When the new owners of Billy Joel’s classic commuter wanted to make changes to its design, they wisely tapped the original designer to help achieve their goals.
Everybody wants a showstopper. At least one. For those with means, building and owning a one-of-a-kind vessel is easily within reach. For the rest of us, it’s just a matter of time before that boat becomes available.
One such boat is Vendetta, a 57-foot custom yacht from the board of Zurn Yacht Design for the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel, a serial boat owner with a jaw-dropping fleet of considerable size and variety. Launched in 2005, the boat took its standout design cues from the torpedo-boat sterns of classic Long Island Sound commuters, blended with a resin-infused Kevlar-and-Corecell foam composite build. The major fiberglass components on this boat were built by North End Composites and assembled at Coecles Harbor Marine in Shelter Island, New York, the same builder selected by Joel and naval architect Doug Zurn of Marblehead, Massachusetts, to build the classically beautiful Shelter Island Runabout. Due to the popularity of the Runabouts, which dominated Coecles Harbor’s calendar at that time, Vendetta was finished at Derektor’s Shipyard.
After a number of years, during which she was seen sprinting to and from Long Island Sound harbors of every stripe, and even commuting to Manhattan, Vendetta was donated to the SeaKeepers Society as a fundraiser, and eventually sold to two new owners on the West Coast in 2016 who selected the Newport Harbor Shipyard to achieve their goals: better low speed performance, added deck space and more seating.
“Most of the owners of custom boats that we have designed still own them, so it’s not often that we hear from second owners who want to make changes like the ones requested for Vendetta,” said Zurn. “This project started with a request from the new owners for input about how to incorporate some form of auxiliary retractable electric propulsion in the boat, so that they could day-cruise in the harbor and bay of Newport, California, without having to use the twin diesels installed as primary propulsion. I was not a fan of the idea.”
The diesels in question were a pair of 1,300-hp MAN V-12s coupled to Power-Vent Marine drives, which utilize five-blade surface-piercing props in tunnels tucked away under the stern. Air is passively forced into the tunnels to lower the water level toward the bottom of the boat, away from the tops of the tunnels, so that only the lower half of the prop is submerged inside. The system obviates the need for mechanisms found on typical surface-piercing drive systems to alter the angle of the shafts for better speeds. On Vendetta, this system propels the boat at about 11 knots in the lowest, idle-in-gear speed setting, which obviously isn’t an optimal clip for day cruising in crowded, speed-regulated harbors. On the upper end she can reach speeds approaching 50 knots at wide open throttle—perfect for dashing to Santa Barbara, Catalina Island or San Diego.
Zurn suggested that the use of trolling valves would accomplish the slower operating speeds required, without having to re-engineer the boat to accommodate an electric drive and all its supporting equipment. The new owners agreed to pursue that solution.
“That allowed us to forge ahead on improving the layout to suit their entertainment needs,” Zurn said. “I pulled out the original layout which had an aft cockpit, and after more discussion, I came up with renderings showing two bench seats forward, two single seats abaft the benches, two storage cabinets aft of the helm deck seating and a curved cockpit bench. The goal was to open up the social areas, improve egress in and out of the boat and increase an open feeling overall.”
Retaining the distinctive, beautiful lines of this design was paramount to all the stakeholders. “We were tasked with taking a boat that was really nice to begin with and changing it to better suit the owners’ needs, making it more practical for a contemporary West Coast-style family boat,” said Jess Salem, owner of Newport Harbor Shipyard. Among the most notable changes was the addition of a contemporary stainless steel mast on the cabin top forward of the helm deck windshield.
One of the first items removed was Vendetta’s distinctive mast and boom. As delivered, those structures were intended to launch and recover a dinghy stored under the cuddy, which covered most of the aft cockpit area. The original helm deck featured four Stidd helm chairs, two facing forward, and two behind the forward seats. All four were removed, as was the centerline locker housing a wet bar and ice maker on top of which the original mast landed.
“We made a temporary mold and laid up a one-piece part to extend the helm deck well aft,” Salem said. “We used the same composite layout the boat was originally built with in keeping with Zurn’s focus on a strong, lightweight structure. Because the area beneath the cuddy was a cavernous lazarette, this modification didn’t affect anything down below.” After the part was installed, hand-laid teak planking was placed with great care, extending the surfacing from the helm deck to the end of the aft cockpit.
As access to the helm opened up, technicians were able to perform significant maintenance on the MAN diesels, which included servicing the injectors and the heat exchangers. They also discovered that the transmissions were already equipped with trolling valves. The five-blade surface-piercing props were pulled, measured, balanced, repaired and polished to like-new condition. The bottom was water blasted, then encased in an epoxy-based system and coated with new bottom paint meeting California’s stringent standards for antifouling coatings.
One of the most dramatic aspects of the refit involved re-coating the open cabin, which housed a galley and opposing dinette, as well as two bench lounges and a private head forward of the helm. Originally a palette blending cream, bright yellow trim and a light gray solid-surface countertop, the shipyard carefully taped off the entire interior and then sprayed it with a sparkling white linear polyurethane to set off the teak trim, dinette table and the new teak galley countertop—all sealed in high-gloss clear linear polyurethane—with a faux-planked headliner to create a contemporary take on a classic Herreshoff look.
Gallery: Vendetta Refit
Today, Vendetta sports an upholstered, semi-circular lounge aft that wraps around the curve of the transom, which rests solidly on a custom stainless steel framework that only peeks up slightly above the sheerline. Served by a rounded, varnished teak cocktail table, and protected from Southern California’s intense sun by a stainless steel, fixed-frame canvas awning, the new aft cockpit achieves the added seating and usability the owners wanted. Family and guests can now move around on deck easily, and more people can enjoy the view forward from the new helm benches.
As the pictures make clear, the combined talents of Zurn Yacht Design and Newport Harbor Shipyard have realized the needs and dreams of Vendetta’s new owners in spectacular fashion. It’s a fitting refit for the Piano Man’s greatest hit.