Amherst Magazine

Give the Pirates Your Whiskey

By William Sweet

[Sailing] When a toothless character reeking of dead fish demands liquor from you and there’s nothing around but miles of ocean, what’s a good Christian to do?

If you’re the Rev. John Potter ’68, you give the man your liquor.

At Reunion 2013, Potter, minister of the First Congregational Church in Wiscasset, Maine, gave a talk about the year he spent in the Caribbean aboard his 39-foot Allied Mistress ketch, the Renaissance.

The pirates Potter encountered weren’t the lovable Johnny Depp sort, but thankfully, they weren’t very swashbuckling—or ambitious—either.

Potter on his boat

In July 2001, Potter set out to sea from Camden, Maine. “There might have been a part of me that just wanted to do something challenging,” he says, “something to say, ‘I did it.’”

His wife, Marcia, was keener on being a grandmother than an explorer. She stayed back.

This was hardly the voyage of the Kon-Tiki, and Joshua Slocum’s spot in history as a solo navigator remains unchallenged. Potter started the Caribbean leg by putting the Renaissance aboard a yacht transport from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to St. Thomas. Most nights, he anchored at an island. He flew home for Thanksgiving, and the family joined him in St. Thomas for Christmas. Marcia visited every two months.

There were rough patches, though. He endured two hurricanes (Michelle and Gabrielle), though not on the open sea. And, he reports, he must have been the last U.S. citizen to find out about 9/11.

And there were pirates. With 20 miles to go from the Dominican Republic to the Turks and Caicos, Potter anchored for the night at an out-of-the-way atoll. “All of a sudden, there was this small speck on the horizon. Sure enough, it’s a little boat coming closer and closer, and it turns out to be an about-17-foot aluminum boat, with three pretty rough-looking guys. They pull up alongside my boat—their boat was stinking of fish—and I thought, ‘Oh boy, I’m dead.’

“I said, ‘What you want?’ They said, ‘We want whiskey.’”

As it turns out, the whiskey sour has long been the cocktail of choice in Potter’s family, at least on Christmas and Easter, and he happened to have an unopened bottle of Jim Beam in the hold, purchased the previous yuletide.

“I pulled out the bottle and said, ‘Will this do?’ They gave me these toothless grins, so I tossed them the bottle. They said, ‘Would you like some fish heads?’ I said, ‘No, but I appreciate the offer.’”

As a practice, Potter did not mention his line of work to those he met on the journey. “One of two things usually happens: they either get really weird on you—everyone starts hiding their rum—or they are really nice to you. A good way to kill the conversation is to tell them you are a minister.”

Twelve years later, the voyage has had a lasting impact. “If there are any learning experiences from this trip, one is that life is about relationships. There were times when I was very lonely, just wishing that I was with my friends and family, when I felt, ‘Oh my God, I wish Marcia could see this.’”

He missed the parish, too. “The ministry is a job where no two days are ever anything alike. I can go from a sick bed in a hospital where someone is dying to a family that is going to do a baptism.” He came back refreshed. “And that’s something,” he says, “that kind of surprised me.”

Sweet is a writer in the Public Affairs office at Amherst.