Billy Joel builds “a go fast but look good” 38 foot commuter at Long Island’s Coecles Harbor Boatyard: the 55 mph Shelter Island Runabout.
Rock star Billy Joel wanted a boat with classic lines, but contemporary performance. “After I blow by them, I want people to get on the radio and ask, “What is that?” he says. Inspired by the long, narrow commuter yachts of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Joel commissioned what he calls “a go-fast but look-good” 38-footer from naval architect Douglas Zurn of Marblehead, Mass., and builder Peter J. Needham of Coecles Harbor Boatyard on Shelter Island, N.Y. The sensational result is the Shelter Island Runabout, a Kevlar-hulled, sterndrive commuter that cruises at 46 mph and tops out at 55.
The boat, which Joel named Nomad, is the third one he’s had built up at Coecles Harbor, a small Long Island yard with a big reputation for restoring and finishing classic yachts. “I feel good about people who work well with their hands.” he says, “It’s a kind of composition.” His first Coecles project was an Ellis 28 lobsterboat. Then came Alexa, A 36-FOOT BHM/Flyepoint sportfisherman which Joel still owns. Alexa’s 600-hp MANs give her a 25-knot (28.75-mph) cruising speed. “Not bad for a real working fishing boat,” he admits, “but I got the itch to try something with more speed in it.” He was not about to buy a production-built muscle boat, however, “I don’t like the image, or the noise,” he says.
He decided to build a commuter---an idea that may have spawned some years ago when he commuted daily from Long Island to New York City in a 20-foot Shamrock. But now he wanted a boat with the speed, size, and range to take him from his home near the east end of Long Island to the Northeast boating meccas, including Nantucket and the Vineyard. “This is my Newport-for-lunch boat,” he says. Seaworthiness was crucial. “I saw fast boats pounding, coming back from Block Island in the afternoon, when the southwest wind picks up,” he recalls. So he set strict parameters for the commuter. It would have a 40-knot (46-mph) cruising speed in good conditions, and a “get-home” speed in the mid 20-knot range (around 28 mph) when the wind whipped the seas up over four feet.
Joel went to Needham and they began kicking around ideas for the boat. “This is the typical ‘the design started on a napkin’ kind of thing.” Needham says. They ultimately sent a list of specifications to a dozen naval architects. Doug Zurn, whose yacht designs include the Harbor Island 37 powerboat, got the job. As Needham puts it, “We felt Doug had hit the concept on the nose.”
During the design phase, faxed sketches flew back and forth between Zurn, Needham and Joel. “I actually took some mechanical drawing courses in college. I guess it’s come in handy,” the singer says. Despite his go-fast mandate, he insisted that the boat have a traditional profile with tumble-home sides and a plumb stem. “I wanted it to look like a boat, not an aerodynamic hotel room,” he says. “A boat that looks good usually rides well,” Zurn says, “but having a boat like that go 40 knots—that’s a bit of a challenge.” He designed the hull to be long and narrow like those on the fast commuters of yesteryear, with a deadrise of 16 degrees at the transom. He drew a hard chine, six inches aft tapering to nothing forward, and two lifting strakes. The hull needed to be stiff and strong but relatively lightweight, so it would be built out of a Kevlar and E-glass hybrid using vinylester resin, with stringers of E-glass over high-density foam core. Power for Joel’s boat would be provided by twin 415-hp Mer- Cruiser 502’s with Bravo Three counter-rotating drives—hidden by a gorgeous teak swim platform. Concerns about safety prompted Joel to ask for a collision bulkhead with a watertight door and compartment forward, creating what he calls a “breakaway bow.” He also ordered tall, high-tech helm and passenger chairs with secure arm- and footrests, made by Stidd of Greenport, N.Y.
The interior was designed last, after the hull and topsides. When Joel used to cruise on board his old Lee Wilbur, the elegant Alexa Ray, he found he rarely slept aboard. “The only thing I use below-decks is the head,” he says. So the new boat was given a functional but spare cabin, with a full V-berth, storage space, a small galley—and an extra-large, airy head compartment.
When the design was complete, the mold and the first hull were constructed at North End Composites in Rockland, Maine, using the innovative SCRIMP resin-infusion process. The boat was then built up at Coecles Harbor by Needham and his team—which includes four carpenters. Joel came to the yard often, commuting there on Alexa, to help with the details.
He christened Nomad himself, at the Newport, R.I., boat show in September, bashing a bottle of champagne against its bow in front of a crowd far smaller than he would have drawn to one of his concerts—but just as enthusiastic. He seemed to delight in showing off the boat. “I’m very happy with it,” he says.
In fact, the 38-footer’s performance on the water just blew everyone away. “It’s hard to believe—it seems so light and fast,” Zurn says. The boat sits right up on plane with no bow rise, and accelerates like a spaceship hitting “warp speed.” It effortlessly reaches it’s 40-knot cruising mark and flies on up to nearly 48 knots (55 mph). The ride is both supremely dry and quiet.
Joel found the boat’s handling to be smooth and easy, even at speed. “It’s like my father’s ‘56 Buick. They used to say those GM cars from the ‘40s and ‘50s ‘drove like a boat.’ Now I know what they meant,” he says. He and Needham have decided to offer the Shelter Island Runabout for sale, on a limited-production basis at first. Standard power will be twin 300-hp MerCruiser 350s with Bravo Three drives, the Merc 502s will be offered as options. Joel is excited about building the boats at Coecles Harbor . “Long Island has a history of boat-building,” he says. “I’d like to see that come back. And if I could be a part of it, I’d feel good.”
By LOUISA RUDEEN
Motorboating & Sailing December 1996