I moved to Encinitas in the summer of 1970 and quickly met a surfer my age on the beach at George’s. After he introduced himself as Tommy, we paddled out together, and I watched him tear into the little beach break waves with soul and style. Later I learned that I had just met Tommy Lewis, a legend in our town who had recently returned from an extended surfari to Puerto Rico.
Over the years, some of the details of Tommy Lewis’s life began to fill in — how he was one of the best surfers in town and born into a long line of fishermen, he himself being one of the last of the dory fishermen in Southern California.
I still recall a sunny summer day at George’s in the mid ’70s with a big 6- to 8-foot south swell running, waves closing out from Swami’s to Seaside, and Tommy surfing set waves in his skiff, pulling over the top, laughing at the top of his lungs just before the ocean collapsed beneath the hull. Later he told me how he had learned about the ocean through his father, Stan, a fisherman of renown in the area who would take his son out into the impact zone at Seaside Reef on his skiff, cut the engine, look at his young son and say, “OK, get us out of here,” before handing the terrified kid the oars so that he could row his way out of the impact zone, to safety.
There are a million stories of Tommy surviving the odds — one out at San Clemente Island where, apparently, his boat sank and a shark devoured his dog. Others of long days at sea finding his way home in a crippled vessel.
The yuppification of North County was smothering a man used to unlimited open spaces freedom and so seven years ago Tommy moved to Baja along with his girlfriend and “soul mate” Mary Howard, where he continued riding waves and catching fish. I would see him from time to time when he came back to visit and he inevitably would offer me a place to stay when I came to his town. I regret to say that I never went, but often dreamed of having edge-of-my-seat adventures in Mexico with Tommy Lewis at the helm.
It seems no more than a month ago that I heard Tommy had returned to the States, where he was hospitalized for a brain tumor, which was the first thing I ever knew of big enough to slow him down and eventually stop him.
A large piece of the heart of Encinitas is gone now, but will not be forgotten, not as long as there are those of us around who remember Tommy riding a wave on a board of his own making or in his boat, a master and a king in a land of pretenders. There will never be another.
Tommy Lewis was laid to rest in private service. Paddle outs, which will be announced later this year, are planned for Pipes in Cardiff, and Todos Santos in Baja. While talking with The Ocean’s Robert Wald, we both agreed that the best memorial we can offer is to appropriate one of Tommy’s best attributes. For me, that would be courage.
Tommy Richard Lewis is survived by his daughters Amanda Mae Lewis, Jessie Maynard and his sister Sandra Undraitis. Condolences to the Lewis family can be sent to: [email protected]
Filed Under: Sea Notes