Charmed in Chattanooga
A Tennessee couple renews their vows with every outing on their Sundancer.
Michael and Allyson O’Neal call their Sea Ray Sundancer 410 Caribbean Soul as homage to their island-hopping and diving adventures. But anyone who meets the couple can see that they’ve made a mistake in naming their Sea Ray, and not because it rarely leaves Tennessee. Get to know them a bit, and the name they should have chosen becomes obvious.
“Isn’t she the prettiest deck hand you’ve ever seen?” Michael says. He gestures to his wife as she works the lines. She laughs, grabs the fenders and flashes a smile his way. Michael backs out of their slip at Gold Point Yacht Harbor near Chattanooga and heads out onto Chickamauga Lake.
“The quality is terrific,” he says of the Sundancer, preparing to get it up on plane. “We love it, design in and design out.” He looks back at Allyson, as she tears herself away from the 410’s sprawling sunpad, a feature that just begs to be used for stretching out and soaking up rays. Sea Ray designed the U-shaped settee to wrap around the transom, with backrests that swing open like gates to transform the seat into a large lounger. “I didn’t think I would use it that much,” Allyson admits, “but it’s become my favorite thing.”
After a short cruise northward, the O’Neals drop anchor near Hidden Harbor to watch a group of kids catapult themselves from a rope swing and into the water, squealing as they let go. Each “splash!” represents a reprieve from the intense Southern heat. The lake’s shoreline, a lush mix of ash, oak, hemlock and pine atop rocky bluffs, shimmers green in the near distance.
“The weekend is our time to be together, to unwind from work,” Allyson explains, dangling her feet off the swim platform. “Every Friday night starting in February, we get into a cove and drop anchor.”
The couple prefers secluded coves so they can be alone, except for any wildlife that decides to pay them a visit. (Deer, muskrat and bald eagle sightings are common.) In the warmer months, they like to bring along their stand-up paddleboards and get in some exercise on the lake. When winter comes around, they’ll bundle up and stargaze from the cockpit. “The sky and the air are so clear,” Michael says. “My favorite thing is getting up with the rising mist and having that first cup of coffee on the boat. It’s always the best cup.”
These days, water activities are their number-one hobby, including diving trips in the Caribbean. Work and family tie them to the Chattanooga area, where they were both born and raised, and where Allyson is a hair-stylist and Michael is a partner in a printing business. But when they discuss retirement, they dream about living onboard a Sea Ray in one of their favorite ports of call. “We talk about it all the time,” Michael says.
That’s not to say they don’t enjoy Chattanooga. Locking through the dam and spending the night on the Tennessee River downtown near the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Tennessee Aquarium has plenty of appeal. The O’Neals’ Sea Ray dealer, Erwin Marine Sales, has a riverfront location with transient dockage, making it easy for customers to tie up and enjoy the city.
The nearby Walnut Street Bridge is one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world, and events like Wine Over Water, held in October, make the span a destination itself. “Something is going on musically or entertainment-wise downtown every weekend,” Michael says. “There’s no shortage of things to do.”
The O’Neals like to hang out as spectators for rowing competitions and triathlons, and when all the people-watching builds up an appetite, Chattanooga’s growing foodie scene has much to offer—including made-from-scratch gelato and paletas at Milk & Honey, and breakfasts crafted with locally sourced ingredients at The Blue Plate. “Main Street Meats has the best burger you will ever eat,” Michael notes.
Heading back to the swim platform, he reaches his hands out and helps Allyson to her feet. It’s a chivalrous gesture natural to them both, the kind that’s been a consistent factor in their 29 years of marriage. He pours her a glass of wine, and she readies a fruit plate with crackers and brie. They set the spread between them on the sunpad and chat about upcoming summer plans.
One of their favorite trips each summer is a week-long cruise to Watts Bar Lake, living onboard the whole time. “It’s the most relaxing week,” Allyson says. That’s one of the big perks of the region: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) system and its many reservoirs provide ample opportunity for recreation and allow boaters to explore different bodies of water and cities without ever having to put the boat on a trailer.
Rarely do the O’Neals hang out in a boat slip for long, but they appreciate the facilities available to them in the Chattanooga area. Erwin Marine Sales also owns and operates Gold Point Yacht Harbor, where the O’Neals keep their boat on the lake, and another nearby facility, Chickamauga Marina, near the dam. Michael and Allyson are grateful they’re never far away from an Erwin employee. “I don’t really look at them as a boat dealer; I see them as friends,” Michael says. He’s known his salesman, Brian McNeal, for more than two decades.
The O’Neals have been boaters since the late 1980s. Their first boat, a runabout, opened their eyes to the possibilities of exploring by water, but after 18 solid years with it they began to crave more than day-use capabilities. Sea Ray’s Sundancer line caught their attention with its livability; they loved the sense of having all the amenities of home. In 2008, they purchased a new Sundancer 290 from Brian, then upgraded to a 2010 Sundancer 370 before ending up in the 410 in 2012. “Sea Rays have great resale value, and there’s a reason for that,” Michael says. He credits the top-notch dealer network and the brand’s overall attention to customer service. Both he and Allyson have attended Sea Ray’s Yacht Expo, which they enjoyed immensely.
More than any other aspect, they adore the Sundancer 410 for its outdoor space. And, as an inseparable pair, they appreciate the 410’s natural, open flow from cockpit to helm, which means the captain and his beloved co-captain are never separated.
When Michael and Allyson first met, he told her he’d just found the woman he was going to marry. She was skeptical because, at the time, she was engaged to someone else. But Michael meant what he said, and time proved that he was right. It’s clear by the way he gazes at his wife now that he’s never stopped courting her. Sure, Caribbean Soul has a nice ring to it, but clearly this Sea Ray deserves another name: The Love Boat.