Singer-songwriter and Long Island native Billy Joel has always loved the water. He’s been boating most of his life, and his time afloat has inspired his music. Recently, he spoke with reporter Bill Bleyer and the students and staff at Webb Institute, the naval architecture college in Glen Cove, New York, on Long Island Sound, about his passion for boat design and the eclectic mix of models that have come and gone from his fleet.
How did you get involved in boating? I grew up in Hicksville, which is just south of here. My mom would take us to the shore, and we would go to a town like Oyster Bay or Bayville, and there would be boats on moorings, and I’d think, “Well, there’s a boat. I’ll just take the boat.” I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to. We used to just unclip the mooring and go for a row and then bring the boat back and clean it up and make it look like nothing happened. I’m not recommending anybody do that, but if you don’t have any money, how else can you learn?
What was your first boat? The first boat I ever had was an 18-foot whaling dory, which I got from a guy in Hampton Bays. It was a leaky lapstrake and it was a heart attack to row that thing. I got an old engine—I think it was a Johnson or Evinrude kicker—to get it to go. The Boston Whaler Montauk was my first actual production boat. It was a good boat, a wet boat. My first couple of years, I used it for fishing.
After that, there was the Shamrock 20. That was a little Popeye boat. I took it from Huntington, Long Island, to Martha’s Vineyard with my then future wife, Christie Brinkley, and she thought I knew what I was doing. We ran into a squall coming back from Gay Head (now known as Aquinnah) and we ran into really, really high seas. I was driving, so I was nice and dry behind the little windshield, but my two friends in the back were soaked. It was a fun boat, and the woman married me. After that, I got the Steiger Craft 23, which had an enclosed house. I used to make trips from Oyster Bay to Manhattan. It was a good boat, and I wanted to get something built by a Long Island company.
Sounds Good was the name of your third boat, a 33-foot Egg Harbor. I went in halfsies on that boat with the guy who was my manager at the time, and who ripped me off for all kinds of money. You can’t own half a boat. Somebody’s on it, and somebody’s not. I should’ve known that I was going to get screwed. I didn’t use that boat that much, but it kind of gave me the idea to have something like a cabin cruiser where I had more room. I liked the idea of having a big cockpit and a nice cabin.
After that, you worked with a builder to produce a 34 Wilbur sportfisherman. That’s the first boat I ever had made to my specs. Wilbur Yachts is a builder up in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and they make really nice boats. Most of the time, they’re working from a lobster hull that’s full displacement or semi-displacement. We wanted a certain turn of speed on this boat, so Wilbur went to the Ray Hunt company—Ray Hunt was the guy who developed the Bertram 31. I ended up having a boat that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I wanted a lobster hull, but [this one] had more freeboard than I originally wanted. So, I built another boat.
Was that the 46-foot Wilbur/Jarvis Newman sportfisherman Sea Major? It was rigged like a battlewagon. It had the tuna tower, the outriggers and all this fishing tackle on it, and we used to take it out to the canyons, which is a good half day’s trip off Montauk. You find the big fish there and I got really into that for a while—fishing for tuna. If you caught a big enough tuna, you could pay for your boating season. That was a nice boat. After that, there was an Ellis 28 lobster boat, Half Shell. It was built for me by the guys on Shelter Island at Coecles Harbor. (Ellis provided the hull, stringers and basic deckhouse enclosure.) This was the first boat they built for me. It’s a great little lobster boat. Ellis is another company right near Wilbur in Maine. I bought the 28-footer after I had the big 46-foot Jarvis Newman, and I ended up using the smaller boat a lot more because I could single-hand it. It did everything right, but it wasn’t as fast as I wanted. It was very stable, though.
The Shelter Island 38 Runabout Nomad was built at Coecles Harbor, but did you do the design? I designed it just for me to use, but other people saw it and they all wanted it. I don’t know why. If I saw a boat that was designed by Keith Richards, I wouldn’t want it. There was one guy who didn’t want to wait two months to build his own. He looked at my boat and said, “Whose is that?” I said, “Well, that’s mine.” And he says, “Are you in the boat business or not?” And I said, “I guess I am.” I sold him the boat, and then I didn’t have one. It was a very popular model. We sold about 50 of them, and they’re half-million-dollar boats. I get a commission on every boat that’s sold. So, it turned out to be a pretty damn good idea, except that now I don’t have one.
Did you work with naval architect Doug Zurn on the Shelter Island Runabout? I had asked a question of a couple of people who build boats: Why do boats that are fast have to look like, excuse the expression, a penis extension? Does that actually help the speed of the boat?” Those builders said, “No, people just think it’s supposed to look like that, and it helps to market the boat.” And I’m like, “Can a boat have a profile like a lobster boat and go fast?” I asked the guys at Coecles Harbor and they said, “It should be able to if you work with a naval architect.” So, we got hold of Doug Zurn and he said [he could build a fast boat] as long as it’s narrow enough and you got the right kind of power. The 38 doesn’t look like it would be that fast, but it is. It goes 50 miles per hour, which made it a lot of fun. I wanted a nice cabin, and I wanted it to be as dry as possible. I did a lot of sketches on cocktail napkins.
And then came your most famous boat, the 36 Swordfish Alexa. I realized that what I really loved was workboats, lobster boats. They look right, and when they look right they usually are right. I spent a lot of time in Maine and studied the work of different builders. I realized I like to fish, and I wanted an inshore and offshore boat. So, I came up with the concept of a cross between a lobster boat and a swordfish boat. I wanted a tough boat that could take it. I went to a company called BHM, which is no longer in existence. She turned out to be the best boat I ever had. She can take a rough sea, and she tracks on a good line. She goes fast enough too—she’ll do in the mid-20s. The boat came first, and then the song. I named the boat after my daughter. I’ll always have Alexa.
You still own Alexa, but not the 65-foot Florida Bay Coaster that you bought after her. Where is that boat now? It’s a steel ship. It’s kind of roly-poly, but it feels like a ship. It was another one of my Popeye boats. It was slow. Nice looking. It’s in Nantucket Harbor now and used as a houseboat. I used it more as a bar to hang out.
Have you ever owned a sailboat? I bought a 14-foot Whitehall sailing dory for my daughter. I think she sailed it once, and she got all messed up with the rigging. Then, I put it on the [Florida Bay Coaster] and used it as the dinghy. It’s now on my property here (on Centre Island in Oyster Bay). I appreciate sailboats, and I appreciate the seamanship of people who sail, but eventually I want to get back to land. It’s like, “Why are you going this way when the land is over there?”
Would you call the Munson 25 Landing Craft your most practical boat? It’s kind of our Jeep. You can take that thing anywhere, drop the bow and walk right off the boat. I can fit motorcycles on it.
Many people think the 57-foot Shelter Island Commuter Vendetta was your prettiest boat. All these rich guys who used to live in this area and work in Manhattan had commuters. J.P. Morgan had one. Vanderbilt had one. I love the idea that these tycoons raced each other to Wall Street on Long Island Sound. The most famous of those boats, which is still around, was Aphrodite. I stole some of her lines; it’s a beautiful boat. I just thought it would be a good idea to build my own commuter yacht that I could use to go from point A to point B, very fast and in style. It looked great, but it wasn’t a sleep-aboard boat. It didn’t have staterooms; you stay in a hotel. I sold that boat. She was fast—about 50 miles an hour—but man, it ate fuel like it was going out of style. It just seemed like it was over the top.
You also had a 95-foot steel expedition vessel. Was it your biggest boat? I don’t know what I was thinking. I could store motorcycles in the fo’c’sle. I just wanted a big boat so I could go down to the Caribbean or Florida. After I got the boat, it was like I was watching money jump out of my wallet. There was this constant sucking sound. You had to have crew. You had to have dockage. You had all kinds of fees. I’m doing okay, but I don’t like wheeling wheelbarrows full of money and dumping it in the water. So, I realized, no, it’s not for me. It’s a status symbol, I suppose.
That might explain why your next boat was smaller, the Ellis 36 Sportfish Argos. A good boat. I built a canyon boat, and I went out to the canyons a couple of times. It beat the hell out of me. I was getting too old for this. It’s a very good boat for sportfishing, but it’s not what I’m going to be doing all the time anymore.
Do you still own the 30-foot, cold-molded Rybovich Della Rose? Yes, but she’s in Fort Lauderdale for sale. It’s a great boat. It was the first cold-molded Rybovich that he ever built, in 1960. The cold-molded process was pretty radical back then.
Is it true you bought the Atlas Pompano 21 Oyster Babe for your wife, Alexis? She wanted a boat—something like a floating bordello. Plush seats, something I didn’t want anything to do with. So I said, “No, I’ll get you a lobster boat.” She said, “I don’t want a lobster boat. I want something I can handle.” She said she thought it was a cute boat. We still have that one. She used it once.
If you were going to buy another boat, what do you think it would be like? I’d probably get another lobster boat. I’m a traditionalist. And I do like custom boats. I have a hard time going to boat shows. That’s because everything just looks like a bunch of computer-designed blobs.
Billy Joel’s Boats Over Time
1. Wood lapstrake 18-foot whaleboat
2. Boston Whaler Montauk 19
3. Shamrock 20
4. Steiger Craft 23
5. Egg Harbor 33
6. Wilbur/Hunt 34 Sportfish
7. Wilbur/Jarvis Newman Sportfish 46
8. Ellis 28 Lobster Boat
9. Shelter Island 38 Runabout
10. BHM 36 Swordfish*
11. Steel 65-foot Florida Bay Coaster
12. Whitehall Sailing Dory
13. Munson 25 Landing Craft*
14. Shelter Island 57-foot Commuter
15. Chris-Craft Corsair 22
16. Pegiva Retro Sun 7.5 Meters
17. Inace 95-foot Cargo Ship
18. Ellis 36 Sportfish
19. Cold-molded 30-foot Rybovich*
20. Atlas Pompano 21*
21. Huckins 34 Gurnet*
* Joel still owns these boats
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue.