Dempsey Holder's Dory, A look into Imperial Beach's Past by David Smith
Jun 19, 2016 02:59AM
● By Paul Spear
“Dempsey Holder's Dory” by David Smith
For Juanita and me, the 70s were our greatest years of surfing. We rode surfboards, made
surfboards, and collected over 130 of the best models ever made—all gone now. We rode every major California break, plus exotic spots like San Blas', Mexico and Sunset Beach, Hawaii. We were young and strong, constantly active, riding, paddling and body surfing. We rode big waves and little waves, at sandy beaches, rock reefs, on nose riders, pig boards, belly boards, surf mats and inner tubes... It was an unequaled time of fun, learning and personal accomplishment. And there was one experience that topped all others: Dempsey Holder's dory. For several years it lay upside down in the dirt field that once existed on First Street, between Palm and Dahlia. That's where Dempsey kept it. It was safe there. No one else wanted it. And few but Dempsey had a desire to use it.
Like many local surf children, I grew up knowing and respecting Dempsey Holder. He was one of my grandfather's friends in the 40s, and among the first to surf the scary Tijuana Sloughs in 1937. Plus, Dempsey was the head of the Imperial Beach lifeguards for many years—a good man, who embodied the spirit of surfing in I.B. He was my surfing mentor, helping to teach me by example. But it was his inspiring words that infused me with the surfing lore.
In the 70s, Juanita and I lived on Ocean Lane, not far from the lifeguard station. Dempsey was always there, directing lifeguards, working on surfboards or playing basketball. We shared many absorbing discussions about surfing as his influence on me grew. At the time I was fanatically involved with long board surfing. I trained nearly every day for years, perfecting my skills. In order to be tough, I didn't wear a wet suit (for 40 years). He laughed at my extreme preoccupations, and told me, “It doesn't matter what you ride, Dave. The best surfer is the one that's having the most fun.”
He was a serious, all-around waterman: a surfer, lifeguard and boatman. And he was wise beyond my worldly concerns. In particular, he didn't care about politics. Once I asked him how he felt about some political event happening at the time, but Dempsey had other concerns. He was a dog lover. During this period he collected and cared for runaway dogs. He kept, perhaps 15 of them at the White House on the beach, where he and many of the lifeguards lived. While I talked, he walked around the sandy yard littered with old boats and things salvaged from the beach: buoys, lumber, barrels and so on. Meanwhile, he picked fleas off one of the dogs... Again I asked for his political opinion. Finally, he turned about and replied, “You know Dave, I just don't give a damn.” He said it respectfully, but he meant it. The dogs were more important to him— actually, the dogs and the surf. I got it. After that I made it a point to talk mainly about surfing and surfboards.
But back to Dempsey Holder's dory. I was just 24 then, with much testosterone, and was a braggart and shameless show off. I had much humility to learn, and I learned it. The dory helped me. One day we were talking to Dempsey and the subject of the dory came up. Although he had made it himself and was loved it, he knew he would never use it again. Also, he knew that I was intensely interested and would give it a good home. “You can have it for a hundred bucks,” he said. “I'll take it,” I answered excitedly. I don't remember how we got it home; I think we carried it. Soon thereafter I built a crude, four wheeled cart on which to roll it the blockandahalf we lived from the beach. Now what? The idea of actually rowing a 16foot, wooden boat into the surf was a daunting one. Suddenly I wondered if I was ready. Its one thing to think and another to do.
For those who have not committed a dory to the surf, I can tell you it is an unsettling departure from the norm. Dories are not very forgiving surfing platforms, and outside the experience of the average surfer. Also, they present a difficult learning curve, along with degrees of fear previously unknown. So they're dangerous. But when you throw caution to the wind, what a fantastic feeling it is to sit facing a wave on a dory and stroke down its front. At commit, the boat would immediately plunge down the face as we'd try to steer with the oars and by shifting weight.
Reaching the bottom, spray and foam would erupt everywhere as the wave broke under the transom. We'd continue crashing along at speed through the water for a while... Inevitably the boat would broach to one side, spilling us out and sometimes underneath it. For an instant wouldn't know what our fate would be. In other words it was fun.
Our first time in the dory was uneventful since we waited for a day of less than waist high surf. Smaller would have even been better. Juanita served as navigator and ballast as I learned to row by doing. We embarked just north of the Palm Avenue jetty, and rowed diagonally toward the pier, then much farther out than I would care to go now. But it was exhilarating, bobbing about in the sea far from shore. Over time, we went on many similar outings. Unfortunately, we only have photographs of one trip, taken with a small Brownie, using size 620 film, wrapped in a plastic bag (our waterproof camera).
We took Dempsey's dory out to sea, and learned to ride it as best we could. We survived our own faults and the boat's reactions. At one time or another, we both sat in the rower's seat and commanded the vessel. But too often it proved to be nearly disastrous. The boat was a very challenging one with which to ride waves, and we were hardly competent dory men. We suffered from frequent pilot error, and could have easily broken our necks several times during wild wipe outs. It must have been fun to watch. In the end we discontinued its use. But the undertaking made us marvel at Dempsey, who constructed and used the boat properly. He was I.B.'s all-time waterman, and the fatherly friend who granted us one of our greatest surfing experiences: Dempsey Holder's dory!
David Smith reporter Dig Imperial Beach