They were two young sailing misfits at the East Chop Beach Club more than 30 years ago. And through the years they’ve cultivated a friendship that has crossed the sea, built a business and continues to reinvent itself. Todd Alexander, 45, is the Oak Bluffs harbor master. His wife is Kara Gelinas and they have a son, Sebastian, who is three. Capt. John S. Potter, 46, runs the 40-foot charter fishing boat Skipper. He and his wife Susan have two sons, Max, five, and Zak, 10 months. Mr. Potter keeps his boat on slip 74; his buddy of years ago is only a few slips away at the harbor master’s office. They sailed, they partied, they worked hard and now they get to watch their sons grow up at the beach club.
Interviews by Mark Alan Lovewell
I have the earliest memory of when we met. We were East Chop Beach Club kids. I remember that day. We were sitting on the rail that goes around the club. I was 11 and he was 12. John had long blond hair like a girl. I remember just walking by him. He used to wear these green Speedos. We were both skinny as rails.
I remember looking at that kid and saying to myself: “He thinks he is so cool,” because he had long hair. So, I don’t remember how long it was before we became friends, but I remember that was the first time.
I used to sailboat race in an MK. They are little floating bathtubs. By the time I met John, I had moved up from being crew to being captain. And I picked John as my crew because he was so skinny. Our thought back then was the lighter the crew, the faster we are going to go. So I picked the skinniest kid I knew.
He’d hold the sheet. I don’t know how much we won, but we did well, we did very well. We’d sail out there. Twice a year, we’d race to State Beach for a picnic and sail back.
Sometimes it got really rough out there. We didn’t care. When the boats filled with water they didn’t sink, they’d just swamp. We never swamped. When we sailed we would sit way up on the rails. We thought it was blast and we never got towed in.
He would bring the boom box, with the cassette. He’d play Deep Purple. We would wedge the boom box up on the bow. We were 13 and 14, and we raced and the tapes were blasting. We’d be playing Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple.
They were his tapes. We were racing at the time. Here is this little sailboat with all this music blaring.
John always had more girls than I did, back then. I was always jealous that he had more women than I did in those teen years. He had the personality. He was very outgoing, and schmoozed with the best of them. People like to be around John. I was a little more reserved. He’d meet somebody and they’d be buddies. I used to envy that.
I remember we were both running launch boats for Edgartown Marine. Remember those launch boats that were fat?
We would spend winters in the Caribbean, but in separate boats.
One summer the two of us worked for Bruce Campbell, who owned the charter fishing boat Ranger. We were both mates. We worked separately.
The next summer John was driving a launch in Edgartown. I was sailing Ed Redstone’s boat.
Bruce had stopped doing the Ranger in the summer. John said we should do what Bruce did. John was great with ideas but the follow through . . . . I said I will talk to Redstone.
We will write up a business plan. This was before computers. We will get 30 passengers and will charge $20 each and we will make this much money. We handed it to Eddie.
They gave us the money. Okay, we got to find the boat. You know Boats and Harbors Magazine. There was a listing for the Skipper, but no picture. It was in Staten Island, so we wrote a letter. No Internet. We asked they send pictures of the boat. The price was right. It turned out to be the sister ship of the Ranger.
The boat was successful. The next year, I went back to Redstone. He gave me a loan. I bought a little Pacific Seacraft, a Pocket Cruiser, 20 feet long. It was built to go offshore.
I bought the sailboat, that would be the following fall. Called it Vahevala after the song by Loggins and Messina.
John went with me to the Caribbean.
We left from East Chop Beach Club. We did an 8-day trip to Bermuda. I was knocked unconscious on the third day out. John went rifling through the boat looking for a little thin First Aid book. It had one sentence for every ailment that could happen to you, so he was frantically looking under “concussions.” I was out for 30 seconds, we got hit by a storm.
He was a fine mate. We were out for adventure. He always knew what he was doing. If he didn’t know what he was doing, he would listen to you.
For 10 years we ran the Skipper.
I think he was more gung ho about running the Skipper. He was much more able to sit and answer the same questions from the passengers. He could schmooze with people and his eyes would not glass over like me. He would answer the same questions over and over again:
“Like, what kind of fish is that?”
Oh, he would say. It is a scup. Oh great.
Five minutes later, the same person would catch the same fish but it was smaller.
“What is that?”
He’d say: That is a smaller scup.
If I have to answer the same question three times, I get bored.
After 10 years I thought I was going to open my own wrist.
We were getting older. It got to be a choice, either one person was going to make a good living with the Skipper, or two people were just going to get by. We would paint on the side.
I decided to bail out.
Now we are still over at the East Chop Beach Club. Now it is about our kids. We will sit on that same rail.
We’ve been friends for 34 years.
A lot has happened, relationships, women, business, and life in general. It was very easy not to be friends. I have lost friends over things this small. With John I have been through things that are this big. You know what I mean, and we always seem to work it out.
As you get older, you live in different ways. We are not involved in business. As soon as we weren’t involved in business things got better. But if we had remained in business we would have killed each other.
John S. Potter:
We met on the front porch of the East Chop Beach Club. We all grew up on the Chop together and we used to hang out at night. Todd and I sailed together on his boat called The Blot. It was a MK. We raced together.
Todd was usually the skipper and I was the mate. He was a pretty good captain, he was a pretty good sailor. We all grew up doing that. Growing up on the water, sailing is what we did. We’d swim all day. We sailed and water skied and we did the whole boat thing all summer.
He was a good sailor. He was risky. It would be blowing and we would go out, We were both a little crazy. We would go out and win a lot of the sailing things because we would cheat.
We did the usual, we started smoking cigarettes behind the beach club. I lived in Hong Kong and we would write letters to each other all the time. Back and forth. He was in Hamden Conn. We corresponded by letters. We were in our early teens. We couldn’t wait until summer.
In those letters we would make summer plans: what we are going sailing this summer?
We both might have had a crush on the same girl at one time. It was a small close-knit family at the beach club. We were all very tight. We used to go to beach parties at night, bonfires in those days, swimming at night.
My best memory was when took a 20-foot sailboat to Bermuda. He was 22 and I was 23. Todd bought this 20-foot sailboat and I chipped in the electronics. We took it from Hingham, Mass., to Bequia in the West Indies. We went offshore, from here and we got to Bermuda.
When we got to Bermuda, the customs people were amazed. Todd was the captain, it was two of us. It was amazing.
We got knocked down three times in the Gulf Stream, there was one time the mast hit the water. Todd got a concussion. We didn’t know how to deal with it. The first aid kit we had from CVS was about $1.50, and it had a little piece of paper on what you do when someone has a concussion.
It took us eight days, and the whole main cabin was full of water. We left the beach club on Nov. 1 and it was snowing when we left.
We worked for Bruce Campbell on the Ranger, together. I think it was 1977. Bruce was the captain, we were both his mates. We would cut squid and untangle line, exactly the same thing we are doing here.
Working with Todd is challenging. When we started on the Ranger, we didn’t work together, we worked separately. There were never two mates on the boat at the same time.
We got along great. We’d ride our bikes down here and meet for hot dogs and talk how the trip was going. On days off we’d have fun. The balance of work and play seemed to be dialed in. Then after the Ranger was sold to Bob Morgan, Bob took the Ranger to Edgartown.
There was an open slip here.
We were at Todd’s mother’s house sitting around and having a couple of cold ones. His mother’s name is Gloria Alexander. We came up with this idea. We had just got back from the Virgin Islands. We were sitting at the couch and the idea came up.
We looked in Boats and Harbors Paper. We saw something and it was the Skipper, which was the sister ship of the Ranger.
Todd was working for Ed Redstone, owner of Martha’s Vineyard National Bank, as a captain on Redstone’s boat C& C 32. It was called Star Ferry. It was ironic, to me that Todd worked on a boat called Star Ferry, because when I was growing up in Hong Kong there was the Star ferry.
I believe things happen for a reason. And these are signposts that are thrown up in front us. The Star Ferry was owned by Ed Redstone, and he ended up lending us money for the boat.
Todd borrowed some money from his father. I borrowed the same amount from my father, and Ed Redstone gave us the rest to buy this boat.
That was in 1986 or 1987.
We worked together and as we grew older. We realized that friendship and business can be tough at times. It came to a point where either you buy me or I buy you. Todd had already gotten involved in the harbor.
We came to a decision and we went to our accountant and we split up the shares. My Dad bought his share out, and then when I got married I bought my Dad’s share. It was about 12 years ago.
Todd is the best harbor master Oak Bluffs has ever seen, ‘cause he is focused. He spent so much time here, growing up here, and this is part of him, that he wants the best for Oak Bluffs, and he gives it 110 per cent.
Todd was on a trip with his wife in Cambodia a few years ago. They met a girl, a Cambodian lady who was selling postcards. They kind of took her in and bought her a bicycle, and a she ended up getting a visa and coming to the United States. They have been helping her for years. In the little town she was from, a lot of the kids had no education. After doing the research Todd got a network of people together and created a school called Vineyard School. It has been open for several years and he is starting a second school.
Things have changed a lot. It is not about Todd. It is not about John. It is about Todd’s kid and John’s kids. It is about the kids.
Todd lived the single life, and he managed to barely survive. And through the powers to be, he met a beautiful young lady, and they are happy and they have a wonderful kid named Sebastian, he just turned three. The young guy is very good friends with my son Max. Max is five. Sebastian is three. As they get older, I suppose they will be sailing together.
And the legacy goes on. It was like this is where it was supposed to go. Todd has a good sense of humor but he is serious about his job. It is about being the best. Being a father, he is a good father.
We are only here for a short time, and I think we both know that. Every breath counts. Be all you can be. Be as open-minded and as honest as you can be, and willing. Todd is about change. Making the world better.