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At the Helm with Rives Potts

In the ESPN Films/Grantland documentary, Ted Turner’s Greatest Race, we learn about the 1979 Fastnet yacht race in which the media tycoon’s boat, Tenacious, won the day. To do that, it had to navigate a cruel storm that killed 15 competing yachtsmen and three rescuers, sinking five boats and capsizing 75. By all accounts an able skipper, Turner credited his crew for winning – and surviving.

Aboard Tenacious for that remarkable voyage was a young sail trimmer named Rives Potts. The Virginia Military Institute graduate and Darden School MBA had a vital (and seemingly impossible) task: harnessing storm winds. This he did, well.

That was 36 years ago. Rives Potts has continued to master the winds – of life, business, and most of all, sailing. He went on to crew Dennis Conner’s yacht, Freedom, to win the 1980 America’s Cup. In that race, Freedom was representing the New York Yacht Club. Fast-forward to now, and Potts is Commodore of that illustrious organization. He is also president of Brewer Yacht Yard Group, headquartered in Westbrook, Connecticut. A long-time shoreline resident, Potts speaks with candor and wit about sailing as a passion, and as a metaphor.

In some ways, speaking with Potts calls to mind the old expression, “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” He embraces native risk with a sportsman’s poise.

“In any sport, whether it’s NASCAR racing, football … whatever, there’s always an element of danger,” he says. “We compete partly because there is that uncertainty. In sailboat racing, it’s certainly there. You can sail a thousand times and never encounter a storm. Then that one storm reminds you who’s boss.”

For most people, one severe storm would be enough to establish the ocean’s supremacy. Potts knows this fear as few do, but it didn’t scare him off. “The most frightened I’ve ever been was when I was 11 years old,” he says. “I was sailing with my father and a friend of mine in a race down the Chesapeake Bay. A storm blew up. People think of storms being particularly terrible in the ocean. But you don’t have a lee shore on the open ocean; you’re not getting blown toward something you’re going to crash on.” Like the shores of Chesapeake Bay.

As that storm tossed their boat like a toy, lightening struck the mast and sent it crashing over the side. Other boats capsized. A few other sailors perished. “It was a very, very rough race,” Potts says. “I think it was worse than the ’79 Fastnet race. We made it through okay, but I was afraid. Good thing my father was there. My friend and I were hiding down in the cabin scared to death. My father was like a rock.”

That experience made a lasting impression. It taught Potts some truths about sailing and fear, life and resilience. “Once you’ve gone through a terrible storm like that, the next storms are never quite so bad because you know what to expect,” he says. “You know you can make it through. You know if you have a well-found boat, you’re going to be okay. You gain confidence in yourself, your shipmates and your vessel.”

Happily for Potts, it’s not all peril and adrenaline. “I love sitting on the boat in the harbor having a drink with friends, or dining with my family. And I love just sailing.” He’s quite enamored of sailing from Newport to Long Island at a leisurely pace, or to any of the many lovely coves and harbors in the Northeast. Still, Potts’ 48-foot sloop Carina is a very winning boat. Carina

Yacht racing doesn’t have a Triple Crown-style triumvirate. What it has are the Newport-Bermuda Race, the Fastnet, and the Sydney Hobart. Each covers 600-plus miles and draws the world’s most competitive yachtsmen. Carina had a stellar track record under previous owner Richard Nye, and particularly with the Potts family at the helm. Carina won “the Bermuda Race,” as it’s known, in 2010 and again in 2012 (one of only three boats ever to do so). To the uninitiated that looks like skill – and it is. But Potts is philosophical about his wins, giving a big nod to fate.

“The wind is fickle,” he says. “You could be just a mile away from somebody, and they can have a much more favorable wind. A good dose of luck is welcome by all sailors, and I am no different. Although thorough preparation and surrounding yourself with good crew is the real key to success, luck is still an important component. And we have certainly had our share.”

Along the Connecticut shoreline, Potts gets to flex his skills (and test his luck) at will. “We have a great maritime tradition here,” he says. “We have a coast that’s 100-plus miles long. We have Long Island Sound. The Atlantic Ocean is only 35 miles away. There are many great harbors, and there is a wonderful sailing community along the entire coast. We are very fortunate to live, work and sail here.”

A major aspect of Potts’ maritime life is his career with Brewer Yacht Yards, where he has worked for more than 35 years. With 24 locations in six states, their marinas and boat yards service, repair and refit all types (and ages) of boats. An engineer by training, he has always had a keen interest in making boats stronger and faster.

“The tools, materials, computer programs, and online analysis we have today enable us to build, repair and restore boats better than we could even three years ago,” he says. “Boats were once all built out of wood, then steel, aluminum, and fiberglass. Now, high-tech boats use elements like carbon fiber, and materials that allow the same shape, but weigh considerably less with a lot more strength.”

Being president of Brewer is a demanding job. Fortunately, Potts’ favorite stress reliever is also his work and his passion.

“I suspect it’s the combination of the sun, the night sky full of stars, the saltwater, the clean air and the camaraderie of your shipmates that make life on the water very special,” he says. “It allows one to feel free and lucky to be alive.”

Whether people sail for ease or glory, they’re pursuing a sense of freedom. Potts is a big believer in that feeling. “I think sailing is very pure,” he says. “You’re not using fossil fuels, only the wind. It just feels right. I’m one of the lucky people that has been able to combine my vocation and my avocation. I love working on boats, talking about boats, and sailing on boats.” These things he also does, often – and well.

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