About Tom Luker
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Tom grew up in the suburbs of Levittown, Pa. He was a competitive high school swimmer and also an avid body surfer when his family took vacations to the Jersey shore. Ironically, an a cappella singer himself, he remembers falling in love with the harmony of the Beach Boys music, long before he knew what surfing was all about.
He finally got his chance to try surfing in 1965. He and some classmates from Trenton Junior College (today known as Mercer County College) went to the beaches in the Chatwick Beach area. After that, he used every excuse he had to visit his grandparents who owned Farley Grocery Store on Bay Avenue (presently Reynolds Garden Center) in Manahawkin. That made it convenient to surf on LBI, which Tom did as often as he could, until he joined the U.S. Marine Corp.
Tom was stationed in Vietnam, 1969-70. He was given a choice between two assignments and chose the one in Chu Lai, mainly because he learned there were official bathing beaches there. These beaches were staffed with lifeguards who let him surf whenever he wanted. In fact, Tom had more than a few saves himself, using his surfboard, “if a soldier from Iowa found himself a little out of his element in the water.”
Working as an airway technician, Tom had an opportunity to choose the shift he preferred to work. The choice was an obvious one. He’d take the night shift so he could surf during the day. Shortly after he arrived, he commandeered a board from an army captain who was being transferred. He remembers getting a copy of Surfer magazine and reading about boards being made that were 7 feet long. “No way,” he thought. He had to try a board that size for himself. He made two boards while he was there, scrounging up wood and also using rocket packing foam. One of the most unique or bazaar experiences was meeting an ARMY Corporal Sammy who drove a mail truck and in passing my whoosh (6 to 8 man tin roofed living quarters) spots my board leaning against the whoosh and slams on the breaks and comes screaming " who owns the board man"?. Sammy was from Cal. and couldn't believe there were surfboards in Nam. We hooked up and traded stories. He's also freaking that I'm from the east coast and am a full on surfer. But the real story to our meeting was a trip we took up the coast about 2miles, which lay between the Chulai airbase and a Navy River boat unit. Between the two, was a no mans land, not ours not theirs. Sammy tells me about this cove that peels right and left and only breaks when its over 6'. You got go. Right? It happened, about three weeks later a northeaster, just like LBI gets. I'm anticipating Sammy to come by, he shows about 1:00 pm. all freaked out because drove by the break on the down,” Man its firing" We're off two M16's, ammo, flack jackets, helmets, my 10'2" Surfboards Makaha. We busted through the jungle and come out to the rim of the cove about 1/8 of a mile across and half that distance out from the rocky beach. Sammy was right. 8' to 10' on the face rights and lefts A framing on a ledge almost dead center of the cove, then peeling off into a deep trench which made the wave short and steep with an easy paddle back out. In that moment the whole scene was surreal. Who goes first? Sammy found it, so he has first dibbs. This is not your typical day at the beach, like I said we weren't sure who was around, them or us. Like me Sammy had his Baggies under his Jungle Ute’s and in no time was down the 20' drop to the beach and was heading for the line up. We decided to a six-wave session each. While the other stood guard. I remember hooting like a banshee and wave the M16's around like this was normal, on Sammy's first wave, he went right fading through the bottom turn into a nice barrel section out to the shoulder back down and up over the top out the back for another. I got my chance and couldn't help thinking on the paddle out, how bazaar this whole thing was, how dangerous, how crazy, But as I pulled into the line up and the first set approached and instincts took over all the fear and what ifs disappeared and the wave and the ride were the reasons and nothing else mattered. What an experience. I still get all warm and fuzzy when something or someone evokes this total recall like it was this afternoon. The Shit we do for waves, what a trip. That was it too. Never saw Sammy again, sure he's caught as many waves as I have since then.
The Chu Lai Surf Shop
Tom reports that in an odd way, he actually hated to leave when his tour of duty was completed there. “For 13 months I got to live right on the ocean and surf everyday.”
As destiny would have it, his next duty station was in California. It was another place he didn’t want to leave. At that time, both his family and his wife’s family were living in Pennsylvania. A decision was made to move back east but the compromise was that they would have to live close to the ocean. Tom Luker made it back to LBI, living on the mainland first in Waretown and then in Manahawkin.
Back on the east coast, Tom had the pleasure of teaching his son Greg all about surfing. Having coached Greg through the grade school years of sports like baseball and soccer, it was a logical progression to help Tom Ackers coach the Southern Regional High School Surf Team while Greg was part of it. Tom felt that Greg was a talented athlete and could have competed in any number of high school sports. He asked Greg one day, “Why didn’t you ever want to go out for sports like football or baseball?” Greg’s answer was simple. “Dad, I surf.” That simple answer made perfect sense to Tom. It seems to capsulize a sentiment that the elder Luker so eloquently summarized:
“ Surfing gives you so much back … physically, spiritually, in terms of camaraderie. In many ways, you don’t need anything else.”
Pursuing a once in a lifetime dream, Tom teamed up with cinematographer Paul Prewitt from Florida to produce a 16mm film entitled Atlantic Crossing. The goal was to produce footage focusing on the east coast. From 1988-89, they traveled around the world. Footage of local talent like Justin Citta and Greg Luker was taken in Peru, Chili, and Brazil. They were also one of the first to get footage of Kelly Slater in Hawaii. Besides their own footage of surf in North Carolina and Florida, they bought footage of surf in New Hampshire and a 20 foot day at Montauk Point on Long Island, N.Y.
Once all the filming was completed, they went about promoting the film from New Hampshire to Coral Gables, Florida. Tom remembers the largest number of showings being in Florida - 29 shows in 5 weeks. The movie was shown in firehouses, Knights of Columbus halls, and if they were lucky, a full-screen low rent movie house. A big draw for them was the showing at the LBI Arts Foundation in Loveladies. One of the surprises was ESPN buying a minute of it to edit for one of their commercials. In the end, Tom figures they about broke even financially. The experience, however, forever changed his life. While traveling to Puerto Rico for filming, Tom fell in love with the area and the rest is history.
In 1990, initially apprehensive, Tom purchased a Surf Hostel at Rincon, in Puerto Rico. The deciding factor was its view from atop the cliff. There was no way he could turn down the postcard view of the ocean from that vantage point. His job basically included taking reservations, keeping the bathrooms and linen clean, giving advice for food, traveling, surfing, etc., and surfing 2-3 x /day. “It was my job to surf. If guests arrived and I wasn’t there to greet them, there was never a guilt trip. Instead, I would get, ‘How was it?’ ”
The hostel was capable of holding up to 30 guests and was typically filled to capacity between Thanksgiving and Easter. In fact, sometimes it was overfilled. If patrons knew a swell was coming, especially if the conditions had fallen short earlier during the stay, they literally begged to be able to stay longer. Many offered to pay to just sleep on the couch to grab a few extra prime waves.
Tom operated the hostel for 10 years and still says, “It was the best job I ever had. Over the years, I had 3,000 best friends who I could surf with anytime I wanted.” Tom still lives in Puerto Rico and these days he is a general contractor for various construction projects. Several of his guests, who he met when they were 16-18 years old, have now returned to Puerto Rico with their families and have asked him to build houses for them.
At 57 years old, Tom remarks, “If you’re surfing, life is good. I’m still surfing.”
Tom Luker - Surfboard shaper & West End Wood
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