Always click on the LEGENDARY SURFERS icon to return to this homepage. LEGENDARY SURFERS
A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By  Malcolm Gault-Williams

This Chapter Updated:  16 July 2005
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Riders of The Tijuana Sloughs

Dempsey Holder & Gang, Late 1930s-1960s

Aloha and welcome to this chapter of LEGENDARY SURFERS. "Riders of The Tijuana Sloughs" tells the story of those surfers who began riding California's premiere big wave surf spot between the late 1930s and the early 1960s.

Enjoy and spread the stoke.

All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of John Elwell. All shots of the Imperial Beach Lifeguard Station, circa 1956, courtesy of Ralph Evans.


Contents

  • Sloughs Geology & History
  • History of Imperial Beach
  • Earliest Slough Surfing Days, 1937-41
  • 1st Crew: Early 1940s
  • Winter 1943-44
  • Dempsey Holder, "Dean of The Sloughs"
  • "Our Golden Opportunity"
  • A Tailblock In Each Hand
  • After The War
  • 2nd Crew: Later 1940s
  • Big Wave Testimonials
  • The Channel
  • Fog A Mile Out
  • Simmons' "Latest Machine," Christmas Time 1949
  • Shark Attack, October 9, 1950
  • Simmons Copies
  • Killer Whales
  • Cry Baby at The Sloughs
  • 3rd Crew: Lifeguards from Coronado
  • Simmons' Retreat, 1950
  • Later 1950s
  • Later Sloughs Riders
  • Dempsey Holder Revisited
  • Sources

  • "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 shore break 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."
    -- Allen "Dempsey" Holder

    "It was so goddamned big that day. So wicked. It was one of those days where you could see whitewater forever."
    -- Bob Goldsmith

    "We were really a long way off the beach and we managed to get onto a couple of rides. There was a lull, but then Dempsey and I saw it at the same time: the Coronado Islands disappeared behind swells. So we immediately started paddling out like crazy. Dempsey was 100 yards north of me and I was on the south side. The first wave broke and I was over to the shoulder of the first wave and it got Dempsey. From that point on I never saw him again."
    -- Kimball Daun

    "I got over that first wave and the second one broke about 15 feet in front of me. That wave took my board like a matchstick. My god, when I saw 15 solid feet of whitewater roaring down on me all I could think was, 'Get underneath it.' I finally came up. I don't know how long that goddamn thing rolled me around. When I came up I was tired. The next wave busted in front of me again, and I went down and I thought I was deep enough and it still got me and rolled me and rolled me. The next goddamn wave broke right in front of me again, and this time I went down to the bottom and it was all eelgrass and rocks. I grabbed two big handfuls of eelgrass and that thing just tore me loose from that."
    -- Kim Daun

    "The horizons tilted on me a couple of times, and that scared me. The next time I didn't even look around. I just kept going, it broke on me, washed me far up enough so I could dig in. My eyes had dilated and everything was sort of puffy."
    -- Dempsey

    "... when you don't have a wetsuit on, your feet get a little numb, and the eyesight is a little fuzzy. I remember laying across the hood of a car -- a Ford convertible -- trying to get some body heat in. Bobby kept looking for Kimball Daun. Couldn't see him anywhere. Well I said, 'Goddamnit, maybe he drowned. Who do we let know... we're the lifeguards, maybe we let each other know."
    -- Dempsey

    "Not having a wetsuit and not having a leash - you had to make all the right moves."
    -- Jack "Woody" Ekstrom

    "After the Sloughs, the biggest waves at the Cove didn't seem so big."
    -- John Blankenship

    "I remember one time, down inside [between two big set waves], one of the surfers let out a war hoop - a yell - and it echoed off the wall!"
    -- Woody Eckstrom

    "I'd heard about these 'Malibu Chips.' They called 'em chips 'cause they were shaped like potato chips; front end was turned up, back end was turned down. That was Simmons' innovation. So, I paddled over to him and I said, 'Say, is that a Simmons board?' And he looked at me with utter disdain. He said, 'My name is Simmons and this is my latest machine.' Then, he shifted his gaze out to sea."
    -- Chuck "Gunker" Quinn

    "We had always regarded the specter of death as a big dorsal fin."
    -- Dempsey

    "It was like Buck Rogers had landed!" -- John Elwell on Bob Simmons

    "I think, at the time, it was obvious you had to be a good, strong water person. You had to be willing to take long swims in cold water; low 50's, usually; occasionally upper 40's... safety conscious about how to get in and out. If you lose your board, you gotta be able to get in... "At that time, it was important to know the right location and have surfing buddies - a lot more comraderie in who you were going to be surfing with... There was the chance you might really get into trouble. Somebody might be able to scoop in there and help you out. Although, it wasn't an issue that you really talked about... it was an important issue. You had a kind of buddy situation... willingness and friendliness to help each other out if they had problems."
    -- Tom Carlin

    "Dempsey was the model of a great athlete: cool under pressure; always the same whether he won or lost; always considerate of his opponents; always thinking of the other guys as much as he's thinking of himself. In kindness; recognizing everybody's qualities of greatness and their weaknesses and not making any judgement..."
    -- Chuck Quinn, on Dempsey

    "Just standing with him, next to him, just produced a feeling of confidence in me and calmness."
    -- Chuck Quinn, talking about Dempsey

    "Dempsey was a big wave surfer. A big solid guy. Low key. Not much for bragging."
    -- Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz

    "... the most respected big wave surfer on the Pacific Coast... riding the biggest waves with the longest rides in cold water with no wet suits or leashes."
    -- John Elwell on Dempsey

    "He became the King of the Sloughs, and a powerful community leader who people used to come down to the lifeguard station to discuss their problems, and the community problems, for solutions. He was highly respected. Then the city was formed [in 1956] and the politicians were jealous and had him fired. They were very petty."
    -- John Elwell, talking about Dempsey

    "He's famous because his character is great and the people down here loved him and loved the way he was."
    -- Jim Voit

    "I think that Dempsey was in a supporting environment as long as the Imperial Beach Lifeguard Station was the outpost it was, in the remote South County, an outpost that, as Jim Lathers tells me, was thought by the citizens of the area to be a Mexican coast guard station. When the city incorporated, and Dempsey got the job of Recreation Director, subordinate to the mayor and the city council, I think the die was cast, and that eventually something like this would happen [Dempsey's ouster]. Dempsey was not the kind to change his style, and Dempsey's style just didn't fit their mold. If it had, he wouldn't have been Dempsey, would he? His legacy is really based on his unique character and individuality that endeared him to so many who knew him throughout the years."
    -- Jim Voit

    Imperial Beach festivities, 1948. Poster photo courtesy of Ralph Evans


    One day in the Summer of 1999, I had the honor of hanging with some of the Tijuana Sloughs surfers of the 1940s and '50s. We tilted some beers together at their old watering hole, a pebble's throw from the Imperial Beach lifeguard station, where most of them used to work. What is now the Ye Olde Plank Inn used to be the Patio Café and the Russo family store. There was a certain feeling of homecoming in the air. We had all gotten together for the dedication of Surfhenge, the City of Imperial Beach's new acrylic sculpture designed and crafted by artist Malcolm Jones. The story-tall sculptures -- in the shape of surfboards -- were dedicated that very day to the surfers who rode the Tijuana Sloughs. So, with Surfhenge's dedication also came the recognition and appreciation of many of the guys I now found myself in company with - as well as others I had yet to meet.

    With the help of videographer Larry Butterworth and Slough surfer John Elwell, who had us over his house in Coronado the day before, I began to piece together the finer details of a story I thought I already knew. It goes something like this:

    The Tijuana Sloughs was the site of California's first assault on big surf. It began with bodysurfing and riding soup on "wooden doors" in the late 1930s. After World War II - and in the spirit of the age - the interest in big wave surfing at the Sloughs grew into something like a military invasion. It went from riding redwood and balsa boards in the early and mid-decade, to a full-scale assault by the late 1940s.

    Successful Sloughs riding was facilitated by the introduction of lighter boards made and inspired by Bob Simmons, the Father of the Modern Surfboard. Although many of those who rode the Sloughs would go on to find more consistent big wave surf in the Hawaiian Islands, the Tijuana Sloughs remained California's premiere big wave spot through the 1950s and many Slough Riders think back to those days as the golden age of the Sloughs. This - unquestionably -- is their story.
     
     

    Sloughs Geology & History

    The Tijuana Sloughs, located at the mouth of the Tijuana River, on the border between the United States and Mexico, has been categorized as "A spooky, big-wave break." The Sloughs is known first and foremost for its winter surf of size. Interestingly, it has never been photographed at it's best. The outer reefs are too far out to sea to capture on celluloid or digitally, unless you have a boat or helicopter. There are three main breaks, the Outer Peak, the Middle Peak and the Inside Peak. A spot that breaks rarely is what some old timers have called the "Mystic Peak," which is even further out than the Outer Peak and only breaks in abnormally huge swells.

    The Tijuana River, as it enters the Pacific Ocean, is an intertidal coastal estuary on the international border between California and Mexico. Three-quarters of its 1,735 square mile watershed is in Mexico. The salt-marsh dominated habitat is characterized by extremely variable stream flow, with extended periods of drought interrupted by heavy floods during wet years. The estuary - what is now the 2,531 acres of tidal wetlands known as the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve - is the largest salt water marsh in Southern California.

    The Tijuana Rivermouth is ancient, having formed during glacial times when heap stones were deposited as far out as a mile from shore. During the last glacial melt, the rivermouth became a massive reef and was covered up with ocean. . Kelp beds now grow on the stone deposits, over a mile out.

    The Tijuana River begins at the confluence of the Rio Ala Mar and Arroyo Las Palmas, eleven miles southeast of the city of Tijuana, Baja California. It enters the United States just west of the city of San Ysidro and flows northwesterly 5.3 miles through the Tijuana River Valley into the Pacific Ocean.

    The lower Tijuana River Valley encompasses 4,800 acres; a small patch of open space between two major metropolitan centers, San Diego and Tijuana. The valley is mostly taken up by agriculture and horse ranches. The estuary itself is about three miles long and one and a half miles wide. It encompasses 1,100 acres that include salt marshes and tide channels.

    The Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, with its unique location on the Pacific Flyway, attracts many species of birds. Over 370 species have been sited in the estuary and the Tijuana River Valley. About fifty species are resident birds, the rest are migratory. There are six endangered species of birds which use the estuary: the California least tern, the western snowy plover, brown pelican, least bell's vireo, light footed clapper rail, American peregrine falcon, and the belding's savannah sparrow.

    Plans have been developed by the California Coastal Conservancy, in conjunction with both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and San Diego State University, for a restoration project in the southern end of the marsh. The idea is to remove sedimentation and restore tidal flushing. This will allow for extensive study of how salt marsh habitat can recover when tidal flushing is restored. Short range plans are for a twenty acre model marsh to be constructed and studied. Long range plans are for a 400 acre restoration.

    There are several interpretations of the word "Tijuana." The dominant interpretation has "tijuan" as a Native American word meaning "by the sea."

    The area was certainly inhabited by Kumeyaay indians well before the arrival of Spaniards in the 1700s. After the Spaniards came on the scene and began to convert native peoples to Christianity, the Kumeyaay were noted for their resistance to the conversion. Just prior to 1891, there was a thriving tourist center that straddled the mouth of the Tijuana River. In 1891, floods destroyed between 30 and 40 homes. When the floods receded, locals chose to rebuild on higher ground. This search for higher ground is what started the development of the modem day cities of Tijuana and Imperial Beach.
     
     

    History of Imperial Beach

    The "modern" history of Imperial Beach - the Sloughs' closest population center in the United States -- started about June 1887 when R. R. Morrison, a real estate developer, filed a subdivision map with the San Diego County Clerk. The map referred to the area as South San Diego Beach. The area it encompassed was 5th Street to 13th Street north of Palm Avenue and from about 9th Street to 17th Street between Palm Avenue and what today is Imperial Beach Blvd. This included areas that have since been annexed by San Diego and which were formerly called Palm City.

    Imperial Beach, 14 miles south of the City of San Diego, "was named by the South San Diego Investment Company in order to lure the residents of the Imperial Valley to build summer cottages on the beach," according to the California Coastal Resource Guide, "where the balmy weather would 'cure rheumatic proclivities, catarrhal trouble, and lesions of the lungs.' Imperial Beach was a quiet seaside village until 1906 when ferry and railroad connections with downtown San Diego were completed. In the early 1900s, a popular Sunday pastime was to board a ferry downtown that would sail through a channel dredged in the bay to a landing where an electric train would take you to 'beautiful Imperial Beach.'" Even as late as the 1930s and '40s, Imperial Beach could have been considered by many a "sleepy" town.

    The 1880s came to be known as the land boom era. Promoters followed the same general pattern. First came acquisition and subdivision, followed by a hotel or other attraction. Then came the land auction and finally the building of the community by its residents.

    This same general pattern held true for many of the developments in the surrounding area, such as Coronado Heights, Oneonta, Monument City, South San Diego, International City, Barbers Station, South Coronado, Tia Juana City and San Ysidro.

    Imperial Beach got its first sidewalks in 1909-1910 and a pier was constructed about 1909. The pier's original purpose was to generate electricity for the town, using wave action which activated massive machinery on the end of the pier. The "Edwards Wave Motor" didn't really work and was dis-assembled and removed. For many years thereafter the pier attracted large crowds, as did the nearby boardwalk and bathhouse. The wooden pier finally deteriorated and it washed into the sea in the severe storm of 1948. The boardwalk lasted until 1953.

    In 1910, the builder of the Hotel del Coronado, E. S. Babcock -- who reportedly kept a mistress in Imperial Beach -- dredged a channel to where the north end of 10th Street is today. Boats carrying up to fifty passengers landed at what was called the South San Diego Landing. The boats were operated by Oakley Hall and Ralph Chandler. Captain A. J. Larsen piloted the Grant, which had been purchased from the USS Grant hotel by Chandler. The Grant traveled between Market Street in San Diego to the South Bay Landing three times a day. Sometimes a night trip was added. A battery powered trolley car operated by the Mexico and San Diego Railway Company met the people at the South Bay Landing. The trolley took them up 10th Street to Palm Avenue and then west on Palm to First Street, where it turned left and proceeded to the end of the street before returning to the landing. The motor cars' batteries were the newest invention of Thomas A. Edison, who had experimented with a way to do away with the overhead trolley car wires. The cruises were very popular for about six years.

    On June 5, 1956 Imperial Beach voted to become its own independent city. The act of incorporation was recorded in the California State Secretary's office on July 18th, 1956. This became the official birthday of Imperial Beach, which became the tenth city in San Diego County and the 327th city in California.
     
     

    Earliest Slough Surfing Days, 1937-41

    Just prior to World War II, a very small number of pioneering California surfers began surfing south of Imperial Beach, off the rivermouth of the Tijuana River. They established the spot so solidly amongst Southern California surfers that after the war, The Sloughs became the testing ground for most mainlanders going on to more consistently bigger surf in the Hawaiian Islands. Unquestionably, the Sloughs were home of the then-known biggest rideable waves off the continental United States.

    Tijuana Sloughs was first surfed - bodysurfed, actually -- in 1937 by Allen "Dempsey" Holder.

    "In the summer of '37 I went down to the Sloughs and camped with my family," Dempsey recalled. "Well, I saw big waves breaking out at outside shore break 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."

    "According to Dempsey," later Sloughs Rider John Elwell wrote me, "Towney Cromwell and him surfed it first [on surfboards] in 1939."

    "One of the first guys that surfed down here with me was Towney Cromwell," Dempsey was quoted as confirming. "He was studying oceanography at Scripps."

    For at the next 10 years, Dempsey rode the Sloughs basically on a redwood planks. In the late 1940s, he got a dramatically improved surfboard from the "Father of the Modern Surfboard," Bob Simmons.

    "Dempsey was the guru down there," declared Flippy Hoffman, who rode the Sloughs as a visitor in the late 1940s. What's more, "Dempsey was surfing there all by himself," for many years, testified Windansea surfer Jim "Burrhead" Drever, who was one of the early guys to surf the Sloughs, in the 1940s. "He was really glad to have friends show up to surf with."

    "Back in the 30s and [beginning] 40s there were the Hughes brothers," Dempsey remembered of surfing the inside break, adding that he wasn't alone all the time. "They would take a barn door out and would hold it and jump on it in the surf."

    "Dempsey never mentioned the Hughes brothers," to later groups of Slough riders, according to Elwell, but that's probably because they were there toward the beginning, but did not continue.

    "He had originally come from Texas, with his family," Chuck Quinn, who came onto the Sloughs scene in 1949, told me of Dempsey. "He started surfing at Pacific Beach, at what was called 'PB Point'... His mentor, his hero, was Don Okey from Windansea. He said, 'He was the best. I learned from Okey. He was a genius. He would have been a millionaire, with a little bit of luck, because he was always inventing things.'

    "'Dempsey,' I said, 'Did you and Okey surf together at PB Point?' He said, 'Yeah, that was the original.'

    "Okey talks about riding 30 and 40-foot waves off Pacific Beach Point," Chuck repeated to me. "I surfed waves over 20-feet, there," he attested.

    "I used to surf with Dempsey Holder in La Jolla, at Windansea," Woody Ekstrom told me, "and I also surfed with Dempsey at Sunset Cliffs, but mainly in La Jolla. We'd grab a sandwich, lay down in the park there by La Jolla Cove. It's something I will always remember - having lunches in the park.

    "From there, Dempsey would always come up because Windansea was the most consistent peak of its time. You know, as far as speed and being tuff most of the time. You could always get something out of it.

    "Dempsey then went down to Imperial Beach to lifeguard..."

    "What you need to understand," emphasized John Elwell, who began surfing the Sloughs a little after Chuck Quinn and a good number of years after Woody began down there, "is that what happened in 1939-1941 was brief. They just sampled it and had boards that really couldn't surf it. Then, the war broke out and they all went into the military. Dempsey, too, but Dempsey suffered a serious illness and was discharged. He thought it was spinal meningitas."

    "It was so primitive," Woody underscored. "Nobody was there. Dempsey's the father of the area. Dempsey was the only one who really knew the Sloughs. He's really the pioneer of the Sloughs... I know the word got out and fellas like Burrhead - Jim Drever, from San Clemente and Salt Creek - [was one of the first to show up]. And the word got out to the San Onofre area [and those guys came down, also]."
     
     

    1st Crew: Early 1940s



    (Looking SW at the northern edge of the damaged boardwalk which was in front of the lifeguard station. Photo courtesy of Ralph Evans)


    1st Crew - Early 1940s

    Cast of characters to consistently surf the Sloughs in the early 1940s included:

  • Towne "Towney" Cromwell
  • Kimball "Kim" Daun
  • Don Okey
  • Lloyd Baker
  • John Blankenship
  • Bob "Goldie" Goldsmith
  • Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison
  • Ron "Canoe" Drummond
  • Bill "Hadji" Hein
  • Jack Lounsberry


  • Winter 1943-44

    When the 1940s got under way, Kim Daun joined Dempsey, along with Lloyd Baker, Don Okey, Bill "Hadji" Hein and Jack Lounsberry.

    According to Kimball [Daun]," John Elwell wrote of one of the Sloughs earliest riders, "surfing was tried again around 1943, when Kimball came back from the merchant marine once. That is when Kimball was swept almost to the Mexican Border."

    It ended up being one of the most memorable big days at the Sloughs. It was the Winter of 1943 and the war was still on in a big way. It was the same season that saw the death of Dickie Cross in big waves at Waimea.

    "In the winter of '43," recalled Kim Daun, "I was in the Merchant Marine and just come back from a six-month trip. I hadn't been doing any swimming or anything, and I wasn't in the greatest of shape. Dempsey called me and said the surf was up at the Sloughs and wanted to surf with me."

    "It was so goddamned big that day. So wicked," declared Bob Goldsmith. "It was one of those days where you could see whitewater forever."

    "Dempsey and I went out and the shore break was murder," Kim Daun continued. "Dempsey had a heavy board and my board weighed 90 pounds. We were really a long way off the beach and we managed to get onto a couple of rides. There was a lull, but then Dempsey and I saw it at the same time: the Coronado Islands disappeared behind swells. So we immediately started paddling out like crazy. Dempsey was 100 yards north of me and I was on the south side. The first wave broke and I was over to the shoulder of the first wave and it got Dempsey. From that point on I never saw him again."

    "I was trying to make shore," explained Dempsey, "but they were so damned big. I was going like hell trying to get back in there and here's something as big as a house, looked like it was gonna break on me. I turned around and dove as hard as I could to get in the face of it, and not have it break on me. I don't know how long that went on."

    "I got over that first wave," continued Kim Daun, "and the second one broke about 15 feet in front of me. That wave took my board like a matchstick. My god, when I saw 15 solid feet of whitewater roaring down on me all I could think was, 'Get underneath it.' I finally came up. I don't know how long that goddamn thing rolled me around. When I came up I was tired. The next wave busted in front of me again, and I went down and I thought I was deep enough and it still got me and rolled me and rolled me. The next goddamn wave broke right in front of me again, and this time I went down to the bottom and it was all eelgrass and rocks. I grabbed two big handfuls of eelgrass and that thing just tore me loose from that."

    "The horizons tilted on me a couple of times, and that scared me," continued Dempsey on his account. "The next time I didn't even look around. I just kept going, it broke on me, washed me far up enough so I could dig in. My eyes had dilated and everything was sort of puffy." From Kim Daun's perspective, "Each time these waves came I would swim south as much as I could in the few seconds that I had. The next wave I got far on the shoulder and I swam south."

    When Dempsey reached shore, "Bobby Goldsmith shoved my board over to me and said, 'Where's Kimball?' I said, 'I don't know, we got separated. He took off left and I went straight in.'" Dempsey recalled that Daun, "was supposed to be out of shape. I was supposed to be in good shape. I usually didn't get so tired, but when you don't have a wetsuit on, your feet get a little numb, and the eyesight is a little fuzzy. I remember laying across the hood of a car -- a Ford convertible -- trying to get some body heat in. Bobby kept looking for Kimball Daun. Couldn't see him anywhere. Well I said, 'Goddamnit, maybe he drowned. Who do we let know... we're the lifeguards, maybe we let each other know."

    "I just kept swimming south," retold Daun. "I was on the beach and they didn't see me. I came in south of the Tijuana River. I was freezing. I started walking on the beach and they didn't see me until I got to the mouth of the river."

    "We waited there on the beach for Kimball," remembered Bob "Goldie" Goldsmith. "I hadn't been worried about Dempsey... old Ironman. I knew he'd make it. We were concerned for Kimball."

    "I think I was as close to dying as I ever was in my life that day," admitted Kim Daun.

    "During those days," concluded Bob Goldsmith, "it was every man for himself."
     
     

    Dempsey Holder, "Dean of The Sloughs"

    "Dempsey was just unbelievable," recalled John Blankenship, one of the early Slough riders. "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 [Miki Dora's stepfather], although Gard never tackled waves as big as Dempsey."

    "He'd take off even if he had a twenty percent chance of making it," remembered Buddy Hull.

    "Dempsey would take off on anything, always deeper than he should have." Woody Ekstrom agreed. "I remember him saying, 'If you make every wave you're not calling it close enough.'"

    "Dempsey was as strong as an ox," Bob "Black Mac" McClendon said, "and he had the guts to go along with it. There wasn't anything he wouldn't try."

    "I think maybe he was a little masochistic," declared Don Okey, "he liked to get wiped out."
     
     

    "Our Golden Opportunity"

    "Dempsey called Towney in the early morning," John Blankenship recalled of a particularly memorable surf session at the Sloughs, "and he [Towney] could hear the roar of the surf in the background."

    "Towney had gone over the depth charts," Dempsey said, "and called me up and told me the bottom out there really looks good. I said, 'Well, I told you about it.' And he said, 'You let me know when it comes up.'"

    "Towney comes up," added Woody Ekstrom, "and comes out and tells me, 'Hey Woody, you know that Sloughs is the biggest thing I've ever seen on the coast here. It's the biggest stuff I've ever seen. Dempsey is gonna give us a call when the surf comes up.'"

    "About a week later it came up," continued Dempsey. "I called Towney and he came down and got a lot of waves. The next day he came back and brought a kid from La Jolla named Woody Ekstrom."

    "Dempsey called and was real grave," added Woody Ekstrom, "and said to Towney, 'I think it's gonna be our golden opportunity.' Towney looked at me and grinned from ear to ear."

    I asked Woody what was so funny.

    "Dempsey would say, 'I think it's our golden opportunity,'" Woody repeated and laughed at the memory. "It was colder 'n hell and he said that and Towney looked at me and said, 'Well, Woody, what do you think of that? Our "golden opportunity"!' And, God, we were freezing!"
     
     

    A Tailblock In Each Hand

    "Dempsey was an ironman," declared Bob "Goldie" Goldsmith, "He was out there pushing through the biggest, goddamnest shit. 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."

    "There was one time when Woody Ekstrom lost his board," John Blankenship gave as an example. "Well Dempsey grabbed his own board and Woody's and punched through the surf."

    "We didn't have leashes," Woody reminded me in that gravel voice he has. "So, if you lost your board, that ended your surfing that day because the swim's too far. By the time you got to the beach, due to the water temperature in that area - it's usually low [in the winter]; 50-55 [degrees F] - by the time you got to the beach, that was the end of your surfing" that day.

    "One time I lost my board," Woody said of the time Blankenship had mentioned, "and Dempsey had caught it inside... He got hold of my board by the tailblock. He had my board plus his. A board in each hand, shoving through these walls [noses first]."

    "He had a tailblock in each hand," added Woody, "shoving through the soup." "We were blown away," Blankenship attested. "Nobody had ever seen anyone ever do that before. We had enough trouble punching our own boards through the soup."
     
     

    After The War

    "Beginning in the 1940s," wrote Serge Dedina in his excellent 1994 article on the Sloughs for what was then called The Longboard Quarterly (now Longboard magazine), "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 surfed Makaha and the North Shore, they experienced the thrill and fear of big waves at the Sloughs."

    Even so, the surfers to regularly surf the Sloughs were few in number. While word of the size of the winter surf at the Sloughs grew as time went on, visitors from outside were never large in number. They came from a select group of Southern California's best watermen - guys like Ron Drummond and Whitey Harrison.

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

    "We paddled out and the surf was probably about 20 feet high or so," remembered Ron "Canoe" Drummond. "I looked out about a mile were some tremendously big waves 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. I set my sights in the U.S. and in Mexico, and figured out where I wanted to be. One of the biggest sets came through and I caught a wave that was bigger than most. I rode down it when it closed over me. I was caught in the tunnel. Well I rode near 100 feet in the tunnel and just barely made it out. If that wave would have collapsed on me, it would have killed me."
     
     

    2nd Crew - Later 1940s

    (Looking north from in front of the lifeguard station. The boardwalk ran north to the south end of the "seawall". Photo courtesy of Ralph Evans)


    2nd Sloughs Crew - Later 1940s

    • Dempsey Holder
    • Towney Cromwell
    • Don Okey
    • John Blankenship
    • Jack "Woody" Ekstrom
    • Jim "Burrhead" Drever
    • Gard Chapin
    • Buddy Hull
    • Skeeter Malcolm
    • "Black Mac" McClendon
    • Vern Dodds
    • Bob Campbell
    • Jim Lathers
    • Dave Hafferly


    "They'd get the phone call late at night, 'Surf's up,'" wrote Serge Dedina. "The next day they'd 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 or in the company of the greatest watermen on the coast."

    "He would call up -" Woody told me. "I don't think he could get a hold of me, but he could get a hold of... Towney Cromwell. Towney would [then] call me up and say, 'Dempsey called and he says it's humpin'. Do you wanna go down? Let's go!'

    "'Yeah!'"

    "What year was this?" I asked Woody, who's a really neat guy in his own right.

    "1946, 'cause I remember guys were on 52-20, after the war, you know. The war's over and all these guys - GI's - collecting 52-20. Even my brother was in on that.

    "Towney and I would get in Towney's '35 Ford coupe - trunk shoved with boards. We'd go down there [Imperial Beach] and meet Dempsey at the Sloughs itself. We'd get on our suits - we had wool bathing suits; like Navy 'bun huggers' we used to call them. We'd put on our black wool suits and... it was really cold, as I remember! Pretty cold. But, the main thing was we had to get out there before the wind came up. Once the wind comes up - and it blows through Imperial Beach quite a bit - by 11 o'clock, you're completely blown out."

    As time went on and more surfers joined the group, the scenario would go like Serge Dedina describes here:

    "Boards were quickly loaded in 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 anxiously 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. It was not uncommon for surfers to find 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," Dedina summed up, "... you'd paddle out with Dempsey. No one held it against you if you stayed on the shore. Some guys surfed big waves. Others didn't. It was that simple."

    "The biggest wave I ever rode out there was in the 40s," said Dempsey. "I caught one on the outside with that big old board I had. The only reason I took off on the thing [was] because it looked like there was something else that was gonna break on me behind it. Just barely made it, and before I got to the end, it actually broke over me. I got on the shoulder and straightened it out. Got down and made one paddle and got in the backoff area. I swear there was one of those big old waves that was as big as the one I'd taken off on. I was scared to death (laughs). I got far enough out on the end, cut back, got underneath the soup, and rode it till waist-deep water and went into the beach."
     
     

    Big Wave Testimonials

    Word continued to spread about the Sloughs, but it was hard to compare to, outside the Islands.

    "I had told the guys up north about the surf down here," Dempsey said. "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. It was the biggest surf they had there in six years. They wanted me to compare it, and I told them, 'Well, the backside of the [Slough] waves were bigger than... the frontsides [of the Dana Point waves]."

    Jim "Burrhead" Drever initial introduction to the Sloughs was not untypical for a good number of Southern California's best surfers. He recalled, "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 Islands and I'd never seen waves that big around here."

    "After the Sloughs," remarked John Blankenship, the biggest waves at the Cove didn't seem so big."

    "We went out there in the goddamnest stuff," remembered Bob Goldsmith. "Big stuff -- that would scare the hell out of us. The soup was so big that we would roll over, drive into it with the board, and get thrown around like it was nothing."

    "The bigger the better," added Buddy Hull.

    "When you're out there you take a different perspective," said Bob Goldsmith, "because you couldn't rely on anyone else. You're on your own. Sometimes it was just big, cold, and miserable. When it was big we'd say 'Come on down and hit it.' But since it would happen in the mornings, me and Dempsey would be down there alone."

    "I got a board I built for the Sloughs that today sits in the Hobie shop in Dana Point," reminisced Burrhead. "It weighs about 120 pounds. I put handles on that board figuring I could get out through the shore break better. I'd launch it and try to get it moving real fast. If I could get my feet on the bottom and give it a big shove and then hang on, the weight of the board would start [it] going through the waves. You could hang on to the tail, and the board was too heavy to get picked up by the soup. It drew like a drag anchor."

    "The only reason we made turns," explained Chuck Quinn, "was to get an angle and make the wave. Our goal was to ride the biggest waves that were available on the coast."

    "When the winter storms came in," said Bill Hadj Hein, "well, people knowing what it was like down there, the first thing they talked about was, 'Let's go down to the Sloughs.'"

    Bill "Hadji" Hein again: "Huge, very huge, and dangerous. Way out to sea. Long paddle. Those were dangerous waves. They were thrill rides. You needed a heavy board. There weren't very many guys that liked to go down there."

    Skeeter Malcolm: "All of a sudden there was nothing and then there were these giant waves."

    Buddy Hull: "There was virtually no landmark. You really had to be in the right place or you missed it."

    Jack "Woody" Ekstrom: "It was always hard to know where to grab the waves. When the sets came, it was really awesome. You didn't know how far out the next one was gonna break. You never were able to see it until you got up to the top."

    The connection the Tijuana Sloughs had with the Hawaiian Islands was its size. "The thing about the Sloughs," said Burrhead, "was it was so damned big. That's the reason we went out there. The big deal was trying to catch those big waves.

    "During the 40s and 50s the Sloughs was the closest thing to the Islands. It catches deep water waves that come down the California coast. It's pretty powerful because it hits on a finger reef that's pretty far out and it doesn't lose a lot of energy."

    "The hardest thing is to be caught inside," explained Dempsey. "A big set come in you know the outside is gonna break and its gonna take your board."
     
     

    The Channel

    "One time Dempsey and I were paddling out and got over the top," recalled Woody Ekstrom, "and here comes Towney off a real WALL, going right - they were rights. The only thing that was good about it [besides the thrill of the ride] was there was always a channel out there, once you got out through the shore break."

    "In fact," Woody went on, "the way I got out was to go into the soup... and out behind the shore break. Because, if you went south [at the start], the shore break was so big, you'd never make it out.

    "You'd just punch through and look south and see you're outside of the shore break, then you'd cut out south and out - toward Mexico."

    "I can remember when the walls were so big," Woody said emphatically, "that your heart would go to your mouth. You'd come up over the top and see these monsters. You'd get over the first one - and, you didn't think you could make it over it, but you did."

    "I remember one time, down inside [between two big set waves], one of the surfers let out a war hoop - a yell - and it echoed off the wall!"

    "Not having a wetsuit and not having a leash - you had to make all the right moves."

    "It was cold and we didn't have any wetsuits," repeated Burrhead. "If you lost your board it was a big problem. It took you a long time to get in."

    "By the time you got to the beach you just hung it up and shivered for about an hour," added Woody.
     
     

    Fog A Mile Out

    Another problem was when the fog got thick.

    "I remember being out there with Dempsey in the fog," Woody told me, "and we would hear this funny noise, like the top coming off a wave or something and Dempsey'd say, 'What's that?!'" Woody laughed at the memory. "So, you couldn't even see too good [sometimes]. Of course, the fog means its glassy [so there was a trade-off]."

    "We had good times together," Woody reminisced. "Cromwell went to Hawai'i when Dempsey was a ham operator. So, when his wife wanted to speak to her husband in Hawai'i, she'd drive clear down to Imperial Beach from La Jolla and talk to Towney, in Hawai'i, through Dempsey's ham radio. Dempsey had the ham operating set-up right in the lifeguard station; about 1948-49.

    "Towney and I were just like brothers," Woody said. "Of course, so was Blankenship.

    "He [Towney] got killed June 2nd 1958," Woody knew the date by heart. "I remember it [the day] real well. One of the saddest days of my life... I still miss Towney..." Woody said quietly, with visible and intense emotion.

    "How long did you surf the Sloughs?" I asked Woody, trying to divert some of Woody's sadder memories.

    "I surfed it until about the early '50s. In the early '50s, I had to go into the army - in '52; got out in '54."

    Visiting surfers to the Sloughs, during the 1940s, also included: Gard Chapin, Peter Cole, Richard Davis, Bill "Hadji" Hein, Matt Kivlin, Jack Lounsberry, Harry "Buck" Miller, Skeeter Malcolm, Preston "Pete" Peterson, Joe Quigg, Dave Rochlen and Tommy Zahn.

    Jim "Lathers paddled out," John Elwell told me, "but was never considered a surfer. Okey, Hadji, Lounsberry only surfed it a few times in the 40's on planks, like Lloyd Baker. Baker, Okey, and Cromwell were the better surfers. They were not seen in the late 40's and there after. Cromwell was killed in a plane crash in Mexico. Baker went into business and tennis. Okey went to CAL Berkeley."
     
     

    Simmons' "Latest Machine," Christmas Time 1949

    Jim "Burrhead" Drever addressed the big wave riding of the Father of the Modern Surfboard, Bob Simmons:

    "I used to say to Bob Simmons, 'You're making a big mistake up here [probably San Onofre]. You should go down to the Sloughs -- they're bigger waves.' He would never believe me. Finally he went down there and he met Dempsey [Holder, the main man at the Sloughs] and he hung out down there."

    Chuck Quinn recalled Simmons surfing the Sloughs in December of '49, for me, during the 1999 Surfhenge ceremonies:

    "[It was] My first day out in big surf," Chuck Quinn began. "I'd come down here the December before. I borrowed a board from the lifeguards at North Island Naval Air Station [and] ... paddled out [at The Sloughs]; the first time I ever rode a wave on a reef that was breaking [that far] out; first time on a reef made of stones; Summer of 1948.

    "There's a south swell break at the Sloughs. It's a good little break and it was good for me, because I'd been riding sand busters at the North Island Airstation with a 12-foot Tom Blake hollow surfboard. I could hardly ever get a ride because it would pearl every time I took off. So, when I got down here [The Tijuana Sloughs], the waves had shoulders on them, cuz there's a reef underneath it. I got a wave; a couple of waves."

    "Then," Chuck continued, "I bought a board the next summer [1949] over at Windansea... I rode some waves over at Windansea; over 10-feet, with my new board. Time to go to school. I went up to Villanova Prep School in Ojai. I came down at Christmas, for Christmas vacation. I could see, as I was riding the train down the coast, that the waves were huge. I knew, from what the guys had told me, that this [The Sloughs] was a winter surf place; that Tijuana Sloughs had tremendous waves that broke way out in the ocean on the north swell.

    "So, I came down here in the very afternoon I got back to Coronado. I borrowed my mother's car and drove down here. When I got to the corner, there, at Palm Avenue, I saw the lifeguard station. I saw a surfboard laying against the building. I parked my car; took a look at it. It was between 12 and 13 feet long; solid redwood. It had a balsa wood kneeling patch in the center of it, a round nose and round tail, and it had a skeg on it. So, I knew it was a surfboard [as opposed to a paddleboard or rescue board]. I figured it belonged to one of the lifeguards."

    "I drove down the Slough road and took a walk down to the pipe - there was a corrogated iron pipe. That's where I'd surfed the summer before. And, as I turned and started back - it was low tide - I could see the waves breaking way out on the horizon... but, it was afternoon. The sun was getting low. The wind had been blowing all day and it was very, very choppy out there. I couldn't tell, from the beach, if they were waves that were rideable or not.

    "I was coming back to where I'd parked, at the end of the road. I was walking along the beach and there was a single figure coming toward me." Chuck looked at me with intensity. "There's just something about a waterman. If you grow up around the water, you can see it in a guy. You know. You know he's a waterman just by the way he walks on the beach. So... we saw each other, about 200-yards apart. We walked right up to each other; nobody else on the beach; huge waves breaking way out on the horizon.

    "So, I said, 'Are you a lifeguard?'

    "He said, 'Yeah, I'm a lifeguard up at the county lifeguard station at the foot of Palm Avenue.'

    "'Is that your surfboard laying against the station?"

    "'Yep, it is.'

    "'Are these waves rideable? They're breaking so far out, I can't tell whether they're the kind of waves you can ride on a surfboard.'

    "'Oh, yeah! We have to ride in the morning, down here. It's gotta be low tide. In fact, tomorrow morning, a group of us are going to go out. Do you have a board?'

    "'Yeah, I do.'

    "'Well, you're welcome to join us.'

    "So," Chuck went on with his tale, "I hardly slept that night. I put my board on my mother's car, drove back down here from Coronado. When I arrived, there were guys - there were 3 or 4 guys from San Onofre and 3 or 4 guys from Windansea: Woody Eckstrom, John Blankenship, Don Okey (I think was the group) and Buddy Hull; guys that I didn't yet know. I came to know them later on, but they were guys that I looked up to.

    "There was a strata. Surfing was stratified; very elite group. I surfed for a whole year at Windansea before any of those guys talked to me. Finally, one day after surfing there for a year, one of the guys said, 'Nice ride, kid.' So, when I saw those guys down here [at The Sloughs], all of a sudden I was a little rookie. In '49, I was 16 years old and these guys were the established surfers on the [south] coast..."

    Chuck had also gone up to San O. "John Elwell and I went up to San Onofre in '49, in the summer, with Lee Thompkins, who was head of the lifeguard service in Coronado. So, I knew who these guys were, but I didn't know them personally."

    "So, Dempsey right away came over to me, to make me feel at home. He said, 'Put your board on that truck over there.' He had made a kind of beach wagon. It was just a flatbed with an engine on it. It had a bucket seat that he sat in and he'd made the flat bed out of 2-by-4's and driftwood that he'd picked-up. The purpose of that truck was to haul boards down to the Sloughs."

    "Those boards were heavy. They were solid, except for a few hollow boards like the Tom Blake board that I'd borrowed from the North Island Air Station. The boards were solid; either balsa and redwood or, like Dempsey's, was solid redwood. They were heavy. Once he said you could put your board there, I knew I wouldn't have to carry it over those sand dunes at the end of the Slough road."

    "So, I just hung close to Dempsey and I listened to him. He was talking to the guys from Onofre and he told 'em, he said: 'A guy came down here early this morning and asked directions to the Tijuana Sloughs. He was driving an old Ford. He had a board on top of it.' He says, "I think it was a Malibu Chip.' We didn't know much about the light boards [that were just coming out for the first time, at the hands of Bob Simmons], except from what we'd heard - heard guys talking about 'em. There wasn't the mobility that there is, now. Guys didn't travel up and down the coast like they do, now. So, we didn't know who this guy was. Dempsey didn't know who he was. He just said he'd asked directions to the Sloughs."

    "So... we got in the Sloughmobile... down to the end of the dirt road, down there by Conrad's shack... We had to wait until the offshore breeze stopped. There's always an offshore breeze in the winter, blowing off of the Sloughs, out to sea. We didn't have wetsuits and the offshore breeze would make us cold. So, we would wait until the offshore stopped. Soon as the offshore stopped, the ocean was glassy; no wind. And that's when we went out. That would be around 7:30-8:00 o'clock.

    "So, Dempsey... told us that he had taken, in the dory, a large bouy - a steel bouy - that had washed up on the beach. It had broken away from its mooring. He painted it white, fastened with a cable to a V-8 engine block used as an anchor. He rode it out to what he thought was the outside reef.

    "The problem with surfing the Sloughs was that it breaks so far out in the ocean, when it's big, that it's very hard to tell where the next wave is going to break. So, the line-ups are difficult. It's hard to get situated in the right place. And there's always the possibility of getting caught inside and these big waves would take our boards all the way into the beach. There were no leashes on surfboards in those days. If you lost your board, you swam into the beach to get it. That meant you were frozen. That was the end of your surfing [that day], because [after] the swim in from the outside reef of the Sloughs, you were too cold to be able to surf any more."

    "So, anyway," Chuck Quinn continued, "Dempsey said, 'There's a bouy out there, but I can't see it.' By that time, we were waxing our boards and getting ready to go out. All the time, Dempsey was looking and he said, 'I don't know where that guy is.' We saw his car and we saw there were ropes for hanging [a board], on either side of the car... his board wasn't on his car. We couldn't see him. It's such a big scale - the waves were stacked-up between the beach, the shoreline, and the outside reef; about a mile.

    "So, Dempsey took us down by the corrugated iron pipe and he told us, he said, 'You have to wait for a lull. We have to time the shorebreak.' The shorebreak is the last energy that's in the wave. It gathers up what little steam it has, after coming across that huge reef, and it breaks in very shallow water. It breaks very, very hard. The shorebreak, in the wintertime down here in big surf, is over 10 feet. So, you have to time it. They're hard waves, breaking top-to-bottom and they're breaking in shallow water, maybe 4-5-6-7 feet deep. Bad situation for those heavy boards. So, you wait and you wait and you wait. When you think there's a lull, you grab your board and run and paddle as hard as you can to get out the shorebreak. When you get out to the shorebreak, then there was a channel on the south end of it and you had clear paddling from there on."

    "So, our whole group got out to the shorebreak. They were all good surfers. We got out to the outside and still never saw a surfer and we never saw the bouy. So, Dempsey said, 'I don't know where the bouy is and I don't know where that guy is, but I think we're out on the outside reef.'

    "Sets were about 15-to-20 waves in a set and there was a long time between sets; maybe a half hour. Other waves would come through, but they weren't the big, big waves... So, we paddled over and we were waiting in a group. Then, Dempsey saw big waves way, way out; way out beyond where we were. We thought we were out on the outside reef, but we weren't out far enough. So, he told us, he said, 'Paddle south and paddle out!' So, we all started paddling as hard as we could. These waves [coming] had whole, long crestlines on them. You could see that they were coming. They were like marching soldiers, like an army."

    "So, as hard as we paddled, we just barely got over the first wave and barely got over the second wave. Third wave broke and took half the group. They lost their boards. That wave took their boards all the way into the beach. On about the 8th or 10th wave - as we were struggling to get out, pushing through the surf and holding on to our boards as hard as we could - all of a sudden, we could see there was a lone rider coming across this huge wave; probably a 25-foot wave. Then he rode across in front of us and we got through that wave. We finally got out and regrouped.

    "Dempsey apologized. He said, 'I thought we were out far enough. But we weren't. You never know, down here.' It's a very gradual reef. The reef was formed by the flooding of the Tijuana River and it spread an aluvial fan of river stones out in a great arc, from the mouth of the river. And the mouth of the river constantly changes, cuz it would get dammed up by the big waves and then the water would build up in the Tijuana River and form the Tijuana Sloughs. So, when it got high enough to go over the dam, it would all rush out again. But, it didn't always go out in the same place. It's a wild beast down here. It's a wonderful, wild place."

    "So, when we regrouped - those of us that were left --" Gunker told me, "a set came and we all got some rides and paddled back out again. By that time, this guy - this lone rider - came paddling back out. And he paddled right through our group, without looking up, without saying anything. He went out beyond where we were; about another [40 feet]... Then, he stopped and started looking out to sea.

    "I was going to school north of Los Angeles and I knew some of the guys from LA and I'd heard about these 'Malibu Chips.' They called 'em chips 'cause they were shaped like potato chips; front end was turned up, back end was turned down. That was Simmons' innovation. So, I paddled over to him and I said, 'Say, is that a Simmons board?' And he looked at me with utter disdain. He said, 'My name is Simmons and this is my latest machine.' Then, he shifted his gaze out to sea."

    "We all rode a couple more waves," Chuck recalled, then, "we regrouped on the beach. You're all very cold when you come out of the water. No wetsuits. We used to get these 100% wool swimsuits - the old fashioned kind - that had tops like underwear. They had double-thickness. They were made out of wool. Some of them were Navy issue. They said 'USN' on them. You had a double-thickness over your lower thorax. It's dark color, either navy blue or black and that would absorb the radiation from the sun and you'd get a certain amount of warmth from that. Wool provides heat, even though it's wet. That's one of the reasons why people wore swimming suits like that in the early part of the century. We could get them at Goodwill or Salvation Army. We'd look for 'em. That was the standard swimsuit at the Tijuana Sloughs: old fashioned swimming suits made out of wool, that gave off a little bit of warmth."

    "So, here's what happened," Chuck continued. "We got back up to the lifeguard station. Simmons was there. He wasn't a talkative guy at all. But, he and Dempsey started a conversation. He said that he'd been coming down the coast and he'd surfed out at the end of Point Loma by himself; way, way out in the ocean. And, he'd heard about the Sloughs and wanted to try it. He was stoked. He was really stoked. Eckstrom and Blankenship and Buddy Hull and the guys [from Windansea] and the guys from San Onofre - Jim 'Burrhead' Drever and a couple of other guys - we were all stoked. It had been a wonderful experience [that day].

    "We were sitting there on the south side of the lifeguard station, absorbing the sun's reflection off the white paint of the lifeguard station. By that time, the wind had come up. There's a little bit of a lee, there, from the wind. We talked. Simmons and Dempsey became friends at that moment."

    After this, "Simmons used to show up at Windansea," recalled John Blankenship, "and tell everyone, 'If you guys had any guts you'd be out with us at the Sloughs.'"
     
     

    Shark Attack, October 9, 1950

    SAN DIEGO UNION -- October 9, 1950: A man-eating shark tore a chunk out of the thigh of a 31-year-old swimmer off Imperial Beach yesterday morning in what may be the first shark attack on a human ever reported in local waters.

    "We had an El Nino kind of condition during the summer of 1950," Dempsey Holder recalled, beginning the story of the first known shark attack on a surfer in California. "The water was really warm, and there was a south swell -- southern hemisphere swell. Made for some beautiful surfing.

    "Bob Campbell, Jim Lathers, Dave Hafferly and I went down to the Sloughs,"Dempsey continued. "Bob and Dave were bodysurfing, Jim had an airmat he wanted to try out there and I took out my surfboard. I was the first one out. The other guys were real slow in coming out. They were at least fifty yards behind me.

    "All of a sudden I heard Bob Campbell holler something. Then Jim Lather hollered, 'Shark.' [Then] Bob hollered, 'Shark.' He had a real frightened tone in his voice. I was sitting there on my board thinking that he come out here for the first time in deep water and he saw a porpoise go by and just panicked. 'Boy,' I thought, 'He's going to be embarrassed... he really hollered.' Jim hollered at me again. It was a shark. I went over there but I didn't see the shark. There was blood in the water and Bob grabbed Jim's airmat.

    "I put the board right underneath him and took him in," Dempsey went on. "Got bit -- I'm sure he pulled his legs up -- he had marks on his hands. He said it got him twice. Jim Lathers saw it. He said it looked like two fins and then it rolled over. We didn't take long, everybody was close to shore. I took him in on my board. He was bleeding from his legs. We took him to see Doc Hayes' he had a little office in the VFW.

    "Bob looked kind of weak," Dempsey observed. "... he had that gray look. That shark must have taken a chunk of his leg the size of a small steak."

    "We had always regarded the specter of death as a big dorsal fin," summed-up Dempsey.
     
     

    Simmons Copies

    "So then, later on," Chuck "Gunker" Quinn told me of Bob Simmons, "he came back. He didn't come back right away. His operations were up in the LA area. He talked about the Ventura Overhead... Simmons came back in... '51-'52.

    "In the meantime, Dempsey went up to Southgate, which is an area in Los Angeles, to General Veneer Manufacturing Company, and he bought balsa wood for all of us; for myself, for Jim Lathers, for Jim's brother Richard and Richard's best friend Vern Dodds...

    "So, we made five Simmons copies. We had looked at his board. Dempsey had talked to him long enough to understand the theory of what he was trying to accomplish in his shapes, so we made 'em. We didn't have a Simmons board to copy. We just made 'em from having seen the board one time and what Dempsey knew, already, from talking to him. We made five boards. Dempsey, myself, Jim Lathers, Richard Lathers and Vern Dodds."

    "So, we rode those boards," Chuck continued, "down at the Sloughs that season of '50-'51 and it wasn't until later on - '51-'52 - that Simmons came down again. He came in the summertime and he was surfing a lot at Windansea. He started shaping boards for [a few select friends on the south coast]... First board he made was for Dempsey. Then, he made boards for some of the guys who were lifeguarding here, then; Jim Voit (from Coronado), Tom Carlin, Johnny Elwell, Johnny Elwell's girlfriend Margie Mannick - those two boards, Margie Mannick's and Tom Carlin's, were smaller. To me, they were among the most beautiful boards that I ever saw that Simmons made.

    "The board he made for Dempsey was beautiful, too. It was 12-feet long. It was made from balsa wood that Dempsey got from rafts that drifted up. The Merchant Marine had rafts made out of balsa wood. Sometimes they'd get torn off ships in storms. Dempsey salvaged the wood. It was a beautiful board. Simmons made a board for me, which I rode from '52 to probably around '57."

    "Did you and Simmons become friends?" I asked.

    "Well, sort of. He was a guy that you really didn't become friends with. He was very, very much of a loner. He would talk to a few people. Bev Morgan was a very close friend of his. Bev was a genius on the level with Simmons. Dempsey had the quality of genius. If a guy was really sharp and really intelligent, Simmons would talk to 'im. But, the average guys on the beach, no. He was always thinking about something else. Guys would always come and bother him with questions," Chuck laughed, then immitating Bob Simmons' gruff speech, with falling pitch:

    "'I d-o-n't k-n-o-w !' You know. And he'd walk off."

    "I got to know him," Chuck said of Simmons, "and I got a few good rides on his board and he said, 'I like the way you're riding my board.' I guess that's about as good a friend as a guy could be with him."

    On the subject of the way Simmons spoke, I asked Tom Carlin - who, in the estimation of some of his old time Slough buddies, does the best Simmons vocal imitations - about Simmons' particular speech. He denied that he could do a good Simmons imitation and then said it was a "Gruff way of talking. Kind of not in character with your image of an engineer. I mean, it wasn't like he was using bad language... He'd be preaching a little bit. He'd get excited about trying to change certain things..." Then, Tom did a number of respectable Simmons immitations:

    "'It's a dis-ass-tor!' He'd be throwing his arms up... very emphatic about what he was trying to get across...

    "'It's a wipe-out!' He'd screech and yell.

    "'No Good!'

    "The terms he was using weren't specifically used at that time by, you know, all the surfers. He was driving the vocabulary..."

    "I always got along with him very well," Woody Ekstrom told me. "In fact, the last day - Simmons' last day [1954] - I went up to Bob and was eating a vanilla ice cream, sitting on one of those stumps in the parking lot and I said to him, 'Why don't you join us for a North Bird Rock?' He said, 'This is good enough for me.'

    "So, when I came back [from North Bird Rock], right away, guys had found Simmons' towel on the beach and [his] board's hanging in the shack and 'We can't find Simmons.' So, Don Okey and I started looking up and down the beach, in the water. Bev Morgan was the fella that [had] brought him down there. Bev was looking all over [too]..."
     
     

    Killer Whales

    Dempsey Holder remembered a time when Bob Simmons and Buzzy Trent surfed the Sloughs with Dempsey and some killer whales cruised by. Based on Chuck Quinn's recollections, this must have been sometime during the winter of 1951-52 or one of the two that followed.

    "Bob Simmons drove all the way down and he brought Buzzy Trent. So I went out. We got on the outside, sat out there a little bit, and a wave came along. Trent caught it and rode through the backoff area and then got his lunch somewhere in the shorebreak. His board ended up on the beach and he ended up swimming in.

    "Simmons and I sat there talking, not really expecting anything. Well, we're sitting there, I'm looking south, and two big fins come up -- one big one and one not so big. They were killer whales and were about fifty yards from me. Scared me so bad I didn't say anything to Simmons; he hadn't seen them. I didn't want to make any noise at all.

    "I'm sitting there on my board. I'm not sure if Simmons saw anything until they went underneath us. Before I could do anything, the little boils come up around us. I remember my board rocking just a little bit. I looked straight down at the bottom -- one of them passed directly beneath my board. We were only in 15 feet of water. I just saw parts of it. The white spots appeared, moving pretty slowly. Boils come up around. Simmons looked around and saw something. I remember him being profane -- he was really excited about the size of these things. I wanted him to shut up. I hadn't said anything. I'm still alive. I could see that big dorsal fin. Then the boil disappeared.

    "I was still alive and I began to swivel my head around. I could see them fifty yards away or so, going straight out to sea. We relaxed a little bit. A little later Trent came back out and we told him what had come by there. He turned right around and went back in. Then Simmons and I looked at each other and went in."
     
     

    Cry Baby at The Sloughs

    Jim "Burrhead" Drever recalled at least one day at the beginning of the 1950s, at Tijuana Sloughs, when Gard Chapin brought his step son Miki Dora along. Dora was still very much a kid:

    "There was a day out there when Mickey Dora lost his board. We used to figure Mickey Dora was kind of a crybaby. This was when he was kind of little. He wanted everyone to do everything for him. He was crying all the time. If he came in and was cold he wanted whatever you had. He wanted you to take care of him. We were all used to having this lousy swim and he wouldn't swim in. He finally cried so much that one of our old friends took him in."
     
     

    Lifeguards from Coronado

    (Looking north from the north side of the bathrooms at the lifeguard station. Photo courtesy of Ralph Evans)


    Early 1950s Crew:

    • Dempsey Holder
    • Bob Simmons
    • Bill McKusick
    • Tom Carlin
    • Chuck "Gunker" Quinn
    • Jim Voit
    • Harry "Buck" Miller
    • John Elwell
    • Jim Nesbitt
    • John Fowler
    • Pat Marshall

    Visitors:

    Walt Hoffman, Rod Luscomb, Pat Curren, Peter Cole, Kit Horn, Buzzy Bent, Joe Quigg, Matt Kivlin, Leslie Williams, Mickey Munoz


    "Around '47, '48 we met a guy named [Dick] Storm-Surf Taylor," recalled Coronado surfer John Elwell. "He said, 'Go down and see Dempsey if you want to start surfing.' Dempsey was known as the guy who would take off on big waves. He'd been down at the Sloughs since 1939."

    "Storm Surf was there," Elwell clarified for me, "but according to Daun, never surfed it. Dick was in the entourage and not a good water man."

    "I started working as a summer lifeguard at Coronado... in 1949," Jim Voit wrote me fifty years after the fact. "During the years prior to 1953, I surfed at Sunset Cliffs on the old planks and paddleboards. Sometime during this period, we became aware of the winter surf at Imperial Beach, and made our first contacts with Allan (Dempsey) Holder - the San Diego County lifeguard lieutenant assigned to [the] lifeguard station at Imperial Beach."

    "In 1949 all the early birds were gone except Dempsey," John Elwell explained. "Simmons showed up with modern boards and the activity and quality of riding picked up. The Coronado surfers were the most active down there as Dempsey's followers," mostly because they lived close to Imperial Beach, were good in the ocean, and Dempsey hired them as lifeguards. "Myself, [Tom] Carlin, Chuck [Quinn], [Jim] Voit were there. [Jim] Lathers was a lifeguard who really did not surf but tried it and was a witness to the history."

    "Lathers paddled out a few times," Elwell detailed, "but was never considered a surfer. He never surfed out in front of the station to practice or would go to Sunset Cliffs and Windansea with us. He was a lifeguard and friend."

    "I started going with the older guys like Johnny Elwell," Tom Carlin told me of his participation. "We started to go to Point Loma and Sunset Cliffs [first].

    "We would go surf Windansea in the summertime."

    "The great thing was that Dempsey was here lifeguarding," Tom Carlin continued. "He made friends with a lot of the people from Coronado. He used to tell us about the winter time, when it got big here [Imperial Beach]... it was a place we should see. He was very influential and a driving force in trying to get people to come down and really surf with him and find out how to get to the Outside Reef. I can't admire him anymore [than I already do]. It was a really great adventure.'

    "The Coronado guys like Voit, Carlin, myself rode it more than anyone else," Elwell said. "There were [other regulars] like Jim Nesbitt and hotshot Navy Pilot John Fowler from Newport Beach."

    As for others, "[Bill] McKusick, [Pat] Curren... were from Windansea ... [Rod] Luscomb and [Bill] McKusick came over maybe three times," Elwell tried to pin-point it, when I pressed him on each person's participation. "McKusick was bringing down foam boards to the Sloughs in 1952 or '53."

    "Bill McKusick," Chuck Quinn recalled to me, "he's an old Windansea surfer. One of the best. A real innovator in board design, too. He was building light boards way back then; just out of balsa wood. No fiberglass; just varnished - short, too. About 8-8 ½ feet long..."

    "The La Jolla guys (Blankenship)," Elwell added, "were getting foam blocks from flower shops. It wasn't any good. Simmons had it in the mid-40's and was even blowing his own blanks. No one knew this until later. I saw them [the molds] and he told Dempsey he was doing it. He had a mold at the Aunt's Ranch [in Norwalk] where he use to get all the fruit."

    "[Walt] Hoffman surfed it maybe a couple of times when he was in training at NTC in the Navy. Simmons was down there all the time from 1949 until his death in 1954.

    "Hoffman lives in the San Clemente area," John clarified. "... He only surfed it briefly and was a visitor. Hoffman was a big guy with terrific coordination, like [John] Fowler. He could surf short boards, too. Walt was a top surfer. We knew him in '47 and I met him again in '54, in the Islands, while we were both in the Navy. He told me, 'Tell Simmons to get over here!' Walt had ridden big Makaha for the first time."

    John Elwell went on to talk a little bit about Jim Nesbitt, John Fowler and Pat Marshall, whose exploits at The Sloughs are now almost lost in time. "Jim was not too good, but tried. Simmons felt sorry for him because he tried to make a surfboard out of a Navy balsa liferaft and cut three fingers off almost jeopardizing his Naval Aviator career. He was working on a rip saw and the wood caught on a knot. He scooped up his fingers and put them in a handkerchief and went to the hospital and had them sewed back on. He was a hot shot pilot who used to fly under bridges in Pennsylvannia until he was caught...

    "Nesbitt was a little guy who was once a boxer and gymnast, who had no fat and was not a good swimmer. He wore a wool sweater and fins on his waist with a belt.

    "Nesbitt, by the way, put his Simmons board on a [aircraft] carrier on the way around the Horn and stopped by Peru, which was probably the very first Simmons board and light board to surf South America. Peruvian surfing did not [really] get started until the later '50's. Jim then surfed the East Coast and never saw a surfer. The shoreline would be packed with amazed on-lookers. He still has his Simmons and has to be close to 80 years old."

    "John Fowler was a well built surfer from Newport Beach," Elwell wrote. "He was a jet pilot and had an extraordinary record of not a single wave-off on carriers in a Far Eastern cruise. He went into helicopters and was again the top pilot, flying the President of Korea and other VIP's around. John used to fly out in his helo and sit over us while we surfed so close you could put your hand on the skid while he gave us down drafts, laughing at us. He had a tiny short board in the early 50's and rode it with superb coordination, considering his muscular size, and was an excellent surfer."

    "Pat Marshall," Elwell wrote, "was a wild UDT SEAL who surfed with us. He picked up surfing and was from the East Coast. He went out in all the big stuff and Simmons made him a board. He rolled through and dislocated his shoulder and had to be helped in or he would have drowned. After this some of us wore mini UDT diving jackets that you could blow up with your mouth... Buck Miller remembers some of these stories and helped Marshall in that day."

    John didn't leave out the non-surfers in his reminiscences: "What is missing also [in all histories of the Sloughs] is the classic hermit Conrad Grosser, with a Hemingway beard that knew us all, living in a drift wood shack where we paddled out, with whale bones and Japanese fish balls."

    As for Tom Carlin, one of the most regular of the Coronado guys, he surfed the Sloughs from the early 1950s to the end of that decade, then went to Hawai'i. Carlin counted himself fortunate to have a Simmons board:

    "I was lucky to get Simmons to shape me a 9-foot board," he told me, adding, "which is very mini [for those times], you gotta remember..."

    "Lots of different boards went out at the Sloughs," Tom remembered. "Nobody really knew the right type board to have. They just surfed what they had. It wasn't so sophisticated like it is, now."

    "We all had Simmons' boards, including Dempsey," Elwell testified. "As Chuck Quinn said, 'Thank God he came along when he (Simmons) did!' Dempsey was surfing a 13-foot, 135-pound board. It does not take a genius to guess how many rides he would get with that thing. He did ride it. These were prehistoric days before Simmons showed up." When he did, John exclaimed proudly:

    "It was like Buck Rogers had landed!"
     
     

    Simmons' Retreat, 1950

    As rumors and word of his boards continued to spread up and down the California coast, Bob Simmons suddenly shut down his Santa Monica shop. He had a falling out with Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin over their development of what would later be known as the Malibu Board. He moved his operation out to the family's Norwalk ranch for privacy, seculusion and more research and development. He surfed mostly in the San Diego area and it was during this time that the best and last of a series of Simmons boards were made.

    "There was a huge vacuum left when Simmons quit producing boards," wrote John Elwell in an article for The Surfer's Journal in 1994. "...In San Diego, a stream of people came down from LA and begged him for boards, as did San Diego locals. He politely refused and only made a handful of boards for a selected few. He surfed all the time at his favorite spots -- the Tijuana Sloughs and Windansea. He was a busy man, finishing his math degree at San Diego State, playing championship ping pong and going to the horse races. Simmons had devised a scheme of probability of mathematical odds, pooled family money, played the horses, did very well and took a cut. He had money, got out of all the dust, resin and hassle of surfboard making and had more time to surf and do the things he liked."

    Quietly, Simmons slipped into an even greater legendary status while still alive -- basically by withdrawing from the whole surfboard production scene. His move down south marked the beginning of the end of what has been called the "Simmons Era."

    Rennie Yater recalled, "Simmons went on down to live in Imperial Beach. People kind of forgot about him after he left the Malibu testing grounds. Surfboard evolution went on, but surfboards weren't as radical. They were pretty conservative; with natural rocker, the way balsa wood came; with about an inch of deck rocker, with very little heavy rocker in the bottom of the board. That went on for a long time, into the Velzy Era and Hobie Era; didn't change much at all 'till foam came around. Then, you weren't restricted by the dimensions of balsa wood. Even the balsa wood boards didn't have much rocker, except for the ones in Hawai`i, where they started to put kick in the nose because of the big waves."
     
     

    Later 1950s

    "After spending two years in the Army," Jim Voit wrote about the period after 1955, "I returned to the San Diego area and took a lifeguard job with San Diego County, then with the city of Imperial Beach [incorporated in 1956] where I stayed, going to school part time, until I graduated in the early 60's with a degree in Physics. During this time I surfed with the famous ones, Dempsey, Bob Simmons [died in 1954], Buzzy Bent, and many others in the rank and file like myself, who were caught up in the excitement of the times. If I had to sum it up, I was caught in these times because I was a better lifeguard than student."

    "I worked here into the '60s - '63, '64," Jim added. "All in all, about 10 years, first with the county, then with the city. And I surfed for about 5 or 6 years after that. Then, I took up boogie boarding."

    "We always watched the San Diego Union," Chuck Quinn told me of the standard winter time routine. "They published a weather map every day. During the months of October, November and December [and probably January & February, too], we looked at that weather map every day. What we were looking for was a big low pressure system in the Gulf of Alaska. The big bowl that's formed up there by the Aleutians... That's where the big north swell originates. We'd see a low pressure system and we'd see a number of concentric circles around it. We knew what the extreme conditions were by the number of isobars around the system. When there were a lot of isobars close together, we knew we were gonna get huge surf down here. It would be a matter of 2 or 3 days."

    "So, that's what it was," Chuck went on in his soft, measured, calm voice. "We had to have the north swell and we had to have the combination of very low tide - 6-feet, 7-feet difference between low tide and high tide. That could make the difference [between] waves breaking on the outside reef or just humpin' up and just getting ready to break, but not quite breaking. So, you had to have a low tide and you had to be in the morning, between about 8 o'clock and 10 o'clock - it would start getting windy after that; on-shore breeze would kick in and we couldn't stay on our boards. It got too choppy."

    "I think, at the time," Tom Carlin also told me, "it was obvious you had to be a good, strong water person. You had to be willing to take long swims in cold water; low 50's, usually; occasionally upper 40's... safety conscious about how to get in and out. If you lose your board, you gotta be able to get in...

    "At that time, it was important to know the right location and have surfing buddies - a lot more comraderie in who you were going to be surfing with... There was the chance you might really get into trouble. Somebody might be able to scoop in there and help you out. Although, it wasn't an issue that you really talked about... it was an important issue. You had a kind of buddy situation... willingness and friendliness to help each other out if they had problems."
     
     

    Later Sloughs Riders

    The Later Crew:

    • Dempsey Holder
    • Jim Voit
    • Jeff "Spiderman" Knox
    • Mike "Duck" Richardson

    The Tijuana Sloughs would continue as the testing ground for those who wanted to surf the biggest waves the mainland had to offer and those who wanted a testing ground for an eventual assault on the Islands.

    Testimonies came from many surfers. Mickey Muñoz was just a gremmie in the late 1940s, but surfwise enough to recognize the Sloughs for what it was. "It's some of the biggest waves on the coast. The outside break is pretty scary, pretty awesome."

    Kit Horn: "The Sloughs had big spooky waves -- way, way outside."

    "Dempsey took me out when I was a kid to show me the lineup," told Jeff "Spiderman" Knox, who rode the Sloughs in the 1960s. "We were out in the middle of goddamned nowhere and he told me, 'It's always better to be too far out than too far in.' Then this set broke and I lost my board and I was swimming. Dempsey came up next to me and said, 'And you're never too far out.'"

    "One day when I was just starting," recalled Mike "Duck" Richardson, "I saw Dempsey on a good 10-12 foot, maybe 15-foot face, and he was right across the top. His head was over the top of this giant wave just going full speed, trimming straight across. I'll never forget it. Solid white board with a big red dot. That red dot was screaming."

    "Swimming was part of the deal," attested Ricardson. "All the lifeguards that Dempsey hired over the years for the beach were guys that surfed the Sloughs. You have to kind of know what you're doing to survive in the ocean. You're half a mile out and you're stuck in this big circular rip. Someone that can get to the beach and paddle back out... I guess he can save other people."

    "Way, way outside where eelgrass and kelp won't grow," described Richard Abrams, "it's 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 formed it."

    "Sometimes you can hear the cobblestones whistling -- you can hear the surge and you know something is happening," said Mike "Duck" Richardson. "When you hear that, take the first wave and get out of there. Retreat and paddle back. Don't try to fight it, cause you're not going to win. All you see is the one in front of you. That's the first one -- the rest of them are bigger."

    Visiting Slough Riders of the 1950s included: Buzzy Bent, Pat Curren, Phil Edwards, Walt Hoffman, Rod Luscomb, "Black Mac" McClendon, Bill McKusick, Don Melon, Buzzy Trent and Les Williams.

    "... Peter Cole rode it at least once," added John Elwell.

    It "was always exciting," agreed Tom Carlin, who also remembered Peter Cole visiting, "when somebody from up north - meaning 'up north' as the Malibu area" would come down and join the regular Sloughs crew.

    No one was taking notes, shooting photos or otherwise documenting who rode and when at the Sloughs. Trying to piece it together after the Sloughs' "Glory Days" is not that easy.

    "The key to this is to ask how big was it and was Dempsey with you and did you know him," John Elwell responded to me when I asked him for specifics on who surfed the Sloughs and when. "Stopping by on a sloppy 5-10 ft day is not surfing the Sloughs in the big stuff with Dempsey that could qualify you as a surf legend. Dempsey would not even go out unless it was really humping. The Sloughs can't break when it is small and medium at high tide. It has to be early in the morning and not a low tide and big! John. PS, I knew Dempsey for over 40 years and worked as one of his lifeguards. He did not tell everything and could not remember everything. He had Alzheimers creeping in the last 10 years of his life..."

    "So there is a lot of confused BS," John said about who got credit for what, giving an example of Les "Birdman" Williams. "I am very skeptical of Les Williams claims, because he was not much when we saw him at Windansea or Sunset Cliffs with Quigg or Kivlin. They were average at best. They never came back for that one trip in 1950. Les claims he was a Malibu standout and no one remembers [him] down here. If you were good you could ride the Sloughs and Windansea at the biggest surf.

    The details fade, but the effluent becomes more pronounced.

    I asked Chuck "Gunker" Quinn about pollution at the Sloughs: "Nowadays, don't you think pollution's a significant factor out there?"

    "No," he replied without hesitation, "because it was polluted then. When the big waves would create a dam and close off the Tijuana River from emptying into the sea, the pollution would pile up in the Slough; the pollution from Tijuana; after big storms.

    "A lot of times, when we were paddling out, the dam would break and we'd paddle out and we'd pass excrement, but we didn't worry about it. It's a big ocean. Just kept paddlin'."

    "Volume must have been a lot less then," I said.

    "Well, Tijuana was a much smaller town, in those days. There was not the chemical pollution in all the rivers that flow into the ocean, now; the herbicides, the pesticides, all the chemicals that the farmers [use, now]. Incidentally, that river bottom land - that was the richest of all agricultural areas in San Diego County. Behind the Sloughs there was very, very rich land - from the overflow of the Tijuana River."

    More than just pollution had changed over time.

    "These big wave cycles -" Chuck Quinn explained, knowing I knew Woody Brown, "Woody Brown can tell ya - about the 100-year cycles at Waikiki. Duke Kahanamoku rode waves out off Diamond Head over 30-feet at Waikiki... So, I don't know what the last few years have been like at the Sloughs. Some of the younger guys - I've talked to 'em - tell me it wasn't like it used to be years ago. I'd tell 'em where we were riding, where our line-ups were and they said, 'No,' they haven't seen surf like that in [quite a few years]. You know, it's cyclical. All physical phenomena in the Universe is cyclical. So, the cycles come and go."
     
     

    Dempsey Holder Revisited

    "He was always steady," Tom Carlin told me, emphatically of the guy that had started it all and seen it through its most glorious age - Allen "Dempsey" Holder. "He was a guiding force... It's wonderful to see the dedications and notoriety he's getting [during the Surfhenge dedication] because he was certainly the first guy down here..."

    As for his riding, "Dempsey rode the biggest waves, back further than anybody," Chuck Quinn, told Serge Dedina.

    "You mentioned earlier how Dempsey made an impact on you..." I prompted him.

    "Mostly, it was his kindness," Chuck responded without a moment's hesitation. "It was his humility and his great athletic ability. He was a great athlete and a great waterman. But, he loved all sports. We used to talk about football. I was a football player and basketball player. He loved basketball. He played basketball every single morning. That was part of his routine right up to the time he died. He would pick-up games with the kids. He built the basketball stand, there," Chuck waved over to the lifeguard station, close by. "He put a post in the ground, put a back board on it with a regulation hoop and net and he'd get in these games with these young kids down here. Believe me, they'd really play hard - 2-on-2, 1-on-1. When he got even into his 70s, I mean, elbows would be flying."

    "He'd played volleyball that way, too," Chuck added. "He'd come up to Coronado... Vern Dodds... was a great athlete... Vern was a great volleyball player. Dempsey would come up to the beach at Coronado with Vern Dodds. They'd come up a little early - they'd call us, tell us they wanted to play volleyball and they were great. There were a couple of guys in Coronado [who also played]. John Kersey and Mark Davis; two fine athletes. They could give Vern Dodds and Dempsey a pretty good game."

    "Vern went out quite a few times," John Elwell attested. "He still has his Simmons."

    "So," Chuck got back to the subject of his surfing hero, "what I saw in him were the qualities of greatness. My heroes were [guys like] Joe DiMaggio and I knew Butch O'Hair - who they named O'Hair Field, in Chicago, after. I grew up with him. My father was a naval aviator. I grew up around heroes. It was a different era. The worst thing you could call somebody, in those days, was a 'hot dog' or a 'grand stander', because it wasn't accepted on any athletic court, in any game. It wasn't accepted amongst surfers [either]. A guy who was a show-off, a guy that was playing games - we let'im know that we didn't go for it. If he kept it up, you know, we took care of him. It was just unacceptable."

    "Dempsey was the model of a great athlete: cool under pressure; always the same whether he won or lost; always considerate of his opponents; always thinking of the other guys as much as he's thinking of himself. In kindness; recognizing everybody's qualities of greatness and their weaknesses and not making any judgement; just accepting everybody the same. Everybody was the same, to Dempsey, and he would go out of his way to help guys - anybody who was around him. He would give of himself. He'd take his time from what he was doing. He'd help guys, right?

    "I used to come down - I'd drive down from Coronado. Years later, when I had some problems growing up and I was getting in trouble and all that and I wasn't getting along at home too well. I'd just come down. I'd stand next to him. He'd look out, stand on the boardwalk in front of the lifeguard station. We'd look at the waves. Just standing with him, next to him, just produced a feeling of confidence in me and calmness."

    "There are two kinds of surfers," hypothesized Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, who has been around since the 1930s. "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 was a great waterman," added Bill "Hadji" Hein, "a strong waterman."

    "You cannot write about the Sloughs," John Elwell told me, "unless you knew Dempsey[:] the most respected big wave surfer on the Pacific Coast... riding the biggest waves with the longest rides in cold water with no wet suits or leashes. He was a handsome brute and fine athlete. His high school class in Arizona, which he was president... all thought he would some day be president of the United States. [Pat] Curren used to smile and laugh at that one. He became the King of the Sloughs, and a powerful community leader who people used to come down to the lifeguard station to discuss their problems, and the community problems, for solutions. He was highly respected. Then the city was formed [in 1956] and the politicians were jealous and had him fired. They were very petty."

    "He was a guy who did things his own way," explained Jim Voit when I talked with him at the Ye Olde Plank watering hole next to the Imperial Beach lifeguard station. "Unfortunately, you can't always do things your own way if you're working for a municipality like the City of Imperial Beach. That was finally his downfall. You can be your own guy for a while, but eventually they'll come after you."

    "And Dempsey was his own guy!" Jim made sure I understood. "He was unique and he did things his own way.

    "When he worked for the county, down here, we were far enough away from everything that we could run the show the way we wanted to; dress the way you wanted to; you can wash the jeep if you wanted to, [etc.].

    "But, if you don't conform to The System and the people who run it, you're gonna get run out eventually...

    "That was very sad [how it happened to Dempsey]. I remember his budget at the time. It was about $35 thousand bucks to run this whole operation here; to pay the lifeguards, to pay his salary, all the equipment for the beach and recreation department. He had to take care and make sure all the rest rooms were cleaned. He had all these responsibilities and between $30 and $40 thousand dollars for the whole thing."

    "And he did it his way!" marvelled Voit. "He hired the people that he liked and they were good people - maybe, like, we didn't wear very nice bathing suits, but they could go out and do their jobs [rescuing people]. And he did his job the way he thought the job ought to be done. He might not have kept the jeep as clean as it should have been clean. He might not have waxed it up. It didn't look like a fire department [vehicle].

    "They [the guards at Imperial Beach, under Dempsey's leadership] didn't look like the guys at Mission Beach! But, they got the job done. He was his own guy and he never changed!"

    Following incorporation as a city, "He went from lieutenant of the lifeguards for the county, to the recreation director of Imperial Beach. I took over as chief lifeguard," Jim Voit said. "It was then that they had a recreation commission. We had to meet with them every week. And it was at that time that somebody might complain - 'Hey, your lifeguards don't look very good. They all have different uniforms on. And your jeep doesn't look very good, either. When are you gonna put some polish on that jeep? When are you going to look like professionals? When are you going to look like the fire department or the police department?'"

    "Well," Jim continued, over the roar of Ye Olde Plank Inn on a Sunday afternoon, "as long as Dempsey was running the show, he wasn't going out and say, 'I want you guys to look like policemen'... He was not going to change.

    "Dempsey," Jim declared, "is famous not because he was a great policeman or fire man. He's famous because his character is great and the people down here loved him and loved the way he was.

    "...[even so,] not changing was his downfall."

    "... we talked about Dempsey," Jim Voit days later reminded me of the initial conversation we had had about the Sloughs and Dempsey, "and the irony of his legacy being expressed in the name of the Imperial Beach Safety Center - a municipal building. It was the municipality of Imperial Beach that [after 1956] forced him into retirement - through the action of a civil service commission procedure - at which, by the way, I gave testimony supporting Dempsey. At the time, I was working in the aerospace industry, and I'm not sure of the details of the whole episode. It involved in part, the accusation that lifeguards used the lifeguard jeep to transport them to an area where they went skin-diving for lobster - out of season."

    "Anyway," Jim continued, "putting this in perspective, I think that Dempsey was in a supporting environment as long as the Imperial Beach Lifeguard Station was the outpost it was, in the remote South County, an outpost that, as Jim Lathers tells me, was thought by the citizens of the area to be a Mexican coast guard station. When the city incorporated, and Dempsey got the job of Recreation Director, subordinate to the mayor and the city council, I think the die was cast, and that eventually something like this would happen [Dempsey's ouster]. Dempsey was not the kind to change his style, and Dempsey's style just didn't fit their mold. If it had, he wouldn't have been Dempsey, would he? His legacy is really based on his unique character and individuality that endeared him to so many who knew him throughout the years."

    THE END of THE RIDERS OF THE TIJUANA SLOUGHS


    John Elwell wrote about this image of one Slough Rider (himself) & his Phaeton on the beach at Coronado: "The Phaetons were rare cars. The 32's were special. I heard only about 20,000 were built and not many are around. They are worth big bucks now. In California they were called 'Tubs'... two door covertible sedans. Mine was a 'hot rod'. Racing and dragging was in, in those days. I kept a sleeping bag in the back and my diving gear. This one was finally into a wreck in Mexico when a drunk Mexican rear-ended two cars at a road block and I got stabbed in the melee that followed. We had been racing all the way from Coronado, with pit stops in Cantina's in TJ and Ensenada. The wreck occurred about 2:30 AM after the Ensenada pit stop on the way to a lobster hole at 181 Kilometers, a fish camp called Erendida." ~ Photo & caption courtesy of John Elwell.


    Sources Used In This Chapter:

    "Black Mac" McClendon, Bill "Hadji" Hein, Bill McKusick, Bob "Goldie" Goldsmith, Buddy Hull, California Coastal Conservancy, California Coastal Resource Guide, Chuck "Gunker" Quinn, Dempsey Holder, Don Okey, Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, Flippy Hoffman, Harry "Buck" Miller, Imperial Beach wesite, Jack "Woody" Ekstrom, Jack Lounsberry, Jeff "Spiderman" Knox, Jim "Burrhead" Drever, Jim Voit, John Blankenship, John Elwell, Kimball "Kim" Daun, Les "Birdman" Williams, Lloyd Baker, Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison, Malcolm Jones, Mickey Muñoz, Mike "Duck" Richardson, Peter Cole, Rennie Yater, Richard Abrams, Ron "Canoe" Drummond, SAN DIEGO UNION, Serge Dedina, The Longboard Quarterly, Walt Hoffman


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