Legends of Diving Articles


The Mask
by Dr. Sam Miller
© 2010 Dr. Sam Miller
All Rights Reserved.

One of the great pioneer divers of all times was the late Charlie Sturgil. "The Old Walrus," as he was affectionately known, started his diving career in 1929 in the frigid waters off Northern California where he hunted for abalone by a method he described as "feeling for abalone." He would dive on a reef, feel until he found an abalone and pry it off, without the use of mask, fins, snorkel or thermal protection.

Charlie began diving with a Japanese mask in the late 1930s which was loaned to him by his good friend Bill O'Conner. A few years later after the end of WW 11, Charlie, a master tool and die maker and an inventor of sorts, developed the necessary tooling to produce masks on a semi-custom basis for himself and a few close friends. I consider myself very fortunate to have been included in the latter category.

In early years during the genesis of recreational diving the masks were either too large, too small, too stiff or after a few dives, would rapidly deteriorate into a gummy, sticky mess. This did not make for comfortable enjoyable diving! After using a number of the masks of that era, the Japanese imports, the American copy the "Sea Net," and the The French "Squale," I decided it was time to contact Charlie to ask him if he could make one of his custom masks for me.

After checking my meager finances, found I could possibly afford one of Charlie's masks, so I gave him a call. "Sure, Sammy, I'd be happy to make a mask for you, come on over", Charlie replied to my request. Within moments I was off to the then temple of Southern California diving, Charlie Sturgil's garage.

I was met by this jovial hunk of a man with his infectious, ever-present smile. "Hey ya, Sammy" was always his cordial greeting. Alter a few moments of catching up on the diving scene it, was time to get to work. "Sammy, I'm now making two masks; the original for $6.00 and a new oval model for $8.00", Charlie explained. After considerable soul searching and penny counting, I opted for what I felt I could afford, the original round mask for $6.00.

Now, Charlie's garage was something to behold. It appeared to be in total disarray, and the best way to describe it would be the day after a big sale for women's clothes in a bargain basement. Diving equipment in various stages of repairs, pieces of metal, lengths of stainless rods scattered about... Omnipresent was the huge metal turret lathe and miscellaneous metal working machines. But to Charlie, it was his arena, it was where he excelled in turning these seemingly scrap pieces of metal into custom spear points, spear shafts, yes, even masks.

Charlie knew the location, size, shape and type of everything in his garage. His storage system was logical and certainly workable, but it still defies the imagination how he managed to find anything, let alone make anything, but he did.

Charlie went to work with the speed and skill of a emergency room surgeon. He immediately uncovered a length of 5 inch O.D. soft rubber World War 11, surplus firehose, from which he cut a 4 inch piece. He placed the piece of rubber hose in the wooden mold and proceeded to his trusty bench grinder where he slowly hand cut a 1/8 inch wide, 3/32 deep groove all around the edge for the glass. This was followed by the rough contouring for the forehead, cheeks, and upper lip. He then went to his metal rack and withdrew a piece of 3/4 x 16 inch 22 gauge stainless steel, which he placed in his specially constructed mold and carefully, yet skillfully, forced the stainless steel around the mold forming it into a familiar round mask shape. His next step was to form the band evenly and smoothly around the mold creating the lip for the compression hand with light rapid laps of a hammer. Using silver solder, the welding process of the era, he soldered the tabs for the strap and the compression screw tabs to complete the band. A piece of pre-cut 1/3 inch glass, the same kind used for window glass, was taken from the shelf and fit into the groove; the compression band placed around the mask and the compression screw tightened.

At last, the mask was assembled. My own custom Sturgil mask! Charlie proceeded to take some cursory measurements of my then youthful face, and returned to the grinding wheel, skillfully grinding a little here, a little there, another trial fit, a little more grinding. Finally, a perfect fit. A final hand finish with fine sandpaper, attaching of the strap, cut from a truck inner tube, and I was the proud possessor of a real genuine Charlie Sturgil Original Style Diving Mask.

This occurred many years ago when diving as well as life was much simpler, a time when pride in workmanship and ownership were at a premium. Charlie made almost 40 of these one of a kind custom dive masks, however only three are known to have survived the rigors of our disposable society, mine, Alec Peirce's of Toronto, Canada and Charlie's widow's Laura's mask which is now on loan and rests in a Southern California museum. And indeed they are museum pieces... The three remaining masks are all in excess of fifty years old and represent an era which was experienced by only a precious few which will never be experienced again upon this earth.

Charlie has reverend position in the fraternity of diving pioneers; he won the world's second Spearfishing contest in 1950 with a pole spear of his own design, was a pioneer LA County Underwater Instructor and serendipitously developed much of the spearfishing and SCUBA equipment which has become mainstream in today's diving.

I will never forget Charlie, nor will anyone who ever knew him.... nor will there ever be another mask like a home made Sturgil Mask.

Dr. Samuel Miller

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