Crew of Natalie J goes for fifth Bayview victory in six years

By: Mike Moore | C&G Newspapers | Published July 10, 2015

Continued and repeated success has led to pressure and high expectations.

And Phil O’Niel welcomes it with open arms.

In fact, it’s what makes 2015 Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race so enjoyable.

“Sure, we expect to win. That’s why you race,” O’Niel, a Bloomfield Hills resident and captain of the Natalie J, said last week. “But anytime we’re taking part in this event, it’s about having fun. It comes with pressure, based on what we’ve done, but we’re sailing against people we’ve raced against for years. These are great competitors and great friends.”

But O’Neil and his crew have had the upper hand, over and over again.

Since 2010, O’Neil has navigated Natalie J — a 52-footer that will race on the Cove Island Course in Class A and sails out of Bayview Yacht Club in Detroit — to four Bayview victories.

The only year he and his team didn’t win the race was 2013, when they missed due to a competition on the West Coast.

But they returned last year and took the top spot in the overall standings again, adding to their own dynasty which included wins in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

“Having a very good boat certainly helps,” O’Neil said with a laugh when asked the secret to his success. “But having a consistent crew is a major part of all of this. We’ve all been sailing together for years. We know what we’re good at and what jobs need to be done.”

The crew ranges from between 10 to 15 people, depending on who is available for certain races.

O’Neil said he plans on a crew of 13 when this year’s race launches.

“It’s a great group of friends, and a lot of them are family members,” he said of the crew, made up of residents from Grosse Pointe Woods, Grosse Pointe Farms, Detroit, Bloomfield Hills, Toledo (Ohio), Grand Blanc, Jamestown (Rhode Island), Plymouth, Southfield and Muskegon. “And for six of our guys, they’ve been in more than 35 Mackinac races.”

While O’Neil was quick to credit Natalie J, a yacht he owns with his wife, Sharon, he said preparation and experience are also essential.

“The course changes so much, so that’s not really an advantage, but knowing how to work the weather, deal with fog, or whatever, that’s where the experience comes in,” he said. “We can go back to what we’ve done or seen before. There aren’t a ton of surprises once we get going.”

As for being the race favorite, or shouldering expectations of winning again, O’Neil said he and his crew take it in stride.

“We’re going to enjoy this, like we do every race, no matter what,” he said. “We aren’t racing professionals; this is what we do for fun. It’s a sport and we want to win, but we’re competing with great friends.”