This captain is willing to mow the owner’s lawn

Gene Pelland said fellow skippers warned him not to accept a job as captain of musician Billy Joel’s fleet of pleasure craft.
The Rhode Island native pointed out that professional yacht captains live by a simple credo: “Don’t mow the owner’s lawn.”

That means captains who work for a private owner want to limit their work to the boats they were hired to run and not get dragged into doing unrelated chores. And Pelland’s colleagues were certain he’d be mowing lawns and doing all kinds of non-nautical things if he worked for the famous singer-songwriter.

“There is a fine line that you walk,” said Pelland, who worked for a series of owners before saying yes to Joel’s job offer. “But I never walked it with Billy. I mow his grass and clean his car. It just doesn’t really matter.”

That’s because Pelland has become much more than a captain, or even an employee, to Joel. Pelland was hired by Joel eight years ago to run the biggest boat Joel has ever owned, a tramp steamer Joel named Red Head. But his responsibilities have expanded to include overseeing home renovations, yacht construction, motorcycle repair and even going on tour, where he serves as a carpenter and runs the air-conditioning system for the stage.

“It evolved,” said Pelland, 44, who described serving as Joel’s captain and utility centerfielder as the ideal job. And colleagues who warned him not to cut the grass are now jealous.

“They think it’s great,” Pelland said. “They say ‘You’ve got the best job in the business.'”

Pelland grew up around the water but never got seriously into boating until 1981, when he began to spend his summers during college on Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts. “The water always drew me there because I could live on a boat and get a job on the water. I was a mate on a day-charter sailboat during the day, and at night I was a waiter in restaurants.”

Because his parents stressed the work ethic when he was growing up, he said he always worked hard. But during those summers, he noticed that when he worked around boats, “I was working really hard, but it was fun. I was enthusiastic and people noticed that.”

Pelland got jobs cleaning boats and crewing, “and all of a sudden people are approaching you, and you’re not looking for work anymore. It was ‘Hey, I’ve got a delivery to take a boat down to the islands. Do you want to do it?'”

With a close friend who was a delivery captain, he began working full time during his school breaks moving boats around for owners, including offshore trips to Florida and the Caribbean.

After he graduated from college, he decided to remain in the Caribbean following a delivery. He earned his Coast Guard captain’s license in 1986 and picked up work where he could, such as taking cruise ship passengers on snorkel trips, running a launch in St. Thomas and working on a salvage boat.

“In the early days of chartering, you really were on your own,” Pelland said. “The only communication was through Virgin Island Radio and listening for traffic every night. Now with GPS and sat phones and a lot of different shoreside help and provisioning companies, it has made the industry more connected to the dock. It’s very tough to get that ‘island experience’ back again. It does make it easier, I have to say, but I miss the old days.”

In the summer, he would return to Rhode Island and take boating jobs there. He worked on bigger and bigger boats. They included Isabelle, an 83-foot Fife ketch built in 1924.

He also skippered Atalanta, the former Ondine III, a 75-foot cruising Maxi-class ketch out of Seattle.

Then there was an old 12-meter America’s Cup racer, Easterner, that the owner bought on the West Coast and trucked to Newport, where Pelland put it back together and ran it for several years, participating in vintage wood 12-meter sailboat races.

“I was responsible for crew, weather, safety, gear,” he said of those years.

When Joel bought a 65-foot pocket freighter in Florida and needed someone to bring it north, Doug Zurn, a naval architect who had worked with Joel, recommended Pelland. He got the job even though most of his previous work had been on sailing craft.

“I had done other powerboat deliveries, but this one was kind of unusual,” Pelland said. “When I saw it in Jupiter Inlet, I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding.'”

“As we took it up the coast in November, I began to like it more and more; it was a great boat. I kept a little log where I noted things about the boat that were good and things that could be better and made some suggestions and gave the book to

Capt. Gene Pellend at the helm of Vendetta. He began working for Billy Joel eight years ago. His duties include nautical ones like boat construction, as well as non-nautical ones such as motorcycle repairs. [Billy Black photos]

Billy. He read it and the suggestions and he called me up and said, ‘Would you like to do these things that you mentioned to better the boat?’ It was winter in Rhode Island, so an indoor project sounded pretty good. So I said, ‘Yeah, sure.'”

They took the boat to a boatyard and did the work Pelland had suggested. That led to other ideas. “The projects probably snowballed fourfold,” he said. “We basically refitted the whole boat, from rewiring it and replumbing it to a lot of steel work, all the interior.

“While the refit was going on, he said, ‘Gene, I didn’t realize how complicated this boat is. I’m going to need somebody all the time,'” Pelland continued.

Joel explained his need for Pelland this way: “I have a six-pack captain’s license, but it was obviously way too much boat for me to handle. I really wouldn’t know how to maintain the engines and systems on the boat. And I really didn’t want to be cleaning it and painting it all the time. He had been a professional captain for years and years and years. So I kept Gene on because I had other boats as well. If I want to hang out with my company, I can leave the boat in Gene’s hands.”

“Billy is a great boater,” Pelland said, “and he was doing everything himself. But there’s a breaking point in footage where you move to captain-maintained, and he made that transition.”

Pelland said he didn’t take the job right away. He was convinced when he went out to dinner with Joel and some people who worked for him on tour and learned that they had been with him for years and were devoted to him. Pelland also thought that since he had worked primarily on wooden sailboats, Joel’s fleet of steel and fiberglass powerboats would be an interesting change of pace.

Starting out, Pelland ran and maintained the mini-freighter, while Joel continued to operate his fishing boat Alexa. But Pelland kept coming up with projects for Alexa and gradually took over maintenance of that boat, too.

Then Joel bought Half Shell, a 26-footer Wasque cuddy cabin “picnic cruiser” that also needed a refit. They gutted the entire boat and rebuilt it.

When Joel decided to build a 57-foot commuter yacht, Vendetta, which was launched in the summer of 2005, Pelland served as project manager, supervising the work at two boatyards, visiting regularly and cracking the whip to try to meet deadlines.

Pelland said most captains have horror stories about their owners making them meet impossible deadlines and keep impossible schedules, regardless of the weather. But he said Joel has never generated any horror stories. “He’s always been very cautious with the weather, more so than I am.”

Along the way, Joel moved west from Amagansett, N.Y., on the ocean in eastern Long Island to Centre Island on the North Shore on Oyster Bay, and Pelland ended up overseeing renovations at the new house and other chores there. “It was a natural progression from the boats,” he said. Joel has since bought a house in Miami and put the Centre Island house on the market, so Pelland is also spending time in Florida where Joel plans to spend his winters. He arranged to truck Joel’s smaller boats south and deliver Vendetta there by water.

One day Joel suggested Pelland come along on a concert tour. “I said, ‘What am I going to do on tour?’ He said, ‘Things always break and need to be fixed.’ So I did.”

He became tour carpenter, taking care of construction of the stage, and he also ran the stage air-conditioning system.

All the while, Joel and Pelland hashed out details of potential boat projects, such as a plan–never carried out–to build a 180-foot boat for Joel to live on.

At every arena, Pelland would post the most recent architectural drawings of the commuter yacht in the dressing room so Joel could tinker with the details.

Serving as Joel’s captain is the perfect job, Pelland said, combining the water with a chance to put down roots .

“He’s kind of a jack of all trades,” Joel said. “He looks after all things automotive, like the motorcycles, and the boats.”

With all the boats and vehicles around, “He’s indispensable to me right now,” Joel said. “He actually saves me money by negotiating prices for dockage and repairs or doing the work himself.”

These days, Pelland likes talking to other captains who warned about working for a rock star but have now changed their tune. “People tell me, ‘Let me know when you want to retire,'” he said.

It won’t be anytime soon. ‘I think there’s a lot of other projects Billy and I can do together,’ Pelland said.

By Professional Mariner Staff