One of the finest windsurfers Britain has ever produced and six-times indoor world champion, Nik Baker, gives us a very candid insight into his life and the secrets of his success.
I don’t know why, but in everything I have ever done I have I have always tried to do my absolute best, especially if I enjoyed it. I liked going to school and seeing my friends and hanging out. I did not enjoy the academic side of school. If I had applied myself to that as well I could have been really good at things (laughs). On the windsurfing and sports side, I always tried my hardest. Now I have translated that into my work with Boards & More (manufacturer of Fanatic, ION and Duotone) after retiring from windsurfing.
I have something in me that gives me drive. I feed that drive with needing to be the best. There is always more you can do. You will never be the best for ever. Once you are the best at something, be it world champion windsurfer or whatever, there is always somebody after your crown. There will always be someone pushing you that will make you keep driving harder. That constant, daily, weekly and monthly drive is what gives me a purpose.
Dedication and hard work were key for me to be the best across the board. I would concentrate on training physically, getting the right mindset and using the best equipment by working with board shapers and sailmakers. I was testing and developing constantly because I was a different size. It also helped that I lived with one of the most competitive people on the planet…Jason Polakow! I hung around with him for about fifteen years. I thought I was bad, but you have no idea what he was like. He comes across so cool, relaxed and chilled at times, but everything he did was a race or a competition. We would race cars to the beach in Gran Canaria every day. His competitiveness helped push me massively. Polakow realty kept my drive alight. Some of my best heats were competing against Jason. I would always really want to win against him! Because of who he is and how good he was, there were only a few times I actually beat him, but it was all friendly once we were back home off the water. If he beat me or I won a competition, we didn’t take that home and just got on with the next event. We supported each other. The other beauty is that he would not want to win something by cheating and I felt the same way as well. He would not cut a corner to win something. If it was a car race home that was a different story, he would ride up the wrong side of the road, but he would not cheat in any way during a competition. You had to do it fair. If you knew you had cheated, then you would know you did not really win.
Being professional with a routine was also key. If you knew your rival was getting up to go the beach at eight in the morning, you would get up at seven-thirty or six! We used to get up at 6:30 a.m. every morning to go for a cycle in Hawaii. We would ride all around the island up to 50 km at least four or five times a week. We would then come home, have breakfast and go to the gym with MPG for an hour of training. Imagine what it was like back then with all those guys. There was Jason, Robby Swift, Micah Buzianis and our trainer Scott Sanchez pushing us. Then we would go on the water or go to the factory to check a board or work on a sail. I would be at different beaches, training and testing every day. Sometimes we would go for another cycle at the end of the day. That was every day! Which is why when I stopped that I went from being 79 kilos to 99 kilos! Luckily, I have managed to trim that back down now!
Excellence is simply being the best you can be! When you are competing like I did in windsurfing, you are obviously pitching yourself against other rivals. That is what can give you the drive to do your best. In business it is a bit different. Also, in life being a father or a friend or whatever, excellence is different. You don’t have a person to judge yourself against. You can only judge yourself against yourself. Ultimately if you do a little bit better each day, even if it is one small thing, then you are already doing better. At the end of the day for me, I am just trying to improve myself, which has been a hell of a journey for me over the last ten years I can tell you!
I have had a lot of defining moments in my life. I was on tour for twenty years from age eighteen to thirty-eight. I had some incredible times. It was an absolutely amazing career. I was six-times indoor world champion and I won the Aloha Classic, which in my heart was the biggest victory to me. There is not one defining moment in my career though, but lot of pivotal things happened when I was younger and on tour. I was travelling and on my own from such a young age. I missed a lot of things that I didn’t realize. You are hiding from that through the excitement of travelling and competing. A defining moment was when I got married and had children. Everyone says it I know, but having kids is the biggest impact on your life. You can’t just get rid of them! I have been married and been divorced unfortunately, but your kids are still there of course. They are there every day of your life! So I would say having children had the biggest impact in my life.
After all that travelling and competing, I came back to live at home after living the dream and coming into the opportunity that Boards and More gave me as being the UK agent for them. It was a total life change. My marriage eventually broke down after a few years of living my life the way I used to. That dedication, that drive, that work ethic, I kept it up and that affected my marriage. I could not see it. I did not want to see it I suppose. I needed to get my new business off the ground and because I did not retire in an appropriate manner, I was not ready for it! I was not prepared for that switch of lifestyle properly, it just sort of happened.
Then my divorce came about. That really was a bad time with the separation of my family. As time went on down the road from there, eventually everything exploded. My life was impacted for a while; the bottom dropped out of it. Suddenly I had to say to myself, ‘hang on’. Who am I? What am I? The person I thought I was all those years ago, now I am not that person. I had to look at things differently.
When I retired from my job as a windsurfer, which was amazing and something I loved, I left my ‘windsurfing family’ behind, which was Jason, Jason’s parents, Mark Nelson, Kai Hopff and all those guys I grew up with for twenty years. Suddenly they were all gone and I did not realize how that would impact me. I had been riding high on windsurfing for twenty years and had to find the adrenaline in different ways. Other people do drugs and drink alcohol, but that has never been my style and I have never been that way. I suppose my divorce probably was the defining moment. If I had been able to sort out my life prior to that, then things would have carried on. Because I ended up in a divorce and losing my family unit, it was probably the catalyst for the biggest change in my life.
That is a tricky one. I spent twenty years thinking about one person. Literally all I had to think about was myself. I was totally selfish. Which at the time you could justify. I had to be selfish to succeed in what I was doing. My wife was really chilled and relaxed and didn’t have an issue with me travelling and effectively being selfish. She had a nice life from what I was doing. When my life changed, then that selfishness worked against me. All the things that I put in place all those years that got me through, dedication and mindset etc., all worked against me back in the normal world. I had no balance in life if I am honest. The way I got through my days was to keep working. My parents always pushed that on me also to work hard. Put that effort in and you will succeed kind of ethic. It is true to a point, but there has to be, especially as you get older, a bit more balance. When you are younger and working hard, you can still play hard. You don’t have kids to worry about and business matters. I have learned, especially since lockdown, that I need that balance. I have had such a life change since lockdown. A lot of people have of course. I have been incredibly lucky that my life changes have been massively positive. Unfortunately, this period has not been so great for many other people. We have been so busy at work and selling lots of product, that I have realized that at times I just need to put my phone down. At times before if I was not in the office, I was still on my phone. I would answer the phone day or night. I will do that at certain times, but it is not constant now. I will go home and just switch the phone off. Occasionally I will go cycling or go windsurfing or wing foiling with the guys and just switch the phone off too and say sorry, but I am in my wetsuit. My sports are an important part of my life, if I can’t do them or enjoy myself, then I cannot do all the work that I do every day so well. To have that balance makes me more productive and effective. I also want to give my kids my time. I had them last weekend and we had a great time. If I can’t give them the time, then who am I?
Prior to Jason Polakow, Robby Naish was always my hero. I know him well and he has had some tough times in his life too. That just shows he is human and the same things can happen to anyone. We are all human at the end of the day. There are so many great champions out there. Look at what Bjorn achieved. His mindset was amazing. He even won in disciplines he should not have done well in. He did well in indoors for goodness sake! He was huge, but still won at Ho’okipa when you just shouldn’t have done at 95 kgs. Outside of windsurfing I looked up to Michael Jordan for a long time. I watched the Jordan series, The Last Dance, on Netflix recently. It brought back so many emotions from when I was on tour. Kelly Slater was another one. He is another guy I admired and still do. He started his career at the same time as myself and Jason. We went on the same journey, just not on Oahu but on Maui. Valentino Rossi also is an idol and I watch a lot of motorbike racing. Motorbikes have been my thing I do away from the water. I have never met him, but he is someone that from what I have seen and read, the way he lives his life and enjoys and has pushed his career, he has inspired me. I try to look more within myself than at other people these days.
Dealing with competition nerves was a thing I was a master at. I would actually give myself a pat on the back for handling the stress the way I did. I don’t think I trained for it. I left home early at sixteen years old. I love being at home, having home comforts and friends and family around me. The fact that I spent all that time travelling out of a suitcase for competitions was always a strain on me. When I did retire, I did not want to travel or go anywhere for a long time. I just wanted to be at home and wake up in my house with my clothes hanging up in my closet. I think from travelling and leaving home and my family and friends, I learned to switch my emotions off. My dad can do it as well. He will just switch off sometimes when there is a situation and just stay cool and chilled. For twenty years it was an amazing thing to be able to do. Recently, I heard an interview with Scott Sanchez where they asked him who was the best at switching on and off during competitions and he said it was me. I could be on the beach, having a laugh with the boys and suddenly the green flag would go up and I could literally flip a switch and go straight into my competition mindset. From the moment I picked up my kit I could just put the world away and perform better than in my free sailing.
I thrived from being in the heat of the moment. In the free sailing the days before a competition in places like Gran Canaria, I wouldn’t necessarily excel because it was port tack and I bloody hate port tack. I was a Shoreham and Maui boy! I would look at so many other sailors that were just night and day better than me on the water. But I would not go out trying the stupid stuff I could not land consistently. I would go out and, in my head, I would do a heat all the time. I would wave ride and practice the jumps I knew I could land in eight to ten minutes. I knew I could do a back loop no problem time after time. Even if it was the last five seconds of a heat where I might need a good jump, you are not going to do the jump you landed three out of ten times! You have to do a jump you have landed ninety-five per cent of the time. I could do that. For some reason it just came to me and I liked that pressure. Levi Siver was more talented than me, I can tell you that. His style looks amazing most of the time, but in a heat, he got a bit nervous and struggled with the situation. Goya was the same until that one year he managed to put it all together. Their level went down a notch in a heat, whereas mine went up two notches. I think it was because I could switch my emotions off, which allowed me to focus. I have always liked that pressure. I have been trying to learn to move away from that in real life. I need that adrenaline to give me the focus.
When I was on tour I didn’t switch off. I would compete at everything, be it cycling or even at the gym. It was non-stop. Occasionally I would come home and manage to go motorbike riding, but I had to be careful with that as a sportsman. It was my little escape. I am fifty tomorrow and for twenty-five years I have wanted to do a motorbike race, but I couldn’t when I was on tour. Finally, I have entered my first motorbike race which I am doing at the end of the month. But for the most part during my career, I didn’t really switch off from that whole non–stop training and competition mindset.
I liked steak and chicken, but since lockdown I have changed a lot of things. I am back into my cycling and have lost two and a half stone in the last year. I have hardly eaten meat for the last three or four months. I have just started to throw a bit of fish into my diet and have the odd bit of meat because I don’t want to make a thing about it. I wanted to do it for my health and just to see how it was to go more vegan. I used to and still do love pasta. When we were younger, I could eat pasta for breakfast lunch and dinner. We had no money and would go to the Canary Islands and eat pasta with tomato or chicken. If it was tomato pasta it with Heinz tomato soup poured on it, and if it was chicken pasta it was chicken soup on top!
For me it felt like I had a ‘Rocky moment’ every event! I was bloody useless at starting an event it always seemed. I always came back through the double eliminations and that was because it put the pressure on me! There are two incidences that come to mind. One of them was in Gran Canaria on the first day of slalom sailing when I was on a 4.2m sail doing proper slalom sailing. It was forty-five knots and cranking to the point where they could barely get the boats out. It was gnarly as hell. A lot of the guys were on wave sails, it was so radical. We did two rounds on the first day and in the second heat I wiped out and broke my boom. In the second round I broke my mast and had another disaster. It felt like there was no coming back from that. I think I was 54th after day one, but I finished the event in second or third. I did not miss a beat for the rest of the competition. That was a ‘Rocky moment’. At the end of that competition, I think I was sick for three days because I had put so much into it. Once I had stopped and relaxed it hit me. My body had had enough.
The next ‘Rocky moment’ was the O’Neill wave event in 1995 at Ho’okipa where I was the first European to win a single elimination. It was a four–man heat with Kalama, Goya and I think Bjorn. I won that and had to wait for three or four days for the double elimination final. I tweaked all the ligaments in my knee while I was training. I could not believe it. I managed to sail with pain killers. Bjorn came through and beat me in the first double final and he had the momentum going. I made a rookie move in the second double elimination final and Bjorn beat me again. I was overpowered and messed up. He became the first European to win a Hawaiian wave contest. That really hurt me. I thought I had one over on Bjorn but he took it away.
Four years later I was back at the scene of the crime at Ho’okipa in 1999 at the Aloha Classic. I had won the single elimination which I could not believe. The double elimination was coming up and they had four days to do it. The winds were light and they were slowly inching towards the finals. There were twenty-minute heats and I was praying that they were not going to get through it. I did not want to go through what I had endured four years previously. On the last day of the event they were ploughing through it. It was mast high and light wind and Naish was coming back through the rounds! He was sailing well. It was about five in the evening when they reached the double elimination final. It was my first heat for four days and he had the momentum. I went out a long time before the heat just to get upwind and in a position to catch a wave. The wind was dropping and he was riding what we used to call ‘Coffee table number two’. It was this huge board he used to ride in light winds and It worked for him. I was on a 5.4m, which was a big sail for Ho’okipa, and a little 20.5” wide board up against his ‘Coffee table’! To cut a long story short, he beat me in the first final. I came back to the beach and remember being with Jason and my wife. I was thinking this is happening to me again. What could I do? Jason said to me, ‘just sail like you sail, all you need is two waves in fifteen minutes’. As I walked into the water, Robby said good luck to me. I know he is competitive and would do anything to win the event. He went straight out through the middle of Ho’okipa, which I just could not do with my equipment. There was no way I could do it. I was up to my knees in water. By the time I had managed to get out and tack on a swell, Robby had caught three or four waves. He was getting like forty turns a wave on that big board. I just had to focus and go for it. I had no choice. I needed the best two waves of my life.
I felt like I had a solid scoring first wave and that calmed my nerves. I kicked out into the channel and watched Robby catch more waves as I slowly drifted out. I looked at my watch and I had about nine minutes to catch one more wave. I had about a minute and a half left by the time I caught my second wave. I tacked onto this lovely north swell and just thought to myself to just go for it. I wanted to have a solid first turn and knew the rest of the wave would dictate itself from there. I forgot about the fact I was in a heat and just bottom turned, hooked under the lip and it just flowed. When I came into the beach, Jason told me I had it no problem. I think Robby had caught seven waves to my two. Jason just said, ‘Calm down you are fine!’. There was a nervous time on the beach while I waited for the result, but luckily I won on six judges out of seven!
WINNING OR MONEY
Winning was my motivation, aside from the early days where I was broke and earning cash from the events. When I started competing I was eating potato wedges from the gas station in Maui because they were cheap and filling. Every dollar at that time was towards the next competition. I would look at my results and work out if I had enough to get home and pay for my excess baggage. After that I did not think about the money. I was fortunate that I had amazing sponsors through my career. It was all about bettering myself and ultimately beating the guy next to me. Actually, what I have learned since I have retired, is that it wasn’t even about any of that. It was more about justifying who I am to the world. I have never really been an overly confident guy. I might seem it to some people, but I have always doubted myself. I have always never quite felt good enough. But by standing on top of a world champion podium with the rest of the competition below, that for me would justify that I was good enough to be there. I was good enough to please my parents and be satisfied in life generally. As time goes by and the more you are on top, the more that fix wears off. Winning an event at first the buzz lasted a few months, then it was a few days and it ended up by the time the champagne bottle had stopped fizzing I needed to do it again to get that fix. I had no idea until I retired that I realized that is largely why I did it.
It is so different in windsurfing now. When I competed, you didn’t have to be good at one discipline. Look at Gollito, he was incredible at freestyle and won many world titles. He is an amazing sailor all-round. But he has never won anything else. Victor Fernandez, what a lovely guy and an amazing talent. He is very dedicated and has time for anybody. Maybe he is too nice for his own good, he could have won more titles. But none of these guys won anything else like we had to do. We would be in Gran Canaria racing on 4.5m slalom gear and then have to go into waves in the afternoon. I was racing with twelve kilos of lead on my back with five or six sails rigged on the beach, racing against Bjorn. I was barely able to walk by the time I came in. I had to shove pasta down my throat as well as protein bars so I could be ready to wave sail in the afternoon. Then I would have to rig up my 3.2m, 3.7m and 4.1m ready for waves. Jason would be just sitting there, relaxing and all prepared and fresh. I would then be doing a wave or freestyle heat even. I was second in the world in freestyle twice I think. Then we would pack up and do it all again in Tenerife and then Fuerteventura. The wave guys would go home back to Maui! Now the guys just do three or four wave events or freestyle events a year. It is not their fault, but it was so different back then.
Bjorn Dunkerbeck, Robby, and the likes of myself and the Pritchards were in a different era. You had to do everything back then. There were seventeen or eighteen events a year with all that equipment. Just the travelling in itself was crazy. It was a sport in itself. But still today there are some amazing talents. Pierre Mortefon has overcome a lot of his fears. Antoine Albeau has won for so many years. He is also a great sailor. Pierre could not beat him because he did not believe in himself. Then he did it once and suddenly, he was on top. Brawzinho has always been a sailor I have looked up to. I like him as a character, he has so much power in his sailing and he works hard at it. He is a nice guy, fiery and passionate. He has a family as well now, so he has that balance in his life. There are lots of guys out there that are incredible talents. It is simply different to how we did it back in the day. I would love to see it come back where the guys have to do three disciplines. Imagine slalom, waves and freestylers all mixing together! That would be something. If they put an onus on an overall trophy, it would be interesting to see how many guys would do it. There are many amazing sailors out there, but it is all done slightly differently these days.