jeep. You can take that thing any­where, drop the bow and walk right off the boat. I can fit mo­tor­cy­cles on it.

Many peo­ple think the 57-foot Shel­ter Is­land Com­muter Vendetta was your

pret­ti­est boat. All these rich guys who used to live in this area and work in Man­hat­tan had com­muters. J.P. Mor­gan had

one. Van­der­bilt had one. I love the idea that these ty­coons raced each other to Wall Street on Long Is­land Sound. The most fa­mous of those boats, which is still around, was

Aphrodite. I stole some of her lines; it’s a beau­ti­ful boat. I just thought it would be a good idea to build my own com­muter yacht that I could use to go from point A to point B, very fast and in style. It looked great, but it wasn’t a sleep- aboard boat. It didn’t have state­rooms; you stay in a ho­tel. I sold that boat. She was fast—about 50 miles an hour— but man, it ate fuel like it was go­ing out of style. It just seemed like it was over the top. You also had a 95-foot steel ex­pe­di­tion ves­sel. Was it your big­gest boat? I don’t know what I was think­ing. I could store mo­tor­cy­cles in the fo’c’sle. I just wanted a big boat so I could go down to the Caribbean or Florida. Af­ter I got the boat, it was like I was watch­ing money jump out of my wal­let. There was this con­stant suck­ing sound. You had to have crew. You had to have dock­age. You had all kinds of fees. I’m do­ing okay, but I don’t like wheel­ing wheel­bar­rows full of money and dump­ing it in the wa­ter. So, I re­al­ized, no, it’s not for me. It’s a sta­tus sym­bol, I sup­pose. That might ex­plain why your next boat was smaller, the El­lis 36 Sport­fish Ar­gos. A good boat. I built a canyon boat, and I went out to the canyons a cou­ple of times. It beat the hell out of me. I was get­ting too old for this. It’s a very good boat for sport­fish­ing, but it’s not what I’m go­ing to be do­ing all the time any­more.

Do you still own the 30-foot, cold-molded

Ry­bovich Della Rose? Yes, but she’s in Fort Lauderdale for sale. It’s a great boat. It was the first cold-molded Ry­bovich that he ever built, in 1960. The cold-molded process was pretty rad­i­cal back then. Is it true you bought the At­las Pom­pano 21 Oys­ter Babe for your wife, Alexis? She wanted a boat—some­thing like a float­ing bor­dello. Plush seats, some­thing I didn’t want any­thing to do with. So I said, “No, I’ll get you a lob­ster boat.” She said, “I don’t want a lob­ster boat. I want some­thing I can han­dle.” She said she thought it was a cute boat. We still have that one. She used it once.

If you were go­ing to buy an­other boat,

what do you think it would be like? I’d prob­a­bly get an­other lob­ster boat. I’m a tra­di­tion­al­ist. And I do like cus­tom boats. I have a hard time go­ing to boat shows. That’s be­cause ev­ery­thing just looks like a bunch of com­puter-de­signed blobs.

“I de­signed that Shel­ter Is­land 38 just for me to use, but other peo­ple saw it and they all wanted it. I don’t know why. If I saw a boat that was de­signed by Keith Richards, I it.” wouldn’t want

Each of these boats (left) was in Joel’s fleet at one time or an­other; the Mun­son 25 Land­ing Craft is in the fore­ground, fol­lowed byAr­gos, Alexa and Vendetta. Joel on his Shel­ter Is­land Run­about (be­low).

The singer says he built this El­lis 36 to fish the canyons for tuna.

“I’ll al­ways have Alexa,” Joel says of the boat named af­ter his daugh­ter.

Joel aboard the El­lis 36 Ar­gos in 2008. The boat had a stream­lined su­per­struc­ture rem­i­nis­cent of sport­fish­ing ves­sels of an ear­lier era and a mod­ern Downeast hull shape.

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