The author recalls trying to wrangle a pesky catamaran and protect a beloved photographer.
I didn’t want to be known as the guy in the industry who killed Billy Black.
If you don’t know the name, Billy Black is the go-to American photographer for the marine industry. Have you seen a pretty photo in a magazine or online that made you pine for a certain yacht? Odds are good that Billy took that photo. Often called “the nicest guy in the marine industry,” he’s an icon with an infectious smile and seemingly endless cheer. Featured in the February 2021 issue, Billy and his signature mustache are part of the fabric of our business. I’ve known Billy for 20 years and I can’t think of anybody who doesn’t like him. All of this was on my mind as I found myself driving his catamaran at full tilt with Billy standing on the roof in the rocky waters off Brooklin, Maine.
It was a perfect day in September of 2020 for a launch party. My office had designed the 38-foot Wheeler Legend, a re-creation of Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar built for the Wheeler Yacht Co. by Brooklin Boat Yard. The yacht was splashed to appropriate fanfare in tiny, beautiful Brooklin.
The yard hired Billy to photograph Legend’s first runs. I’d been aboard the Wheeler for the first set of sea trials after the champagne sprayed and now I wanted to watch her run from the vantage of the chase boat. I approached Billy and asked if I could ride along with him for the next photo session.
“Of course,” he said. “In fact, I’m losing my captain for a lunch break. She doesn’t want to miss out on the lobster and corn up in the shop. How about you drive?”
I sized up his 21-foot catamaran with twin outboards spread wide and the half-tower where all the work gets done.
“Sure thing, Billy.”
Soon, I fired up the outboards and cast off in the unfamiliar craft as the beautiful Wheeler began to pull away from the dock. Billy was already up in his perch.
Sunglasses and an inverted mustache appeared from above the port side of the half tower.
“Anything I need to know about your boat?”
In the time it took me to ask the question the mustache and sunglasses had disappeared back to their battle stations. “She’s squirrelly!” came the reply.
I took that under advisement and settled in behind the wheel as we idled away from the dock. Scanning the instruments for the first time, I established baselines for oil pressures, temps, voltage and fuel…
“Billy, the gas gauge is on empty.”
“It doesn’t work. We should be good.”
Also taken under advisement.
The Wheeler throttled up and took off towards Deer Isle at 34 knots. I followed suit, the cat’s 2-stroke outboards wailing along.
With about as much local knowledge of these waters as I have of those around Three Mile Island, I took stock of my mission. Yes, we wanted more of Billy’s photos of the boat. But while dodging lobster pots every few seconds, I quickly realized my real mission was to not kill Billy Black. I visualized some of the possible outcomes. Not pretty.
If I hit something head on—did I mention there was no depth sounder and I didn’t know where I was going?—Billy could be launched, trebuchet-style, like a giant pumpkin on one of those Discovery Channel reality shows.
It all went by so fast. The S.S. Squirrely lived up to her billing that day but proved to be a fun ride. I accomplished a lot during that outing. I didn’t hit anything at high speed in unfamiliar waters. I didn’t run out of gas and I didn’t manage to wipe the grin off the face of the man in the half tower. Most importantly, I didn’t kill Billy Black.