ENCINITAS — A surfer who died earlier this month after being rescued from Swami’s Beach is being remembered by friends as a kind man who always had a smile on his face.
Ronald DeFreitas, 67, a retired lifeguard and firefighter who lived in Cardiff by the Sea, died March 9 after being rescued while surfing at Boneyards, just north of Swami’s Beach.
Officials say crews responded to the scene just after 11 a.m. and found DeFreitas submerged with his surfboard attached and floating on the surface of the water while bystanders tried to rescue him.
DeFreitas is survived by his wife Diane and daughter Amber.
“We are an extremely close-knit family and this has been devastating,” Amber told The Coast News. “It was so sudden and unexpected which has made this even more difficult for us.”
Amber said she’s doing her best to stay strong for her mom, who was together with her dad for nearly 50 years.
“Mom and I would always say we were keeping an eye on him, but it seems now he will forever be keeping an eye on us,” she said.
Amber said her dad loved retirement, surfing every day and being with his family.
DeFreitas was taken to shore where crews performed CPR. He was then taken to the hospital in critical condition where he later died. According to the Medical Examiner’s office the death was accidental, caused by atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease with drowning as a significant contributing condition.
“It was just one of those things that just stopped you in your tracks when you heard that he passed,” said Tom Stephenson, who knew DeFreitas for more than three decades. “It’s one of those tough things. It hit us all pretty hard.”
Stephenson, battalion chief at Capstone Fire & Safety Management, said he met DeFreitas in the early 1980s when the latter worked at Medevac as a paramedic. Stephenson recalled it was the first time there were paramedics in the city of San Diego and firefighters weren’t quite sure what to think of this company coming into the fire department. But he says DeFreitas, with his cool, mellow demeanor, helped ease the transition.
“Ron was such a positive guy, always had a smile on his face, he kind of had that calming effect on everybody he came in contact with,” Stephenson said. “When you saw Ron you would just smile. There’s not that many people that have that kind of effect on people.”
DeFreitas eventually left Medevac and got hired by the city of San Diego as a firefighter, where he shared another one of his gifts: music.
“(DeFreitas is) one of those guys that when he came to the fire station he always had his guitar with him, he was very musically inclined,” he said. “He taught a lot of guys how to play guitar.”
Stephenson, also a surfer, often saw DeFreitas out at the same spot at Boneyards, which for years many have called ‘Ron’s Reef’ because of how DeFreitas frequented it.
“You’d paddle down that way toward Moonlight and you’d see Ron out there and just say ‘hi’ while you’re paddling along,” he said. “That was his spot, you could always look for him out at Ron’s Reef.”
Buck Elsmore, senior pastor at Calvary Chapel La Costa Hills, said he’s run into DeFreitas at Swami’s for the past 20 years.
“It was always before or right about 6 a.m. in Swami’s parking lot,” Elsmore said. “He would be there every single morning getting his wet suit on and surf Ron’s Reef, that guy would be there all the time.”
Elsmore added, “He was always so kind, gentle and accepting. You didn’t get the hard-core surfer vibe (from him). It was more like ‘Hey, let’s have fun and enjoy this together’.”
Elsmore last saw DeFreitas in the surf a week before his death.
“We passed each other and just high-fived in the air,” Elsmore recalled.
Steve Vandewalle, helicopter rescue medic at San Diego Fire Department, said there’s another landmark named after DeFreitas – a big rock in the sand north of Scripps Pier that he accidentally hit while out on lifeguard duty one day.
“(DeFreitas) was looking at something else when he was driving the lifeguard vehicle and ran into it and so they named it after him,’ Vandewalle said Monday. “They still call it DeFreitas rock, but I’m sure none of the lifeguards there today know how it got its name.”
Vandewalle was particularly struck by the news DeFreitas’ death, recalling another incident 18 years ago involving DeFreitas. According to Vandewalle, DeFreitas was participating in the “killer drill,” a yearly physical fitness test for firefighters. Vandewalle was tasked with taking blood pressure readings of the fire staff before and after the drill, and noticed DeFreitas had an irregular heart rhythm following the drill. Vandewalle convinced him to go to the hospital, where the cardiologist discovered that DeFreitas’ heart had been badly affected by a recent cold he had had.
“The cardiologist told him (had he not come in) he had about three hours left to live,” Vandewalle recalled. “And what the cardiologist said stuck with me, when I heard about how he died, he said, ‘You would’ve been out surfing and just died in the surf and no one would’ve known why.’ So it was really overwhelming to me when I heard how he died in the surf.”
Shortly after the near-miss nearly two decades earlier, Vandewalle remembered a grateful DeFreitas called him from the hospital.
“He called me real emotional from the ICU and he said, ‘God, I never would’ve seen my (family) again,’” Vandewalle said. “He would’ve died 18 years ago, so he had a new lease on life. But of course, it was sad to hear he had died.”
On the Sunday following DeFreitas’ death, Amber met with several of her father’s friends at Swami’s parking lot to share stories and photos.
“Once first light started to break, the most beautiful thing happened, too,” Amber said. “A bright and vivid rainbow appeared over his truck, which was parked in his space.”
A formal paddle out to remember DeFreitas will be planned at Boneyards at a later time, once county health mandates form the coronavirus are lifted. Amber said she is also looking into getting a plaque in his honor at the beach.
“He died doing something he loved, but left us way too soon,” Amber said. “He was forever young at heart and loved to laugh, in addition to making others laugh. I would like him to be remembered in a way that will bring a smile to the faces of those who knew him.”
Longtime surfing buddy Jim Cheeseman said since DeFreitas’ death, he’s come to realize the reach that DeFreitas had.
“I realize now he touched many in the community, likely hundreds of people and I just didn’t know his ties went that deep,” Cheeseman said. “There’s an empty void now that he’s gone and I’ll miss seeing him.”
Tawny McCray is a native San Diegan and graduate of San Diego State University. She has known she wanted to be a journalist since writing for her Jr. High School newspaper in 1991. She has worked at The Star News in Chula Vista, The San Diego Union Tribune and ABC 10News San Diego. She has recently freelanced for Scripps Ranch News and The Poway Eagle and is a longtime freelancer with creators.com. She is working on authoring books with her twin sister, Nyla. She and her husband have two kids and live in South Park.