Local dentist takes top spot in Bayview race

By: Timothy Pontzer | Troy Times | Published August 29, 2017

 The Natalie J sails in the open water. Philip O’Niel III piloted the boat to a first-place finish in the 2017 Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race.

The Natalie J sails in the open water. Philip O’Niel III piloted the boat to a first-place finish in the 2017 Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race.

Photo provided by Philip O’Niel III

A dentist by day, Dr. Philip O’Niel III is also an accomplished sailor.

O’Niel placed first overall in all classes in the 2017 Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race July 22-23, piloting his boat, Natalie J, to the prestigious victory through tough conditions.

“The weather is always lousy, and for this one it rained pretty much most of the time,” O’Niel said. “There were lots of storms that rolled through. There’s nothing easy about it, but that’s what you expect from the Bayview, and I’m glad we were able to come out on top.”

O’Niel oversees a dentist’s office on Big Beaver Road in Troy, opening the practice in 1979. A resident of Bloomfield Hills, O’Niel has taken the Bayview competition five times overall, with his last win coming in 2014. 

“It never gets old,” O’Niel said. “That is the single biggest and most prestigious trophy that our yacht club has. It’s very exciting to be able to win it. It’s just offered once a year, and only one name goes on there.”

O’Niel belongs to the Bayview Yacht Club, the group that oversees the annual competition. He previously served as both the chairman of the club and the commodore of the race. This year, O’Niel raced in the Class A grouping, reserved for the bigger, faster boats. 

“This time we went up to Class A, facing some of the fastest boats made,” O’Niel said. “We race against 74-footers, but our boat is only 52 feet long, but it was obviously faster than some of those in our class.”

Thirteen Class A boats traversed the Cove Island Course, a 259-nautical-mile course from Port Huron to Mackinac Island. O’Niel has previously won his class grouping nine times. To best the overall field of over 200 boats, O’Niel utilized a Transpac 52 boat, custom built in New Zealand, entirely made of carbon fiber.

The vessel completed the trek in a corrected time of 29 hours, 42 minutes, 35 seconds, varying in speed from 9 to 26 knots. 

“It all depended on the breeze and what’s going on,” O’Niel said. “If we’re going upwind, it’s only 9, if we’re going off the wind, we got up to 26. In the old days, with a 35-foot boat, we would finish on Tuesday morning. With the current boat, we usually end on Sunday. This race happened to be the fastest one I’ve ever done.”

O’Niel estimates that he has been sailboat racing for more than four decades. It is a family affair for him, learning the sport from his father and passing it along to his own son, Philip IV. His son was one of five personal family members on the 14-sailor crew that manned the Natalie J across the finish line.

“My dad got me into sailing, and as we started racing together it became a close family thing,” O’Niel said. “My father, myself and my son have sailed together for a very long time. It is a great way to bring us all together.”

Keeping with the family theme, the ship’s namesake is also a close personal connection.

“Natalie J is named after my mother,” O’Niel explained. “When my dad first bought a boat, that’s what he named it. We’ve kept sailing with it. A lot of people on the Great Lakes know the boat, and we’ve been very successful over time. I’ve had three different Natalie J’s; this goes all the way back to the late ’70s. We’ve won with a 35-footer, 46-footer and now a 52-footer.”