The Piano Man Builds His Dream Boat Billy Joel has always loved watercraft. But now he has commissioned--and is helping design--a fantastic commuter yacht straight out of the golden age of powerboats.
By Timothy K. Smith

(FORTUNE Magazine) – There are plenty of reasons for the average white-collar stiff to be resentful of Billy Joel. There's the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing. There's the piles of money thing. There was the married-to-a-supermodel thing. There's the waterfront mansion thing. Galling as all those things may be, at least they are comfortably remote for most of us, beyond the range of ordinary covetousness. But now Joel is closing in on an achievement that may be almost universally irritating: Starting a few months from now, he is going to have the world's greatest commute.

Joel is about to take delivery of a screamingly fast, custom-built commuter yacht he's helping design that will take him the 28 miles from his home on Long Island's Oyster Bay to Manhattan in about half an hour. Fifty-seven feet long, with surface-piercing propellers beneath a voluptuous torpedo stern, the boat is expected to cruise at 40 knots and hit a top speed in excess of 50. It is a breathtaking, no-compromises vessel, the fruit of a lifetime's careful study of watercraft. It will enable him to blow past the drivers stuck in rush-hour traffic on New York City highways, waving gleefully at them as he goes by.

Not that he would do such a thing. He may be a rock star, but he turns out to be a self-deprecating, courteous, funny, even studious man, damn it.

Before we go any further, let's take a break right here and let everyone make his Billy-Joel-at-the-helm jokes, shall we? Yes, he's had a little trouble navigating on land lately. Three car accidents in the past two years. But, hey--the last time he drove into a house, he was at the wheel of a 1967 Citroen Deux Chevaux, and any Frenchman will tell you that those cars are easily possessed by demons.

Besides, it's on the water--saltwater--that Joel is really at home. He is the kind of boat nut who draws sheerlines on napkins because he can't help himself. Asked what percentage of each day he spends thinking about boats, he says, "A good 25%. I woke up this morning--that was the first thing I was thinking of: the boat, the building, the design, the lines, the placement of instruments. Do I want to move the controls a little bit that way? Do I want the wheel to tilt?"

The new boat is an atavism, really, a conscious throwback to the golden age of powerboating--the commuter-yacht era between the two World Wars. In cities with waterways, wealthy businessmen would thunder to work in long, lean, ungodly expensive wooden boats built by legendary yards like Lawley, Chris-Craft, Hacker, and Herreshoff. Many of the boats were in the 50-to 100-foot range, but they could be as long as 300 feet. In his history of commuters, Yachts in a Hurry (W.W. Norton, 1994), author C. Philip Moore describes the start of a typical workday thus:

The quiet of a September morning on Manhasset Bay is broken by the sudden deep roar of a large, aircraft-type marine engine, accompanied like cannon fire by a burst of smoke.... Soon a maroon-and-black V-16 Cadillac phaeton glides up to the pier where the long, low, white-hulled beauty waits, reverberating with the promise of speed. An older gentleman in a gray suit alights with ease from the running board of the car and crosses the lawn to the dock. With a slight nod to the uniformed crew, he steps aboard and surveys the hazy harbor. The lines are cast off, and the owner settles into the after cockpit, shaking out the New York Herald Tribune. A light breakfast on a silver tray is set before him. At a slight gesture, the captain comes aft, and they both confer. The long white hull moves out with a smooth increase of engine tempo.

Cruising slowly to the head of the bay and into the open water of Long Island Sound, the white boat is followed by another, this one sleek and black, her Wright Typhoon engines rumbling and the day's first sunlight flashing on her brightwork. As the two boats reach open water, their exhaust notes increase to an unharnessed roar. The race to Wall Street is on!

The New York Yacht Club had a pier at 26th Street on the East River, and on weekdays it and other landing stages around the city would be crowded with commuters. The boats varied considerably, but they shared certain attributes. They were manned and maintained by professional crews. They had cabins to protect their owners from the weather--often with wicker furniture, to save weight--but interior space was largely taken up by engines. Financier Gordon Hammersley's 70-foot Gar Wood had five V-12 Liberty aircraft engines and could hit 45 knots. Boats that big and swift could be something of a public menace. William K. Vanderbilt's 153-foot Tarantula (which had a gun on its afterdeck) drew a lawsuit over the damage caused by its wake.

War and rising income taxes pretty much put an end to that extravagant chapter in powerboating. These days, when millionaires want to transcend commuter traffic, they take a helicopter.

But not Billy Joel.

"What we're trying to do with this thing is basically combine a PT boat's speed and durability with the look and feel of a '30s-era commuter, with a low profile like a rumrunner," Joel says, pointing to a model of each. He's explaining the project in a room of his mansion that might be called his boat study, with a drafting table to one side and dozens of model boats on shelves, cabinets, tables, and ceiling beams. Almost all of them are work boats, broadly defined--that is, boats that evolved for some purpose other than getting their owners laid. The view out the window is of Oyster Bay, where Joel, a Long Island native, worked on an oyster dredge for nine months when he was a teenager.

"Nobody wore gloves, and my hands were cut and bleeding, and these old Italian guys just loved busting my chops," Joel recalls. "They'd go, 'Oh, the poor piano player, his hands are bleeding.' I met one of them a couple of months ago. He goes, 'Hey, you were that guy who was always bitching about your hands. How'd the piano thing work out?' "

The piano thing worked out well enough so that a decade or so ago Joel could contemplate commissioning a state-of-the-art commuter. He discussed designs with a naval architect, but they were going to be terribly expensive to build. So he decided to build something simpler first--he wanted to go fast, but he didn't want a stock speedboat like a Baja or a Fountain (he calls them "gold chain boats," or sometimes "deadline extensions," although he doesn't use the word "deadline"). He turned to Peter Needham, co-owner with his brother John of Coecles Harbor Marine on Shelter Island, who had worked on boats Joel owned, including a big sportfisherman and a couple of lobster boats. "I said, 'Does a boat that goes 45, 50 knots--plus have to look like a Clorox bottle?'" Needham assured him that it didn't.

The two drew up a list of specifications for a traditional-looking runabout that would go fast in a chop. They shopped it around to a dozen naval architects and picked Douglas Zurn, a young designer in Marblehead, Mass. He drew a boat that would have looked familiar to a rumrunner: a narrow, 38-foot vessel with a warped-vee hull, a springy Down East sheer, and a traditional-looking superstructure. With a pair of 300-horsepower Mercruiser engines, it would reach a top speed of about 55 knots. Needham went to work, and in 1996, Joel's boat, the Shelter Island Runabout, as they called it, was born.

Suddenly, though not for the first time in his life, Joel had a hit on his hands. "We figured there might be a market for it, so we took it to the boat shows," Needham recalls. "The phone started ringing off the hook. We had to hire people, train them, and start a bona fide boat-building business."

It helped that there was nothing quite like the runabout on the market, save perhaps for the wildly successful 36-foot Picnic Boat just introduced by Hinckley. It also helped that the stock market bubble was beginning to swell. A Microsoft executive flew in from Seattle and wanted a runabout immediately, Joel says. "He looks at my boat, and he goes, 'Whose boat is that?' I said, 'That's my boat.' And he goes, 'Well, are you in the boat business or not?' So I actually sold my original boat. But it was good for the company."

Needham has just completed hull No. 36. Joel didn't invest in the business but owns the design and the tooling, and he collects a royalty on every runabout sold--the base price is $340,000. Needham says that another singing boat nut, Jimmy Buffett, nearly bought one. "He was 99% there. But at the last minute he said, 'I can't do this--it's like sitting on another man's throne.'" (Buffett went instead to the renowned Florida builder Rybovich Spencer and collaborated on a fast, 42-foot sportfisherman called the Margaritavich, but that's another story.)

"It feels good because what I tried to do was revitalize an industry that was pretty much gone during my youth," Joel says. "You used to have these crazy mom-and-pop boatbuilders all over Long Island, and little by little after the war the big production guys bought 'em all up." Good feelings aside, Joel still didn't have the fast boat he wanted. He would commute to New York City from time to time aboard his beloved Alexa, a 36-foot "stick boat" (rigged with a long bowsprit for harpooning) built on a Maine lobster-boat hull. "She'll go 25 knots, I'll get in in an hour-ten, an hour-15," Joel says. "That beats the hell out of driving." But what if he could cut that time in half? He started dreaming about a commuter again.

At some point he saw a picture of the legendary Aphrodite III, built in 1937 by the Purdy yard for John Hay Whitney. "This was the spark," he says.

Aphrodite was the product of that reliable motivator, in-law rivalry, Moore writes in Yachts in a Hurry. Jock Whitney's sister Joan, eventually the owner of the New York Mets, married a man named Charles Shipman Payson, and the families lived on adjacent estates on Long Island. Shipman had a 69-foot commuter named Saga, and he consistently beat Whitney's Aphrodite II on their daily races to and from the office. So Whitney commissioned the 74-foot Aphrodite III, with a pair of V-12 Packard engines, specifically to humble his brother-in-law. The plan worked, and the boat had a glamorous career ferrying Whitney's guests, who included Fred Astaire, Henry Ford II, and Katharine Hepburn. A birthday party for Shirley Temple was held onboard. The day after Pearl Harbor, Whitney offered his boat to the government, and the Coast Guard used her to speed President Roosevelt to and from his home at Hyde Park on the Hudson River.

Visually, the most striking aspect of Aphrodite was her rounded, sloping stern. Joel was already enraptured by the shape--as used in work boats, of course. "It actually started with the Chesapeake oyster boat," Joel says, pointing to another model in his boat study. "A lot of them have this kind of stern--a draketail or canoe stern. I just thought it gave the boat an extra little thing to have the tail kind of disappear into the water." He asked Zurn to design a fast commuter with a stern like that, and commissioned Needham to build it.

Now Joel's dream is nearing completion in a shed at Coecles Harbor. It's a little beamier than most of the old commuters because Zurn had to make room for the two massive, 1,300-horsepower MAN diesel engines that will drive it. The surface-piercing propellers--a type commonly used in raceboats--are tucked up in tunnels, which eliminates the drag of propeller shafts and struts and may provide some protection from the floating debris that gives urban boaters nightmares.

Like the work boats Joel admires, this one is designed strictly to do a job. It is not a cruising boat--amazingly, for a 57-footer that will cost between $2 million and $2.5 million, it has no staterooms and no galley. And you wouldn't want to try to swim off that stern. "We're leaving the interior stripped bare," Joel says. "We're putting a head in, we're putting some hanging lockers and some basic bunks in, and that's about it. If I want some nice woodwork, I can always add that later. That's going to add weight, though."

Joel leaves the shape below the waterline to the experts, but he fusses over other design details in the frequent faxes he receives from Zurn. The sheer originally had a bit of a powderhorn shape, but it has been straightened out. The deckhouse and cabin top have grown curvier. The effect is, in a word, rakish.

Before long, perhaps by late fall or early spring, Joel will be recreating one of the greatest thrills that the business life has ever offered. There will be a couple of differences, however, between his commute and that of a '30s tycoon. For one thing, he won't be able to stroll down the dock to his yacht--his property has no dock, and environmental restrictions prevent him from putting one in. (Joel addressed the problem by buying an aluminum landing craft to ferry guests to his beach. "You can't drive pilings in for a dock, because it will disturb the ecosystem, but you can take a 30-foot landing craft and shove it up on the beach and drop the ramp and crush every living thing underneath you, and that's okay," he says wryly.)

There will be one other difference between Joel and the maritime commuters of yore. He doesn't have an office in the city. That's right, he can work anywhere he wants. So he'll just be commuting whenever he feels like it.

Damn it!