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Classics: Shelter Island Runabout

Singer-songwriter Billy Joel is known the world over as “The Piano Man,” but he’s just as passionate about his boats as he is about his music. The Shelter Island 38 Runabout, which he conceived 20 years ago, stands out as a modern classic.

Illustration by Jim Ewing.

Joel was no stranger to boats when he approached Marblehead, Massachusetts, designer Doug Zurn with his idea for a modern commuter boat. The performer had owned an Ellis 28 lobster boat and a 36-foot BHM/Flye Point sportfisherman (named Alexa, after his daughter). He even commuted from his Long Island, New York, home to the Big Apple for a time in a 20-foot Shamrock.

With the new boat, Joel wanted to extend his range, to be able to get out to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket easily from his eastern Long Island home. A “Newport-for-lunch boat,” he called it.

The commuter yachts from the 1930s and ’40s came to mind, boats that were long, lean, powerful and elegant. Joel wanted the new boat to “go fast but look good,” as he put it. He also demanded it be seaworthy, able to do 20 knots in a 4-foot sea coming back from Block Island, Rhode Island.

Zurn blended the old and the new. The topsides showed a traditional tall bow and tumblehome stern, but the modified-vee bottom was modern, with a hard chine aft tapering away forward and two lifting strakes. The hull, built by North End Composites in Maine, was formed of Kevlar and E-glass using the SCRIMP resin-infusion method.

Peter Needham finished the hull at his Coecles Harbor Boatyard in Shelter Island, New York. The layout included a small galley, a V-berth and an enclosed head, with teak joinery and white bulkheads.

Power came from twin 415-hp MerCruiser 502s with Bravo III counter-rotating props. The package gave the 38-footer a cruising speed of 45 mph and a top end of 55. How did it drive? Smooth and easy, Joel said. “It’s like my father’s ’56 Buick.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue.