A Raleigh love story, from the far side of the globe.
by Addie Ladner
In 1980, Raleigh native John O’Neal surprised his Southern family when he decided to leave East Carolina University for a career in deep-sea diving. He got his commercial diving license in California, then bought a one-way ticket to Singapore — $200 to his name — to look for off-shore diving jobs.
Three years later, Raleigh native Ann Norris got a call from her brother, asking if she wanted to move to Singapore with him and his wife to help them start an import-export business. “Sounds tropical, sure!” she replied.
Norris was no stranger to adventure. “My mother would pack us all up and travel,” she recalls. “We took a road trip to Mexico when we were little, we had cousins in San Miguel, we even drove to Nova Scotia to spend a few weeks.” When she was a teen, they moved to Switzerland. In college, she studied French and sociology so she’d be able to study abroad.
The O’Neal and Norris families had known each other for generations — both long-time members of Carolina Country Club, Milburnie Fishing Club and White Memorial Presbyterian Church — but the two had only met briefly. Norris spent much of her time horseback riding and O’Neal spent most of his on the water. And both had their eyes on the outside world.
But nine months later, settled in Singapore and working, Norris called O’Neal, who by this point had been there for several years. He pulled up on his motorcycle, the biggest one on the island. She thought to herself: “He looks cuter than I remember!”
“I was smitten,” she says. The next year would be one for the books: motorcycling through the backroads of Southeast Asia, passing palm oil plantations and families of monkeys, exploring Jurong Bird Park and visiting villages in Malaysia. “Man, we had fun,” she says. “We loved learning about new cultures and he wasn’t afraid of anything.”
They bought an old wooden boat they named The Singapore Fling, a twist on the popular cocktail and a reference to their fledgling romance.
“That’s all we really thought it was going to be,” she says, “a fling.” They cruised up the eastern coast of Malaysia to Singapore. And when he surprised her in Bali on her 25th birthday after being off-shore for a diving job, “that’s when I knew,” she says.
They married in 1989 at the White Memorial Presbyterian Church and set down roots in North Carolina. But the adventures didn’t stop. John O’Neal broke his collarbone the night before their wedding and the two were in the emergency room until four in the morning. At the tail end of their first backpacking trip around Europe, Ann O’Neal got sick as a dog — but sent her new husband out to explore vineyards in Burgundy without her, though he didn’t speak an ounce of French.
Today, settled in Raleigh, they’re still as carefree as ever, now with two grown children, Katie and Johnny (their biggest adventure to date, they say). The Singapore Fling has been replaced by The O’No out of Beaufort (the name is a combo of their surnames). They watch sunsets at Cape Lookout, visit the horses on Carrot Island and spend hours shelling. This will be their 36th Valentine’s Day together, and they’ll spend it much like they did in the Singapore days. “We just like to be on the water, that’s our happy place,” says Ann O’Neal. “Carving out your own adventures, however small, is so important.”