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.
Sloughs Geology & History
History of Imperial Beach
Earliest Slough Surfing Days, 1937-41
1st Crew: Early 1940s
Dempsey Holder, "Dean of The Sloughs"
"Our Golden Opportunity"
A Tailblock In Each Hand
After The War
2nd Crew: Later 1940s
Big Wave Testimonials
Fog A Mile Out
Simmons' "Latest Machine," Christmas
Shark Attack, October 9, 1950
Cry Baby at The Sloughs
3rd Crew: Lifeguards from Coronado
Simmons' Retreat, 1950
Later Sloughs Riders
Dempsey Holder Revisited
"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"
"It was so goddamned big that day. So wicked. It was one of those
days where you could see whitewater forever."
"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
-- 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."
"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."
"... 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."
"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
-- 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"
"We had always regarded the specter of death as a big dorsal fin."
"It was like Buck Rogers had landed!" --
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
"Dempsey was a big wave surfer. A big solid guy. Low key. Not much
-- 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
-- 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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.
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
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,"
"Dempsey was the guru down there," declared
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
"'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
"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
"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]."
(Looking SW at the northern edge of the damaged
boardwalk which was in front of the lifeguard station. Photo courtesy of
1st Crew - Early 1940s
of characters to consistently surf the Sloughs in the early 1940s included:
Towne "Towney" Cromwell
Kimball "Kim" Daun
Bob "Goldie" Goldsmith
Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison
Ron "Canoe" Drummond
Bill "Hadji" Hein
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
Holder, "Dean of The Sloughs"
"Dempsey was just unbelievable," recalled
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
"I think maybe he was a little masochistic," declared Don Okey, "he
liked to get wiped out."
"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!"
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"
"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."
"Beginning in the 1940s," wrote Serge Dedina in his excellent 1994 article on
the Sloughs for what was then called The Longboard Quarterly (now
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)
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!'
"What year was this?" I asked Woody, who's a really neat guy in his
"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
"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
"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."
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
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
"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
"By the time you got to the beach you just hung it up and shivered
for about an hour," added Woody.
Fog A Mile
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
"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."
"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 
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.'"
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
"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
"We had always regarded the specter of death as a big dorsal fin,"
"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 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
"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
"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.
"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  - 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]..."
Dempsey Holder remembered a time when Bob Simmons
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
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."
(Looking north from the north side of the bathrooms
at the lifeguard station. Photo courtesy of Ralph
- Dempsey Holder
- Bob Simmons
- Bill McKusick
- Tom Carlin
- Chuck "Gunker" Quinn
- Jim Voit
- Harry "Buck" Miller
- John Elwell
- Jim Nesbitt
- John Fowler
- Pat Marshall
Hoffman, Rod Luscomb, Pat Curren,
Peter Cole, Kit Horn, Buzzy Bent,
Joe Quigg, Matt Kivlin, Leslie Williams,
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"It was like Buck Rogers had landed!"
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
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."
"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."
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
"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,
Walt Hoffman, Rod Luscomb, "Black Mac" McClendon, Bill McKusick,
Don Melon, Buzzy Trent and Les
"... 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 can tell ya - about the 100-year cycles at Waikiki.
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."
"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
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
"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 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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