"We had always regarded the specter of death as a big dorsal fin."
- Dempsey Holder, Union Tribune, October 9, 1950. Reporting on a shark attack in IB during an El Niño year, possibly the first reported attack in San Diego history.
1963. Dempsey Holder was a unique and profoundly influential man. The image that comes to mind is “pirate”. He wasn’t as buff when I knew him as he obviously was when he was young, simply lean and leathery. His hair was graying, to match the beard he ultimately let grow, and was usually windblown and unkempt. If he liked you, he was a wonderful influence in your life. If he didn’t like you, you didn’t exist. Dempsey was a commanding and awesome figure in long neoprene diver’s pants (no top) when he carefully took the old white board with the red dot on the deck from the top of the lifeguard dune buggy and slowly walked to the water’s edge. “Now Jeff”, he softly drawled to me, never having completely lost his West Texas accent, and not taking his eyes off the never-ending series of waves exploding in the shore break, “it’s only a matter of timing and perseverance”. With that, he softly placed his board on the water and, as a bit of backwash off the cobblestone berm helped propel him seaward, softly laid on his stomach and began the long powerful stroke that would take him through the shore break unscathed to wait 20 minutes for me just south of the Outside Shore break peak - “off the pipe”, he called it - as I got pummeled and trashed unmercifully, but eventually persevered.
Then, without a word he headed towards the lines pouring over the reef ½ mile from shore, never looking back to see me struggling to keep up, heart in mouth, shivering, not with the cold, unable to catch my breath. Persevering. The horizon was clear. No spray marred the view of the bullring. Every detail stood out in sharp contrast. I could actually see the line up! We were there. I could see the old pipe when we rose up to the top of a swell. Yes, it lined up as well. My heart still raced. My body still trembled. But, I was in the lineup and all was well. Mr. Holder led me another 25 yards further out. “Remember”, he said, “It’s better to be too far out than too far in”. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a set drew a blue ribbon on the horizon. We waited; with me assured by the line up, trying to relax and hold my position. The first wave stood and feathered 50 yards outside of us, then backed off. Mr. Holder looked at me and grinned. We couldn’t see the second wave, but we could hear it breaking behind the first one. There was no use paddling. We rose to the top of that first, uncatchable swell, an elevator rush, and watched a 200-yard-long wall of whitewater pounding towards us, peeling perfectly both left and right, roaring like a runaway train. I bailed and swam deep.
There were five waves in the set. Each one rolled me 15 or 20 yards in. The foam was as thick as soapsuds. The water was so aerated that it was hard to get my head high enough out of the water to get a breath before the next wave came. My board was gone. There was nothing left to do but swim. Mr. Holder was swimming, too, but 100 yards further in, even though we had been side by side at the start. Experience. I would learn that, too, eventually. He got to the boards before they washed in through the shore break and brought mine back out to me in the lull, dragging it with 1 foot as he paddled. As I climbed back on, breathless, and started to paddle back out he caught my eye and said with a smile, “And you’re never too far out”. I felt the thrill of acceptance and accomplishment. After that, I began to call Mr. Holder by his nickname, Dempsey, without embarrassment and with pride.
- Jeff Knox