On a sunny, calm day with a full moon tide, Oak Bluffs charter Captain John Potter greets his guests with hugs and a big smile. Most are repeat customers or regulars like W. George Allen, Esq. of Vineyard Haven and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. who fishes with John on a weekly basis when he’s on the Island. John stands in front of a large white box with pictures of happy customers on the lid and consults his reservation list.

“People told me I couldn’t run a business out of a plywood box, but I do,” he says.

A welcome back hug. — Jeanna Shepard

Harbor master Todd Alexander comes by to check in and say good morning. They’ve been friends since they were seven years old and used to own the Skipper together. They chat for a moment and then Al, another friend, comes by and he and John talk quietly for a moment about their friend, conch fisherman Luke Gurney, who was swept off his boat and died, earlier in the week.

“We gotta keep the faith babe. That’s what he’d want,” John says. He hugs Al, shakes his head and then brings his attention back to the growing line of people waiting to board the Skipper.

Once all 26 passengers have checked in and paid, John hops on the boat and yells out: “Let’s go fishing!”

He introduces his guests to Garreth Heath, his first mate who is also a licensed Coast Guard captain and has worked for John on and off for the last 16 years. Then captain and first mate untie the Skipper, the oldest operating wooden party fishing boat in the country, and head out to sea.

“John Zigler built around 12 of these boats,” John says. “He built the Skipper in 1941 for his family. The Coast Guard comes and inspects this boat every year and they just can’t believe that after all these years it is still dry as a bone. The folks at Gannon and Benjamin do all the work on her. During the second World War, they used the Skipper as a mine sweeper in Long Island Sound. Todd and I bought her in 1987. But soon Todd realized he wanted to pursue other things [including becoming a harbor master]. He’d already been at this for a while so I bought him out. There were no blowouts.”

John walks down the port side of the boat grabbing hands and the red handrail to make his way to the boat’s bridge, which includes the Skipper’s original wheel. On his way, he talks to Bianca Laufer, age eight, and her friend and first timer Lily Slepoy, age 10.

You never forget your first scup, or your ten thousandth. — Jeanna Shepard

“Are you going to help me drive or what?” he asks the girls.

Bianca, who has fished with John several times, and Lily jump up to follow him. As they steer their way out of the harbor, John stands next to them. “Stay a bit more in the middle of the channel,” he suggests.

Once they’ve passed the harbor’s jetty and a red and green buoy, John aims the boat for Hedge Fence and the Deep Hole, today’s fishing spots. As he drives, he hangs his head out of the ship’s old cabin and tells today’s fishermen and women that everyone on the boat is now a community and that means they must work together as a team, help each other out, encourage each other. Garreth hops from deck to bench, helping each person get their rod ready. After about 30 minutes, John looks at his fish finder and sees a large school. He cuts the engine and tells everyone to drop their lines. Within seconds, several guests get their lines crossed or snarled. John and Garreth move around the boat, calmly helping to clear them.

Within minutes, nearly everyone has a fish on the line. Lily gets her first fish, kisses it for luck and beams. John puts on some Taylor Swift to celebrate the moment with her.

“I love what I do,” he says. “It’s all about the love. The positive experience.”

Bianca interrupts him with a scream: “I’ve got a huge one on the line!”

“We’re living the dream,” John says as he helps her get the fish off the hook and into a white 10-gallon bucket.


John, along with his two siblings, William (Bill) Potter and Robert Potter, were born and spent much of their childhood in Hong Kong and Singapore. John’s father, John Potter Jr., was a legendary treasure hunter and deep sea diver, known for his recovery work on the Vigo Bay shipwrecks and for his book, The Treasure Divers Guide. He also worked for the Bulova Watch company in Hong Kong and then subsequently for the Union Carbide Company.

Fish on! — Jeanna Shepard

In May of 1962, when John was just three weeks old, his mother Joan brought him to visit her mom, Elizabeth Wall, on East Chop. Since then John has never missed a summer on Martha’s Vineyard.

John checks the drift and shouts out to everyone, “Reels up!” Then he takes the boat down the Sound for another round.

When John was 15 or 16, he told his parents that he wanted to see more of America than just the airports and the Vineyard. So he enrolled in Tabor Academy where he says he really learned to sail and graduated with honors in Marine Science. He spent a year at the University of Hartford but it wasn’t for him.

“I knew I was not on the Harvard route like my dad,” he says. Instead, he took a job as a first mate and sailed on the Consolation from Long Wharf in Boston down to Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. He remembers those days as he checks his fish finder and munches on a lobster sandwich that Garreth has made for him.

“We made landfall at the Soggy Dollar Bar. It looked like paradise and I pulled in and parked.”

John spent the next decade following the sea and the Grateful Dead, always returning to the Vineyard for the summer season where he would paint houses and work on boats, including working for Bruce Campbell on the Ranger for eight years.

“Bruce took me under his wing and taught me the ropes.”

John stopped following this peripatetic path when, one morning while anchored in Cruz Bay in St. John, a man named Overeasy Frank buzzed by him in a dinghy. Overeasy Frank had no teeth and was drinking a beer early in the morning.

Lily Slepoy and Bianca Laufer help set the course. — Jeanna Shepard

“That’s me if I don’t change,” John thought. “I realized I wanted more out of life. It was a moment of grace.”

In the early 1990s, John moved to the Vineyard full time to run the Skipper and put down roots. In addition to taking people fishing 100 or so days a year, he started up a painting business, Skipper Painting. And in 1998 he reconnected with Susan Silverstein whom he had known since he was 15. They married in 2000.

“It’s all about the big B: balance,” John says, referring to juggling work and family. “Susan’s priority is to be a mom. She helps out at the Oak Bluffs School five days a week. My priority is to be a dad. In the summer I fish in the morning and many afternoons and then run around to check on paint jobs, but I try to be home for dinner every night. Some days, if I am lucky, I get to meet them at the beach in the late afternoon. I don’t need a Maserati in the driveway. I need to look in the mirror and like what I see.”

He cuts the engine and tells everyone to drop their lines. With the second drift, most newbies now have the hang of fishing the bottom and many have fish on within minutes. David Bitts and his girlfriend Missy Miller, cattle farmers from Lancaster, Pa., are return customers and seamlessly reel in dinner. Will Daniels of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. who is on the boat with three of his sisters and nephew, is having a little less luck. But he seems consoled by the fact that while one sister is reeling one in with nearly every cast, his oldest sister, an ultrasound technician in New York city, can’t seem to get even one. After a while, his sister turns her attention to giving their 17-year-old nephew some loving advice.

“Honey, you want to be a man, you gotta handle your business.”

After fishing it is time to check on the painting jobs. — Jeanna Shepard

John continues to walk around the boat checking on everyone’s progress.

“I love the people who come out with me,” he says. “It’s always an incredible group. Amazing people. I’ve had Jackie O, Ted Kennedy, Ray Romano. I mean, one time I had Lou Reed on one side of the boat and another time Sting on the other. One woman hired me every year for 15 years to have a cocktail party on the boat to celebrate her dog Blue’s birthday.”

The only time John lets the big B (balance) go these days is during the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

“I am a complete and total lunatic during the derby,” he says. His son Zak is also an avid fisherman — he won a first place in the bluefish shore catch this year, weighing in a 11.28-pound blue fish.

John and his guests travel up and down Hedge Fence a few more times before it is time to call it a day. Bianca and Lily run up to take the wheel as soon as they learn it is time to head in.

John smiles. “This was an awesome day. Really. So many fish.” The he interrupts himself to tell the girls, “Excuse me, we are steering here.” He helps them guide the boat more directly and safely toward the harbor.

During the drive back, Garreth cleans and guts the fish for the Skipper’s customers. His aptly named black lab Mako helps clean up by eating the fish guts.

At about 2 p.m., the boat is docked, cleaned and put away for the night. John grabs a salad and switches gears to painting mode, checking in with his painting crews to see how all the jobs are coming along. His crews are working on houses in the Camp Ground, at the Right Fork, on East Chop, in Chilmark, at the Edgartown Vineyard Vines store and in West Tisbury.

"You know, you can't change the direction of the wind, but some things just line up." — Jeanna Shepard

“I have worked hard to develop a group that I trust and do a good job,” he says. “But I still have to go see the work. Make sure that everything is as it should be.”

As he walks through town to collect his truck, he looks to see if his Skipper advertising, which is supposed to be dotted around town, is indeed up. Then he inspects a job — a staircase that needs fresh green paint. A painter named Roy is working on it. John likes what he sees. They talk about next steps and then John hops in his white truck and begins to head up-Island.

As he drives he talks about his first summer here with his wife Susan. How she came up to the Island on Memorial Day Weekend and decided to stay. How there was this perfect little shack that happened to be available to rent. How it just felt meant to be.

“You know, you can’t change the direction of the wind, but some things just line up.”

John Potter — What’s in His Tackle Box
Profession: Captain of the Skipper, Proprietor Skipper Painting, Inc.
Age: 54
Spouse: Susan Silverstein Potter
Kids: Max, 13; Zak, 8
Pounds of local squid he buys at the season’s start: 2500
Motto: “It’s all about the love.”
Favorite food: Stone crab
Pets: Fish
How he unwinds or “Zens out”: Yoga

More photos from aboard the Skipper with John Potter.