Written by Amy Wideman | Photography by Cassie Wright
Sometimes the most important voyage a yacht can embark upon is the route it takes to get to you, and sometimes that trip avoids the water altogether. For owner John O’Neill, a brand-new Meridian had to cover a lot of ground before making its first splash in freshwater.
“Our 541 Sedan is the ﬁrst Meridian ever shipped inland from saltwater,” John O’Neill explains. “Getting the boat from the factory in Merritt Island, Florida, all the way here to Lake Lanier in Georgia was quite the operation, but we’re really glad they made it happen.”
And who wouldn’t be? Lake Lanier is prime boating territory. Formed in 1956 as part of a $1 billion undertaking by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the body of water is technically a reservoir aimed at providing electricity, ﬂood control and water supply for the bustling metropolis of Atlanta. And yet thanks to an abundance of natural beauty, its recreational beneﬁts match, or perhaps even exceed, its practical purposes—today it stands as a hugely popular, 60-square-mile area for power boaters, house boaters, jet skiers and vacationers seeking peaceful relaxation and easy sociability.
“I’ve boated on Lake Lanier for 43 years—I do know it pretty well,” John says. “But you can always discover something new. There’s no such thing as a ‘typical day.’ Every day on Lake Lanier is unique and we love it for that.”
A typical crew is a bit easier to deﬁne than a typical day—the best seats on the 541 are usually ﬁlled by John; his girlfriend, Lois McQueen; his son, John; and Lois’s kids, Kat and Carson. Add to that a rotating cast of friends and extended family members, and you’ve got a fully appreciated yacht.
“I’ve boated on Lake Lanier for 43 years—I do know it pretty well. But you can always discover something new. There’s no such thing as a ‘typical day.’”
In recent years John has enjoyed a virtual ﬂeet of Meridians, one after another. As it so often happens, once bitten by the bug, a few more feet at a time prove irresistible. Six years ago, John took ownership of his ﬁrst Meridian, a 341. It was followed not long after by a 408 Motoryacht and then, for about six months, a 441—soon traded in for the current 541. Of the last, John says, “I saw it at the Miami Boat Show and had to have it. There was no question in my mind.”
He credits MarineMax with ensuring that his new vessel reached him safely, over hill and dale (and under the occasional power line) along increasingly narrow roads en route to its ﬁnal put-in. And he says he’ll never forget where it all started, that early Sunday morning when a MarineMax salesman showed him around the Meridian display just as the boat show crowds began to ﬁlter in.
In fact, the 541 earned its name, The Ritz, from that fateful Miami weekend, during which a hotel mix-up resulted in John and his family landing at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach for three nights. Suﬃce it to say, his kids rang up an impressive tab. “Steak, lobster, daiquiris, these crazy alligator-shaped chocolates…I think they were feeding everybody on our ﬂoor!” John chuckles. “I told them, ‘I hope y’all enjoyed that, because the closest you’re getting to that again is staying on the boat.’”
But then, as accommodations go, the 541 rivals just about any hotel, even South Beach’s most upscale. Accordingly, since the yacht splashed down in Georgia, it’s hosted countless guests. “The very ﬁrst weekend we had the boat, we had 16 people on it for dinner,” John recalls. “There was more than enough room for all of us. Almost every weekend we have several people over—the kids all bring their friends, and we’ve had as many as nine spend the night.”
For John, playing host comes naturally. “The Meridian is so well laid out for entertaining,” he says. “I love the fact that it has a wonderful dining area with the table, and the galley is phenomenal.” It helps too that transitions between areas of the boat encourage a natural ﬂow of conversation, light and air. “In the salon, you have privacy but you can still see outside and see all your surroundings. The windows slide down to give you interaction between inside and outside, which is really nice for everyone. And the master bedroom is more comfortable than my bedroom at home,” he adds. “You’ve got complete dark if you want it, complete quiet and privacy. It’s so spacious and well engineered.”
When it comes to onboard cuisine, John and Lois tend to stay within their comfort zone. “Anything you can buy at the grocery store, whether it’s chicken, chicken or chicken,” he laughs. The right pairing, like a Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, serves nicely to round out both specially prepared dinner parties and quiet family meals. For nights when they’re not in the mood to cook, several award-winning restaurants along the shores of Lake Lanier oﬀer plenty of variety. John, Lois and their kids are often joined by a large group of friends for a sunset cruise or a feast at the popular Sunset Cove restaurant at Lake Lanier Islands Resort.
“The Meridian is so well laid out for entertainment. I love the fact that it has a wonderful dining area, and the galley is phenomenal.”
Although the 541 is large enough to merit crew quarters, John remains keen on captaining the Meridian himself. “I’m most acclimated to what it likes and doesn’t like,” he explains. This applies in just about any conditions the long boating season throws their way. “We love that about the boat—rain or shine, we can go out on it. There have been many days when it’s raining, and we stay on the boat and feel just as comfortable as if we were at home. It’s great for watching TV or movies or whatever and just hanging out.”
When Georgia blesses them with clear skies, they are quick to spread out and take advantage of every perch. “We absolutely love the bridge of the boat,” John says. “It’s air conditioned and heated, so you can be up there in ﬁve-degree weather or 95-degree weather and still feel comfortable.”
He credits his parents, avid boaters, with instilling an appreciation for the water, starting around age 11. Even before that, a next-door neighbor laid the foundation for a lifetime of boating enthusiasm. “Every weekend, I’d watch them load up their boat and go,” John recalls. “I remember thinking, boy, someday…”
Happily, that someday is now for this Georgia crew. “We overnight every single weekend from Friday night to Sunday night. At some point in the future, I won’t have to go home on Monday mornings…” John trails oﬀ, then adds, “Yeah, I’d say a four-day weekend sounds about right.” Besting that ﬁrst excursion the 541 ever took to get to Lake Lanier might be diﬃcult, but given John’s dedication to the art of yachting, well, anything is on the horizon.