pier to peer
Tommy Baker on boats, business and boot camp
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.