It was 10 am, and the faint rumble from a starting engine hummed as it pulled away from its slip in Oak Bluffs Harbor. Capt. “John-O” Potter stood alert in the wooden wheelhouse aboard his iconic fishing charter, the Skipper. Blue skies, glimmering waters, and gentle winds lay ahead.
“We’re about to smash some fish,” Potter called from the helm.
The red, white, and blue boat was loaded to almost maximum capacity on a Thursday morning in early June. The total headcount was 27 — including Potter and first mate Garreth Heath, as well as families from New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and passengers from right here on Martha’s Vineyard. The Skipper is a tourist attraction, but also a local getaway.
“It’s been a long winter,” Island resident Mike Plesz said. “It’s a nice day, and I needed a trip.”
At seven knots, the vessel made its way out to a depth of 68 feet — ideal for catching bottom fish, according to Potter. Heath showed beginners how to bait the hooks with fresh squid, how to drop the line until you felt the pressure of it hitting bottom, and then wait. Within 30 seconds, five black sea bass were reeled in.
“Over the rail and into the pail!” Potter exclaimed. Potter sets the tone for these trips with unparalleled energy and clear-as-day passion for what he does. Every fish, no matter the size, is something to celebrate.
“Come on, we need a photo of this!” Potter said.
Potter and Heath jumped from person to person, removing black sea bass, scups, flounder, and sea robins from their hooks at rapid speed. They assessed length for keepers — black sea bass need to be 15 inches to take home.
“Teddy with a five-pound black sea bass all day long!” Potter said as he helped 5-year-old Teddy Gibson hold up a fish about the size of his torso.
“This is freaking great fishing,” Potter said. “See these kids? They’ll never be the same.”
The historic Skipper was built in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1938. It was originally owned by a man named Capt. John Zeigler, who sold it to Capt. Dom Vitolo in 1976. Potter bought the boat in 1987 after deciding to settle on Martha’s Vineyard.
Potter was born and raised in Hong Kong, where his dad found steady work and decided to settle. The family lived there until Potter was in 10th grade. His grandparents had a house on Martha’s Vineyard, and they’d visit every summer. Potter went to high school at Tabor Academy on Cape Cod. “I knew I didn’t want to be a college guy,” he said.
He bought a sailboat at 18, and sailed down to St. Thomas, where he worked as a bait boy. After enough sea time, he got his captain’s license at 21, and lived on the British Virgin Islands until his early 30s.
“There came a time when I knew I needed to move on,” Potter said. “You don’t really get anywhere. It’s 85° and sunny every day, and you get lost in a time warp. I knew I didn’t want to be like Over-Easy Frank. He had no teeth, and a Heineken for breakfast every morning.”
Potter’s grandparents had a house on East Chop, so he decided to make the move to Martha’s Vineyard at 31. Shortly after, he saw the Skipper for sale and pulled the trigger. He started chartering fishing trips 17 years ago, and has never looked back. “I wake up every morning and can’t wait to get to work,” Potter said.
In the offseason, Potter runs a painting business, but he’s busy with the Skipper all summer long. During peak season, usually July and August, he’s chartering two trips per day with first mate Heath, who arrived from South Africa 18 years ago. Potter sponsored his American citizenship. “John has been really good to me over the years,” Heath said. “You put a lot on the line when you sponsor someone for citizenship.”
Trips are three to four hours long, and cost $60 for kids, and $70 per adult. If you catch a keeper, Heath will clean and gut the fish onboard for you to take home. The Skipper works locally, chartering trips with groups like Camp Jabberwocky, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Charter School. “We put a lot of love into action,” Potter said.
The Skipper’s burgundy decks have been walked on by the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Jackie Onassis, Ted Kennedy, and Rachel Ray, to name a few.
“People come to the Vineyard, and they want to go fishing,” Potter said. “My goal is that every single person has a good time. It’s difficult to make everybody happy. Somehow, we do it. This is the Skipper.”
But there’s only one way to truly understand what happens topside on the Skipper — and that’s to climb aboard and see for yourself.
To book your spot on the Skipper, call 508-693-1238 or visit mvskipper.com.