pier to peer

Tommy Baker on boats, business and boot camp

Yachts International - - Contents - By Jil Bo­brow

Tommy Baker is just the type you’d ex­pect to see play­ing the role of the dap­per South­ern gen­tle­man pro­tag­o­nist on the sil­ver screen, and he wouldn’t re­ally be act­ing. From across the room, his lilt­ing drawl eas­ily car­ries above the din of fel­low mer­ry­mak­ers. It’s not that he strives to hold cen­ter stage. He is, quite sim­ply, a cap­ti­vat­ing con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. De­cid­edly dis­tin­guished in a pa­tri­ar­chal man­ner, Baker ap­pears a ver­i­ta­ble sil­ver fox sport­ing a healthy tan, which com­ple­ments his sil­ver hair and match­ing mus­tache. He is the con­sum­mate host.

The scene: New­port, Rhode Is­land, late sum­mer dur­ing the New­port Bucket Re­gatta. Baker’s 88-foot (26.8-me­ter) Ray­burn Lady Vic­to­ria is stern to the dock at New­port Ship­yard amid a fleet of sail­ing yachts, and he is host­ing a full-tilt lob­ster bake astern, while on the up­per deck, shucked oys­ters and clams galore are at the ready on a trough of chipped ice. Sig­na­ture cock­tails and white wine flow freely. Baker is sur­rounded by an ar­ray of guests. Laugh­ter abounds.

This sce­nario tick­les Charlie Dana, owner of the ship­yard, who ex­claims, “The motto of the Bucket sail­ing re­gat­tas is to win the party, and here is a go@#damned power­boat guy host­ing the best party of all.” Dana [Pier To Peer, De­cem­ber 2013] and Baker are long­time bud­dies and fel­low board mem­bers, so I ask Dana point blank: What at­tribute best de­fines Tommy Baker? Dana smiles and with­out miss­ing a beat says, “Gen­eros­ity of spirit. And you never want to com­pete with him; only follow him.”

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Baker has trav­eled far and wide, but the South is in his soul, and with homes in his­toric Charleston as well as on Sul­li­van’s Is­land, there is no ques­tion he’s a Low­coun­try boy. After high school, Baker en­listed in the Marine Corps and his tour of duty took him as far from his roots as Ok­i­nawa, Ja­pan. Im­bued with a pa­tri­otic spirit, he re­turned and en­rolled in The Ci­tadel, South Carolina’s mil­i­tary col­lege. A ca­reer in the mil­i­tary seems an un­likely segue to the au­to­mo­bile business, yet, fol­low­ing all that train­ing, Baker be­gan sell­ing au­to­mo­biles with one deal­er­ship be­fore ex­pand­ing to many oth­ers across the South. En­tre­pre­neur­ial and al­ways seek­ing a way to im­prove the sta­tus quo, Baker went back to school for business in 1988, at what he af­fec­tion­ately refers to as “a quaint lit­tle univer­sity on the bank of the Charles River”—humbly re­frain­ing from ut­ter­ing the word Har­vard.

Jill Bo­brow: How did you get into yacht­ing?

Tommy Baker: I grew up around the wa­ter and oc­ca­sion­ally would go out on a Sail­fish, but I did not come from a boat­ing fam­ily, and I could not af­ford a boat un­til I was about 40 years old. How­ever, I do have a fun anec­dote for you: There was an area on Sul­li­van’s Is­land called Ski Beach where there was a ski ramp. You

didn’t have to have a boat—just wa­ter skis, and you could al­ways go and grab a tow even with­out a boat. I loved that place and it was a dream of mine to one day live there. I now have a house right on Breach In­let with the ocean on one side and the water­way on the other. It doesn’t get much bet­ter than that.

JB: What other child­hood dreams have you ful­filled or do you still hope to re­al­ize?

TB: Well if you mean, ‘Do I have a bucket list,’ not re­ally. I don’t waste time wait­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties to do things. I have run with the bulls in Pam­plona. I played fan­tasy base­ball with the Yan­kees. I do ev­ery­thing I want to do. I did Marine boot camp at the age of 50—the only civil­ian in the group, we did some­thing called the cru­cible, which lasted 72 hours, com­plete with crazy forced marches.

JB: Be­sides keep­ing fit, what else is most im­por­tant to you in life?

TB: My wife of over 30 years, Vickie, my fam­ily, my grand­ba­bies—I have been blessed in life. I make a nice liv­ing. I have ev­ery­thing I want. By the way, you know, we are just bor­row­ing all this ‘stuff.’ I firmly be­lieve in giv­ing some­thing back to the right peo­ple and the right or­ga­ni­za­tions.

JB: How do you de­cide which or­ga­ni­za­tions are the right ones?

TB: Chil­dren in need are an im­por­tant cause for me. I am on the board of the Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal at Med­i­cal Univer­sity of South Carolina, and I used to be quite in­volved with the Duke Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal in Durham, North Carolina. I ini­ti­ated golf fundrais­ers for both. We raise a lot of money through those tour­na­ments. I prob­a­bly shouldn’t men­tion any of my causes by name be­cause I am bound to get into trou­ble with those I don’t men­tion, but I don’t mind bring­ing up a great group called YES­carolina, an or­ga­ni­za­tion in which kids across the state cre­ate, pitch and can launch vi­able busi­nesses with a lit­tle help.

JB: You seem to en­joy your work.

TB: Baker Mo­tor Company is my vo­ca­tion, but my av­o­ca­tion is be­ing a col­lege pro­fes­sor. I taught business at the Col­lege of Charleston for 22 years. The pay wasn’t very good, but the po­si­tion came with a de­cent park­ing place.

JB: How do boats fit into your life?

TB: I love be­ing on my boat. I’d rather be on a boat than in any ho­tel any day. We love New­port in the sum­mer: Be­ing at the Bucket is fun, and we get to go out and watch the races. A boat is an in­ti­mate place to en­ter­tain friends and a great way to have the fam­ily around me.

JB: Where else do you like to cruise?

TB: We have a pat­tern. We start in Charleston, then go to New Eng­land for the sum­mer and fall, then back to South Carolina, then to Palm Beach and the Ba­hamas in the win­ter. Then we re­verse it. It’s not at all te­dious.

JB: What kind of re­la­tion­ship do you have with your cap­tains and crew?

TB: I re­spect them. I had a very spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with my for­mer cap­tain, who un­for­tu­nately passed away. I was then very lucky to be able to hire Timmy Laugh­ridge. I’ve had this Ray­burn since 2005. Timmy took her from be­ing a good boat to be­ing a great boat. He is the con­sum­mate yachts­man, and he has very high stan­dards, for which I am grate­ful.

JB: Did you have other boats be­fore Lady Vic­to­ria?

TB: I used to have a 55-foot Huck­ins. I liked it so much I bought and sold it twice in a span of 18 years. I also used to be a part­ner in an 85-foot Trumpy, but then my part­ner couldn’t de­cide which half I owned. Lady Vic­to­ria is my main boat now.

JB: Beyond per­sonal plea­sure craft, I heard you re­cently bought the 140-foot tall ship Spirit of South Carolina.

TB: It was a pur­chase of pas­sion. Ev­ery scrap of wood that went into her was from the area. Even though she’s a fairly new train­ing ship, she had fallen un­der some eco­nomic hard­ships. I bought her with a part­ner, Mikey Ben­nett, to be able to pre­serve her for the state and to keep her in Charleston. She is not re­ally our boat; we are merely custodians.

JB: See another boat in your fu­ture?

TB: I know she’s out there and she’s look­ing for me, and I am look­ing for her.

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