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This song is about the fishermen in Oyster Bay, Long Island, which is near Joel's home. Written from the perspective of a struggling fisherman, the song is accurate in its description of the various places the vessel would travel. The song brought a lot of attention to the challenges these fishermen faced and the hard work they put into their jobs.
Joel owned a boat at the time called "The Alexa." It was named after his daughter, Alexa Ray. Like her father, Alexa is also a musician. (thanks, Sloan - Port Washington, NY)
Boating is one of Joel's favorite hobbies. He often makes nautical references in his songs, and his personal management company is called Maritime Music.
The Vineyard mentioned in this song is Martha's Vineyard. Billy Joel had a house on the Vineyard, but sold it when he was divorced from Christie Brinkley. People from the island of Martha's Vineyard are known as Islanders: "There ain't no island left for Islanders like me."
Joel's boat captain at the time tells us: "The 'downeaster' referred to is merely a style of lobster type fishing boat used widely throughout the northeastern United States. It was not invented by any one company or person. It describes a boat built in, or in the style of those built in, "downeast Maine." These were hardy, seaworthy boats with long open back decks and small working cabins. While they were used for many different types of fishing and modified even into yachts, they were designed for lobstermen.
As for Billy's use of it in the song, it actually came from me. I worked for him (as his boat captain) at the time and Billy called me one night looking for a three syllable word describing a working fisherman's boat. We tossed around several different manufacturers' names but settled on 'downeaster' because, like the song, it was generic and wouldn't be claimed by anyone, while still being very descriptive of what he was talking about. Although I was never given any literary credit, I have always been proud to know that I was able to help write a song I love. Aside from that word, I also managed to help him phrase a few other lines."
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