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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The Swell Chasers

From my IB Patch Southwest Surf column May 26, 2011:

Last Thursday, when the first real south swell of the season hit, the beach was closed in Imperial Beach. No roping lefts off the pier, or grinding tubes at the south end of the beach.

Shane Landry scores a left.

Luckily Zach Plopper and I happened to have a meeting at the WiLDCOAST office in Ensenada. We decided to try our surfing luck on the way home.

We headed north to check out San Miguel. The surf was washed out. So we turned around to check out a nearby reef.

The surf was firing and the lineup was empty. The reef offered up a fun selection of 4-5 foot, semi-lined up and punchy lefts.

Again on Friday, serendipity played a role in finding great waves.

On Thursday evening, an old friend, Greg Tate, arrived for a visit. Greg’s a backyard shaper and goofy foot from Florida.

Israel, Greg and Daniel.

Israel, Greg, and Daniel at Scripps Pier with boards Greg shaped.

Twelve hours after his plane touched down at San Diego International Airport, we found ourselves traipsing down the trail to Trestles, and the surf exceeded our expectations.

The wind was offshore, the waves were hollow and the non-stop sets were way overhead.

Greg paddled out at Cotton’s. I needled my way through the lineup at Uppers.

While surfing I caught up with Mark Rauscher of the Surfrider Foundation. He  updated me on the still ongoing effort to prevent the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) from building a toll-road through San Onofre Beach State Park, the home of Trestles.

“The TCA is still trying to get that toll road through. But we are monitoring them,” Mark said before catching a great set wave.

Nothing like talking about saving a surf spot while surfing epic waves at that very  break.

A few hours later Greg and I regrouped. Like everyone that morning we were both hammered by sets that swung wide and outside.

On the way home we stopped at Beacon’s in Leucadia for a surf check (the wind had come up so we didn’t paddle out) and ran into legendary IB surfer Shawn Holder, who now lives in North County, where he owns a Pannikin Coffee and Tea in Encinitas.

“I’ve been surfing and stand-up paddling northern Baja most of the winter. Most of the time I surf alone,” Shawn said, a former IB lifeguard captain who is still as stoked on the surf as ever.

On Saturday we returned to Trestles for an IB gromathon.

Surf dads Dave Lopez and Jason Stutz joined me in the lineup at Lowers along with grom squad members Daniel Dedina. Loukas Lopez, Vinnie Claunch, Noah Bender, Jake Stutz and Shane Landry. As usual the groms scored wave after wave on the inside.

After our session we picked up my son Israel at the CIF swim finals at Del Norte High School in Poway and drove to La Jolla. At the Scripps parking lot we ran into two hardcore members of the IB underground who raved out scoring perfect waves at a local reef the day before.

“Dude,” one of the surfers said, “We never even check IB when it is polluted. We don’t want to get sick.”

Scripps wasn’t working so we headed south to the La Jolla reefs. The boys found some fun lefts at an empty slab while Greg and I sat on a bench and watched the show.

On Sunday morning a southwest wind was blowing so we headed to La Jolla to see if we could snag some sideshore peaks. The ocean cooperated with A-frames up and down the beach, which brought out a moderate crowd and fun waves to play around in.

On the beach I found Craig Engelmann who I grew up with in IB. Now living in Coronado, Craig was carefully watching his son Casey surf with Israel and Daniel.

All in all it was a great weekend. Our sessions proved that despite the throngs of surfers that populate the beaches of Southern California, we can always find plenty of surfing opportunities at beaches south and north of Imperial Beach and Coronado.

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