Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Rowing the Surf Dory's...1970's", by Tom Allen Sena

Head's up, Recurrents!  Get a cup of coffee and sit back cuz you are all going to really enjoy this story by (now retired) L.A. City OLS and LACo OLS (aka, Permanent), Tom Allen Sena, who along with his brother Randy Allen, and many other lifeguard-dorymen, were up and down the California coast in the late 60's and '70's participating in the lifeguard dory races.  Ready?!... Here goes!

Photo above shows Tom Sena, in the stern, and Ralph Collins, in the bow, during the Oct. 1975 Pismo Beach Clam Festival Dory Race. Photo courtesy of Tom Sena. Photo by Bob Howe. 

Rowing the Surf Dory’s… 1970’s, by Tom Allen Sena

The surf dory has been used in Life Guard Services up and down the Southern California Coast as lifesaving equipment for many decades. With a crowded summer day on the beach, with bigger surf causing "rip" currents, and dragging groups of people in the near surf areas out into deeper water, a surf dory was very good for rowing out and bringing people into the boat, or letting them hang on the gunnel, until it was safe to bring them back in. A two man dory allowed the stern man to control the boat with his oars, and the bowman to ship his oars, and help the people in the water needing assistance. Older dory's were modeled off the east coast lobster dory's, and the original boats on the west coast used by the lifeguards were the Peterson wood dory. This was a two person craft, ~20 ft. long, and weighing ~ 350-400 lbs. with two thwarts to sit on, and a double set up of oar locks bolted to the wood gunnel. These boats provided good service to the lifeguard crews in Southern California for many years, with guards from the 40's, 50's, and 60's like L.A. City guards Myron Cox, Bud Clark, Ed Perry, Bob Williams, Don Rohrer, Ed Hoffman, and Jerry Balonich, using the dory's for surf rescues and as a work out to stay in shape, and be strong and ready for big surf days. The experienced Lifeguards would teach the new guards dory technique, and the tradition lived on.

Modern dory's evolved in the late 60’s with the new "Schock" dory, molded out of fiberglass, with a false bottom installed just above the water line. This was an outstanding new design, because it made the dory "self-bailing". The Peterson dory did a good job of breaking through the waves to get out through the surf, but would invariably get water into the boat, so you had to bail the water out at some point. Hit the wave wrong, and the wave would swamp the boat, tumble it, sink it, and throw the two rowers around like leaves in a strong wind.

The new self-bailing dory's were fantastic, because the Dorymen could be more aggressive in the surf, and take more chances with the waves, both busting out through the waves, and Surfing them in! You could still get tumbled by the waves, but it was really nice to have the ocean water spill out of the scuppers along the side of the boat, and be able to keep rowing. Rowing a dory required strength, good equipment (the boat, oar locks, and oars), and skill and timing in and out of the waves. Obviously the bigger the waves (huge power in big waves), the more skill and caution was needed. Small waves, no problem, take off on any small wave and ride it in, with a good stern man steering, bowman pulling, and both Dorymen having fun. Even if you broached sideways, the boat was big, and you still had some control. A Schock dory was 20 ft. long, and a minimum of 300 lbs. (standard NSLSA). Some dory's were heavy for many reasons, but if you could tune your dory down to 301 lbs., you could make them glide, and fly over the water. Heavy boats sat deeper in the water, so you had to pull more water to move them.

In the early and mid 70's there were many Lifeguard crews from L.A. City, L.A. County, Santa Monica, San Clemente, Long Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, and San Diego that got their boats fine tuned and very competitive. The NSLSA (national surf lifesaving association) and the Doryman’s association, set standards, and organized races up and down the SoCal coast during the summer for competition between the lifeguard crews...What Fun! Get weekends off (to represent your Beach and Crew), and travel up and down the coast all summer racing, and having a ton of fun at a different beach every weekend, all summer.

So the art of going through the surf, and riding the waves into the beach became highly competitive, all for trophies, representing your crew, and drinking beer with your mates, and camaraderie with fellow Southern California lifeguards. The result was a true "family" of athletic, professional, lifesavers all along the southern California Coast.

The trick was... to not get yourself seriously injured! Big waves have tremendous power, and a 300 lb. boat, with four 10 ft. oars flying around were dangerous articles. I rowed a big summer swell one late afternoon at Will Rogers Beach Summer '72, with my good friend Tim Mooney, and coming in on a 6-8 ft. wave we broached, the bow dug in, we flipped, a shore side oar caught between the boat oarlock and the sandy bottom, it snapped, and the loose shard (~4 ft. long with sharp splinter end) went through Tim's left triceps, Ouch! He came up surprised, but smiling, walked into shore where I pulled it out of his arm, and sent him off for some stitches. I gathered up the boat and gear and went to the "barn" under the light house headquarters, with repairs needed the next day.

Pismo beach winter 1975 was a big surf day (8-10 ft. waves), and you had to use a lot of skill to get out through the surf, and ride the waves back in, and stay in one piece. So we went out and practiced. Rowing out required good timing between the two Dorymen; you have to have momentum to hit a peaking wave. The bigger the wave, the more momentum you need, and when your boat hits a rising wave, you want to have your bow split the crest, and you have to "set" all four oars in the wave. You have to pull your boat through the wave, and you can only do that if your oars are digging in the water as you go up and through the wave. If your oars are not set, and you are not pulling through the wave, then the wave picks you up, and throws you back toward the beach with power and thousands of pounds of water crashing all around you. Hold your breath and duck, because you are in for washing machine type of ride, with the boat, and all the oars flailing about. It is also a good idea to get out through the waves between sets, easier, but not always available to you during races.

So, the point of getting out through the waves, is to ride a wave back in! Riding a wave in a 20 ft., 300 lb. dory can be a lot of fun; it takes a bit of skill, because if you screw it up, it is possible to get hurt or maimed.  Riding a wave into shore in a dory requires timing dropping in, and some momentum so you have some speed when you catch the wave, and you want to be going straight. If you drop into the wave at an angle, you will most likely broach the boat and tumble, not a good practice. Drop in straight, the boat is big enough to handle a lot of white water crashing around you, and the Bowman, being out in front of the wave, can dip one oar, and pull with the other to steer, and stay straight into shore. The Stern man, ships his oars (gets them out of the water so they do not fly up and hit you), steps up and off his thwart, and goes and sits on the stern. Great position; the stern may is sitting on the back end of the dory, with a view going into the beach. He can help call out to the Bowman, a little pull to the right, a little dip on the left. You wind up on shore, you made it!  And not dead! 

OL's Randy Allen and Mike Kent surfing a wave.  Photo courtesy of Tom Allen Sena. Photo by Bob Howe.

Now, one might wonder why anyone would want to ride waves with a 20 ft. dory. Well, one really good reason is it can be instrumental in winning a surf dory race!  Dory racing is an exciting sport and a very exclusive event for Beach Lifeguards. Riding waves with your partner in a dory provides plenty of thrills; with the Dorymen, the boat, and the waves all in sync, good fun. In a dory race, add a Pier out into the water which you row around two or three times, and twelve to twenty other boats, then it becomes a spectacle event. The boats are lined up on the inshore shallow water (two oar lengths between each), the bowman is in the boat holding it steady, the Stern men are on shore, and all run down to the boats at the starting gun.

Dorymen are now all in the boats, pull! The boats are off and into the surf with short, strong strokes, the stern man sets a fast pace. Get the boat moving, and hit the waves, pull through, inside waves (don't get tangled up with the dory next to you), then to the bigger outside waves. Don't let up, keep pulling and get through the waves (so you don't get hit and tumbled!). Finally through the waves, lengthen out your stroke, and pull to the far turn buoy, or around the pier... then into the waves going back to shore. If you can drop into a wave with your dory, and ride into shore, you gain a lot of distance, and can win a race. A minor problem with riding into shore in a dory race....you have timed it right, got momentum getting into the wave, dropped in, kept the boat straight, you’re out in front of the wave, life is good......... then a dory comes down that same wave at an angle, and rams into you! X0#%! you crash, both boats tumble, you wind up on shore with oars all over the place, the bowman is running around pick up the oars and straightening out the boat and gear, the stern man runs up the beach tags the turn flag, and runs back, out you go again! Three times around the Pier!

Why does the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce invite the "Dorymen" to the annual Pismo Clam Festival each year, because OMG what a spectacle! The Pismo Beach Pier is crowded with cheering spectators, as are all the other piers down the So. Cal Coast, where cities host festivals, and Lifeguards race surf Dory's 16-18 times each summer. The crowds love it, and the lifeguards have a blast. Modern day gladiators?

What do the lifeguards get for their effort, $50-$100K prize money like triathletes? Nah… maybe a trophy, a lot of fun, definitely staying in great shape, and drinking beer with your friends and other lifeguard mates every week.

Brothers, Lifeguards, Dorymen:  L2R: Tom Allen Sena and Randy Allen. Photo courtesy of Tom Allen Sena. Photo by Bob Howe.

The Pismo Beach Clam Festival was all of that, plus the boys of '75 & 76 brought their Hobie Cats to challenge the surf with as well!

Aloha, Tom Allen Sena, L.A. City and L.A. County Lifeguard
March 24, 2013


"Rowing the Surf Dory's...1970's", by & Copyright Tom Sena 2013.  All Rights Reserved.  Published here with permission.

***  Wow!  Tom!  That was Spectacular!  Thank you so much! 
The gauntlet has been thrown and your dory contemporaries are going to have to put up too!  We are very hopeful of more dory stories because of your wonderful effort. Tom also asked us to mention that he got some very good information and help on this article from his lifeguard buddies and fellow dorymen, Jimmy Doman and Randy Steigely.  So we want to include a shout out to Jimmy and Randy for their participation.

Editor's note:  Tom didn't mention that if you won the Pismo Beach Clam Festival Dory Race, back in the day, that you also got to kiss the Festival Queen who was always a good looking young local bathing beauty! 

Top Photo: L2R:  Tom Allen Sena and his dory mate, Ralph Collins, receive the First Place Trophy from the Pismo Beach Clam Festival Queen;  Bottom Photo: Tom lays a big swooping kiss on the Festival Queen in classic style!  Photo courtesy of Tom Allen Sena. Photo by Bob Howe.


*** Lifeguard Trivia:  In the background in the photo above is a Classic VW Van with a surfski on its roof  rack  AND  according to Jimmy Doman both belonged to Ron Richmond. 


Until next time.....

"County Recurrent" News


Service • Training • Commitment

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