April 25, 2020
Dennis Hollenbeck – Florida Surf Scene During the Golden Age of Surfing 70’s & 80’s
Dennis Hollenbeck grew up in Florida on the east coast during the golden age of surfing in the 70’s and 80’s. He spent most of his life surfing, known by most in the area. He was around to watch the sport progress from long heavy boards to short rippers with multiple fins. The laid back free style to a competitive force.
He often tells stories of Monster Hole, a difficult break formed by a sand bar 1/3 of a mile offshore due to the tidal flow from Sebastian Inlet. Monster Hole on a good day is known for incredible lefts but also for heavy shark activity. Dennis lights up when he discusses the sport. A true soul surfer, raised by the sea. He even recalls pro surfer Kelly Slater surfing at the inlet, who at the time was just a “grom.”
Q: How old were you when you started surfing?
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Vero Beach, Florida. One block from the beach.
Q: What attracted you to surfing and the ocean?
A: The beach, the girls, the rush of the energy, and beauty of the water.
Q: How did you learn to surf?
A: I was hired to rent rafts and umbrellas on South Beach, Vero Beach. I pumped so much air in the raft it was hard enough to stand up on, so I learned to surf them going straight in because there was no fins to turn with. Needless to say many many wipeouts.
Q: What about surfing did you fall in love with?
A: Fell in love with the drops and barrels.
Q: What was a typical day like for you when you were growing up?
A: Wake up at 5am to meet buddy at 5:20am to surf. Raced to Sebastian Inlet before the sun came up for about a 45 minute session. Then raced to school, chomping at the bit through each class to get home to surf until dark. Come home scarf any and all food, do homework then crash to sleep.
Q: What was the surf scene like in your area growing up?
A: The surf scene was relatively uncrowded until I brought all my friends with me. The Inlet was usually crowded on weekends.
Q: What were the boards like then and how did they progress?
A: Boards were long and heavy at first, then shorter lighter with twin fins and then tri fins dominated.
Q: Were leashes used by most people or were they considered kooky?
A: Originally, leashes were considered lame because the surfer appeared lazy and untraditional. My first leash was made by myself with surgical tubing and leather for the cuff around the ankle. People liked them so much I sold them as well.
Q: Tell us about a couple of your favorite spots to surf in the 80’s and 90’s?
A: Too many favorite spots, but mainly First Peak, Monster Hole, Seahorse, Vero Pier, Reef Road, Riomar Reef, Stuart Rocks, and Tiger Shores.
Q: Tell us a little about surfing Monster Hole. Do you remember the first time you surfed there? Was there ever a crowd? What was the biggest shark you saw there?
A: Monster Hole is a sand bar 1/3 mile off shore of the Sebastian Inlet. The break is off a sandbar surrounded by very deep water and shark heavy. It had perfect lefts and short rights. The few times it was crowded they were spread out. I would jump off the south jetty rocks into the inlet and the outgoing tide would drift me out to Monster Hole. Relatively no paddling. Biggest shark i saw there was a minimum of 12ft., bull shark. It was just me and one other friend there, no one else. It was approximately 50 feet away when we saw it and it was cruising out the back of the wave. We paddled in slowly and nervously. It looked like a small submarine in slow motion and I will never forget it. To my knowledge my buddy never surfed there again.
Q: Talk about a surreal moment when you were surfing that you will never forget.
A: One of the most surreal moments was when I was surfing alone at South Beach, Vero Beach. There was a tourist that had been staying at the Westchester Motel, adjacent to South Beach park. He was caught in the rip and taken out beyond the waves. I paddled to him, put him on my board, and took him back to the beach, he was so thankful.
Another time is when a boat had capsized in the middle of Sebastian Inlet and was being sucked out to sea. Two guys were on top of the overturned hull. My buddy and I saw them from first peak and paddled out to them. We put them on our boards and brought them to the beach safely. The looks on their faces was worth all risks taken. Will never forget that!
Q: Tell us about your gnarliest wipeout or hold down.
A: The gnarliest wipeouts were when i was trying to surf a cloth raft and stay standing up on the drop of an 7 foot closeout. I was 12 years old… Second was during Hurricane Gloria, three buddies and I followed it up the East coast to Cape Hatteras. We arrived at night and couldn’t camp so we got a motel nearby. The next morning we woke up, went to the beach, couldn’t tell the size standing at the lighthouse because it was still darkish and no one out. We paddled out quickly and found that it was double over head plus another two feet…15 foot faces. Wiped out on my first attempt, was held down and trashed what seemed like an eternity. Waves were perfect and glassy.
Q: How far did you progress in the sport? Did you compete? Win?
A: I was always considered a soul surfer and felt competition cheapened the value of true surfing. Eventually my friends convinced me to compete two times locally. The first time seemed rigged and I lost…The second time I knew I could win because my favorite waves were the biggest ones I could find, and the surf was big contest weekend. After the finals, the announcement came from organizer Kevin Odare, “We have a dethronement this year, Dennis Hollenbeck!” First and last trophy for competition I went for…never competed again.
Q: Did you travel? Favorite places you have surfed outside of Florida?
A: My favorite places outside of Florida are Cape Hatteras (the biggest waves), Puerto Rico’s Jobos Beach and Middles Beach, and Costa Rica’s Salsa brava!! Perfect and overhead glass, crystal clear water.
Q: Did you surf with Kelly Slater or anyone else that went on to be professional?
A: I did surf with many well known people from that era. Jeff Crawford, the first Floridian to surf pipeline well. Matt Kechele, hooted for me after one of my barrels. Kelly slater was a grom when we all surfed Sebastian Inlet and like everyone else, we told that “grom” to get down the beach haha. Who would’ve known.
Q: How were the out of town surfers treated by the locals in your area?
A: We treated non-locals and groms the same.
Q: What are your thoughts about how the sport has progressed with the airs that surfers are doing?
A: The sport now has transcended to amazing feats of huge waves, tow-ins, airs, and my favorite, barrels! Its all great, but I think they should try a few of the forgotten tricks..like sticking your arm in the wave when you’re parralel, stalling and side- slipping down the face until you reach the bottom, your fin grabs and you do a power bottom turn onto the rest of the wall. Also the lost art of the “Layback”.
Q: Any advice for someone wanting to learn to surf?
A: My advice to anyone wanting to learn is go for t! Don’t give up…and never forget…He who hesitates, is Lost!!! Surfing is a way of life and never ending happiness especially when you’re with those you love and cherish!