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Question and answer with the Piano Man

Famed musician talks about the features on his new 36-foot semidisplacement hull, Argos

Famed musician talks about the features on his new 36-foot semidisplacement hull, Argos

Billy Joel, the acclaimed singer-songwriter, has a new boat. For the latest addition to his fleet, Joel, a longtime admirer of Down East hulls, teamed up with boatbuilder Don Ellis of Southwest Harbor, Maine. The result is the first in a new series of 36-foot semidisplacement boats Ellis is calling the Patriot line.

Joel’s new Argos has a distinctive “retro” look, combining design and styling elements of lobster boats and Carolina sportfishermen, along with yachts built by Huckins and Rybovich, which Joel has long had a fondness for. He loosely describes the “Art Deco” styling incorporated into Argos as a “forward-looking, curved, sexy American look,” which was highlighted by certain yachts, aircraft and automobiles of the 1940s and ’50s.


 The view from the bow pulpit of Alexa, a fiberglass swordfish-lobster yacht. Billy Joel's newest boat, Argos, is to the left while Vendetta, his 57-foot replica commuter yacht is on the right.

The new boat has been designed primarily for Florida and Southern waters. While the semidisplacement hull is true to the traditional New England lobster boat design that the Ellis Boat Company has built for many years, the styling and layout show the Carolina and Huckins influences, specifically the center console helm station, wraparound seating, color and soft, streamlined curves.

Joel is a knowledgeable and engaged boater who enjoys the collaborative process that occurs between himself, the designer, builder and his boat captain, Gene Pelland. When the musician embarks on a new boat project, he says he begins by determining how the boat is going to be used — the function part of the equation — and then works on the styling.

His current fleet includes the 36-foot Alexa, a fiberglass swordfish and lobster yacht, and Vendetta, the fast 57-foot replica of the commuter boats that used to carry their wealthy owners between their homes on Long Island, N.Y., and their offices in Manhattan in the 1920s and ’30s.

Powered by a 670-hp Cummins diesel, Argos has a top-end of about 30 knots. She draws 3 feet, 10 inches; has a displacement of 18,000 pounds; and can carry a total of 284 gallons of fuel in two tanks. Her beam is 13 feet, 2 inches. She has 6 feet of headroom, a V-berth, and full head and galley. A short marlin tower designed and built by J&J Marine will be added. The shaft system is the Evolution Quiet Drive. Ellis called the new boat the “quietest” in his fleet; Argos incorporates the builder’s so-called “silent service,” which means the boat has sound-reducing floor and exhaust systems.

The following interview with Joel was conducted by Joyce Black, whose husband, Billy, a professional yachting photographer, has shot several of Joel’s previous boats. The interview took place aboard Argos.

The first question I thought of when I saw Argos and Alexa together was why would you want a similar boat that would do a similar thing?

I had Alexa down in Miami Beach; we took her fishing, and the hull works great. People have this idea that it’s going to be a lot calmer down in Florida. They always give these shots of nice, tranquil, aquamarine water, and you go out there and it’s rocking just like it is in the North Atlantic. So [Alexa’s] lobster hull was quite comfortable for that kind of sea, and I said I don’t see any reason to change. I’m used to the idiosyncrasies of lobster hulls, especially the semidisplacement kind of hulls. [Alexa] was comfortable. She was good for fishing. But that boat — it’s just a Yankee boat. It’s set up for tuna fishing and canyon runs.

I wanted something that was more of a Florida-style boat. Something like a cross between a Huckins — we copied a lot of the curves off them — a Carolina boat and a Rybovich. And that’s what [Argos] is pretty much a combination of. I stole all their good ideas [smiles].

I like the setup of the Carolina boat; this is why we set it up like this. It’s good for passengers, it’s good for fishing, and it makes sense. We’re going to put a tower on this boat — short tower, like a marlin tower.

And you and Don [Ellis] worked together on the design, right? Explain the thinking behind thedesign.

Don, he’s used to building his lobster yachts. Gene and I were talking to him about the curves. If you look at the front of the trunk cabin, she’s rolled up — there’s no hard edges on it. The same with the hardtop — it’s rolled. All the windows have soft edges, [and] the corners. Usually the wheel is right up against the bulkhead, and this is the first time he’s done a Carolina setup on a lobster boat. It’s a nice combination. It’s very ’40s, which is what I was going for — kind of Hemingway, kind of Huckins, you know, that Art Deco thing. People who’ve seen the boat, they think it’s an old boat that’s just been renovated, but no, it’s a brand new boat. ‘You’ve built a brand new boat that looks like this?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I was born in 1949, and I keep thinking, ‘Why do I have this compulsion to build things that look like they are from that era?’ Because I had this affinity for that look, and I think it was one of the heights of the American design eras — that ’40s, ’50s locomotive, aircraft, forward-looking, curved, sexy American look.

How did you happen to choose Don Ellis?

Well, I’ve had a couple of boats built up in Maine. I had a 28-foot Ellis lobster boat about 10 years ago, and it was a terrific boat. They’ve been building Ellis boats for over 50 years — Bunker & Ellis — and they make a nice spare hull. They’ve been in business a long time; they’re a reputable company. And I said, ‘You know what? That’s the hull I want.’ And from there on we just filled out.

What makes this more appropriate as a Florida boat?

The Carolina setup in the house, the seating, the color, the lines, the kind of Huckins ’40s-like Deco design. It’ll look good sitting outside the house. I hope I get some use out of it.

So other than the tower, are there any other changes in the works for Argos?

Not until I’ve used it more. I’m going to use it down in Florida. That may give me some other ideas of small things I might want to do. The other thing is, if I can get enough people to go on a fish trip overnight, I might put in some pipe berths over the V-berths. I have them on Alexa. I’ve got four berths on Alexa — a V-bunk and two hanging pipe berths, which can clear out of the way. It depends on how many people I can get to go. There may be some other ideas, but it’s pretty much going to stay the way it is except for the tower. … I’m very happy with the way it came out.