A NEW BOAT STATE OF MIND
Songwriter Billy Joel's affinity for the sea comes to life and a new hot rod runabout.
by Douglas McDaniel
It looks like old New England. Poetry in wood and engineering. With smooth lines made by someone with an epic sense of what the sea is all about. Musical, really. Sentimental, even, in the way it's proud high bow lifts the craft from its low-profile coming from the stern. Yet sentimental is an inexact word. "Classic" is a better one for the builder who grew up the Woodstock generation and watched all of the old forms falling away. At the dawning of the age of the electrified singer/songwriter he tended toward the old ivories and wood,too, old in old piano bars as the song goes. So man, what is he doing here?
Billy Joel, 48, is wearing a green baseball cap, a black T-shirt , showing off a short and stocky port side from a lot of good years of getting bred in the jar, a red bandanna in the pocket of his blue jeans. He is in fine spirits, joking with just about everyone he sees and, in general, displaying the rascally charm of the never quite worn out youthfulness of a street punk from Long Island. It's hair is cropped short, and he is wearing a Vandyke; his face is red from hours out on the boat in the sun, and yes, those are seafaring lines in the wrinkles beneath his eyes.
He is telling sees stories -- or listening to one about himself, a longtime friend narrating the grisly details. Apparently, a few years back, and a friend were caught in a nor'easter in a 42 ft. boat near Gay Head on the western tip of Martha's Vineyard. The sea was so rough, screws are coming loose in the cabin, and boat swayred and buckled in the water. They found a safe place to put the boat in at Menemsha, but in old codger running the dock failed to greet the refugees with the proper respect that a member of record of record biz royalty might expect, choosing instead to cast them back into the turbulent Atlantic to spend more hours of seasick uncertainty.
"The sonofabitch", chimes in Joel now. "That's when you learn about the sea, when it is juse you and God", he pauses, letting a sense of the infinite sink in, then adds with a laugh, "When you feel the need to pray, you know you been boating."
Today, the marina and boatyard on Shelter Island, on Long Island, New York, has a small army of record company assistants, writers, photographers, cable cameraman, friends, and gentle well-wishers camped beneath a small tent. People are drinking beer, eating sandwiches, enjoying a summer day beside the water in the Hamptons. It is a boat-launching party for Joel's latest design, The Shelter Island Runabout. His Massachusetts-based designer for the 38 for craft is on hand, as is the Shelter Island boatyard operator who put together the tooling for this particular project. The 38 The Shelter Island Runabout started out as a few notes and some sketches, and his team has delivered this line of new boats with the glitzy Hamptoneque heritage.
"Billy had two pages of ideas for what he wanted in terms of boat aesthetics, performance, how it handles" says Peter Needham, who along with his brother, John, runs the Coecles Harbor Marina and Boatyard, which is capable of producing as many as six of these boats per year. "The key parameter was that it have to do at least 40 knots, but be able to get through bad weather at good speed."
The 38 ft. day boat is a result of one of Joel many daydreams about boats. He's already dreamed up and built boats of 38 ft., 46 ft., and, more recently, a 36 for craft built on a Flye Point Hull. This downeaster, reminiscent of a 1950s swordfish boat, is called Alexa -- named after his daughter from his former marriage with Christie Brinkley. It was launched in 1992 and features a huge cabin and a large amount of space on the bowel for supermodel sunbathing.
In appearance, it offers a classic look of a lobster boat headed out to the shoals. Indeed, a great deal of Billy Joel's private life is invested in being on the water. His lavish East Hampton spread is decorated with several old wooden boats that have been his retired friends for years.
Joel latest inspiration fits his personality as a fast-laneer by trade , who gives a lot points for style, but in many ways and abhors being defined or pigeon holed. He prefers to be known as a composer, a songwriter, as opposed to being a rock-and-roll or or a pop star. Distinction being hey don't fence me in -- no doubt the product of many years of weathering the ever-changing fronts of the music scene. His classic Shelter Island Runabout also is wearing an elusive sort of disguise. It's an old boatyard relic; no, it's a speedboat. It looks slow, kind of quiet, but likes to go fast, like a rocker. A lobster bay hot ride. Because as much is Billy Joel likes the water in all, he's got places to go. "I built about a half-dozen boats now, or a had a hand in the design of them. I admire work boats, the New England lobster boat tradition. Fishermen have to work under ridiculous conditions. Their lives are inconceivable."
So I always felt ..geez, those must be safe seaworthy boats if they're going to risk their lives on them. I started from there and grew to appreciate the lines of those boats, the reason for those boats looking the way they did. I think I have in my mind's eye , what a boat is supposed to look like.
It's just like cars now. I don't know what each car looks like now. I don't know a Chevy, afford, IQ wick. I can tell the all look like these gloves, these Clorox bottles.
I see the same thing happening with boats. Why can't you have a boat that looks like a boat? Part of fun of boating is to like you're actually on a boat, feeling ... boaty
So, feeling boaty , we stepped onto the deck of one of The Shelter Island Runabout desgined by Doug Zurn, a Marblehead, Massachusetts designer who managed to fit the bill for what Joel was looking for. Working with the Coecles Harbor Marina and Boatyard on Shelter Island -- not far from Joel's luxurious estate in East Hampton -- the songwriter sent out proposals to 10 naval architects. He was looking for something fast and for the most part, stripped down.
"He wanted to classic boat that had a nice performance and was smooth," says Needham. "All he required from the cabin with a decent sized head."
Indeed, the accommodations are spartan by Yacht standards. Below decks, there's a lot of polished wood, but only a small V-berth, enough room to take a nap or have a conversation with one or two people. There's a sink and a microwave oven, but this is a day boat, and Joel has envisioned a style of boating where breakfast, lunch, or dinner should be at a fabulous restaurant on shore.
The Shelter Island Runabout is fast, with its set of fuel injected 415 HP Merc cruiser 502 Magnum MPI -- multiport injection engines - making capable of bursts of speed of 55 mph or more. But it is relatively quiet by powerboat standards. Taking a quick run in the bay at Coecles, one is impressed by the way it glides through the water, and the wakes of other boats are barely noticed. The Merccruiser three Bravo Three uses twin encounter rotating propellers for improved acceleration and handling. Big water lift mufflers keep the exhaust noise to a minimum.
I wanted a quiet boat, Joel says. I didn't want something that made a lot of noise. There's nothing worse than hearing a high pitch scream all day long and coming back to shore with your teeth rattling on edge. Will the hell wants that?
What Joel really was thinking about when he made this boat with the vintage commuter car. You can see it in the analog gauges that look like automobile relics from the 1940s.
I didn't want to have a nostalgic, cutie pie, Popeye looking boat, he says. I wanted a boat was a muscle to it that was somehow familiar.
As a boatman, Joel is certain about what he wants and doesn't want. As a youth in Levittown, Joel says he was never too far from the water. When Long Island was still covered with potato farms, and its ports were full of fishing boats. He didn't grow to love boats, because his father owned a yacht either, I didn't have two nickles to rub together. Me and my friends used to, shall we say, borrow boats. We given them back, though, and that's how we learned. We took out someone's decent rowboat, we got somebody's powerboat. And then Billy, the Pirates says, we got into big trouble, but we learned what we need to know about boating.
Long Island in later years became overdeveloped, and a lot of the fishing boat tradition in the area was lost. Joel says. The East End of Long Island, however, is still the Long Island I remember. We're always looking for the land of our youth. It's here. It's right here. It'll cost you an arm and leg, but there is still some left.
He often records near his home on East Hampton, where he has lived at year-round with a great deal of fanfare for the past decade. His last album of new material, River of Dreams, was recorded in the lobster shack on Shelter Island. Joel fills a strong connection to the history of the area and likes the fact is current project in Coecles Harbor is an attempt at reviving an industry that over the years has fallen by the wayside.
"There were a lot of boat builders on Long Island, up until the postwar boom, Joel says. There were many, many companies building boats on Long Island and, little by little, they disappeared. They kind of gave way to the big production companies. We have revived the tradition of the small boat building company.
"I like that; it sort of offsets the Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher image of Long Island. This is a fantastic place, and we get a certain amount of lousy press."
And if he needs to get away from any more lousy press, all he needs to do a step toward the pier and scoot away on his fishing boat, Alexa, or maybe something else he dreams up about floating. One thing for sure, whichever way he turns, there's water on his mind.
"When I'm not doing it, I'm thinking about it, he says. Before he heads off for a late afternoon repast at a local restaurant with a group of his friends."There's something Zen to it. If you're not boating, then you're thinking about boating. It's my great getaway, and they I don't have to go that far to get away. All I have to do is cast off, and I'm just gone.