SANTA CRUZ -- An unflinching big-wave rider known for his switch-stance surfing, Jeff Spencer's career burned brightly in the 1980s.
Consumed by drug and alcohol abuse, his life came to a dark end when he was found dead Sunday near West Cliff Drive. He was 49.
An off-duty San Jose firefighter came upon Spencer near a fence at David Way about 6:10 a.m., and it was unclear how long Spencer had been dead. A coroner's autopsy will determine the cause of death later this week.
Spencer was part of a powerhouse group of Santa Cruz surfers in the 80s that included Richard Schmidt, Vince Collier and Anthony Ruffo. Melissa Kreger, his common law wife of nearly 20 years, called Spencer her soul mate.
She described him as an untamed person who needed to be outdoors. He was a whiz at construction and doted on their daughter, 20, and son, 9.
"Our common link was surfing and our love of the ocean," Kreger said. "That was the thing he was best at. He was an amazing surfer. You could watch him surf and be inspired with awe."
Jeffrey Scott Spencer was born on April 8, 1963. His father died in a car wreck when he was 4 years old, so his grandmother raised him.
Spencer's gaze turned to surfing. He was in the class of 1981 at Santa Cruz High School but never graduated.
Able to surf with his left or right foot forward, Spencer was one of few ambidextrous surfers with the advantage of facing the wave at all times.
Sponsored by surfboard shaper Rick Noe and later Buck Noe, Spencer went on globe-trotting surf trips in the 80s and 90s.
With well-known photographers like Chris Klopf, they surfed in Indonesia, South Africa, Mexico and Hawaii.
"He just kind of lived in the moment," Klopf said, who called Spencer easy going and mellow. His temper had a long fuse.
"He was definitely smarter than people thought he was," Klopf added.
In the spring of 1990, Spencer met Kreger. They had two children, Maya Rose Spencer and Wesley Cole Spencer. Kreger described Spencer as a "true" person, who was trustworthy.
However, Spencer struggled with alcohol, marijuana and meth. He inherited his grandmother's house, but later lost it.
Kreger shepherded Spencer through Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for years. They bought a dilapidated home in Santa Cruz, which Spencer reconstructed expertly.
Eventually in 2008, Kreger left Santa Cruz for Massachusetts with their children. It was an extremely difficult decision. But in the past few years, Spencer apparently had lived in caves near the beach at Mitchell's Cove.
"I loved him for 20 years and I never stopped loving him. Any of the boys on the Westside will tell you. They said, 'You're his angel.' It came to a point where I had to make a decision for our kids to not let them see it anymore."