Wild Sea Excerpt: Waterman-Tales of the Tijuana Sloughs

This is an excerpt from my new book, Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.

A small day at the Sloughs. Photo: Bill Gove

Beginning in the 1940s, when north swells closed out the coast, surfers from all over Southern California made the journey to a remote and desolate beach within spitting distance of the Mexican border. Before the Malibu, San Onofre, and Windansea gangs began to surf Makaha and the North Shore, they experienced the thrill and fear of big waves at the Tijuana Sloughs, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Imperial Beach.

Surfers interested in riding big waves would get a phone call late at night: “Surf’s up.” The next day, they would show up at the county lifeguard station at the end of Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach. Dempsey Holder, a tall and wiry lifeguard raised in the plains of West Texas, and the acknowledged “Dean of the Sloughs,” would greet them with a big smile. For Dempsey, the phone calls meant the difference between surfing alone and surfing in the company of the greatest watermen on the coast.

Dempsey's Sloughmobile Photo: John Elwell

Boards were quickly loaded into Dempsey’s Sloughmobile, a stripped down ’27 Chevy prototype dune buggy that contained a rack for boards and a seat for Dempsey. Everyone else hung on for dear life as they made their way through the sand dunes and nervously eyed the whitewater that hid winter waves that never closed out. The bigger the swell, the farther out it broke. Surfers not uncommonly found themselves wondering what the hell they were doing a mile from shore, scanning the horizon for the next set, praying they wouldn’t be caught inside, lose their boards, and have to swim in.

If you liked big waves and were a real waterman, you would paddle out with Dempsey. No one held it against you if you stayed on shore. Some guys surfed big waves, others didn’t. It was that simple.

Bill Hadji: When the winter storms came in, well, people know what it was like down there. The first thing they talked about was, “Let’s go down to the Sloughs.”

Mickey Muñoz: It’s some of the biggest waves on the coast. The outside surf break is pretty awesome.

Peter Cole:   The Sloughs had the biggest waves of any place in Southern California. It doesn’t have the jack-up of a place like Todos Santos or the North Shore, but it’s comparable to the outer reef breaks in Hawaii. It’s really an impressive wave.

Richard Abrams:   Way outside where eelgrass and kelp won’t grow, its just big boulders. It’s all in one pattern and it focuses the wave. The whole thing is just bending around and hitting cobbles that are way the hell out there. When you get inside, there are smaller cobbles with some bigger cobble, and some eelgrass. That whole river valley contributed to that break. All those cobbles

Dempsey Holder in Imperial Beach. Photo courtesy John Elwell.

Dempsey Holder:   I had told the guys up north about the surf down here. They were asking about it. One day I stopped at Dana Point on my way back from L.A. with a load of balsa wood to make surfboards. It was the biggest surf they had here in six years. They wanted me to compare it, and I told them, “Well, the backside of the waves were bigger than that, bigger than the frontsides.”

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