BILLY JOEL'S LATEST HIT
Singer-songwriter Billy Joel often draws boats in the idle hours between concerts. Recently, he came up with a real winner.
She was Bill Joel's idea from the outset. Without him, there would be no Shelter Island Runabout. This 38-footer has gotten her share of press attention, and Joel, if he's in town, makes it a point to show up to talk about her. Sure, there's a marketing component to this, but one senses that he'd come anyway. He likes his boat, and he enjoys being in the boat business, though neither he nor the Shelter Island Runabout is typical of the business. I visited Coecles Harbor Marina and Boatyard, Shelter Island, New York to check out a Runabout with a friend who was in the market for a new boat. Two were in the building shed when we arrived. One was the shell of a hull, which had recently arrived from North End Composites in Maine where the decks and hulls are molded. People were wiring that boat and positioning her balsa-cored bulkheads. Its neighbor was already decked, engines installed, and the finishing work had begun.
Lady Carol, one of the first Runabouts sold, sat in a cradle outside. Her owner had sent her back to Coecles Harbor - from Florida - for routine maintenance and brightwork touch-up. We stood an artistic distance off in the company of Joel and boatbuilder Peter Needham and stared at her. She is stunningly beautiful. She looks like a thing whose sole reason for being is to delight the eye. When he's on tour, Joel spends idle hours drawing boats on hotel stationery. In the winter of 1995, he was somewhere - he doesn't remember precisely - drawing a long, lean powerboat with classic lines and real speed.
"I had three fast hulls in mind," he says. "The PT boat, the thirties commuter boat, and the rumrunner." The more he thought about and worked on the boat, the more, Joel says, he wanted it to have a life beyond hotel stationery - but not merely as a one-off for his own use. He believed he'd spotted a niche in the powerboat market, and he wanted to produce a boat to fill it. Joel's been around boats all his life, more than long enough to notice that when fantasy boats evolve into business ventures, fiscal suicide often follows. So, when he returned home from his tour, he ran the idea by his friend Peter Needham, who owns Coecles Harbor Marina and Boatyard, which is just a 20-minute boat ride from Joel's place near Sag Harbor.
Forty Knots - Or Bust
The specific question was this: "Could a boat with a traditional work-boat hull cruise at 40 knots?" Cruise, he stressed, at 40 knots. Peter Needham and his brother John have run Coecles Harbor for the last 25 years. Although it's mainly a repair yard specializing in classic boats - a slew of Hinckley yawls and Bermuda 40s call it home - Needham also has some boatbuilding experience. In 1992, he built Alexa, a salty, work-boat-inspired 36-footer for Joel, and both parties are still happy with her. Needham thought that, yes, a traditional hull could cruise at 40 knots, but he wondered if anyone would buy it.
That was a different question. If 40 knots was feasible, then Joel was ready to invest seed money in the project. "But," recalls Needham, "he said to me: ‘Remember, if it doesn't cruise - cruise - at 40 knots, you own it." That was never an arbitrary figure. It was the crux of a business decision. Joel believed, and Needham agreed, that speed would set their boat apart from her established competition at Hinckley, Hood, Able, Sabre, and all the others building "picnic boats" at the high end of the market. Needham thinks they're all fine specimens of the new genre, but not a one will cruise at 40 knots. "You take your dividers," says Needham, "open them to 40 (nautical) miles, lay that out on the chart - you can be there in one hour. I still can't get used to that." Needham is a Bermuda 40 sailor. But as a boatbuilder he understood that expanded cruising range would attract customers for whom time was a bigger factor than money - if she were comfortable and quiet at speed.
He approached a variety of designers with the idea. Some said it wasn't for them, others responded halfheartedly, "Or else," in Needham's words, "they didn't quite get it." Marblehead, Massachusetts yacht designer Doug Zurn, however, submitted a bound booklet containing precise drawings, velocity predictions, materials lists, and a host of other ideas. Zurn, who'd worked for Tartan, Chuck Paine, Able, and Dieter Empacher before striking out on his own four years ago, had only one boat in the water, a pretty daysailer called the Monomoy 21. Needham and Joel didn't care about his relative inexperience. Zurn had talent, enthusiasm, and "got it," says Needham.
Early in 1996, the three of them decided on gasoline engines over diesels to save weight. Twin Mercruisers, at 300 horsepower apiece, could easily sustain 40 knots, and deliver a top-end of 48. The team considered jet drives, but decided against them because of their relatively low efficiency and "squirrely" feel. They chose outdrives over shafts because outdrives cause less drag, while they help stabilize the ride at speed, and they can be used to trim the boat fore and aft. The Runabout's outdrives come equipped with twin counter-rotating props. Needham, Joel and company settled on the scrimp method of construction - high-tech but not the highest - using Vinylester resin-infused Kevlar and E-glass. That the boat be light and easily driven was basic to her concept, but a hull meant to go 40 knots better be stiff as well.
To demonstrate the boat's strength, Needham stands on a scaffold beside the deckless hull and places his foot against the side at its thinnest point, up where it meets the deck. He pushes hard. The hull barely flexes. "Fiberglass would flex four to six inches," he says. The boat weighs less than 12,000 pounds with half loads of water and fuel and two
The Runabout's lobsterboat ancestry is apparent in her profile, which is low and flat at the stern, and sheers up to a high bow. But that sea-kindly hull has been lengthened, narrowed, and manipulated to reflect the traits of those three boats Joel had used as models.
Together, Joel and Zurn lifted the sheer higher than utility requires, while they kept the coach roof low. In fact, they kept everything above the topsides spare and low. A radar dome, for instance, and a mast to mount it on somewhat mar the cleanliness of her lines. "The less you put on this boat, the better she looks," says Needham. The angle at the front of the cabin trunk parallels that of the windscreen, one nicety among many, but it contributes to her sleek, fast feel even when she's sitting in a cradle. There's a touch of tumblehome at the transom, just enough to soften the angles, without seeming precious. Those elements, and others in subtle concert, make this boat special. Speed is vital, but what sells her is her looks, right?
"Yes and no." Needham tells us about a guy from East Hampton who bought one of the first boats, which he keeps in Three Mile Harbor, about seven miles from Coecles Harbor. He loved her looks, but he told Needham he really didn't think he wanted to go fast. "Now he pulls into my marina, throws his lines over - and looks at his watch. "Nine minutes from dock to dock. A new record."
Reveling in the Ride
"Watch this!" From a standstill, Needham shoves the power on. Dead level, the Run-about steps up onto a plane without hesitation. A lot of powerboats bury their sterns when you apply hard, sudden power; the bow skies, and the boat sits for a while at an ugly attitude before clawing up onto a plane. "Frankly, we were pleasantly surprised when she didn't do that," Needham says. Zurn doesn't say he was surprised, but he admits he was glad to see how she climbed the "resistance hump" without fuss. He says that's because of the location of her center of gravity and her relatively deep section - sixteen degrees of deadrise - aft. "But mainly it's because she's a light boat," he explains.
The boat we are riding in was commissioned just two days earlier, and since the engines aren't broken in yet, Needham needs to limit the revs to 3,200. So, alas, we can't do 40 knots, only a mere 32. At that speed, she's dead stable, yet you can feel her light-ness. She leaves a minuscule wake at all speeds. At high speed, you could ride her all day and be no worse for the wear. This is cruising, not brute speed. At 32 knots, you can conduct a normal-voiced conversation on the bench seat, which is just inches forward of the engines, yet Needham is still thinking about sound-dampening techniques. It's tricky, he says, because any flat surface with space beneath it, the cabin sole, for instance, will reverberate engine noise.
To show her handling ease, Needham throws her into a series of fast, figure-eight turns. (Her steering is power-assisted.) Lateral resistance from the vee bottom and hard chine helps her bank confidently and comfortably into the turns. We instinctively reach for the handholds, but recognizing her predictable motion, we soon give them up. She's so smooth and nimble up on a plane - her natural attitude - that you forget she's going fast until you stick your face into the apparent wind. By all reports, she's similarly docile at 40 knots. The day is flat clam, but Needham, who's had her out in Block Island Sound when the wind was blowing 20, says she's happy in a stiff chop.
A man from Palm Beach bought a Runabout as a fishing boat. Though one cringes at the image of bloody bonito flapping around in that cockpit, the owner is delighted with her performance in square Gulf Stream seas.
Skilled Hands and an Artist's Eye
Coecles Harbor employs 35 people, including office staff; 11 are devoting full time to the Runabout. Needham tells us that some of his most skilled people are ex-owners of repair and building yards, refugees from the administrative and managerial realities that have nothing to do with boats. Over the years, he has nurtured a culture of craftsmanship - you only have to look around the yard to see it - and that, naturally, has attracted new craftsmen. Had skilled labor not been in place, Coecles Harbor could never have undertaken Runabout construction. Needham is soft-spoken and modest, yet he has an artist's eye for detail, and he is clearly pleased with his accomplishment. But then it must be intrinsically satisfying to build a boat to the highest possible standards when doing so makes sound economic sense to boot.
He hasn't missed a trick. For example, he was unimpressed with the chocks on the market, so he fashioned one he liked out of wood and contracted Lewmar to custom build them. The Lewmar port lights, with better latches then one finds on high-end sailboats, are semi-custom. Naturally, this is not a cheap vessel. With about everything you'd want except a dodger and GPS, she goes for $303,000. At this writing, the yard has sold eleven. "That's far more than I ever imagined," Needham says. Zurn is also surprised. But both are adjusting quickly to the "irrational exuberance" around them. If you ordered one today, you could take delivery about tax time, 1999. Needham is talking about building a new shed and hiring more people to cut that lead time.
Boatbuilders all tell you that their profit margins are slim because overhead is so high. Needham's marketing budget, however, is not pumping up the overhead. He's attended a couple of boat shows, but that's about it for advertising. The boat is selling herself. Needham tells a story about a man, a stranger, who walked onto the yard unannounced, pointed to a Runabout at the dock, and said, "I'll take it. How much?" We don't have one now," Needham replied. "We can have one for you in a year." "What do you mean you don't have one? What's that?" "That boat belongs to Billy Joel." The determined customer glanced around the yard, then back at Needham, and said, "I don't understand. Are you guys in the boat business or not?" Billy Joel no longer owns the boat. He is having a new one built, and under the circumstances, he can live with her absence.
Too Good to Be True?
Beginning to feel like a booster from the home office, I start looking for flaws. There must be some, at lease one, a corner cut here or there to save costs, a questionable decision as to layout or engine access (its cover, by the way, opens hydraulically), even something nit-picky like instrument placement, I come up empty. But wait, we haven't been below. Maybe there is some imperfection down there. The low sleek cabin trunk, however, doesn't suggest that over-zealous accommodations have been shoe-horned into her. But maybe they are cramped or skimpy. The head is twice the size of the head in a 50-foot cruising sailboat.
Since this is a day boat, the target customer is unlikely to spend many nights below. "Underway, the main reason for going below would be to use the head, so we devoted a lot of space to it," Needham explains. The rest of the layout seems perfectly suited to her concept, not too much or too little, a rare thing these days. There's a vee-berth for two people who like each other, a small galley with a microwave as standard equipment, plenty of drawer space, and standing headroom. Below deck, the Runabout is smartly conceived, built and finished with Needham's characteristic attention to detail. This reporter - our photographer, too - left Coecles Harbor and the Shelter Island Runabout bemoaning our occupational choices, which forever preclude owning one. However, my friend, that dear friend who came along as a prospective customer - a man in a sensible occupation - he has decided to buy one.
So for me, I trust, this is au revoir, and not good-bye.
By Dallas Murphy - Offshore Magazine July 1998