Club History

SeaHorse Dive Club: 1958 - Today

The first Northwest sport divers made their own wetsuits, poured their own weights and taught themselves how to scuba dive. Their flippers were as stiff as plywood, as heavy as plaster. And their rigid rubber masks leaked most of the time. They were enthusiastic participants in a burgeoning sport that relied on unproved technology and immature science. They accepted irrational risks and forged life-long friendships while plumbing the dark, unforgiving depths... This was the beginning of the SeaHorse Dive Club.Today, the SeaHorse Dive Club is one of the largest SCUBA clubs in the Northwest. 

50th Anniversary Celebration - November 1, 2008
Report by: Bob Burnett

Fifty years later, they are still telling their tales...
 
Several charter members from 1958 were on hand as the Boeing Sea Horses celebrated the dive club’s golden anniversary at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. It was a nostalgic afternoon of old friends reunited and old stories retold.

While the audience munched catered McCormick & Schmick’s, a series of speakers relived what they called the golden years of Northwest diving and offered an unforgettable glimpse into the club’s history and evolution.

Although each speaker covered a different generation, they all said belonging to the Sea Horses was like being part of a family.

"There were 70 attendees, almost half of them being some of the original members from the ’50s and ’60s," said Linda Beckelman, one of the organizers. It was pretty amazing to see them there and hear their stories." Club founders at the anniversary included Herb and Anne Leake; Howard and Marlys Borough; Erwin Mullin; Virgil and Laura Boyt; Oran and Judy Downs; Alma Miller, who was married to the club’s first, self-appointed instructor; spearfishing champion Barbara (Boling) Baggaley; and Baggaley’s grown children, Keith and Kathi, who also were part of the early Sea Horses family.

The speakers, charter members and other old-time Sea Horses provided information for this report.

Meager Beginnings

Bob Staunton took his first dive in Lake Erie in 1940 when he was barely 16 by slipping a modified hot-water tank over his head while a pair of allies ashore forced air into it with a hand pump. He couldn’t tip his head or the air would spill out. Masks and fins were the domain of an elite breed of secret military frogmen. Cousteau wouldn’t invent the Aqua Lung for another three years.

When he moved to Seattle to work on Boeing’s Bomarc project a few years later, Staunton met Gary Keffler, who had formed the region’s first skin-diving club, the Mud Sharks. (SCUBA, the acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, wasn’t widely known outside military circles yet.) When ex-commercial hard-hat diver Frank Wolf started another dive club, Staunton thought Boeing ought to have one too.

"I went to HR and they said all I had to do was get some members and Boeing would sponsor us," Staunton said in a 1998 interview. "So I went and got a Boeing photographer and found three good-looking girls to pose in bathing suits as I was coming out of the water in my dive gear. Boeing put the picture in the company paper. The bathing suits got us lots of members. And that’s how the club started," he said. (Apparently, PC wasn’t an acronym back then, either. Not even for personal computer.)
 
The vamping lured an unabashed group of intrepid young males, who, in turn, flushed an unabashed group of confident young females. The Mermaid dives often drew more members than the coed dives. Lloyd Bridges and Sea Hunt brought scuba diving into our living rooms. The Sea Horses took us beyond the water’s edge and made our fantasies real.

Self-Taught

John Miller was the club’s first instructor, an assumed role. He and his students studied Boyle’s Law and learned about the bends. The Navy dive tables modeled for athletic young sailors 18 to 25 years old were ill-suited to recreational diving, so the Sea Horses created their own dive tables.

"We taught ourselves." wrote George Bollerslev, a charter member who retired in 1989 after 35 years with Boeing. "We never thought about certifications or certification agencies because everything we did was a first. Students from the first class helped teach the next one, and so on. Pool sessions were at Gold Creek Park in Woodinville and training dives were at Alki Point in West Seattle." still a popular dive site and training grounds half a century later.

Capt. Jacques Cousteau accepted honorary Sea Horse membership when he visited Seattle in 1960. "The Aqua Lung opened up a whole new world" said pioneer diver Herb Leake, charter member and club president in the early ’60s. "We had to make our own suits because that’s the only way you got one." he said.
 
The first Sea Horses would outline their bodies on paper and use the patterns to cut wetsuits out of 3-foot by 20-foot strips of quarter-inch neoprene. Keffler, of the Mud Sharks, designed the patterns and Wolf, who opened Seattle’s first dive shop, provided the rubber. Suit-making bees were popular events. Despite gluing the pieces together with copious quantities of rubber cement, split seams were not uncommon.

Zipperless in Seattle

 
There were no zippers, no smooth inner lining.

"None of this zipper business," Bollerslev recalled. Divers applied liberal amounts of talcum powder to ease into their unproven suits. By the second dive, the talcum was all gummy, so they used liquid soap. "Put a little Joy in there and it made it slippery enough to slide in."

Wolf made fasteners for beaver tails, the paddle-like appendages of rubber that hung behind the suit jacket until slung between the legs and fastened in front to keep everything together.

The first drysuits were front-entry shells the thickness of a bicycle inner-tube. They didn’t have zippers, either. The suits were single-piece pullovers that took about as much energy to don and doff as a Nautilus workout. Divers entered the water to force the air out of the suit, then gathered excess rubber in front and tied it off with surgical tubing. "First little barnacle prick on the arm or something and you had a wet arm," Bolerslev said.

Before there were BCDs or submersible pressure gauges, there were spring-loaded J-valves. If you felt the tank running out of air during a dive, you were supposed to reach around behind you and jerk a rod to release just enough air to get back to the surface. There were only two problems: First, you had to remember to reset the J-valve between dives, and, second, you had to be able to find that damn rod by feel with frozen fingers in that instant of adrenaline-charged clarity when you become clued in to the fact that you don’t have a clue where your next breath is coming from.

Some divers wore inflatable life vests with CO2 cartridges that were guaranteed to get them back to the surface one way or another.

Don’t Look Now

Despite over-harvesting, Northwest waters still teemed with sea life in the ’60s. The old-timers used to say that anyone who speared a lingcod weighing less than 20 pounds had to throw it to the seagulls. Clubs would compete in AAU-sponsored spear-fishing contests and send the winners to national competitions on the East Coast.

A fading black and white photo of spear-fishing champ Barbara (Boling) Baggaley, decked out in a flattering rubber suit and surrounded by trophies, peered from an album. She attended the anniversary, but didn’t make a presentation. The Sea Horses hosted starfish mops to clean out the starfish at local parks (Why is uncertain.) "The ranger would put out garbage cans, but the starfish piled up so fast the cans disappeared under the mound. There were prizes for biggest, most legs, most unusual, most caught any category we could think of," Bolerslev said. We called a couple farmers and they hauled the starfish away for fertilizer.

There were a lot of avid women divers. The Mermaid dives often drew more members than the coed dives. Many matches were made over the years, and a few were unmade.

Sea Horses built their own compressor, a three-stage, 3,000-psi monster made from scrap parts, to avoid the outrageous price of 75 cents a fill charged by dive stores of the era. The most expensive regulators cost a whopping $40, while a day aboard the San Juans dive charter Koffee Kup went for $8, including hot lunch.

"Some days we were able to squeeze in as many as five dives," wrote John Shrader, who joined the Sea Horses in 1967. It was common then to come back with several hundred pounds of seafood. Lingcod usually accounted for the most, but we also found abundant abalone, scallops, rockfish and crabs.
 
Howard Borough was president in 1980. As competitive spearfishing dwindled, he said members would trailer their boats and a portable compressor on dive trips throughout the Puget Sound and Georgia basins: Galiano Island, West Beach Resort, San Juan County Park, Neah Bay.

They were huge social gatherings with camping, fishing, cooking and sitting around the campfire late at night. There also were gala Christmas parties and costume balls, photo contests and 4th of July weekends. They were all family affairs, even the Incredible Edible (and drinkable?) with the Boeing Wine Club.

Beach Brats

"The older kids took care of the younger ones, but we were all subject to anybody else’s discipline," remembers former Beach Brat Keith Dewey, Barbara Boling Baggaley’s son. "We were all like family and looked forward to meeting up again at the next event."

The Beach Brats built survival shelters, ate raw seafood and explored every pathway in every kind of weather, even snow, while the adults were diving. Who needs to go snow sliding on an inner-tube when you can use a wetsuit? When they were done diving and eating, a handful of adults would gather at a picnic table and play poker late into the night. Meanwhile, the Beach Brats would be playing cards in one of the tents.

"We knew Bowman Bay and Rosario Beach like our front yards," Dewey said. We were everywhere, clear out to the Deception Pass entry light, which is only accessible at low tide. We nearly got trapped a couple of times.

The Sea Horses have always been at the forefront of the Northwest diving community. The first Sea Horses captured their dives on film and created a 13-part series for public television. Early members were instrumental in organizing the Washington Council of Skin Diving Clubs, just as more recent members have been active in the Washington Scuba Alliance and other groups.

The ’90s were the decade of equipment, said former president Todd Osborne. Octopuses, computers, pony bottles, Nitrox.

In addition to maintaining a calendar of weekly shore dives and monthly programs, the club organized trips to the San Juans, Hood Canal, the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island. At one point the club had 200 members in two chapters. There were underwater treasure hunts, Easter egg hunts, beer and wine hunts. There were river runs, spearfishing trips and photo safaris. Sea Horses organized beach cleanups and built underwater parks. They competed in human-powered submarine races and set a world record for the largest pumpkin carved entirely under water. There might a Northwest dive site that the Sea Horses have missed in 50 years, but it’s doubtful. 

Fly-Aways

Once or twice a year someone scheduled fly-away trips to a tropical dive resort: Mexico, Hawaii, the Caribbean. A group of daring Sea Horses recently returned from a week diving with sharks in the Bahamas.

Sea Horses have become instructors, photographers, videographers, aquarium divers, charter captains, travel agents and creators of leading-edge rebreather systems.

The Sea Horses don’t make their own suits any more. Double-hose regulators are long gone, as is a Puget Sound choked with sea life. But some things don’t change. Today’s Sea Horses still spend a lot of time together, diving, traveling, partying and building immutable bonds that clearly have withstood the test of time. "We are a family," Osborne said. "Most clubs can’t say that, but we really are family."

Party Animals

"This was a unique event," said Beckelman. We had members from the founding group all the way up through the different decades and some future divers too," she said, indicating Todd and Alissa Osborne’s youngsters, Spencer and Tara.

"After the exec board made the decision to hold the 50th anniversary party, it took a lot of work and a close-knit team of Sea Horses members to pull it off successfully," she said. Club President Ed Gullekson planned the agenda, coordinated the speakers and served as emcee. Beckelman came up with the idea of holding the event at the Museum of Flight. She handled tickets and registration and took some of the pictures during the event. Adam Merritt’s wife, Lexie, took the formal pictures. Beckelman and Randy Pedersen created an extraordinary commemorative DVD that documents the club’s 50 years through historical photos and video clips. In addition to a delicious lunch of salmon or chicken, everyone received a copy of the DVD.

"Sandy (Gullekson) did all the work getting the room and dealing with the caterer, decorating the cakes and putting the table decorations together," she said. Randy Pedersen put endless hours into the DVD and pouring through the boxes of historic records for more details we could use.

To view Beckelman’s photos from the anniversary, check out the following URL. She promised to add more photos later.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/13452556@N04/sets/72157608614349985/

To order the historical DVD, contact Dive Locker Coordinator. It’s a treasure, and only $10 to members.