Waterman: Dempsey Holder and the Tijuana Sloughs

Dempsey Holder. Photo courtesy of John Elwell.

This is from my Patch.com column of October 5, 2011. This is excerpted from my book, Wild Sea. It originally appeared in Longboard Magazine in the fall of 1993 and helped to inspire the Surhenge Monument at the Imperial Beach Pier.

With the upcoming 8th Annual Dempsey Holder Ocean Festival and Surf Contest (there is still space avaialable so register now!) scheduled for Oct. 16 at the Imperial Beach Pier, I thought it was important to remind readers what a legendary surfer Allen “Dempsey” Holder was.

A California ocean lifeguard and big wave surfer, Dempsey was among the elite club of surfing pioneers that included such men as Don Oakey, Lorrin Harrison, and Pete Peterson who were protype watermen.

I first met Dempsey when I was a kid and got to know him better in 1981, when I became an Imperial Beach lifeguard at the age of seventeen. Retired, Dempsey lived in a huge wooden white house on the beach (appropriately called “The White House”) a couple of doors down from the old Imperial Beach Lifeguard Station at the end of Palm Avenue.

One summer Dempsey cleared out the laundry room and charged me a dollar a day to stay there.

In 1984, I interviewed Dempsey for an oral history project while an undergraduate at UC San Diego. By listening to his stories for hours, I uncovered Dempsey’s remarkable history of athletic prowess and his unique depression-era way of looking at and respecting the ocean.

Surfing a small day at the Sloughs in December 1967. Photo courtesy of Bill Gove.

To gather material on the Sloughs, I spent a summer interviewed surfing pioneers and legends such as Peter Cole, Lorrin Harrison, Flippy Hoffman, Dorian Paskowitz, Ron Drummond, and others who had surfed with Dempsey. I was impressed by their admiration for Dempsey’s surfing skills and ocean prowess. Dempsey, who was a generous and kind man, died in 1997 at the age of 77.

THE IRONMAN

Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz: There are two kinds of surfers. There’s the Buzzy Trent type who surf big waves but aren’t really into walking the nose. Then there’s the Phil Edwards types who are blessed with amazing ability. Their surfing is like ballet. Dempsey was a big wave surfer. A big solid guy. Low-key. Not much for bragging.

Dempsey Holder: Back in West Texas where I was raised there were lots of cowboys, but that didn’t mean too much. The thing that was a real compliment was to be a stockman. That’s like a waterman—somebody that can handle themselves in the water. Emergency come along—you can take care of yourself.

Flippy Hoffman: Dempsey was the guru down there.

John Elwell: Around ’47, ’48, we met a guy named Storm Surf Taylor. He said, “Go down there and see Dempsey if you want to start surfing.” Dempsey was known as the guy who takes off on big waves. He’d been down at the Sloughs since 1939.

John Blankenship: Dempsey was just unbelievable. There wasn’t anybody else for sheer guts. He was the ultimate big wave rider. No fancy moves. He caught the biggest waves and went surfing. The closest guy to Dempsey was Gard Chapin, although Gard never tackled waves as big as Dempsey.

Bobby Goldsmith: Dempsey was an iron man. He was fearless and brave and he had the guts. He took off on anything and could push through anything in any kind of surf.

Chuck Quinn: Dempsey rode the biggest waves back further than anybody.

Buddy Hull: He’d take off even if he only had a 20 percent chance of making it. Dempsey would take off on anything, always deeper than he should have.

Jack “Woody” Eckstrom: I remember him saying, “If you make every wave you’re not calling it close enough.”

Dempsey's lifeguard truck at the Sloughs either in the 1940s or early 1950s.


THE SLOUGHS AND FIRST ENCOUNTERS

Dempsey Holder: In the summer of ’37 I went down to the Sloughs and camped with my family. Well, I saw big waves breaking out at outside shorebreak and went bodysurfing. I never did get out to the outside of it. A big set came and I was still inside of it. Well, I sort of made note of that. Boy, you know surf breaking out that far.

Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison: Back in the early ’40s, I surfed the Sloughs when it was huge. It was all you could do to get out. Really big. We were way the hell out there. Canoe Drummond came down.

Ron “Canoe” Drummond: We pulled out and the surf was probably about twenty feet high or so. I looked out about a mile and there where some tremendously big waves were breaking. I asked if anybody wanted to go out there with me, but nobody did. So I went in my canoe and paddled out there.

Jim “Burrhead” Drever: One time about 1947, I was sleeping in my ’39 convertible right on the beach at Windansea, and I heard these guys pounding on the car. I’d heard about the Sloughs and they were going, so I followed them. It was pretty damn big. This was before I went over to the Hawaiian Islands, and I’d never seen waves that big around here.

Peter Cole: I was out there surfing with Chuck Quinn and Dempsey Holder in the ’50s. The surf was about 15 foot, Hawaiian size. Chuck and Dempsey went out and got stuck in the shorebreak, but I managed to paddle out in the rip. I was out riding the smaller waves, when I heard someone yell, “Outside.” I looked out and all I saw was whitewater everywhere. I lost my board and had to swim in.

Chuck Quinn: We were out there surfing on a big day and Pat Curren lost his board. Pat was frustrated and feeling lousy. He didn’t have any money and it wasn’t like today when they break a board and go buy another one. We all looked for Pat’s board, but that board just disappeared.

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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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