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Captain Ralph Potts, sailor and storyteller, dies at 82

Obituary

Published 20/09/2016

Captain Ralph Potts
Captain Ralph Potts

Captain Ralph McKnight Potts, who died, aged 82, last Wednesday, led a seaborne life that took him from the Belfast docks to the rivers of South America.

Born in 1933, he founded the Merchant Navy Association of Northern Ireland and ran his own shipping company.

As a child, he had to quickly adapt to a tough life, selling wares from a little handcart in Sailortown.

His mother Sadie, a dressmaker, used to send the young Potts to mansions in Malone to deliver her handmade garments.

In 1949, Captain Potts joined the Merchant Navy as an officer cadet, aged just 16. A year later, he was at the helm of the 10,000 ton Esso Bristol as it sailed down the San Juan River in Venezuela.

His voyages took him from Singapore to Aruba, but it was the trips to America that would prove most important.

The bomber jacket and transatlantic accent he picked up there helped him to sweep Sheelagh, his bride-to-be, off her feet.

The couple married in 1956 but Captain Potts was soon back at sea, working hard to rise through the ranks.

The strain of being away from home for so long began to wear, and Captain Potts returned to land during the 1970s to manage his own shipping company. At its peak, the Potts Line had a dozen ships chartered, but the global downturn forced him to return to sea. It wasn't until a heart attack in 1992 that he finally retired from the shipping lanes.

But his greatest challenge came in 2006 when his wife became ill - while he had been captain at sea, Sheelagh had the helm at home for half a century. However, Captain Potts quickly perfected his cooking and baking.

His family remember him for his kindness, "terrier-like" determination and his treasure trove of sailor's stories.

He is survived by his wife Sheelagh; children David, Heather and Michael; and grandchildren Rioghnach, Patrick, Sam, Luke and Mariette. A memorial service will take place at St George's Church, High Street, Belfast, at 11am next Monday.

Belfast Telegraph

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