In the wake of the death of music legend and yacht owner Jimmy Buffett, BOAT International looks back at his 2018 interview where he discusses his love of sailing and his adopted home of St Barths...
Ask Jimmy Buffett about his boat and his eyes light up. The bard of the ocean is accustomed to answering questions about his music career, but it’s not every day he gets to talk yachts, he tells me with more than a hint of glee. And it’s all connected, after all. Without boats, his decades-long music career and the myriad business ventures it has birthed – from his chain of Margaritaville restaurants and hotels in two dozen locations to a Broadway musical inspired by his songbook – simply would not exist.
“I made a pretty good living with people buying my tapes and putting them on boats,” Buffett says when we meet in St Barths. He first sailed down in 1978 and “never really left” – though he splits his time between St Barths, Sag Harbor and residences in Hawaii and the Bahamas. “Back in the days before Wi-Fi and electronic charts, you only took your most precious things in the way of books and music on board. I’d meet people sailing and they always had, besides chart books, Don’t Stop the Carnival [the Herman Wouk novel about running away to the Caribbean], a Bob Marley tape and a Jimmy Buffett tape.” More than forty years ago he played at tiny St Barths bars like Le Select, a dive still known for its live music and “cheeseburgers in paradise.” He surprises fans by playing at bars where they’d least expect. During a previous Les Voiles de St Barths regatta, Buffett played an unannounced show at the race village, and the crowd of sailors went wild.
Buffett’s stage persona – son of a sailor, laid-back surfer, margarita connoisseur, amiable raconteur – isn’t an act, but exactly what you get in real life. In true island fashion, he wears shorts, a Les Voiles regatta T-shirt and baseball cap, and when I turn up at his beach bungalow/office, he’s just finishing a call with his friend, pro surfer Kelly Slater. Buffett is a surfer himself, from when he was a teenager growing up in Mobile, Alabama. “There wasn’t much surf on the Gulf Coast, we had to go find it. We’d surf hurricanes in the ship channel.” He’s over 70 now, though you’d never guess it, and surfs every day he’s in St Barths.
While most guys his age are making the move from sail to power, Buffett has downsized from a Delta 125 that was the family yacht – “a great boat, but we didn’t use it enough” – to a custom 15.24 metre motor sailer designed by Ted Fontaine, known for his modern-classic Friendship sailing yachts. But Buffett isn’t like most guys his age – he surfs, sails, pilots planes and sells out stadiums. For over 40 years he hadn't missed a summer tour, though he does things a bit differently now. He remembers traveling by bus to 250 shows per year; now he'll play a smaller number with time to scheduled in to enjoy a break in St Barths or Cat Cay.
Buffett took delivery of his boat, built at Pacific Seacraft in North Carolina, in February 2018. “It took twice as long and cost twice as much, but that’s to be expected,” he says with a chuckle. Drifter has a bright seafoam green hull, the same colour as the Alerion that Nathanael Herreshoff sailed to Bermuda. “I’m a Herreshoff guy,” he says. “I love beautifully designed, traditional boats.” This modern motor sailer is a bit of a departure for Buffett, who has been a long-time classics aficionado, owning more than a half dozen vintage sailboats from a Herreshoff Alerion to a Sparkman & Stephens Morris 36.
He used the money he made from his second studio album, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, to buy his first boat, a Cheoy Lee Offshore 33, Euphoria. His accountant thought he was crazy, but Buffett called it an insurance policy. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t know if this music thing is going to last, but no matter what, I can sail, I can cook, and I can sing, and I know that I can live on the boat and go where I want.’” The years in the mid-1970s he spent gunkholing through the BVIs on Euphoria, and later a Cheoy Lee 48, Euphoria II, proved perfect songwriting fodder – “I wrote so many songs in that time, Please Don’t Say Mañana if You Don’t Mean It is a favorite that comes to mind.” Buffett’s discography became decidedly more nautical as he lived the life he sang about, which rings true to a large section of his fan base.
Inspiration, though, has always come from the sea. “Growing up, I read everything about the ocean, Moby-Dick, all the classics, and WH Hudson, Idle Days in Patagonia.” Buffett speaks with a soft, slow southern lilt indicative of his Alabama origins, where he was introduced to boats; truly a Son of a Son of a Sailor, as his famed song professes. “I come from a long line of sailors. My grandfather was a sailing ship captain from Newfoundland who moved to the States. My dad sailed and was a marine engineer. I grew up sailing and was a child of the shipyard.” He learned celestial navigation from his grandfather when he was a kid, and Buffett had ambitions to go to the Naval Academy – as he sings in We are the People our Parents Warned us About – but the Universe had other plans for him. “I’ve still gotten to fly off an aircraft carrier, fly the Shuttle simulator and I’m a sailing advisor to kids at the Naval Academy, so it all worked out.”
His college job was working in the shipyard as an electrician and welder, which gave him an appreciation of yacht building and earned him money to start a band. “They needed a PA system, and I had credit at the music store, so I said: ‘I’ll sign for this PA system, and that makes me the leader of the band.’” Buffett says what sailing has taught him most about life is how to be organized. “I run my band like a boat – like I’m the captain.”
Living down in St Barths, there’s plenty of opportunities for racing, but he prefers the cruising life. “I was never a heavily competitive sailor. I want to go somewhere, not just around in circles.” Though that didn’t stop him from helping 51.59 metre gaff-rigged Royal Huisman Meteor win the Bucket in 2009. Buffett was friends with her captain, Dean Maggio, and helped as a helmsman during the race, providing local knowledge of currents. He fell in love with Meteor, but when it came to building his own boat he didn’t want something quite so big or with such a deep draft. Bahamas cruising was a priority.
Buffett had seen an original Palmer Johnson motor sailer his friend had in Cat Cay. “It was a terrible sailboat – most motor sailers are – but I loved the comfort,” he says. He almost bought the boat but didn’t want to be “chasing worms” in an old wooden hull. Maggio tipped him off about the Surfari concept by Ted Fontaine, which intrigued Buffett as it was more efficient than any motor sailer – blending racing yacht performance, offshore capabilities and cruiser comfort. Fontaine is a surfer, too, and the initial sketches included surfboard storage, sealing the deal.
Maggio was Buffett’s build captain for the yacht, which is constructed in lightweight infused epoxy and carbon fiber composite materials to enhance performance. The entire rig is state of the art, with a carbon mast and boom, and sails are controlled entirely from the cockpit, designed with such ease that she could be singlehanded, but will be run comfortably with two people. She has a movable keel that can be lifted for skirting the Bahama Banks or extended for offshore sailing. She’s also sturdy, with a 9,000lb bulb.
Life on board is designed as Buffett likes it – relaxed, with an outdoor galley and a salon that opens directly out to the cockpit, and she’s stocked with plentiful toys, from surfboards to fishing rods. A nearly five metre beam, widest at aft, gives the kind of living space you’d find on a yacht that’s six metres bigger. “Even with eight people on board, she feels spacious. Dean says you have almost as much room for guests as you do on Meteor,” Buffett says. “She moves nicely through the water and she’s so comfortable. My wife can use her for lunches off Sag Harbor.”
A rarity in the music world, Buffett has been married to his wife for more than 40 years, sailing down to the Caribbean together all those years ago. They have three grown children. “My oldest daughter likes to sail, the other two like to ride [on boats] and fish.” For now Drifter is a one-off, but could be reproduced as a semi-custom series. Fontaine’s creation got plenty of publicity when a video of Drifter sailing in the Bahamas was played on the big screen during Buffett’s Son of a Son of a Sailor tour.
Though the build took longer than expected, Buffett was distracted by an even more time-consuming project as his music was being made into a Broadway show, named Escape to Margaritaville after his biggest hit. He rewrote songs to fit the characters in the musical, which was being crafted by TV comedy writers. “It was important to me and my producer that the writers lived these songs as kids and grew up on the music,” Buffett says. “The New York Times clobbered us, but who cares? It was never meant to be the-a-ter; it’s fun!”
At this point in his life, that’s what Buffett really wants – to have some fun. “First of all, I can’t believe I made it this far. After an airplane crash [in 1994], falling off the stage [in 2011]… time is short right now, and I’m going to do the things I want to do.” His fans, known as Parrotheads, will be glad to hear this includes continuing to tour. “I love it! Who gets to do this? It’s always been about the fact that people are paying good money to see you, and you owe them a show, and I’ve gotten to live a pretty good life based on people liking what we do. There’s never any disconnect because I couldn’t do it without them. I feel very obligated, dedicated and appreciative, so there’s no reason to stop.” For those who can’t make it to a concert, it’s easy to catch up via a live broadcast on margaritaville.tv or by tuning into Radio Margaritaville on SiriusXM satellite radio. Staff at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica – a place that’s on his bucket list – even sent Buffett a recording of them listening.
Buffett also wants to give back to the places he loves. In 2017, he teamed up with Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith to play a benefit concert for Puerto Rico, and when we meet he’s about to go to the island to visit his Margaritaville Resort employees. “I’m a drop in the bucket, but I’m still going to do what I can with the people who work for us at a human level,” he says. He’s also played free fundraising concerts for St Barths post-hurricanes, encouraging fans to come down and stay at hotels, revitalizing the economy after the storms. “The people who live in ordinary houses here, those are whose homes were destroyed,” Buffett says. At one benefit concert for St Barths he expected an audience of 1,200 – and 5,000 fans showed up. “That got the French saying mon dieu!”
His next career ambition is to finish the book he’s writing – a fictionalized retelling of the recording of his 1979 album Volcano in the Caribbean. “You can’t make up the shit that happened,” he says. It’s clear that even after nearly 50 albums, Buffett still has plenty more stories to tell and adventures to live. As we’re finishing up, he remembers he’s left his surfboard down on the beach. “I gotta go get it – maybe I’ll get in the water. It’s looking like I could catch a wave.”
This feature is taken from the November 2018 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.