Deja vu moment spurs action, award

By Dorie Cox, The Triton

Capt. Mike O’Neill was a deckhand in St. Maarten when Hurricane Luis hit the island in 1995. And it was his charity work inspired by that experience that prompted the International Superyacht Society to name him Distinguished Crew at this year’s 29th annual Design & Leadership Award Gala on Wednesday. The award recognizes yacht crew whose distinguished acts of service best exemplify the standards to which professional yacht crew aspire within the previous year.

Capt. O’Neill could not attend the event as he was in his native South Africa, but he remembered the hurricane during a phone call. He recalled running a 50-foot motoryacht and figuring he could weather the storm on board.

“But someone talked some sense into me,” Capt. O’Neill said. He tied the boat out on anchor and waited in a church with a bunch of other people. The hurricane blew in at wind speeds of about 140 mph.

“The next day, there were no boats in the anchorage,” he said. “It obliterated the island.”

When several hurricanes struck St. Maarten and other islands last year, he and his crew watched live coverage on Facebook.

“As it happened, I saw myself back on St. Maarten,” Capt. O’Neill said. “Back then we took pictures with film, there was no social media. So now we were watching St. Maarten again.”

He realized he wanted to help the islanders whom he had been visiting for more than 20 years.

“It wasn’t a decision, it was something we had to do,” he said. “St. Maarten is a second home to a lot of crew. They can relate when they watch the storm affect the restaurants they went to and the guy they buy spare parts from.”

Capt. O’Neill talked with the yacht’s owner, called some marine businesses, and worked with SuperYacht Aid Coalition and YachtAid Global to fill M/Y Katharine, a 201-foot CRN, with supplies. The crew went to work. The deck crew loaded large sheets of plywood and the stews shopped for baby food, teddy bears and items to donate.

“We did something for the greater good. After a charter season, we got to do something completely different,” he said. “We did our little part. These islands’ existence is important to the industry.”

Capt. O’Neill first worked with the owners of Katharine from 1999 to 2004. They owned several yachts named Katharine and Penny Mae over the past few years and he rejoined the program in 2016. In between, he worked on other motor yachts including Latitude, a 145-foot Timmerman, Majestic, a 205-foot Feadship, Charisma, a 155-foot Feadship, Princess Marianna, a 258-foot Royal Denship, and Lady Michelle, a 161-foot Trinity.

The crew on M/Y Katharine also works with International SeaKeepers Society on several projects.

The award came as a surprise – one he said he can’t really take credit for. He said the yacht owners are key, and the crew deserves recognition.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of motivation. You’d be surprised how keen yacht crew are to help,” he said. “It’s the crew that really makes us look good.”