Saturday, March 19, 2005


Piano Man as boat-builder


News Day
By Bill Bleyer
January 14, 2005

Billy Joel, at his home in Centre Island in November 2004, stands with a classic
Whitehall Pulling Boat that he built. (NEWSDAY PHOTO BY KEN SPENCER)

Billy Joel is no stranger to college lecture halls. The singer-songwriter frequently teaches master classes for music students. But a recent appearance at Webb Institute in Glen Cove had nothing to do with performing or composition, at least in the musical sense.

Joel and his entourage were guests in November at the naval architecture college to talk about a different type of creation: designing and building boats.

It's been one of Joel's biggest passions for more than a decade, even more so in recent years as he's phased out touring and recording. So he was not out to sea as he faced a room full of students and faculty with his backup band of naval architect, boat builder and full-time captain to talk about his connection with the water, his boating history, his fleet and his foray into commercial yacht construction.

Much of Joel's presentation focused on his latest maritime preoccupation: construction of a 57-foot modern version of the commuter yachts that once carried Gold Coast magnates from their North Shore estates to Manhattan before World War II."I always thought that it was a great tradition during the '20s and '30s that these guys would go into Wall Street via Long Island Sound and the East River," Joel said at Webb.

With his new boat, to be christened Vendetta and docked in Oyster Bay near his Centre Island home, he added in a later interview, "I think I'll be able to get to Manhattan within a half an hour at cruising speed. I go in to the city more and more these days because I live closer to the city, my daughter goes to school in the city, I'm going to have an apartment in the city and I'm newly married and my wife has her interests in the city, too."

Sense of tradition
While speed is important in the new boat, Joel told the Webb audience, so is a sense of style and tradition. He said he didn't want a muscle boat "you can hear ... coming from Connecticut" that looks like "a Clorox bottle."He didn't want his new boat to be overly plush, either. "I don't need deep-pile carpeting; I don't need TV sets," he said.Vendetta, like the two previous boats Joel had built for himself, started out with his rough sketches that he made on the drafting table in his home. "I probably get more into the design and building aspect of the boat than I do in the use of the boat," he said.

In 2000, he approached Doug Zurn of Marblehead, Mass., his naval architect on his previous boat design, with the idea of the commuter. "He has great ideas and he listens well," Zurn said.

After the plans were completed, the hull was fabricated in Maine and shipped to Coecles Harbor Marina & Boatyard on Shelter Island for finishing work. While the marina has built boats for years, its construction operation really took off in 1996 when it began to produce the Shelter Island Runabout, a 38-foot "picnic boat" based on Joel's initial order. Thirty-nine of the Runabouts, which start at $356,800, have been ordered so far, and Joel gets a commission on each sale. The orders have helped keep 15 to 20 workers employed and boat-building alive on Long Island, which was Joel's intention.

"Billy and I figured maybe there was a life of two boats a year, tops 10 total," said Peter Needham, the Coecles Harbor vice president who oversees the construction. But they greatly underestimated the demand.

"These boats were flying out the door," Joel said. "We had a hiccup when the economy took a dump.

"His own competition Joel decided to order Vendetta from Coecles Harbor to keep the work force intact during the slump. "I've seen too many boat businesses disappear.

"When the economy rebounded and a spate of new orders came in for the Runabout, each of which takes three months to build, Joel found himself competing with himself. He'll make money off the new 38-footers, but workers had to be pulled off Vendetta to build them. The fall launch date for Vendetta was pushed back until spring.

Joel was in the market for the commuter because he ended up selling his prototype Shelter Island Runabout to a buyer who refused to wait for another boat to be constructed.

Vendetta looks like a PT boat, and its twin 1,300-hp. diesels are expected to propel it to a top speed of 60 mph. Needham said Vendetta will cost more than $2 million, as would any future copies. (The boat's name reflects Joel's fondness for the phrase "living well is the best revenge.")

Drawn to the water
Although he grew up landlocked in Hicksville, Joel, 55, has been drawn to the sea and boats as long as he can remember. When he was very young, he looked at boats when his mother drove him to Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor for family outings.

As he got older he took a bolder, more hands-on approach. "I used to 'borrow' boats," he confided to the Webb audience. "I would just unclip them from the moorings, motor them around, bring them back and clean them up. It's a good way to learn how to be a good boater because you don't mess up with somebody else's boat."

Later, in 1971 when he was living in Hampton Bays and his first solo album, "Cold Spring Harbor," had been released, he joined the ranks of boat owners. "My first boat was a rowboat," he said. "I bought it in Hampton Bays. It was an 18-foot wood lapstrake whaling dory. It was a heart attack rowing this thing, so I got a little money and bought myself a kicker, a 10-hp. Evinrude outboard."

Joel sold the dory after one summer and moved to California, where he began playing in a piano bar under the name Bill Martin to escape an onerous recording contract.When he returned to Long Island in 1975, he rented a place on Oyster Bay and bought a 17-foot Boston Whaler. By the early 1980s, with his career soaring and a house on the waterfront in Lloyd Harbor that he shared with then-wife Christie Brinkley, he owned a 20-foot Shamrock skiff.

As more gold records lined his walls in Lloyd Harbor and later in Amagansett, his boats got larger. There was a 33-foot cruiser named Sea Miner he used to fish offshore and a custom-built, 38-foot sportfishing boat named Sea Major. He traded up to a 46-foot Jarvis Newman sportfisherman with a tower and a flying bridge that he named Alexa Ray after his daughter.

As his career got more complicated, Joel decided to simplify his nautical life. Seeking a craft he could take out by himself, Joel and Needham came up with the design for Alexa, which was a 36-foot fiberglass hybrid of a swordfishing boat and "a lobster boat with no frills." He still has Alexa after 13 years.

Inspired by the sea
Joel has said that salt water is so important to him that he can't compose out of sight of it. "It has some kind of primeval impact on me," he has said. While all of his 16 albums that have sold more than 100 million copies have been inspired by the sea and make reference to it -- and his personal management company is called Maritime Music Inc. -- it's his boat Alexa and his help for East End baymen that gave rise to his most seaworthy song: "The Downeaster Alexa."

"Alexa I'll probably never sell because that's my good all-around, all-purpose boat," Joel said while seated at the table in the two-story kitchen of his Centre Island mansion. "I mostly use Alexa now for taking people out for cruises."

After he built Alexa, Joel added Half Shell, a 28-foot Ellis brand cruiser, to the fleet, and then Catsass. "I didn't name that boat," he was quick to point out to loud laughter from his Webb audience. The latter was a 27-foot workboat owned by a lobsterman friend, Dave Neilsen, who lived near his vacation house in Menemsha on Martha's Vineyard.

After Neilsen died fishing during a storm, "I didn't want that boat going to strangers, so I bought the boat from the family. And I sold it" last summer after keeping it in Sag Harbor for four years.

Next in the batting order was Joel's most unusual boat, Red Head, which he describes as a "65-foot mini-cargo ship or pocket freighter" he found in Florida.

But after six years and a major overhaul, he sold Red Head last year to a nonprofit nautical organization in Florida.

Joel had used the boat for trips to Maine and Florida and loaned it to nonprofit groups, but he added, "I didn't use Red Head enough. I would use the boat maybe half a dozen times a year."I also have a landing craft," Joel said at Webb. He got the 28-foot aluminum catamaran a year ago to serve as a launch to get out to his other boats. "Where I live in Centre Island, you can't have a dock. You can't put a piling in the water because it will disturb the ecosystem. But you can ram this thing onto the beach and crush every living thing, and that's OK," he quipped to more laughter.

A model interest Although Joel has eschewed concert tours for more than a year and a half, he said he still doesn't get to spend as much time as he'd like on the water.

"Between renovating the interior of the new house and all the planning that was done for the wedding and the work that was done to promote the Broadway musical ["Movin' Out"], I got out about once a week this past summer."

But even if he's not on the water, there are plenty of nautical reminders around.

On the second floor of the small building between the house and garage is the space Joel calls the chart room.

Nautical prints and photographs of East End baymen cover the walls.This is Joel's boat-design space, and on one end of the room is a drafting table. Cabinets with large flat drawers hold boat blueprints and sketches and nautical charts for cruising areas. The top of the cabinets is the anchorage for a fleet of ship models.

The nautical motif continues inside the brick Georgian Revival main house occupied by Joel in 2002. It's a house that's more about boats than rock star memorabilia; his gold records are relegated to the basement while the rest of the house is awash in nautical trappings.

The only room devoid of such furnishings is the kitchen because "it's Kate's command post," he said of his new wife, Katie Lee. But he added that she, too, enjoys the water. "She loves it," he said. "She's from West Virginia, so it's a new thrill for her."

The library contains a model of the ocean liner Queen Mary, an ivory scrimshaw model of a catboat sailboat, a cocked admiral's hat on a stand and a brass ship's running light. The hall outside is lined with maritime paintings and a model of the tall ship Pride of Baltimore.

In his office, there's a painting by Joel's daughter, Alexa, of the two of them on her namesake boat done in 1992, an Edward Hopper watercolor of a sailboat and other nautical artifacts.In the basement, the walls of the after-dinner smoking room are decorated with antique posters of ocean liners. The downstairs pub is filled with Titanic posters and memorabilia.

Also in the basement is the piano room, a large space that once contained an in-ground pool until Joel covered it with a hardwood floor so he could place a grand piano there.

Sailing on
These days Joel uses the piano to write what he calls musical sketches that might turn into songs, instrumental pieces, a Broadway show or a movie score. But whatever becomes of the new music, he said, "there's a lot of nautical themes. They're reminiscent of 19th-century chanteys that sailors would sing on whaling expeditions."

The other prominent fixture in the piano room is a 14-foot White Hall gaff-rigged sailing rowboat. It was made for him four years ago by the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I. It was initially mounted on Red Head but when he sold that boat, he kept the rowboat.

"I built it for my daughter, but she only used it once or twice," he said, adding that he has gone sailing a few times and enjoyed the quiet.

"Once we get the sailing rig up, I'm going to take it out and I have a suspicion I'm going to like it. Then I'm in trouble. I'll have to get a big sailboat."


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?