‘Ancient mariner’ followed his own course

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True salty waterfront character brushed elbows with celebrities while living a full and varied life

True salty waterfront character brushed elbows with celebrities while living a full and varied life

He was a friend of actor and boater Errol Flynn, he took pilot Charles Lindbergh sailing on San DiegoBay and was considered one of the fastest men in America in 1940.

Capt. Howard Thomas was known along the Southern California waterfront as the “Ancient Mariner” and a man for all seasons. He died June 3 from natural causes at the age of 87 at home, with family nearby.

Looking as though he stepped right off the pages of a Joseph Conrad novel, or off the label of an Old Spice bottle, Thomas was a tall-ship skipper who advocated the preservation of classic wooden boats.

Friends say he was an honest gentleman who mentored people of all ages, was devoted to his wife and three sons, but still managed to indulge in his love of the sea throughout his life.

Thomas worked for the Auto Club of Southern California for 36 years and was regional manager for the Auto Club of San Diego County for a decade before his retirement.

He was chairman of the San Diego Rotary Club Yachting Committee and Commodore of the International Yachting Fellowship of Rotarians.

He was a loan executive for United Way, vice president of sales and marketing for the City of San Diego, president of the San Diego Public Safety Committee, and president of Cabrillo Festival. But friends say he was more than that.

Right out of high school he and a pal stowed away on a tramp steamer headed to the South Seas via San Francisco. They were discovered by the ship’s captain in San Francisco and unceremoniously put ashore. Time and again Howard’s plans to see the tropics were dashed on a lee shore.

As a young man, living in Tujunga, Calif., he was, quite literally, fast on his feet. Thomas captained the San FernandoHigh School track team, the GlendaleCollege track team, and the FresnoStateUniversity track team.

He was named to the All-American track team for high hurdles and at one time held the 120 high hurdle national records. He qualified for the Olympics in 1940, but World War II dashed his dreams of a gold medal when the Olympics were cancelled.

During one competition at the Los Angeles Coliseum, he took first place in the 120 hurdles and was greeted at the finish line by movie mogul Jack Warner (Warner Brothers Studios), who soon signed Thomas up with his acting agency.

Thomas was 6 feet, 3 inches tall, had chiseled good looks, and was a tremendous athlete — all the tools needed to succeed in Hollywood in those days.

The agency paraded him around town with the young starlets of the time. He dined with Katherine Grayson, Lana Turner and Esther Williams, and always at restaurants where gossip columnists Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons could see the budding actors.

The grooming of his new public image was well under way when Thomas decided to chuck the whole concept of acting. He would say years later, “Those people were not real, and six months was all I could stomach.”

Thomas had married Dawn Eldridge right after high school. She was from a three-generation Vaudeville acting family with a stage name of “Baby Dawn.” She died in 1993, after more than 50 years of marriage.

After missing the chance for gold at the 1940 Olympics, and failing in his plans to explore the South Pacific, Howard joined the Navy. During this time, while walking along the docks in Sausalito, he saw what he described as, “the most beautiful schooner I’d ever seen.”

He paced up and down the dock, and even jumped into the bay to swim her length for a closer look. “She was a gaff-rigged beauty,” he would recall years later. As he was swimming around her stern a man stuck his head out of a hatch and said, “If you really like her that much, come on board.” It was the swashbuckling actor himself, Errol Flynn.

The two became friends. Flynn eventually asked Thomas to join him on a sail to Jamaica through the Panama Canal. The moment nearly won the decision, but Howard’s wife reminded him that they had two young sons at home, and a third on the way. He decided it would not be prudent to up and leave at that moment.

Still, he and Flynn remained in touch over the years with Thomas visiting him on the set and at his home various times. When Flynn died in 1959, his widow, Patrice Wymore, drove to San Diego to personally give Howard the news.

As his three sons — Baron, Drake, and Lance — grew, their father craved a larger boat. He had been sailing since 17, and owned several small gaffers and luggers. But he wanted something special. He found her in San Francisco, not far from where he first saw Flynn’s schooner.

From 1969 to 1980, Thomas ran San Diego’s first sailing charter aboard their 80-foot brig, Rendezvous. Howard was already quite a sailor, having won the 1960 Newport to Ensenada Race at the helm of the 1906 schooner Martha, but this ship with the large Maltese cross on the fore top, was to become legendary in sailing circles up and down the coast. To Howard, she was his pride and joy.

His sons became mates aboard Rendezvous, and Drake acted as skipper for many years. Together, they logged innumerable seagoing adventures.

The family frequently entertained celebrity guests aboard. Among his passengers and crew were Charles Lindbergh, Arthur Godfrey, Reza Shah Pahlavi (the last Shah of Iran), actors Lloyd, Beau and Jeff Bridges, among others.

At one point in his career Thomas was tasked with finding a traditional sailing vessel to recreate the annual “discovery” of San Diego by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo for the San Diego Cabrillo Festival. Howard got a kick out of telling people that, through the reenactments, he helped Cabrillo discover San Diego 21 times.

He was a respected wooden-boat owner and sailor until just two years before his death, organizing tall ship festivals (before it was popular to do so) and schooner races on the Bay. He helped with traditional boat restoration projects and organized educational programs,

“The boats he loved were really his communication devices for sharing with others,” says Ray Ashley, executive director at the MaritimeMuseum. “They were the theatre stages, if you will, for performances that were more important and far reaching than any roles he might have played on the silver screen.”

During his long career, Thomas was Port Captain for the state tall ship Californian. During construction of the ship at San Diego’s Spanish Landing, he arranged for numerous large donations to help build the vessel, and served as political liaison to various city agencies throughout.

Thomas would later become Port Captain for the large Gloucester schooner named Star Pilot and consult with numerous charter schooners and ancient mariner vessels. His last boat was an Angleman ketch named Sea Waif, which was designer Hugh Angleman’s personal yacht for many years.

Thomas lived in La Jolla for 18 years, and Point Loma for 32 years. He is survived by a sister; three sons; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

A celebration of life for Thomas was held at the San DiegoMaritimeMuseum, June 29.