To be in conversation with Paul Baker is to be taken on a white water ride through his interesting life so far. Paul began his martime journey whilst dingy sailing at the age of thirteen, and quickly found he had the taste for being at sea. He found courage to support an inexperienced crew through a mid Atlantic hurricane which was a life changing experience in itself.
Darjeeling taken black is Paul’s tea of choice but he settles for English Breakfast and I sip my very un-English flat white as Paul’s story unfolds.
“As an army family we travelled extensively. I am the youngest of three and I think my parents despaired as to what to do with me at times. He laughs. I remember one summer my parents enrolled me on a dingy sailing course. I had never sailed before but by the end of the summer I was teaching the other kids how to do it! I had a complete epiphany realising even then that sailing was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I think I can say that my whole life has been shaped by my love of sailing and boats.”
So it was only fitting that Paul came to Southampton at the age of eighteen to study boat building and boat yard management at the Southampton Institute.
Paul remembers, “It was a fabulous course but it was definitely the practical side- the actual building of boats – that excited me. I managed to get some work experience with a traditional boat builder on the Thames. There was a particular week which I spent lying on my back in the cold Autumnal mud hammering copper nails through the bottom of a boat we were restoring, whist my boss bent the ends over from inside the hull. By the end of the week I was in glorious agony but there was no way you could give in. It was tough training but it taught me that determination and dedication pays off and has formed the basis of the way I work to this day.”
Paul later worked at Cobbs Quay in Poole Harbour run by the uncompromising Eric Scobble where Paul was involved in interior fit outs of custom built yachts. Using matching veneers there was no room for error.
His boat building journey has subsequently taken him to Russia (Archangel) where he worked in a shipyard on the banks of the Davina River. This in turn led him to Turkey, Holland, Ireland, Sweden and Norway but always seeking the ‘difficult’ jobs, always prepared to take the path less trodden, to seek new ideas and experiences.
In 1998 Paul finally set up his own business working with the renown Steve Etheridge in Lymington where they built large and often complex components for super yachts. But sadly the 2008 recession brought that to a crashing halt.
I wonder what Paul’s favourite
“Known as ‘S and S’, Sparkman and Stephens designs are in my opinion the best designed contemporary boats while William Fife and G.L Watson designed and built the most beautiful boats of yesteryear. It goes back to the old adage that if something looks right it probably is right.”
The sea is our last great wilderness for which I have a huge love and respect. I have sailed across the Atlantic, in the Arctic, the Baltic, the North and Irish Sea, the English Channel, around cape horn and across the Indian Ocean. Without doubt we are ruining our fabulous environment. When sailing back across the Atlantic we encountered so much rubbish in the ocean it was shocking.”
Sailing into rubbish is a real danger on the ocean but Paul has had more than that to cope with. While sailing across the Atlantic with William and Max, a young and inexperienced crew, they were engulfed by a hurricane.
“My sailing experience and knowledge proved vital. Clearly there’s no point in attempting sail in what were mountainous seas and ragging winds, so we took in all sail and dragged weighted ropes and chains astern to slow us down. This meant we were pulled back up over the waves as opposed to surfing down the front of them in an uncontrollable slalom.
We were blown hugely off course but that didn’t matter. The hurricane passed and the sun came out, we had survived! Besides I’m not a racer, I’m a sailor. One of the best sights I have ever seen was the Lizard Point off Cornwall. Those beautiful cliffs plunging into the sea – Britain’s green and pleasant land was a very welcome sight. Once safely in Falmouth Will, Max and I agreed we needed beer, burgers and cheese, very good it was too.”
But what of boat building?
“I was running my own business when the 2008 recession hit. We basically fell of the edge of a cliff. Boats just where not being built. I closed the business down as a form of damage limitation before things became really bad, a decision which still hurts to this day. But serendipity intervened and I was fortunate enough to be asked to completely renovate a dilapidated barn for a friend, from a shell of a building to a home. My new business grew from there really and has kept me busy to this day.
There is nothing I like better than when a client says ‘I have this mad idea’ and they show me their design. I always know I can build it. But I’m not a technological person, the best computer I have is the one between my ears. When presented with a tricky problem I spend as much time as I can thinking about it and just let my hands do the rest.”
This level of expertise and knowledge proved invaluable for Paul’s involvement with the Exbury Egg project.
“A chance meeting with an old friend led to me building the wooden Egg that was inspired by artist Stephen Turner as a home and studio from which he has explored the relationship between nature, man and the community. It was a fantastic project taking seven months to complete and becoming all consuming. A bit of my soul is definitely still with the Egg.”
The Exbury Egg has since received global recognition, has recently toured the UK including a visit to our own city of Portsmouth and was featured on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces TV program and in his book of the same name.
What next for Paul Baker?
“Certainly to continue to develop my business. I feel extremely privileged to be able to live and work in a beautiful community like Alresford doing what I do. Getting up in the morning is never a problem. But eventually I’m planning to sail the original route of the Whitbread Round the World Race where my family will be able to come out and join me at the stopovers.”
What will he miss on that
“I never drink alcohol and sail so really good English ale and of course good fresh food. But as my wife will tell you I do enjoy an occasional Fray Bentos pie so no doubt I will find room for a few of them on board!”
Until that time the charismatic Paul Baker will continue to do
the other love of his life,
“I make and fix things”. He says simply.
Paul Baker does that extremely well.