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A Grammy Winner with a Great Eye

Jeanne Craig

Jeanne Craig

Although he grew up in the landlocked town of Hicksville, New York, Billy Joel says he always felt close to the sea. His mother was a single parent, and a boat wasn’t in their budget, but as a teenager, Joel found a way to get out on the water. When he wasn’t playing the piano, he’d head over to nearby Bayville on Long Island’s North Shore and borrow boats sitting at their moorings—without telling the owners.

This is just one of the stories the musical legend shares with writer Bill Bleyer in this issue’s cover story (page 42). Bleyer, an avid boater who has written about Joel at least a half dozen times, says the “Piano Man” is one of his favorite people to interview.

“I’ve done a lot of maritime stories for newspapers and magazines over the years, but none of them get as much interest as when I write about Billy,” Bleyer says. “When you listen to the lyrics of his music, you can tell he loves the sea, nautical history and the people who make a living on the water. If he gets away from the water for too long, he gets itchy. He is very down to earth and very funny. He has none of the celebrity fussiness around him.”

Last fall, when Bleyer picked up a teaching gig at Long Island’s Webb Institute—a school for naval architecture and marine engineering—he reached out to Joel as a possible speaker, to tell the students about his own experiences operating and designing boats. Joel said yes, and Bleyer called Soundings with a pitch to turn that conversation into a Q&A. I gave him the assignment instantly, because I’m a big fan of Joel’s music—I grew up with it as a native Long Islander—as well as his impressive fleet of boats.

One thing you’ll learn in Bleyer’s story is that Joel has really cool taste in boats. He’s owned more than 20 makes and models—and they don’t include the inner tube that he once called his first boat. Some of the craft in his fleet are production builds, while others are full-on custom. Some, he no longer owns; others remain snugged up to his dock, including the boat pictured on this issue’s cover, the Alexa.

A cross between a lobster boat and a swordfish boat, Alexa is a design Joel conceived after determining that he wanted a tough fishing boat he could run inshore and offshore. “She turned out to be the best boat I ever had,” he tells Bleyer. “I realized that what I loved was workboats. They look right, and when they look right, they usually are right.”

Joel, it seems, can teach us all a few things about finding that dream boat. Figure out what it is you really want, then trust your eye and instincts.

Jeanne Craig

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue.