The big wave pioneer
"... the most respected big wave surfer on the Pacific Coast... riding the biggest waves with the longest rides in cold water with no wet suits or leashes."
-- John Elwell on Dempsey
Just prior to World War II, a very small number of pioneering California surfers began surfing south of Imperial Beach, off the rivermouth of the Tijuana River. They established the spot so solidly amongst Southern California surfers that after the war, The Sloughs became the testing ground for most mainlanders going on to more consistently bigger surf in the Hawaiian Islands. Unquestionably, the Sloughs were home of the then-known biggest rideable waves off the continental United States.
Tijuana Sloughs was first surfed - bodysurfed, actually -- in 1937 by Allen "Dempsey" Holder.
"Dempsey was just unbelievable," recalled John Blankenship, one of the early Slough riders. "There wasn't anybody else for sheer guts. He was the ultimate big wave rider. No fancy moves; he caught the biggest waves and went surfing. The closest guy to Dempsey was Gard Chapin [Miki Dora's stepfather], although Gard never tackled waves as big as Dempsey."
"Dempsey was as strong as an ox," Bob "Black Mac" McClendon said, "and he had the guts to go along with it. There wasn't anything he wouldn't try."
"I think maybe he was a little masochistic," declared Don Okey, "he liked to get wiped out."
"He was a guy who did things his own way," explained Jim Voit when I talked with him at the Ye Olde Plank watering hole next to the Imperial Beach lifeguard station. "Unfortunately, you can't always do things your own way if you're working for a municipality like the City of Imperial Beach. That was finally his downfall. You can be your own guy for a while, but eventually they'll come after you."
"And Dempsey was his own guy!" Jim made sure I understood. "He was unique and he did things his own way.
"When he worked for the county, down here, we were far enough away from everything that we could run the show the way we wanted to; dress the way you wanted to; you can wash the jeep if you wanted to, [etc.].
"But, if you don't conform to The System and the people who run it, you're gonna get run out eventually...
"That was very sad [how it happened to Dempsey]. I remember his budget at the time. It was about $35 thousand bucks to run this whole operation here; to pay the lifeguards, to pay his salary, all the equipment for the beach and recreation department. He had to take care and make sure all the rest rooms were cleaned. He had all these responsibilities and between $30 and $40 thousand dollars for the whole thing."
"And he did it his way!" marvelled Voit. "He hired the people that he liked and they were good people - maybe, like, we didn't wear very nice bathing suits, but they could go out and do their jobs [rescuing people]. And he did his job the way he thought the job ought to be done. He might not have kept the jeep as clean as it should have been clean. He might not have waxed it up. It didn't look like a fire department [vehicle]. “
"They [the guards at Imperial Beach, under Dempsey's leadership] didn't look like the guys at Mission Beach! But, they got the job done. He was his own guy and he never changed!"
Following incorporation as a city, "He went from lieutenant of the lifeguards for the county, to the recreation director of Imperial Beach. I took over as chief lifeguard," Jim Voit said. "It was then that they had a recreation commission. We had to meet with them every week. And it was at that time that somebody might complain - 'Hey, your lifeguards don't look very good. They all have different uniforms on. And your jeep doesn't look very good, either. When are you gonna put some polish on that jeep? When are you going to look like professionals? When are you going to look like the fire department or the police department?'"
"Well," Jim continued, over the roar of Ye Olde Plank Inn on a Sunday afternoon, "as long as Dempsey was running the show, he wasn't going out and say, 'I want you guys to look like policemen'... He was not going to change.“