I had just moved to Cardiff in 1970 and run into Tommy Lewis on the beach, at George’s. He had just returned from Puerto Rico and was tanned and fit, lying in the sand between waves. He looked like something that belonged more to the sea than the land, hair and skin burnt by hours in the sun, every pore in him a saltwater repository, waiting to be replenished.
We paddled out, and he showed himself quick and radical, banging the lip repeatedly, not doing the switch stance moves he was famous for on longer boards. I had heard of Tommy, and how he and his close friend, Syd Madden, had traveled across the U.S. to Florida, representing Surfboards Hawaii. There is no record other than a few blurry stills of that trip, but I’m sure that closely matched duo put on quite a show in the East.
I often saw Tommy over the years, surfing or fishing, building boards, lobster traps or boats. George’s had a good sandbank then, but it never really held over six feet. Then, he would ride his purple lobster skiff as if it was a surfboard, standing tall, dropping in on waves that were well overhead, gunning the motor and flying over the top as the wall collapsed and the beach erupted with his name.
Tommy was one of the leaders of the longboard renaissance, making quality surfboards, sometimes right on the beach at Cardiff, or in his home shaping bay. He was always the best salesman for his boards, riding them like nobody else, impressing us and influencing future generations of surfers, like Joel Tudor, who took note of Tommy’s switch-stance cutback, and made it his own. Still, nobody did that move better than Tommy.
I don’t know how he learned to surf, but fishing was taught by his father (the rowing out in the boat in all of those inspiring Rob Wald photos that decorate every fish restaurant in the area.) According to Tommy, “My dad would take me out to Seaside and put me right inside the break, cut the engine and say, ‘Okay, get us out of here.’”
Tommy’s exploits in the ocean are legendary — everyone has a story.
Since Charlie’s Restaurant is no longer in business on Coast Highway, I guess I can tell this one:
The year was 1983 and big swells creased the horizon early, with coastal flooding making life exciting and calf-deep water running through nearly every building in the ocean’s path. Charlie’s was especially hard hit, with boulders flying through the glass, and even a lobster trap. When I saw Tommy, I mentioned the trap breaking the window. In response, he straightened up and said, proudly, “That was my lobster trap.” At other times I would buy a fish from him off the beach, or in VG’s parking lot.
After Tommy’s memorial at Cardiff Reef on Aug. 29, Kale, a longtime reef local, mentioned that it was the end of an era. We all knew it, realizing that never again would the world be so free, or would there be a waterman who knew the ocean better and lived a fuller life.
In my own way, I try to memorialize lost friends by taking on the best in who they were. In honor of Tommy Lewis, I will try to courageously embrace life to the fullest.
Tommy Richard Lewis is survived by his wife Mary Howard and two children from previous marriages: Amanda Mae and Jessawynn.
Filed Under: Sea Notes