Like founder Ger-I Lewis, the annual Venice Surf-A-Thon keeps evolving
By Andrew Dubbins
Surf’s up this Saturday for the 24th annual Venice Surf-A-Thon, a grassroots local tradition that has evolved from a mentorship gathering for youth beset by gang violence to an intergenerational celebration of community.
The contest involves seven back to back age-bracketed heats, including a pro-am with top echelon riders and an “expression session” in which everyone surfs together and beginners can “take down a pro if they want,” says founding organizer Ger-I Lewis.
Lewis learned to surf on the Venice Breakwater in the late 1960s and fronted local punk band Front Side Grind in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Upon returning from Army service in Desert Storm to find many pockets of his hometown ridden with gang violence, he launched the Surf-A-Thon in the summer of 1993 to introduce local youth to competitive surfing and jobs in the surf industry.
“I wanted to give the youth something to look forward to other than getting shot down,” he recalls. “Very few are going to make it as a professional surfer or skateboarder, but there are other jobs in the industry.”
Over the years, says Lewis, numerous Surf-A-Thon participants have parlayed their experience into surf industry careers. Lewis had a similar vision for the Venice Skate Park, which he was also involved in creating.
The Surf-A-Thon began as a raucous affair — a bikini contest was central to the festivities — but it’s mellowed with age, says Lewis, becoming a family event.
“Many of the original contestants are grandfathers now,” he says. “As I evolved as a person, the contest evolved as well.”
As he recounts in his memoir “1978: Crashed Memories,” Lewis (born Todd Gessel) took the name Ger-I Lewis after he and friends got into a brawl with some Venice gang members and one of them called him a “Jerry Lewis looking muthaf*cka.” After his wild days, he found Jesus, joined the Army and worked as a Los Angeles County Lifeguard.
Lewis currently works as a wildlands firefighter, most recently assigned to Bonita Canyon fire near Taos, New Mexico. He no longer lives in Venice — home base, he says, is “wherever the Forest Service sends me” — but returns once a year for the Surf-A-Thon.
As in Surf-A-Thons past, this year’s contest will conclude with an award ceremony featuring creative custom-made trophies and music by local artists Nasty Habits, Colonel Klink and DJ Jacques.
Lewis is dedicating the event to four early Surf-A-Thon organizers who passed away in recent years: Mike Baldwin, Tony Cahill, Gabriel Morgan and Scott Adams.
To mark the Surf-a-Thon’s silver anniversary next year, Lewis says he plans to pass the torch to a new group of organizers “to steward the event into the next 25 years.”
The Venice Surf-A-Thon happens from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday (Dec. 9) near the Venice Pier. Registration is $20 to $25; the contest is free to watch. Contact organizers at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/VeniceSurfAThon.