Personal Vendetta: With his latest commuter, Billy Joel gets even with those who doubted him

Billy Joel had two great loves when he was very young, classical music and boats.  The boats came first.  Growing up near the center of Long Island in middle class Hicksville, the highlight of his earliest childhood weekends was daytrips to Jones Beach and the North Shore community of Oyster Bay.  He preferred Oyster Bay because it was populated by boats.  He did not know anyone who actually owned a boat, but he dreamed about them and spent an inordinate amount of his time at school sketching out their profiles.  When he was twelve, he started “borrowing” untended skiffs.  He always returned them—sometimes he even cleaned them up a bit—and he kept coming back for more.  For reasons he could not explain, the feeling of being on the water was magical.

Four decades later, the pull is just as strong, but Joel now has several boats of his own, including Vendetta, a fifty-seven-foot “commuter boat.”  An immaculately maintained black-hulled beauty, it has the same classic lines as the original commuters that rocketed J.P. Morgan, Jr. and other Wall Street tycoons between their North Shore mansions and Manhattan.

Joel was wearing a black tee-shirt, dark green shorts and black boat shoes when he arrived at the Hudson River marina where Vendetta was secured to a dock.  The only thing he was carrying was Sabrina, one of his two pet pugs.  Shortly after he climbed aboard, his captain, Gene Pelland, guided the vessel away from the dock.  “It’s kind of noisy,” Joel warned.   A few minutes later, we were barreling down the Hudson at a loud but exhilarating forty-four knots.  Sabrina fell asleep in a leather-covered captain’s chair.

Joel is very proud of his boat, which was launched in 2005.  The design work began with drawings he made several years earlier.  “My only parameters were that it had to go fast and look great,” he explained.  Joel faxed his first drawings to Pelland, who worked as a carpenter building stages when Joel was on tour.  Pelland passed them along to Doug Zurn, the naval architect who turned them into more detailed plans, which Pelland tacked to dressing room walls before Joel’s performances.  “He’d say, ‘That looks good, but it needs a bit of this or that,” Pelland remembers.  “Billy had this boat in his head for a long time—it’s all him.”

As we rounded the southern end of Manhattan, Joel marveled at the skyline and the East River bridges that were lined up in front of us.  “When you see this panorama from the water, you understand why Manhattan became such an important place.”

Just after we passed under the Brooklyn Bridge, he noticed a small Coast Guard patrol boat that appeared to be chasing us.  It could not begin to match our speed, so Joel told Pelland to slow down.  When the Coast Guardsmen were so close that they might have recognized the Piano Man, they waved us on.  Having bowed to the authorities, Joel then seemed eager to demonstrate that the guy who used to borrow boats has not lost his sense of mischief.  Pointing toward the FDR Drive, where traffic was moving at about the same pace as we were, he said, “When it’s really backed up, we slow down and kind of give them a wave.  Then we put the hammer down.  They hate us!”

After Vendetta entered Long Island Sound, Joel talked about the original commuter boat owners.  “These tycoons—they put aircraft engines on their boats and they used to have races on the way to New York.”  Joel says he spends one out of every four days on one of his boats but that he has a problem:  “I don’t have to work during the week, but most of my friends do.  I need some more rich friends, so I have people to play hooky with.”

Joel started traveling back and forth to New York by boat back in the 1970s after he bought his first house on Oyster Bay, a waterfront home on Lloyd Neck he shared with Christie Brinkley.  In those days, he had a relatively modest twenty-foot-fishing boat.  When we headed into Oyster Bay, we passed that house and entered Joel’s favorite piece of water.  The first section of the bay is also known as Cold Spring Harbor, the name he gave to his first solo album.  Shortly after we sped past the house on Lloyd Neck, we could see another one of his former houses, a modern-looking structure with big windows that appeared on the cover of his “Glass Houses” album.  Then we passed one of the commercial oyster dredges on which Joel worked when he was a teenager.  A minute later, we were approaching his current home, a vast Georgian Revival style mansion on Centre Island, a narrow stretch of land situated in the middle of the bay.

“I remember seeing that house when I was a kid,” Joel said.  “I thought it was a castle that belonged to a duke or a marquis or something.  Now I own it.”  Joel was not bragging.  In spite of all of the years and golden albums, his tone made it clear that the boy from Hicksville still finds it difficult to accept that the most important of his childhood dreams have turned true.

We reached the dock seventy-five minutes after we left the marina in Manhattan.  While Joel was pleased by the time, his satisfaction came from the speed itself, not because he was in a rush.  When he got off the boat, he just stood there, admiring the bay and his creation.  He also explained why he named it Vendetta.  “It comes from that saying—living well is the best revenge.”  When I asked, “Revenge for what?” he said, “There’s a long list.  First of all, the IRS.  Then the people who said I couldn’t sing.  Then the people who said a guy from Hicksville couldn’t be a rock star.  And the people who said I couldn’t marry Christie Brinkley.”  Finally, as he waved his hand toward his house, he added, “And for all the people who said I couldn’t own a house like that one.”