Allen "Dempsey" Holder, who started and lead it all. Image courtesy of Tom Keck
The hardcore surfers who rode the Tijuana Sloughs, south of Imperial Beach, California, right next to the international border with Mexico, are unquestionably the most unknown of
California’s standout surfers of the 1940s and even later.
The Tijuana Sloughs was the site of California’s first assault on big surf. It began with body surfing and riding soup on very crude equipment – even “wooden doors”
– in the late 1930s. After World War II, Sloughs big wave surfers grew from a handful of surfers riding planks to a couple dozen locals and visitors from all over Southern California riding redwood/balsa’s and
then, finally, Simmons “machines.”
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 until Mavericks – outside Pillar Point Harbor, just north of Half Moon Bay – was regularly surfed at the beginning of 1990.
Geology & Topology
Bank Wright, in Surfing California, referred to the Tijuana Sloughs – located at the mouth of the Tijuana River, on the border between the United States and Mexico – as “A spooky, big-wave break.”1
From the late 1930s onward, it became known first and foremost for its winter surf of size. 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” or “Mystery Break” which is even further out than the Outer Peak and only breaks in abnormally huge swells.2
The Tijuana River, as it enters the Pacific Ocean, is an inter tidal coastal estuary on the international border. 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.3
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 river’s
mouth became a massive reef and was covered up with ocean. Kelp beds now grow on the stone deposits, over a mile out.4
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 host to agricultural
farms and horse ranches. The estuary itself is about three miles long and one and a half miles wide. It encompasses 1,100 acres that include salt marshes and tide channels.
The Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, with its unique location on the Pacific Flyway, attracts many species of birds. Over 370 species have been sited in the estuary
and the Tijuana River Valley. About fifty species are resident birds, the rest are migratory. There are six endangered species of birds which use the estuary: the California least tern, the western snowy plover, brown pelican,
least bell’s vireo, light footed clapper rail, American peregrine falcon, and the belding’s savannah sparrow.5
Sloughs Rider Jim Voit wrote about the topography of the Sloughs:
“I have dived in the Sloughs area and seen eelgrass and rocks in the shallow waters. In 20+ feet of water the scene looks a lot like the desert at the foot of a canyon –
lots of volleyball sized boulders and almost no vegetation. Further out, I have heard there is kelp. I have never seen “reefs” there of the kind seen at La Jolla, Sunset Cliffs, Cardiff, Del Mar, and other places
along the coastline of the San Diego area.
“The location of rocks in the Sloughs area can be inferred from where the lobster fisherman set their traps, and that is generally in the area north of the Sloughs mouth and
south of Imperial Beach Avenue. Bobby Wilder, a summer guard there, once dived with tanks in about 30 feet of water off Elm Avenue to determine why a lobster trap was set there, on what we thought was a sand bottom. He found
a Navy F4U resting on the sandy bottom, with lobsters sheltered between the ribs of the wings. So the fishermen are good at finding lobsters, and where there are lobsters, there are rocks (or airplanes).
“The bottom around the end of the pier [in Imperial Beach] is sand, off the Navy radio station (north of IB) is sand, and I think it is sandy south of the “delta”
until you get to Point of Rocks Mexico – offshore from the Tijuana bullring.
“If you follow the 3-fathom contour line on the map from north to south, from just north of the Sloughs mouth, you see it change direction from south to southeast. The gradient
there (perpendicular to the contour lines) is fairly steep and points towards deeper water to the southwest, forming the “channel”. The feature we called the channel is really just the deeper water to the south
of the delta. We all called it ‘the channel’, but in describing the area to someone, the word could be confusing…
“The [surfing] areas were called Outside, Middle, Inside, First Notch, Second Notch, Third Notch, Mystery Break, and Backoff.
“The really good surf at the Sloughs is in a very specific location and is associated only with a big clean north groundswell with an interval of 15 to 18 seconds. This swell
breaks in a region called ‘the outside’. The outside is further defined by line-ups as first notch (closest to the beach), second notch, and third notch (farthest out). These notches are features in the hills south
of the Tijuana Bullring (not built until the 1950s) that are lined up with the south edge of the bullring to establish a ‘distance from shore’ estimate. This ‘outside’ region does not indicate any structure
except that the bigger the waves, the farther out they break. The Mystery Break is a break quite a ways outside of the outside break. It always backs off, and is always obscured by waves in the set that accompanies it. We
never seriously considered going out there because it seldom breaks, and it always backs off.
“The outside and the middle are distinguished by a feature that causes a wave that breaks on the outside to ‘back off’ before it re-formed on the middle. The region
where it backs off is called the back-off area. At times the surf is not big enough to break at all on the outside, but there are still good waves in the middle. At other times it breaks on the outside and backs off completely
then re-forms on the middle. When the surf is large, soup from a wave breaking on the outside rolls right through the back-off area, but the shoulder halts its movement southward, recedes northward towards the back-off area
and then re-forms to move south again.
“The tide and the size of the surf determined whether we surfed at the middle or the outside, and often we would start one place and move to the other as conditions changed.
“There is a similar structure associated with the middle and the inside, with another back-off area between them. Thus the question: ‘which back-off area?’ might
“We never got a longitude/latitude fix on the position of the outside breaks,” Jim continued. “The enclosed chart shows a 2-fathom spot, which would be about 2.5
fathoms (15 feet), deep on a medium tide. I think this spot is near the latitude of the outside breaks. It is 700 yards out on the map, and the 3-fathom contour is only about 25 yards further outside. If we assume that a wave
breaks in about the depth of water equal to its height, then the big surf would start about there. With all the fancy electronics available these days, there may be someone with a good longitude/latitude fix on the outside
breaks. I believe the estimate of 1 mile out is an exaggeration, as the map shows a depth of 6 fathoms at 1 mile out on the delta.”7
History of Imperial Beach
As for area names, there are several interpretations of the word “Tijuana.” The dominant interpretation has “tijuan” as a Native American word meaning “by
The area was certainly inhabited by the Kumeyaay people well before the arrival of Spaniards in the 1700s. After the Spaniards subdued the local people and began to convert natives
to Christianity, the Kumeyaay were noted for their resistance to the conversion.9
Just prior to 1891, there was an active tourist enclave straddling 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 modern-day cities of Tijuana and Imperial Beach.10
Before it was known as Imperial Beach, a land boom hit the area in the 1880s. Promoters followed the general pattern replicated elsewhere. First came acquisition and subdivision,
followed by a hotel or other attraction. Then came land auctions and finally the building of the community by its new residents.11
This same 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.12
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.13
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. After that, a popular Sunday pastime of San Diegans was to board a ferry downtown and sail through a channel dredged in the bay to a landing where an electric train would take them to
‘beautiful Imperial Beach.’”14 Despite these links to the big city, as late as the 1930s and ‘40s, Imperial Beach could still be considered
a “sleepy” town.
Imperial Beach got its first sidewalks in 1909-1910 and a wooden 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” ended as a failure and was eventually dis-assembled and removed. For many years thereafter, though, 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 1953.15
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 as it traveled from 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.16
A decade after World War II, on June 5, 1956, Imperial Beach voted to become its own independent city. The act of incorporation was recorded in the California State Secretary’s
office on July 18th, 1956. This became the official birthday of Imperial Beach, which became the tenth city in San Diego County and the 327th city in California.17
Just prior to World War II, a very small number of pioneering California surfers began surfing south of Imperial Beach, off the river mouth of the Tijuana River. They established
the spot so solidly among Southern California surfers that after the war, The Sloughs became the testing ground for most mainlanders going on to more consistent bigger surf in the Hawaiian Islands. The Sloughs were home of
the then-known biggest waves off the continental United States.
Tijuana Sloughs was first surfed – body surfed, 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 body surfing. 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.”18
“According to Dempsey,” said John Elwell, a Sloughs rider that would come along in the early 1950s, “Towney Cromwell and him surfed it first [on surfboards] in 1939.”19
“One of the first guys that surfed down here with me was Towney Cromwell,” Dempsey confirmed. “He was studying oceanography at Scripps.”20
For at least the next 10 years, Dempsey rode the Sloughs on the redwood plank surfboards of the time. In the late 1940s, he got a dramatically improved surfboard from Bob Simmons.
“The Sloughs was Dempsey’s place,” Lloyd Baker wrote me. “Every big day with the right swell direction and good wind condition, Dempsey was there. The rest
of us were just visitors, a day here and a day there.”21 A similar parallel can be drawn to the story of Jeff Clark and Mavericks, decades later up the
“Dempsey was the guru down there,” agreed Flippy Hoffman,22 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.”23
“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.”24
“He had originally come from Texas, with his family,” Chuck Quinn, who came onto the Sloughs scene in 1949,25
told me of Dempsey. “He started surfing at Pacific Beach, at what was called ‘PB Point’… His mentor, his hero, was Don Okey from Windansea. He said, ‘He was the best. I learned from Okey. He was a genius. He would have been a millionaire, with a little bit of luck,
because he was always inventing things.’
“‘Dempsey,’ I said, ‘Did you and Okey surf together at PB Point?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that was the original.’
“Okey talks about riding 30 and 40-foot waves off Pacific Beach Point,” Chuck repeated to me. “I surfed waves over 20-feet, there,” he attested.26
Chuck might have been exaggerating on Don’s behalf, for as Lloyd Baker underscored, “We surfed the PB Point from 1937 until 1960 and I never saw a wave more than 20 or
25 feet.” Lloyd added, with some humor: “I don’t know what Okey was smoking when he saw 40 footers.”27
“I used to surf with Dempsey Holder in La Jolla, at Windansea,” Woody Ekstrom told me, “and I also surfed with Dempsey at Sunset Cliffs, but mainly in La Jolla.
We’d grab a sandwich, lay down in the park there by La Jolla Cove. It’s something I will always remember – having lunches in the park.
“From there, Dempsey would always come up because Windansea was the most consistent peak of its time. You know, as far as speed and being tough most of the time. You could
always get something out of it.
“Dempsey then went down to Imperial Beach to lifeguard…”28
“What you need to understand,” emphasized John Elwell, who began surfing the Sloughs a little after Chuck Quinn and a good number of years after Woody began down there,
“is that what happened in 1939-1941 was brief. They just sampled it and had boards that really couldn’t surf it. Then, the war broke out and they all went into the military. Dempsey too, but Dempsey suffered a
serious illness and was discharged. He thought it was spinal meningitis.”29
“Our boards were too heavy,” Lloyd Baker, who started surfing the Sloughs in 1940, explained, “and not quick enough to really get the most out of the big thick
waves. Some were chambered redwood, others were balsa and redwood; average 75 to 120 pounds.”30
“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].”31
When the 1940s got under way, Kim Daun joined Dempsey, along with Lloyd Baker, Don Okey, Bill “Hadji” Hein and Jack Lounsberry.32
“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.”33
It ended up being one of the most memorable big days at the Sloughs. It was the Winter of 1943 and World War II was still on in a big way. It was the same season that saw the death
of Dickie Cross in big waves at Waimea.34
“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.”35
“It was so god-damned big that day. So wicked,” declared Bob Goldsmith. “It was one of those days where you could see whitewater forever.”36
“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.”37
“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.”38
“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.”39
“The horizons tilted on me a couple of times, and that scared me,” continued Dempsey. “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.”40
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.”41
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.”42
“I just kept swimming south,” retold Daun. “[And then] 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.”43
“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.”44
“I think I was as close to dying as I ever was in my life that day,” admitted Kim Daun.45
“During those days,” concluded Bob Goldsmith, “it was every man for himself.”46
“Dempsey was just unbelievable,” recalled John Blankenship. “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 [Mickey Dora‘s stepfather], although Gard never tackled waves as big as Dempsey.”47
“He’d take off even if he had a twenty percent chance of making it,” remembered Buddy Hull.48
“Dempsey would take off on anything, always deeper than he should have,” Buddy Hull recalled,49 and Woody
Ekstrom agreed: “I remember him saying, ‘If you make every wave you’re not calling it close enough.’”50
“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.”52
“Dempsey called Towney in the early morning,” John Blankenship recalled of a particularly memorable time Dempsey rounded-up a crew to attack the Sloughs, “and he
[Towney] could hear the roar of the surf in the background.”53
“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.’”54
“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.’”55
“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.”56
“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.”57
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!”58
“They’d get the phone call late at night, ‘Surf’s up,’” wrote environmentalist and local writer 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.”59
“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.
“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.”61
“Towney and I would get in Towney’s ‘35 Ford coupe – trunk shoved with boards,” Woody continued. “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.”62
“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
“Towney and I were just like brothers,” Woody said. “Of course, so was Blankenship.
“He [Towney] got killed June 2nd 1958,” Woody knew the date by heart. “I remember it [the day] real well. One of the saddest days of my life… I still miss Towney…” Woody said quietly, with visible emotion.63
“How long did you surf the Sloughs?” I asked, 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.”64
As time went on and more surfers joined the group riding The Sloughs, the scenario would go like Serge Dedina described:
“Boards were quickly loaded in Dempsey’s Sloughmobile, a stripped down ‘27 Chevy prototype dune buggy that contained a rack for boards and a seat for Dempsey. Everyone
else hung on anxiously as they made their way through the sand dunes and nervously eyed the whitewater that hid winter waves that never closed out. The bigger the swell, the farther out it broke. It was not uncommon for surfers
to find themselves wondering what the hell they were doing a mile from shore, scanning the horizon for the next set, praying they wouldn’t be caught inside, lose their boards, and have to swim in.
“If you liked big waves and were a real waterman,” Dedina summed up, “... you’d paddle out with Dempsey. No one held it against you if you stayed on the shore.
Some guys surfed big waves. Others didn’t. It was that simple.”65
“Dempsey was an ironman,” declared “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.”66
“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
“We didn’t have leashes,” Woody explained to 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].”69
“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.”70
“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.”71
1st Crew, Early 1940s
· Towne “Towney” Cromwell
· Kimball “Kim” Daun
· Don Okey
· Lloyd Baker
· John Blankenship
· Bob “Goldie” Goldsmith
· Bill “Hadji” Hein
· Jack Lounsberry
· Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison
· Ron “Canoe” Drummond
After The War
“Beginning in the 1940s,” wrote Serge Dedina in a 1994 article on the Sloughs for what was then called The Longboard Quarterly (later just Longboard magazine), “when north swells closed out the coast, surfers from all over Southern California made the journey to a remote and desolate beach within spitting distance of the Mexican border. Before the Malibu,
San Onofre, and Windansea gangs surfed Makaha and the North Shore, they experienced the thrill and fear of big waves at the Sloughs.”72
Even so, only a handful of surfers regularly surfed the Sloughs. While word of the size of the winter surf at the Tijuana 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.”73
“We paddled out and the surf was probably about 20 feet high or so,” remembered Ron “Canoe” Drummond. “I looked out about a mile where some tremendously
big waves were breaking. I asked if anybody wanted to go out there with me, but nobody did. So I went in my canoe and paddled out there. 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.”74
“The main draw back to the Sloughs,” Lloyd Baker wrote me, “was the distance from shore the waves broke [from]. And the temp of the water: 51-58 degrees most all
winter. Because of the temp of the air and water, you sometimes did things that were not too bright.”75
“One big day,” Lloyd went on, “I lost my board on the first wave and it was gone to shore or some place toward shore. It was already cold from the air temp, so
in desperation, I picked up the next wave, which was the largest I had ever tried to body surf. I was so long back in the powerful white water that I was about to dive and give it up. Then, I shot out in front to get a little
air. It finally let me go when I reached the shorebreak. It was nice to catch my breath and get warm again.”76
“The down side of the Sloughs,” Lloyd added, “was the inconsistency (only 4 or 5 times a winter). I lived in Mission Beach and Dempsey would call me if he thought
the next morning might be good. This was fine, but it took 5 or 6 hours out of that day. The time to drive to Imperial Beach, then to get organized and down to the Sloughs, wait for a lull in the shorebreak, paddle out (a
long, long way), catch 2 or 3 waves, then getting warm [on the beach], and back home too exhausted to work.”77
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
Jim “Burrhead” Drever‘s 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.”79
“After the Sloughs,” remarked John Blankenship, the biggest waves at the Cove [La Jolla Cove] didn’t seem so big.”80
“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 [the board] was nothing.”81
“The bigger the better,” added Buddy Hull.82
“When you’re out there you take a different perspective,” said 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.”83
“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.”84
“The only reason we made turns,” explained Chuck Quinn, who arrived later on, “was to get an angle and make the wave. Our goal was to ride the biggest waves that
were available on the coast.”85
“When the winter storms came in,” said Bill “Hadji” Hein, “well, people knowing what it was like down there, the first thing they talked about was,
‘Let’s go down to the Sloughs.’”86
Hadji again: “Huge, very huge, and dangerous. Way out to sea. Long paddle. Those were dangerous waves. They were thrill rides. You needed a heavy board. There weren’t
very many guys that liked to go down there.”87
Skeeter Malcolm: “All of a sudden there was nothing and then there were these giant waves.”88
Buddy Hull: “There was virtually no landmark. You really had to be in the right place or you missed it.”89
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.”90
“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.”91
“The hardest thing is to be caught inside,” explained Dempsey. “A big set come in you know the outside is gonna break and its gonna take your board.”92
“One time Dempsey and I were paddling out and got over the top,” recalled Woody, “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.”93
“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.”94
“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.”95
“I remember one time,” Woody added, “down inside [between two big set waves], one of the surfers let out a war hoop – a yell – and it echoed off the wall!”96
“The tactic for paddling out from the beach was developed by Dempsey and the earlier surfers,” Jim Voit, who came on the scene in the early 1950s, wrote. “It took
into consideration the following:
“The current close to the shore runs towards the south during a north swell.
“The shore break is heavy (very heavy in real big surf) to the south of the channel.
“The shore break is lighter to the north of the channel in the shadow of the outer breaks. The energy of a wave dissipates as it rolls in from the outside.
“The current feeds a rip close to shore in the channel.”97
“The tactic then,” Jim went on, “ is to start well north of the slough mouth, to wait for a lull (there is always shorebreak to get through), to paddle straight
out, letting the current sweep you south, and to maneuver towards the southwest so as to end up in the channel outside of the shorebreak. Woody Ekstrom‘s account of how to get out (The Channel) is accurate.”98
“The tactic for getting in from the outside, with or without your board is different,” Jim made the distinction. “The rip that may help you get out is to be avoided
when coming in. It’s especially important not to get too far south, out of the shadow of the outside break, and into the situation where you must get back to the north, and across the rip, or enter some very nasty shore
break. The tactic is, from the outside, to move towards shore and the channel, then to angle to the northeast towards the middle (some pretty big soup might roll over you), letting the soup help you in, so that you reach the
beach well north of the rip. It’s not an obvious technique, and contradicts ones natural temptation to get south and well away from the big breaks on the outside and middle.”99
“Not having a wetsuit,” Woody declared, “and not having a leash – you had to make all the right moves.”100
“It was cold and we didn’t have any wetsuits,” repeated Burrhead. “If you lost your board it was a big problem. It took you a long time to get in.”101
“By the time you got to the beach you just hung it up and shivered for about an hour,” added Woody.102
“The swims without wet suits were extremely long and numbing,” recalled John Elwell, who started surfing the Sloughs in 1949. “We jumped right back on our boards
and surfed to exhaustion. We burned old tires to ward off hypothermia and watched Simmons eating out of a rough-cut opened can of Soya Beans talking about the surf. Those were the days!”103
The temperature of the winter water added to the distance of the breaks from shore meant hypothermia was a major concern for all surfers prior to the introduction of wetsuits in
Hypothermia is reduced body temperature when a body dissipates more heat than it absorbs. In humans, it is defined as a body core temperature below 35-degrees Celsius (95-degrees
Farenheit). Symptoms depend on the temperature. In mild hypothermia there is shivering and some mental confusion. In moderate hypothermia, shivering stops and confusion increases. In severe hypothermia there may be a paradoxical
undressing, in which a person removes his or her clothing, as well as an increased risk of the heart stopping. Hypothermia is caused by exposure to extreme cold and any condition that decreases heat production or increases
heat loss, like alcohol intoxication, low blood sugar, anorexia or advanced age.104
Sloughs Riders generally surfed in mid-50s degree water for an hour or more, without a wetsuit. Already cold, sometimes they lost their boards a good 500 yards offshore in big surf
and then had to swim in.
Once wetsuits came into common use at the Sloughs, they were discovered to have multiple benefits.
“In the past,” wrote Jim Voit, “when surfing without a wet suit, most swimmers would dive underneath a big break, pause for a few seconds to let the turbulence
die down, and then swim back to the surface, often through considerable residual turbulence. Now in warm water, body surfing with fins in 8-foot surf, this might feel exhilarating – but on a 15+ foot cold winter day
with no fins and no wet suit it was no fun.”105
“After I started wearing a wetsuit,” Jim continued, “the tactic I used when caught inside a big set, or swimming in after losing my board, (no leashes in the old
days either!) was as follows: when a wall of soup rolled over me, I would double up in a ball with my arms protecting my head and neck from loose boards, relax and conserve my energy. I might get pounded if the wave broke
right in front of me, but the buoyancy of the wet suit worked to move me back to the surface. When I started wearing a wet suit at the Sloughs it took a lot out of the fear of getting held under. John Elwell and I also took
to wearing a small inflatable military life jacket that we inflated after the set that wiped us out had subsided. The extra buoyancy made the swim in a piece of cake, comparatively speaking.
“I mention this so we’ll remember that the early surfers here in California didn’t have the luxury of wet suits and were exposed to the double disadvantage of being
cold and being without the life jacket buoyancy effects of a wet suit. I think that the testimonials of Dempsey, Daun, and Goldsmith (Winter 1943-44) are a testimony of the scary excitement of getting wiped out on a big day
and taking the long swim in through big surf. But, those testimonials would not have contained the serious possibility of death from drowning or hypothermia had they all been wearing good wet suits.”106
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].”107
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 and he hung out down there.”108
Chuck Quinn recalled the first time he saw Simmons, when Dempsey and Simmons first met and Simmons’ moniker of “The Phantom Surfer” began:
“During Christmas vacation, 1949,” Quinn said, “I met Dempsey on the beach near the river mouth. He invited me to go surfing with him. A group of guys were coming
down from Windansea and San Onofre. The next morning we met at the lifeguard station. As we were gathering, Dempsey said a guy had come down there the day before and had a light board tied to the roof of his car. Dempsey said,
‘I told him about the Sloughs and he drove on down.’
“We got down there in Dempsey’s Sloughmobile and saw a ‘37 Ford109 with the back windows painted
out, a board rack screwed to the top, with some quarter inch ropes tied to it. The board was gone and we figured whoever it was, was already out there. It was big that day. Low tide, north swell, and of course, from shore
we couldn’t see it.
“I’d never experienced anything as tough as that shorebreak. So Dempsey said to me, ‘Stick with me and I’ll tell you when we’ll time it and then we’ll
go.’ I barely got through that last wave of set shorebreak.
“It seemed like we were paddling out for half an hour and there was still no sign of anybody. We got out and Dempsey says, ‘Geez, I’m looking for that buoy. I don’t
know where it is.’ Dempsey had put a big buoy on an old engine block to mark the lineup. Eventually we got out to where Dempsey says, ‘The buoy is gone. The surf must have carried it away. Maybe I didn’t
get it out far enough.’
“We’re waiting out there, when all of a sudden we realized there was a huge set coming, and it was way outside from where we were. Dempsey tells us, ‘Paddle out,
paddle out.’ We all started paddling furiously. I had never been in waves that big. These waves were just huge. We got over a couple of waves, but right away half the other guys lost their boards before we even rode
“We were struggling, and I was holding on to my board. It’s a wonder it didn’t have hands marks on it. I was really scared and was in a situation that I had never
even imagined. As we pushed through the next to last wave, here came this one lone rider on a huge wave. He was riding steeper and closer to the break then anything we ever imagined.
“After the set we kind of regrouped and we’re waiting for the next big set, when this guy comes out and paddles right through our group. Right into it. No one said anything.
It was just quiet. We had heard about Simmons boards. There was a guy at Malibu that was making light boards out of balsa wood. So I said to him, ‘Say, is that a Simmons board?’ He looked at me and he said, ‘My
name is Simmons and this is my latest machine.’ And I remember when I turned my board I bumped his board. I was just a kid and I apologized. He just kept paddling.”110
“[It was] My first day out in big surf,” Chuck told a little more details of that day. “I’d come down here... 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 Air
Station 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.”111
“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
“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 paddle board or rescue board]. I figured it belonged to one of the lifeguards.”112
“I drove down the Slough road and took a walk down to the pipe – there was a corrugated 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 ridable or not.
“I was coming back to where I’d parked, at the end of the road. I was walking along the beach and there was a single figure coming toward me.” Chuck looked at me
with intensity. “There’s just something about a waterman. If you grow up around the water, you can see it in a guy. You know. You know he’s a waterman just by the way he walks on the beach. So… we saw each other, about 200-yards apart. We walked right up to each other; nobody else on the
beach; huge waves breaking way out on the horizon.
“So, I said, ‘Are you a lifeguard?’
“He said, ‘Yeah, I’m a lifeguard up at the county lifeguard station at the foot of Palm Avenue.’
“‘Is that your surfboard laying against the station?”
“‘Yep, it is.’
“‘Are these waves ridable? 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.’113
“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 Ekstrom, 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…”114
Chuck had also surfed up at San O before. “John Elwell and I went up to San Onofre in ‘49, in the summer, with Lee Thompkins, who was head of the lifeguard service in
Coronado. So, I knew who these guys were, but I didn’t know them personally.”115
“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
“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.”116
“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], 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.”117
“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 buoy – a steel buoy – that had washed up on the beach. It had broken away from its mooring.
He painted it white, fastened with a cable to a V-8 engine block used as an anchor. He rode it out to what he thought was the outside reef.
“The problem with surfing the Sloughs was that it breaks so far out in the ocean, when it’s big, that it’s very hard to tell where the next wave is going to break.
So, the line-ups are difficult. It’s hard to get situated in the right place. And there’s always the possibility of getting caught inside and these big waves would take our boards all the way into the beach. There
were no leashes on surfboards in those days. If you lost your board, you swam into the beach to get it. That meant you were frozen. That was the end of your surfing [that day], because [after] the swim in from the outside
reef of the Sloughs, you were too cold to be able to surf any more.”118
“So, anyway,” Chuck continued, “Dempsey said, ‘There’s a buoy out there, but I can’t see it.’ By that time, we were waxing our boards and
getting ready to go out. All the time, Dempsey was looking and he said, ‘I don’t know where that guy is.’ We saw his car and we saw there were ropes for hanging [a board], on either side of the car…
his board wasn’t on his car. We couldn’t see him. It’s such a big scale – the waves were stacked-up between the beach, the shoreline, and the outside reef; about a mile.
“So, Dempsey took us down by the corrugated iron pipe...”
“The pipe,” John Elwell clarified, “was a WW II radar marker, it was huge and could be used as a line-up on moderate days. Dempsey did figure out some line-ups,
after the war, on the Tijuana foothills, off the La Playa, which was Point of Rocks then. He had three notches. Also, as Jim Voit said, we used the control tower at Ream Field as a marker a mile out to sea in this maelstrom.”119
Chuck continued: Dempsey “told us... ‘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.”120
“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 buoy. So, Dempsey said, ‘I don’t know where the buoy 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 crest-lines on them. You could see that they were coming. They were like marching soldiers, like an army.”121
“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 alluvial 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.”122
“So, when we regrouped – those of us that were left – ” Gunker continued, “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.”123
“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.”124
“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. Ekstrom 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.”125
John Elwell remembered the board Simmons was riding. It was a “dual fin, concave with four slots, and eleven feet long. Later it showed up with rope handles to roll through
the massive soup. I was not there that day because I was just a learner and did not have a board yet. I borrowed boards... I was down there right after that and met Simmons and saw the board. It was out of this world. It was
like Buck Rogers had landed. It was so radical and so different that we thought he was some kind of way-out guy. Everyone there had planks. We begged him for some boards and he eventually made us all boards reluctantly.126
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
“We called him ‘The Phantom Surfer,’” wrote Elwell, “after his incredible appearance and performance” that Christmas time day in 1949.128
2nd 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
Visiting surfers to the Sloughs, during the 1940s, included: Gard Chapin, Peter Cole, Richard Davis, Bill “Hadji” Hein, Matt Kivlin, Jack Lounsberry, Harry “Buck”
Miller, Preston “Pete” Peterson, Joe Quigg, Dave Rochlen and Tommy Zahn.129
Jim “Lathers paddled out,” John Elwell told me, “but was never considered a surfer. Hadji and Lounsberry only surfed it a few times in the ‘40’s on
planks. 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
“So then, later on,” Chuck “Gunker” Quinn told me, continuing his recollections of Bob Simmons, “he came back. He didn’t come back right away...
He talked about the Ventura Overhead… Simmons came back in… ‘51-’52.
“In the meantime, Dempsey went up to Southgate, which is an area in Los Angeles, to General Veneer Manufacturing Company, and he bought balsa wood for all of us; for myself,
for Jim Lathers, for Jim’s brother Richard and Richard’s best friend Vern Dodds…
“So, we made five Simmons copies. We had looked at his board. Dempsey had talked to him long enough to understand the theory of what he was trying to accomplish in his shapes, so we made ‘em. We didn’t have a Simmons board to copy.
We just made ‘em from having seen the board one time and what Dempsey knew, already, from talking to him. We made five boards. Dempsey, myself, Jim Lathers, Richard Lathers and Vern Dodds.”131
“So, we rode those boards,” Chuck continued, “down at the Sloughs that season of ‘50-’51 and it wasn’t until later on – ‘51-’52
– that Simmons came down again. He came in the summertime and he was surfing a lot at Windansea. He started shaping boards for [a few select friends on the south coast]… First board he made was for Dempsey. Then,
he made boards for some of the guys who were lifeguarding here, then; Jim Voit (from Coronado), Tom Carlin, Johnny Elwell, Johnny Elwell’s girlfriend Margie Mannick – those two boards, Margie Mannick’s and
Tom Carlin’s, were smaller. To me, they were among the most beautiful boards that I ever saw that Simmons made.
“The board he made for Dempsey was beautiful, too. It was 12-feet long. It was made from balsa wood that Dempsey got from rafts that drifted up. The Merchant Marine had rafts
made out of balsa wood. Sometimes they’d get torn off ships in storms. Dempsey salvaged the wood. It was a beautiful board. Simmons made a board for me, which I rode from ‘52 to probably around ‘57.”132
“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 imitating Bob Simmons‘ gruff speech, with falling
“‘I d-o-n’t k-n-o-w !’ You know. And he’d walk off.”133
“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.”134
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 that Simmons’ speech 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 imitations:
“‘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…”135
“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 he 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 [Windansea] 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]…”136
“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.”137
“We had an El Nino kind of condition during the summer of 1950,” Dempsey recalled, beginning the story of the first known shark attack on a surfer in California.138
“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 Lathers hollered, ‘Shark.’ [Then] Bob hollered, ‘Shark.’ He had a real frightened tone in his voice. I was sitting there on my board thinking that he come out here for
the first time in deep water and he saw a porpoise go by and just panicked. ‘Boy,’ I thought, ‘He’s going to be embarrassed… he really hollered.’ Jim hollered at me again. It was a shark.
I went over there but I didn’t see the shark. There was blood in the water and Bob grabbed Jim’s airmat.
“I put the board right underneath him and took him in,” Dempsey went on. “Got bit – I’m sure he pulled his legs up – he had marks on his hands.
He said it got him twice. Jim Lathers saw it. He said it looked like two fins and then it rolled over. We didn’t take long, everybody was close to shore. I took him in on my board. He was bleeding from his legs. We took
him to see Doc Hayes; he had a little office in the VFW.
“Bob looked kind of weak,” Dempsey remembered. “… he had that gray look. That shark must have taken a chunk of his leg the size of a small steak.”139
“We had always regarded the specter of death as a big dorsal fin,” summed-up Dempsey.140
Another “dorsal fin” incident was retold by Dempsey to Serge Dedina. It was of a time when Simmons and Buzzy Trent surfed the Sloughs with him 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. It’s also possible that either Dempsey or Dedina confused the story somewhat,
as Jim Voit also remembers a killer whale incident, but it involved Buzzy Bent, not Buzzy Trent, later in the decade.141 Dempsey’s story as told to Dedina
goes like this:
“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.”142
“The Killer Whale incident,” Jim Voit wrote me, after reading the above, “is either an incident that I wasn’t aware of, or it has been distorted somehow.
Here is an incident that I was personally involved in:
“Dempsey, myself, and Buzzy Bent (not Buzzy Trent) were surfing at the Sloughs sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s. It was a nice day and the surf was breaking
on the outside. We had come down in the lifeguard skiff, anchored in the deep water to the south of the break, and paddled about 100 yards north into the takeoff area.
“We were waiting for a set and talking, when we noticed what Dempsey speculated were two Humpback whales close to the skiff – in fact they seemed to be examining it.
After less than a minute they submerged, then re-surfaced heading directly towards us. Their dorsal fins, side by side in perfect frontal view, identified them as Killers. We lay quietly on our boards as they submerged again,
passed directly beneath us – the white patches on their sides showing clearly – and continued northward.
“We quit surfing for the day, paddled back to the skiff, and returned to the lifeguard station after alerting two body surfers who were swimming out from the beach.”143
“Buzzy Bent was the most talented Wind’n’Sea (La Jolla) surfer of his time,” Jim added. “He was one of the founders of the Chart House restaurant chain.
I did not know Buzzy Trent except through his reputation as a Hawaii big wave rider...”144
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.”145
“Around ‘47, ‘48 we met a guy named [Dick] Storm-Surf Taylor,” recalled Coronado lifeguard 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.”146
“Storm Surf was there,” Elwell clarified, “but according to [Kimball] Daun, never surfed it. Dick was in the entourage and not a good water man.”147
“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 paddle boards. Sometime during this period, we became aware of the winter surf at Imperial Beach, and made our first contacts with Allan (Dempsey) Holder – the San Diego County lifeguard
lieutenant assigned to [the] lifeguard station at Imperial Beach.”148
“In 1949 all the early birds were gone except Dempsey,” Elwell explained.149 “Simmons showed up
with modern boards and the activity and quality of riding picked up. The Coronado surfers were the most active down there as Dempsey’s followers,” mostly because they lived close to Imperial Beach, were good in
the ocean, and Dempsey hired them as lifeguards. “Myself, [Tom] Carlin, Chuck [Quinn], [Jim] Voit were there. [Jim] Lathers was a lifeguard who really did not surf but tried it and was a witness to the history.”150
“Lathers paddled out a few times,” Elwell detailed, “but was never considered a surfer. He never surfed out in front of the station to practice or would go to Sunset
Cliffs and Windansea with us. He was a lifeguard and friend.”151
“I started going with the older guys like Johnny Elwell,” Tom Carlin told me of his participation. “We started to go to Point Loma and Sunset Cliffs [first].
“We would go surf Windansea in the summertime.”152
“The great thing was that Dempsey was here lifeguarding,” 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.’153
“The Coronado guys like Voit, Carlin, myself rode it more than anyone else,” Elwell attested. “There were [other regulars] like Jim Nesbitt and hotshot Navy Pilot
John Fowler from Newport Beach.”154
As for others, “[Bill] McKusick, [Pat] Curren… were from Windansea155… [Rod] Luscomb and 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 [core] boards to the Sloughs in 1952 or ‘53.”156
“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…”157
“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.”158
“[Walt] Hoffman surfed it maybe a couple of times when he was in training at NTC in the Navy,” wrote Elwell. “Simmons was down there all the time from 1949 until
his death in 1954.159
“Hoffman,” John clarified, “… 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 [just]
ridden big Makaha for the first time.”160
Elwell went on to talk a little bit about Jim Nesbitt, John Fowler and Pat Marshall:
“Jim was not too good, but tried. Simmons felt sorry for him because he tried to make a
surfboard out of a Navy balsa life raft 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.”161
“John Fowler was a well built surfer from Newport Beach,” Elwell continued. “He was a jet pilot and had an extraordinary record of not a single wave-off on carriers
in a Far Eastern cruise. He went into helicopters and was again the top pilot, flying the President of Korea and other VIP’s around. John used to fly out in his helo and sit over us while we surfed so close you could
put your hand on the skid while he gave us down drafts, laughing at us. He had a tiny short board in the early 50’s and rode it with superb coordination, considering his muscular size, and was an excellent surfer.”162
“Pat Marshall,” Elwell went on, “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.”163
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 [buoys].”164 He “must have come
and lived after WW II... he was impressive to us. He always invited us in to warm up after surfing and have a glass of wine, and we would listen to his poetry and stories.”165
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, too, 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…”166
“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.”167
“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.”168
Simmons had a falling out with his sanders and glassers, Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin in late 1949.169
As a result, he closed his surfboard operations in Santa Monica and gradually gravitated to the San Diego area for more consistent surf and to finish college. It was during this time that the best and last of a series of Simmons
boards were made.170
“There was a huge vacuum left when Simmons quit producing boards,” in Santa Monica, wrote Elwell.171
“…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.”172
Simmons’ move down south marked the beginning of the end of what has been called the “Simmons Era.”173
Santa Barbara shaper Rennie Yater recalled, “Simmons went on down to live in Imperial Beach. People kind of forgot about him after he left the Malibu testing grounds. Surfboard
evolution went on, but surfboards weren’t as radical. They were pretty conservative; with natural rocker, the way balsa wood came; with about an inch of deck rocker, with very little heavy rocker in the bottom of the
board. That went on for a long time, into the Velzy era and Hobie era; didn’t change much at all ‘till foam came around. Then, you weren’t restricted
by the dimensions of balsa wood. Even the balsa wood boards didn’t have much rocker, except for the ones in Hawaii, where they started to put kick in the nose because of the big waves.”174
3rd Crew, Early 1950s
· Dempsey Holder
· Lloyd Baker
· Bob Simmons
· Bill McKusick
· Tom Carlin
· Chuck “Gunker” Quinn
· Jim Voit
· Harry “Buck” Miller
· John Elwell
· Jim Nesbitt
· John Fowler
· Pat Marshall
· Walt Hoffman
· Rod Luscomb
· Pat Curren
· Peter Cole
· Kit Horn
· Buzzy Bent
“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
“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.”176
“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.”177
“So, that’s what it was,” Chuck went on in his soft, measured 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.”178
“I think, at the time,” Tom Carlin 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…”179
Lloyd Baker mentioned that the addition of a skiff to the Slough Riders arsenal was an important advance and helped decrease the amount of time it took for the surf session, especially
the non-surfing parts:
“In 1955, Bell Rumsey, the captain of the county guards, gave Dempsey a surf skiff with a 25 h.p. outboard. We could put 4 boards and ourselves in the boat. Then, run back
and forth along the shore in front of the lifeguard station until there was a lull. Then, cruise south to the Sloughs and anchor off the side of the break. We could then surf until we were tired or when the wind came up. This
made the whole experience much more enjoyable.”180
“In 1955 or ‘56,” Lloyd added, about the advantages of improved equipment, “Pat Curren shaped me a balsa gun (a la Hawaii big wave gun); weight about 40 pounds. That made catching the huge, thick swells much easier.”181
“At that time,” even with the addition of better equipment, Tom Carlin emphasized, “it was important to know the right location and have surfing buddies –
a lot more camaraderie 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.”182
Lloyd Baker, one of the earliest of the Sloughs regulars, gave it up at the end of the fifties. “In 1960,” Lloyd wrote me, “we moved to Aspen, where Bob Card, Buzzy
Bent, [and] Joey Cabell were already living. This took the winter surf out of my life.” Later, when he moved back to Mission Beach, surfing was far less a priority and he quit altogether around 1975.183
Lloyd mentioned that he had “great memories of many old surfing friends,” including: Dorian Paskowitz, Skeeter Malcolm, Kimball Daun, Bill Nelson, Woody Ekstrom, Bill
“Hadji” Hein, Buddy Hull, Towney Cromwell, Don Okey, Bob Goldsmith, Storm Surf Taylor, Whitey Harrison, “my nephew Bill Chester“ and “my 2 sons Greg and Ken.”184
Until Mavericks became known, up near Half Moon Bay, the Tijuana Sloughs continued as the testing ground for those who wanted to surf the biggest waves the Mainland had to offer
and those who wanted practice before going over to the Islands.
Testimonies of its power came from many surfers:
Kit Horn: “The Sloughs had big spooky waves – way, way outside.”185
“I started surfing in Imperial Beach in 1962,” Jim Knox wrote me. “Demps used to let us use the old balsa red dot as long as we could get it to the water and back.
I started surfing the Sloughs in the 9th grade (1963). There was a small young crew that was on it when ever it broke. Richard Abrams, Mike Richardson, Sean Holder (Dempseys son), Mike Malek, Chip Wilder, Jim Barber, and later
my younger brother Jeff plus the older guys like [Jim] Voit, [John] Elwell, Bud McClure, Jimmy Zercher, Bill Gove, Fred Davies (there were others I can’t remember at the moment). Almost all of the older guys were lifeguards
and we younger guys were guided into lifeguarding. I worked in Imperial Beach as a seasonal lifeguard from 1966 until 1996 during summer breaks from teaching.”186
“I always felt that the Sloughs broke like a great big beach break,” continued Knox. “If you went out you knew you were going to get caught inside. The first time
I went to the islands was great. I had already seen and been in real big surf and the water was warm. On a 10 or 12 foot day the random 15+ footer always came through and nailed everybody just like a 5 footer shows up on a
3 foot day at your local beach break. The peak is so broad that when you drop in it looks like a giant wall all the way to Mexico. It moves around a lot. It’s not like reefs that have a real consistent take off spot.
The Bullring line up just helps you get close.
“I remember the first wave I rode outside vividly,” Jim Knox went on. “It was about 10 feet at 2nd and Richard Abrams dropped in on me just to see what would happen.
I was the new guy at the time and too scared to fall off when the spray from his turn smacked me. Mike Richardson mentioned the lifeguard test. Not everybody who guarded, surfed, but most did. I passed the test the winter
I was a senior in high school. Paddled out, got caught, swam in, paddled out, rode a big one, got dusted, swam in, paddled out rode a couple, got caught swam in, paddled out finished the day. Dempsey asked me if I wanted to
guard the next day. (Voit once told me when I was about 11 that if I survived [body surfing, air matting and beginning surfing] that I might be able to be a guard since they thought they were going to have to rescue me at
least once a day anyway) (never rescued once!). Demps told me he figured I could get out and in, with in being the most important.”187
“Dempsey took me out when I was a kid to show me the lineup,” told Jim’s younger brother Jeff “Spiderman” Knox. “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.’”188
“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.”189
“Swimming was part of the deal,” attested Richardson. “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
“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.”191
“Sometimes you can hear the cobblestones whistling – you can hear the surge and you know something is happening,” said recalled 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.”192
Visiting Slough Riders of the 1950s included: Buzzy Bent, Pat Curren, Phil Edwards, Walt Hoffman, Rod Luscomb, “Black Mac” McClendon, Bill McKusick, Don Melon, Buzzy
Trent and Les Williams.193
“… Peter Cole rode it at least once,” added Elwell.194
It “was always exciting,” agreed Tom Carlin, who also remembered Peter Cole visiting, “when somebody from up north [of San Diego] would come down” and join
the regular Sloughs crew.195
“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, a low tide, and big!”196
“So there is a lot of confused B.S.,” John said about who got credit for what. “... If you were good you could ride the Sloughs and Windansea at the biggest surf.197
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
“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 countered.
“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.”198
More than just pollution had changed over time.
“These big wave cycles –” Chuck Quinn explained, knowing I knew Woody Brown, “Woody Brown can tell ya – about the 100-year cycles at Waikiki. Duke Kahanamoku
rode waves out off Diamond Head over 30-feet at Waikiki… So, I don’t know what the last few years have been like at the Sloughs. Some of the younger guys – I’ve talked to ‘em – tell me it
wasn’t like it used to be years ago. I’d tell ‘em where we were riding, where our line-ups were and they said, ‘No,’ they haven’t seen surf like that in [quite a few years]. You know, it’s
cyclical. All physical phenomena in the Universe is cyclical. So, the cycles come and go.”199
Later Sloughs Riders
· Dempsey Holder
· Jim Voit
· John Elwell
· Bud McClure
· Jimmy Zercher
· Bill Grove
· Fred Davies
· Richard Abrams
· Mike Richardson
· Sean Holder (Dempseys son)
· Mike Malek
· Chip Wilder
· Jim Barber
· Jim Knox
· Jeff “Spiderman” Knox
· Mike “Duck” Richardson
Dempsey Holder Revisited
“He was always steady,” Tom Carlin told me emphatically of the guy that had started it all and seen it through its most glorious age – Allen “Dempsey”
Holder. “He was a guiding force… It’s wonderful to see the dedications and notoriety he’s getting [during the Surfhenge dedication] because he was certainly the first guy down here…”200
As for his riding, “Dempsey rode the biggest waves, back further than anybody,” Chuck Quinn, told Serge Dedina.201
“You mentioned earlier how Dempsey made an impact on you…” I prompted him.
“Mostly, it was his kindness,” Chuck responded without a moment’s hesitation. “It was his humility and his great athletic ability. He was a great athlete
and a great waterman. But, he loved all sports. We used to talk about football. I was a football player and basketball player. He loved basketball. He played basketball every single morning. That was part of his routine right up to the time he died. He would pick-up games with the kids. He built the basketball
stand, there,” Chuck waved over to the lifeguard station, close by. “He put a post in the ground, put a back board on it with a regulation hoop and net and he’d get in these games with these young kids down
here. Believe me, they’d really play hard – 2-on-2, 1-on-1. When he got even into his 70s, I mean, elbows would be flying.”202
“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.”203
“Vern went out quite a few times,” Elwell attested. “He still has his Simmons.”204
“So, what I saw in him were the qualities of greatness,” Chuck said of Dempsey. “My heroes were [guys like] Joe DiMaggio and I knew Butch O’Hare – who
they named O’Hare 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.”205
“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 judgment; 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.”206
“There are two kinds of surfers,” hypothesized Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, who began surfing in 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.”207
“Dempsey was a great waterman,” added Bill “Hadji” Hein, “a strong waterman.”208
“Dempsey was like a god,” John Elwell told Surfer magazine for Dempsey’s obit. “He was powerful, fearless, handsome and was respected up and down the coast of California.”209
“You cannot write about the Sloughs,” John elaborated, “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.”210
“Dempsey was a fine man,” wrote Jim Knox, who rode with Dempsey in the 1960s, “with a quiet dignity that some people did not understand. He watched out for our
welfare and always helped us (the younger guards) when he could. He made sure that the guys going to college had enough hours in the winter to get by so they could stay in school and not get drafted. I can think of at least
six not including me that he really helped by providing work when we were in school. There was a time when every lifeguard in Imperial Beach was a college graduate or going to college. The beach cleaners were all in college.
My mom used to say it was the most overeducated lifeguard service in California.”211
“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.”212
“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...
“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.”213
“And he did it his way!” marveled 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!”214
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 went on. “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?’”215
“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.”216
“I went to the dedication of the the Dempsey Holder Water Safety Center,” John Elwell relayed to me of his attendance in October 1999. “All of Dempsey’s family
was there. All local lifeguard agencies were there in uniforms like fireman with badges. Dempsey would not have ever worn a uniform like that. Everything is so militaristic and formal these days. It was said that he only did
what he wanted to do and nothing he did not want to do. He ran a rogue lifeguard service and no one ever missed a good surf at the Sloughs a couple of miles away. Surprisingly, no one ever drowned!”217
“There was never a sign on the lifeguard station,” Elwell continued. “A lot of people thought it was a Coast Guard Station because of the dory in the driveway!
Imperial Beach was the last and the end of California and the pits of human beach life on the Pacific Coast. It was beach poverty at the lowest and the best. It was an era to live in and enjoy. Lifeguards were Gods and Saints.
Greek and surfing Gods in bathing suits. Dempsey was the Guru, Mayor, and the ruler of the place. If Dempsey said it, it was law for the whole region. He was the Monarch! The [Dempsey Holder Water Safety] Center is too glitzy
and not what Dempsey would have wanted it to be. The politicians took credit for it. No picture of Dempsey of his muscular tan super human body was there. A plague with his name and all the politicians will be put on the building
that expensive non-practical architects built.”218
“… 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 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.”219
“I knew Dempsey for over 40 years,” Elwell wrote me of the last years of Dempsey’s life, “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…”220
“Dempsey was a good friend,” Lloyd Baker wrote, “but the last 5 years or more of his life [late 1980s, early 1990s], he was mentally disturbed and let himself go
physically. He lived as a recluse in Imperial Beach. A sad way to end a beautiful life.”221
“I think,” Jim Voit concluded, “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.”222
Allen “Dempsey” Holder, reknowned California waterman, veteran San Diego County and Imperial Beach lifeguard – “King” of the Tijuana Sloughs –
died of a heart attack on September 22, 1997.223 He was 77.224
Bud McClure Remembers
The following recollections from mostly the 1960s were written by Sloughs Rider Bud McClure:
“In the early and mid fifties, with the exception of Dempsey Holder, most of the surfing at the Sloughs was done by non-locals. Even the lifeguard staff at IB had a majority
of non-local members (such as Bill Gove, Russ Elwell and Tom Thompkins all from Coronado). By the late fifties this situation started to change. Dempsey preferred to choose his lifeguards from the new crop of local watermen.
When they retired, non-surfing non-locals were replaced by surfing locals.
“When the guard service was transferred from San Diego County to the new city of Imperial Beach in about 1958, Jim Lathers went with the County Guard Service but still lived
in IB and surfed the Sloughs. By 1959 the IB lifeguard crew included local surfers Jim Voight, Bob Wilder, Fred Davies and the Lathers brothers. Fred lived in Chula Vista but his family had a vacation home on the beach in
IB so he qualified as a local. Fred, a skilled shaper and glasser, built boards for his own use but I was lucky enough to buy two from his quiver, one of which I still have.
“Bob Wilder was the youngest of this group and perhaps the first to have graduated from the local high school (Mar Vista). Board surfing was not yet very popular but a few
kids body surfed in the summer. I was the only board surfer in my class of 1959 while the class of 1960 and subsequent classes produced surfers such as “Bummer” Bob’s brother Chip Wilder, Richard “Flea”
Abrams, Mike McCombs, Jock Ogle, Mike Richardson, Jim Knox, Ben Holt, Jim Barber and Dempsey’s oldest son Shawn. Dempsey recruited us all into the IB Lifeguard service.
“Richard Abrams, an absolutely fearless waterman, served as both lifeguard and fireman in IB. Jim Barber, a fine athlete, sand volleyball player and surfer later moved up to
head lifeguard with Dempsey becoming head of Parks and Recreation. I would nominate Jim Barber for the record career number of surf rescues.”225
“Offshore there is perhaps the largest shoal area in the Los Angeles Bight if not on the whole Calif coast. This shoal is the “lens” that focuses wave energy toward
the Sloughs break. The building of LA Harbor enclosed another large shoal area and eliminated the famous “Flood Control” break. According to the Corps of Engineers, IB has the largest unrestricted fetch sector
of any beach south of Point Conception primarily because the channel Islands block swells to many So Cal beaches. Consequently, IB has been a study area for the Corps and they have a large sand table hydraulic model of the
Sloughs area and IB in (of all places) Pascagoula, Miss.
“A graphic demonstration of the size and power of the surf at IB was the destruction of the ‘T’ end and the seaward 1/4 of the main deck of the newly-built pier
(~1970?). The deck, at 25’ to 30’ above sea level depending on the tide, was lifted, tearing out all the bolts holding it to all the pilings, by a single large swell. Subsequent waves scrambled the wreckage and
tore out hundreds of the remaining pilings.
“IB, with its larger-than-average surf and its two plus mile long stretch of sand beach has stronger longshore currents and more and bigger rips than any beach I have seen
below Pt. Conception. IB has rips that rival the one at Sunset on the North Shore of Oahu.
“The Corp built the two ‘jetties’ (actually, groins) in IB as erosion control experiments. Groins might have worked on the East or Gulf coasts but have been a miserable
failure in IB because the strong longshore currents generate permanent rips that transport more sand off the beach than is captured downstream (the Corps thought that sand would be caught upstream). The jetties are real hazards
to navigation. They cause many injuries and several hundred rescues per year some of which are bound to be close calls. The longer north jetty, technically in Coronado, is especially dangerous because it spawns larger rips
and requires a quarter mile run by IB guards.”226
“Dempsey combined incredible physical toughness with wit, intelligence and kindness. He cared for all the stray dogs in neighborhood, housing them in his step van, house and
garage. He was an avid ham radio operator and circuit designer with an intuitive understanding of electronics that far exceeded the U of Cal professors of electrical engineering whose courses I was taking at the time. Above
all Demps was practical; Physical discomfort, style, peer pressure even the city manager’s orders meant nothing if they conflicted with the simplest, most direct way to get things done.
“Demps took cold showers, even in midwinter so he didn’t need to deal with a water heater. One evening after work, I walked by Dempsey’s machine shop area in the
basement of the main guard station. One hand was holding his mouth open while the other thumb and forefinger were turning a small drill bit into a lower molar. In response to my quizzical look he said ‘I just need to
get down to the nerve.’ While he was putting the drill away he casually explained that he was planning a sailing trip and didn’t want to be bothered by that tooth. HE GAVE HIMSELF A ROOT CANAL!!! I was impressed.”227
“Demps would test for hot 220 lines by holding two fingers of one hand across the circuit legs. He would lick his finger before testing 110 AC. His advice for amateurs: ‘Stand
on your right leg and use your right hand so the current doesn’t go across the heart. It only takes a few milliamps to stop the clock.’
“He would troubleshoot a radio or TV set with no other equipment than his hands, injecting a noise signal at the grid of each tube (or transistor base) starting at the output
and work back thru the unit to find the bad stage. Anyone could do the same, but then he would then proceed to check the B+ (maybe 400 or 500 volts) for AC ripple by holding his finger on it! His advice: ‘don’t
you try this.’”228
“During bad weather in the winter, IB guards built guard towers, modified boats, did pier maintenance, made loudspeaker enclosures, mobile amplifiers for the jeeps, and other
stuff that would be needed in the summer. Dempsey’s designs for these things were models of ingenuity because they had to stand up to weather, misuse, vandalism and on a few occasions, gunfire. The term ‘Holderized’
was coined to describe such things: pug ugly but hell for stout.”229
“Dempsey was a crack golfer and a fearsome basketball player (as recounted by others in this series). Dempsey pioneered running the Colorado river in rubber life rafts. He
was also into water skiing in the surf behind the lifeguard jeep. He built an A-frame on the wooden truck bed (the metal one rusted off) to keep the tow line high enough.
“During the late forties, Dempsey and the rest of the San Diego County Lifeguard crew at IB started playing two-on-two sand volleyball using rules that they picked up from
the UDT guys based at the Coronado Amphibious Base and that lived in IB. The story I heard was that the frogmen evolved these rules during games in the South Pacific during WW-II. This may well be the genesis of the present
“Dempsey had a trick for crowd control at the Sloughs. He would sit well inside the impact area where he HAD to take off on the first wave of the set. If you lined up with
him and didn’t know this and then failed to take off, Demps counted on you getting cleaned up by the following waves in the set.
“The sixties saw the Sloughs surfed consistently. Every swell, every winter, no matter how big it got there were some locals there to ride it. Oceanography texts (for instance
Willard Bascomb’s “Waves and Beaches”) teach an accurate method for measuring wave heights: line up the top of the wave with the horizon and measure the height of the sight line from sea level. Using this
method I was able to measure some of the Sloughs waves by driving the lifeguard jeep to the top of the highest sand dune and then standing on the roof of the jeep. This level was eighteen to twenty feet above sea level (two
“The ‘outside shorebreak’ was usually 17 to 18 feet by this method. Smaller waves at the ‘main break’ (line the bull ring up with the iron pipe) were
measurable up to about 22 or 23 feet but tide level and lack of a tall-enough sand dune precluded accurately measuring the larger ones. However, set waves on a good day could be conservatively estimated in excess of 25 feet.
Seven to ten such swells might be surfed through the course of winters through the sixties and seventies. Winter sea surface temperatures prior to 1982 were generally around 55 deg F. We wore the bottoms of diving wet suits
because the tops were cut to tight to paddle. Demps kept his sealed on top with a knotted bicycle inner tube. El Nino conditions in recent years have led to warmer water and more mid-latitude winter storms (and fewer high
latitude storms in the Gulf of Alaska and the Sea of Okhotsk.)
“The place is basically a right but if you were willing to risk a long swim, the lefts could be longest and fastest wall you will ever see. The rule for kicking out: when you
see sand being sucked up the face its probably too late. The shore break shaped the abundant sand such that the final explosion was uniform and ferocious! In the shorebreak impact zone there wasn’t a definite bottom,
only a 50-50 mix of water and coarse sand that might be several feet deep. After wiping out at low tide you could find yourself struggling up to your waist in this mix with maybe two more feet of mostly water on top and a
12+ foot shorebreak tubing over your head!
“Outside the ‘main break’ there is ‘graybeard’s grave’ that is likely to be in the 30+ foot range. Dempsey didn’t measure or estimate wave
heights. He just called them class A, B and C. Graybeards grave and the bigger main break were class A, outside shorebreak (the smallest outside Sloughs waves at about 16’-18’) were class B and everything else
was class C. Dempsey built a crane on the pier that could launch the lifeguard skiff. A great way to deal with the Sloughs was to fill the skiff with every available board, cruise down to the waves, surf until all the boards
are lost, return with the skiff and then just drive the jeep down and pick up all the boards.”231
“We made some tries at surfing the 21’ skiff in class A Sloughs waves. A large rubber buoy was roped amidships to prevent the boat from sinking when swamped. Later I
put in a flotation deck with scuppers in the transom to make it self-bailing. It had a big four cylinder long shaft Mercury and could really move but the surfing results were poor. However, we found that the motor could run
for quite a long time completely submerged! A crewman was along basically as ballast. On my first ride with Dempsey I asked what the signal would be to bail out. He said that if I heard a splash and didn’t see him anymore
then that would be the signal.
“Boats in large waves tend to try to bury their bow in the concave face of the wave. The center of lateral plane moves way forward, the boat broaches and then either swamps
if the crew high-sides it or just rolls. Even when it can be turned or aimed diagonally like a surfboard there is really nothing to keep a boat from sliding sidewise to the bottom of the wave. Although we frequently swamped
and sometimes rolled the Kettenburg lifeguard dory, we tried to avoid rolling the skiff.
“Before we finally gave up on the idea of skiff surfing, there were a couple of attempts where the boat would get ‘stuck’ on the face of the wave. In this position
the boat would not answer to full power and/or helm toward the shoulder of the wave. A surfboard is a similar position turns because its nose can be brought well out of the water which a skiff weighing nearly a ton cannot
do. When Dempsey closed the throttle (preparatory to bailing out), the boat’s nose-down attitude on the ~45 degree face caused it to plow to a halt, swamp and then punch thru backward before it could be pitched forward
out of the lip.”232
“A shoal, with its powerful surge and frequent bottom movement that disrupts pipes is the worst possible place to put a sewer outfall. The Sloughs shoal is also the most biologically
productive area in the LA Bight (ref: CalCoFI plankton surveys, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA La Jolla Laboratory). The city of Imperial Beach was incorporated in 1957 primarily to prevent this outfall development
by the city of San Diego. An outfall must also discharge well below the main thermocline (deeper than about 400-500 feet) to ensure that the sewage field does not find its way into the surface mixed layer. There is a point
of land about ten miles south in Mexico where very deep water is accessible within a relatively short distance from shore, an ideal place for an outfall. Unfortunately, several years ago, the cities of San Diego and Tiajuana
finally succeeded in their efforts to put a sewer outfall out on the Sloughs shoal.”233
Odds and Ends
Not knowing where to put these, I attach them here, in closing:
From Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy: “When I read [your work] the other day I sent a brief note because I wanted to say some stuff later to you, like today. When I was 17, Simmons and I were sitting in his old grey Ford in front of Velzy’s
shop on Center Street, Manhattan Beach. Simmons was eating oranges from a box and I was listening to what he was going to say. When I read the piece it was just as he described it to me: big walls of whitewater as far as the
eye could see from Coronado Island, Mexico to Coronado Island USA. He said that was the reason he installed ropes towards the nose of his board (one was on the roof of his Ford) because his arm was weakened and it gave him
leverage for monkey flips on big waves and there were big waves down there. Simmons loved to speak about big waves and that day he challenged me to a winter time cold water surf off at Point Conception, the first one to come
ashore was the loser. It never took place but he was dead serious. I knew some of those folks i.e. Woody Eckstrom, Bev Morgan, Skeeter Malcom, and a few others. Did you write [that phrase?]... because, according to Simmons,
that was the way it was. You can smell the foam effervescing in the air. This is the best I’ve read about big waves.”234
Email from John Elwell to Gary Lynch: “Oh yes, It was the ‘49 night we met Walt Hoffman and Burrhead in TJ. The story is distorted, because it was during the late summer after Simmons’ big picture ride July 31st and Hoffman had
it in his wallet...
... when [Walt Hoffman]... said he was from Malibu, I told him they didn’t have any big surf up there. Walt is a big aggressive Jewish
guy. He said. ‘OH YEH!’ sticking his face down into my face, ‘Take a look at this!’ He said it was Simmons and was I embarrassed. Later Simmons gave me an 8 x10 of this picture and one to Tom Carlin.”235
From John Elwell: “Malcolm... This is the most complete narrative of the Sloughs ever done. The place deserves
it, and so do those tough pioneers on the planks that braved the torrents... Mostly these guys were really scared and challenged. Dempsey, by the way, always said it was a safe place. Those first guys were my mentors and I
deeply respected all of them. They were some of the finest surfers in California and could have held up to the best in the world for courage and skill. Above all, they were sportsmen. They have been friends for life, all helped
young surfers get started. They were superior examples.”236