Story By: Mary Ellen Thompson
Photos By: John Wollwerth
John Potter appears to be a very down to earth guy – affable, businessman, family man, dedicated, excellent skill sets, Chief Executive Officer, Board of Directors, all those concrete things; and he is. Yet, his cerulean blue eyes give him away at first glance – his primary element is water. John has won more awards and trophies for sailing than Neptune could tuck under the seas, and he does it with the help of his wife, Cheryl, and daughters Megan and Emily who are both instructors, love sailing, and have inherited his passion for racing.
John had a total of eight National and North American championship wins in the past year or so, and these are just a sampling:
Overall Winner of BYSC Santa Elena Regatta – April 2016 – Beaufort SC
North American Champion – 2016 VX ONE North Americans – September 2016 – Holland, MI
VX ONE Winter Series – February 2017 – Sarasota FL
Charleston Race Week – May 2017 – Charleston SC
Beaufort Yacht and Sailing Club (BYSC): The A. Mills Kinghorn Sailing Award for sailing excellence in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001,2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2016.
The first sailboat John remembers was his parents’ Holiday 24, but his first boat was given to him when he was eight by his dad, who was going to Viet-Nam. That was an eight foot Optimus Pram and he would take it out of Palm Harbor, FL and into the Gulf of Mexico “to go sailing and fishing every day.”
After graduating from high school in Fairfax County, VA, John experienced a few years of a close to an idyllic balance of work/play. “I put boats together in Newport, RI in the summer, Annapolis, MD in the spring and fall, and Ft. Lauderdale, FL in the winter. We would wait for the boats to come in on ships, and when they arrived we would assemble them; in between we would windsurf.”
The longest distance he has ever sailed was when he was 22, and at the suggestion of his father, went to Singapore to help bring a Formosa 51 back to the US. John took a correspondence course in celestial navigation and as part of the crew, accompanied the two owners and one of their wives on the journey. It turned out to be quite an adventure. Before they could leave Singapore, John was sent to Jakarta to get the necessary permit which needed three signatures for sailing in those waters, but he could only obtain two. Unbeknownst to John ahead of time, as it turned out the boat owners were being deported and there was a deadline on when they had to leave port, so off they went hoping the paperwork wouldn’t be necessary. The first leg of the journey took them to Cocos Keeling Island, which is a territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean. But on the way there, on the third or fourth night out, they passed by Krakatoa, an active volcano in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, which was erupting as they passed by. John remembers how beautiful the two week layover on Cocos Keeling was. From there, the next leg of the journey took them to Reunion Island, a French island, between Madagascar and Maritius for another two week stop over. Between Durban and Cape Town, South Africa they hit what John says was the worst storm he’s ever experienced with three and a half days of wind sustained at 80 knots. In Capetown, John got off the boat having had enough of the owners and the provisions which, he makes a face as he remembers, “were cans of minestrone soup and communist Chinese chicken curry with feathers and bones.” He got on another boat and went as far as Barbados before flying home.
After that trip, “I ended up on the west coast of Florida. I lived in New Port Richey, went to school part time at St. Petersburg Jr. College, and dealt in Windsurfer brand sailboards in addition to whatever work I could find on bigger boats for some of the dealers in the Clearwater area. I spent a fair number of long weekends in Ft. Lauderdale where my parents still maintained an office selling Tayana brand yachts out of Taiwan.” In between times, he taught windsurfing which is a sport he still loves. “I just got another wind surfer and I’m going to teach my daughters.”
Opportunity took John to Annapolis where he started his own company, Ocean Outfitters. Unfortunately, John explains, “Ocean Outfitters got caught up in the ‘Luxury Tax’ debacle in the late 80’s. This was where the Federal Government imposed a 10% tax on yachts and associated equipment costing more than $100,000. This new tax decimated businesses like mine.”
After a foray into the building business in Virginia, John and Cheryl considered moving to Charleston to get into the building business there.
That, however, didn’t happen; the Potters came to Beaufort instead where they have been for 25 years. “Larry Naylor talked me into coming here to help run a propane and ice business. Larry spent most of his working career in the ice business. Triangle Ice used to be a collection of manufacturing plants throughout the Carolinas. Jake Hickman was the common thread through all of these plants and had partners in most of them. Larry became one of these partners sometime in the mid 80’s and was involved with a plant in Spartanburg as well as the one here in Beaufort. They purchased the plant in Savannah a year or two before I got here. All of the Triangle Plants, except for ours, were purchased by Reddy Ice around 2005. My brother in-law, Rob Neall, and I bought out Larry in 2007. We purchased the ice plants in Hampton and Walterboro from Cummings Oil Company three years ago. We have since gutted and automated both plants. One of our vendor’s helped with the design and sold us the equipment and we did the entire installation in house.” How are his mechanical skills with all that machinery? “I can build or fix anything after being involved in the boat building business.”
When asked what fascinates him about the ice business, John replied, “The ice business represents my only foray into actually manufacturing a product. I hate wasted motion and this is the only thing I have ever done (other than sailboat racing) where I have absolute control over the process.” One might find it interesting that for a man who spent much of his life on the water, he came to be in the business of water.
Even with his love of racing, it took the Potters five years to join the Beaufort Yacht and Sailing Club. “I quit racing dinghys in 1976. I still did a lot of sailing that was associated with my profession as well as a fair amount of windsurfing. I got my Captain’s license in the early 80’s and did a lot of deliveries up and down the east coast as well as the islands. But Al Hefner got me out on a Force 5 and I won two races in the Water Festival Regatta. On my second day of racing, Guy McSweeney sailed by me and asked, ‘Who the hell are you anyway?’ We joined the club where I have been Commodore three times and am currently Chairman of the Board.
“I do a lot of racing, I want to do a lot of it as long as I can. When I stop winning, I’ll quit.”
What is the one thing he loves most about sailing? “Tough question. Let me start by saying that I really don’t care much for relaxing and, by extension, really don’t care much for sailing. I am more than just a little competitive. I love racing sailboats. It is one of the most challenging sports on the planet to become good at. It is what I do best. I am not able to focus fully on anything except racing.
“The VX One has become my primary boat. I will sail just about anything.” The list also includes a Laser, MC, JY15, Melges 20, Sonar, and J105. “I have too many boats – I had eleven but I’m down to six now. However, seven of us are buying a 12’ Waszp, which is an offshoot of a foiling moth, and will travel at 30 knots. The hull is lifted above the surface by the foils so there is very little drag. You’re going faster than the wind so you actually create wind. I haven’t sailed a foiling boat yet.”
The greatest lesson he’s ever learned sailing, John says is, “Whatever environment you are in, don’t fight it. Learn to make it work for you.”
Clearly a man who makes the most of his time and energy, John is also interested in promoting sailing by supporting programs that teach people to sail, how to get around a race course, for both juniors and adults. He says the best advice he has for up and coming sailors is: “Win the start and build your lead. Don’t make enemies on the race course. Don’t talk trash and fly below the radar. There are more but those pretty well cover it.” Considering his expertise, it is advice to take to heart. And keep your eyes on the river for John sailing that Waszp that will look like it’s flying.