“We’ve both always had an attraction to the wild places — to remoteness, isolation, what some would call desolation, especially when it’s combined with a diverse and thriving natural environment.”
CHOCTAW — At their home a few miles south of Clinton, Randy and Cheryl Baker have a yard, a carport and a driveway. They have a small storage building out back, and if they need groceries they can drive to Walmart.
It was not always like this.
For over 20 years the Bakers, who grew up in Clinton, lived aboard Caribee, a 32-foot sailing yacht. Instead of a yard, they had the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico or the South Pacific. When they needed something to eat, they caught fish or took their dinghy ashore to pick up supplies in whatever town or island they were anchored near.
Their neighbors and friends were fellow “cruisers,” a subculture of sailors who lived aboard their boats and sailed wherever their whims took them. In the Bakers’ case, this meant Tahiti, Fiji, the Cayman Islands, Panama, the Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Belize and other far-flung locales.
They were also tossed about by storms, including a harrowing run-in with Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and survived the deadly 2009 tsunami that hit Pago Pago.
The self-published book opens with their Andrew experience, which happened just 10 days after they set sail, and ends with Baker’s thrilling account of the tsunami.
In between, he brings the reader aboard Caribee with himself and Cheryl and recounts stories from their travels. The book is filled with characters like Jomo and Helper of the island nation St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who the Bakers rescued and who showed them a side of the island tourists never see; Finn, the hard-drinking cook they met at Alligator Cay in Belize and a surprisingly friendly dolphin named Honey.
LONGING FOR THE LIFE
Randy, 66, and Cheryl, 63, are seated at a round table just off their newly remodeled kitchen. The dreariness of the rainy, cold February day outside is a stark contrast to the sunny photographs of beaches, blue water and Caribee the Bakers are clicking through in a folder on their laptop.
Randy’s father, Aaron, owned a construction company, where Randy worked after graduating from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Cheryl also attended the U of A and became a dental hygienist. After college, they lived together in Clinton.
It was the final day of a scuba diving trip to Cozumel. They were sipping beer at a funky beachfront bar and not exactly looking forward to returning to Clinton when he saw two couples on a sailboat anchored just off the beach.
The deeply tanned people on that sailboat “… acted like they were home,” Randy writes. “It looked like they might be living a lifestyle rather than taking a vacation.”
It was on this trip, while anchored at Marathon, Fla., that they befriended others who lived and sailed on their boats.
“I think what inspired them is probably similar to what happened to us,” Iribarren says from St. Augustine, Fla., where he lives now. “You start meeting people and realize that there’s this whole lifestyle out there that you didn’t know existed.”
“You could have heard a pin drop,” Cheryl says of their reaction when she and Randy told them of their plans.
“Cheryl is gregarious, adventuresome and really athletic,” he says. “Randy is really methodical, and I think my dad, especially over time, was really kind of happy for them. It’s a heck of an adventure. My dad felt that Cheryl was safe with Randy.”
They bought the boat in May and sailed for the Bahamas in August.
Ten days into their trip, in Hatchet Bay off the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, they got smacked by Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 storm that battered the Bahamas, Florida and Louisiana, and killed 65 people.
“I think it was a few years before we really appreciated the lessons Andrew taught us,” Randy writes in Half Fast. “The storm was our trial-by-fire and we survived it to become stronger, more capable, more confident cruisers.”
LIFE ON THE WATER
“I think the most significant insight we gained from our travels is that in their essential nature all people are the same, no matter their culture, race, ethnicity or religion,” Randy writes in an email. “They all want the same things — a comfortable standard of living, stability in their lives, financial and physical security, good health care, freedom to direct their own lives and a better life for their children.”
Cheryl found work at a restaurant owned by a German man, and Randy worked as a first mate on a boat that took tourists snorkeling. He also was a carpenter for a local contractor. (One of his carpentry jobs was on Little St. James, the 72-acre private island that was owned by the late billionaire, convicted sex offender and sex trafficking suspect Jeffrey Epstein).
The restaurant owner would send food home with Cheryl, which helped them save money.
“We weren’t spending hardly anything on groceries,” she says.
“You don’t have a lot of expenses,” Randy says of life on the boat. “You don’t have rent, you don’t have vehicles, you don’t even need a lot of clothes, really.”
“People think you’re just sitting around drinking pina coladas, but it’s a lot of work,” Randy says.
MATES AND PARTNERS
How did they get along, living in such close quarters all that time?
“We get asked that a lot,” Cheryl says. “I think it made our relationship stronger.”
Randy adds in a later email that they were not only a couple but crew members on Caribee: “You feel a strong sense of shared responsibility for the safety of each other and the boat. That carries over to the rest of your relationship, I believe, and I know it brought us very much closer emotionally as a couple.”
After 15 years spent mostly in the Caribbean, they went through the Panama Canal and sailed the South Pacific.
The chapter about their time on the remote island of Kanton just might make a sailor out of the most dedicated landlubber, though the following chapter, a dramatic detailing of the horror of the tsunami after an offshore earthquake, is a serious reality check.
By 2012, they were coming back to Clinton regularly to care for Randy’s mother and aunt, leaving Caribee in Fiji. They finally sold the boat last year and live full-time in the home they inherited from Randy’s aunt.
After so long on the water living pretty much by their own rules, the Bakers seem relatively content to be back.
“This is a good place to live,” Cheryl says. “It feels like home.”
“We’ve talked about selling this out and maybe getting another boat,” Randy says. “But a boat is a lot of work, and I’ve gotten used to not doing boat work.”
Style on 02/25/2020