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A dream sails once more

A dream sails once more

Cold rain slides down the 20-foot windows as the fireplace crackles and warms the great room of the Rudy, Ark., home of Ralph and Cheryl Baker. Ralph lounges in a large leather chair and slowly sips his martini as he follows the long trek of the rain drops. His latest creation sails atop of the massive fireplace mantel, Flying Lady II.

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When he’s asked to explain why he would build a replica of a craft he had already built many years ago in real life, Baker answers in a “once upon a time voice,” lowered almost to a whisper.


“That boat represents adventure that few will ever know. I see Cheryl at the helm in the night during a gale. I see the morning sun break on the tedious horizon, native islanders running to the shore to greet us, sitting in their huts. We eat their food with our fingers and not understanding a word they spoke, and not really needing to. The boat had to exist – it symbolizes the realness of our journey.”


It’s a mystery, that a farm boy should hear the call of the sea – a call that would last 45 years and beckon Ralph Baker from Branch, Ark., to Alaska, back to the University of Arkansas’ School of Architecture and then to Fort Smith where he began a successful architectural design career. 


The call grew louder when Ralph and Cheryl bought a ready-made 18-foot sail boat and started sailing the white caps of Oklahoma’s Kerr Reservoir. Because of Ralph’s insatiable urge to build, they soon began building their own vessel, the 26-foot Least Tern. Sailing and the call of sea had set its hooks. They closed shop in Fort Smith and shipped the Least Tern to Seattle, Wash. 


On the big water, Least Tern proved less than adequate for serious ocean sailing. Survival became a serious consideration, so they decided to sell that craft and begin building something more substantial. 


In order to finance the venture, Ralph worked as an architect and Cheryl, an RN, worked as a hospital nurse. With the money from the sale of the Least Tern and their paychecks, two years later they christened the Flying Lady. From bow sprit to stern, she was a 49-foot, gaff-rigged ketch flying with an ambitious 92 square yards of sail. 


They commissioned Nick Benton, one of America’s most skilled riggers, to help with the very complicated rigging. Every part of a traditionally wood-built sailor (sail boat) has a purpose; there are no unessential elements on a sea-worthy boat. 


From Seattle the Bakers sailed. With salt spray in their faces, they tacked down the West Coast, south to San Francisco, all the while keeping land within spyglass distance. Finally, feeling their sea legs, Ralph and Cheryl hugged and with a big confident gulp, they turned the Flying Lady west and set sail for Hawaii. They originally had planned to sail back to San Francisco, but after experiencing Hawaii’s tropical beauty, Ralph said, “Cheryl, we’re in paradise, forget San Francisco.” They stocked the boat’s lauder and set sail for the South Seas. They would not return for 15 years.


There were many adventures during their odyssey; dropping anchor at many South Sea islands, and countries, principally, Japan and China.  They explored Jarvis Island, the island that some say was where the aviatrix Amelia Earhart mysteriously crashed and disappeared. They spent seven years in Okinawa, Japan, where Ralph worked as chief architect of military installations.


Today, Ralph and Cheryl are permanently docked and live north of Rudy on 27 acres they’ve named “Long Shadows,” in a home Ralph designed to fit organically into the wooded, sloped site. It reaches out to nature through tall windows and a series of decks that descend through the trees to a tranquil pond.


Their faces no longer glisten with sea spray, the sea no longer rises beneath, but the sea is still in the heart of a farm boy from Branch. When he recently decided to build an model of Flying Lady II, it became a 500-hour work of skill – and expletives. Ralph is a perfectionist by nature and often says, “That isn’t right; we’ll have to do it again.” 


He is a builder and, in his 80th year, is still building. He was bent on creating an exact replica. The miniature bunks, galley and chart table can be seen through the deck hatches. Though it can’t been seen, he even included the ribbing across the hull inside the boat. Flying Lady II is a boat that Lilliputians would have been proud to sail.  


When asked what was the most difficult part to replicate, Captain Baker (a certified Merchant Marine captain) replied, “Without a doubt the rigging. It’s very intricate and a helluva a lot of it.” He smiled and added, “Tying those little knots can drive you nuts. I had to cuss like sailor to get it done.” 


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Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online