Legends of Diving Articles


Roger Hess
Pioneer Scuba Instructor from LA County

Roger Hess, pioneer Scuba instructor from LA County 4UICC in 1955 (which included brother Neal and Dottie Frazier), and Southern California charter boat owner/operator

Roger Hess was born in Ogden Utah in 1929, and moved to California with brother Neal and parents Earl and Helen in 1933 where another son John was born in 1936. Roger’s dad worked as a meat cutter in the food industry and later purchased a market in Inglewood. Roger went to Washington High in Los Angeles then John Brown Military Academy in San Diego for his senior year (Dottie Frazier attended their counterpart for girls in Glendora).

At age 13, Roger went to work for his dad when he was a supermarket meat department manager, and continued to work in their family-owned market. Being war time and a manpower shortage, it was possible to get a driver’s license at age 14 if you could show cause. Roger could (delivering groceries) and this was probably the main factor in his finishing high school at John Brown Military Academy in San Diego.

Roger’s first car was a 1931 Ford Victoria (wishes he had it now). Beautiful, but prone to break downs if your raced it, and he felt a need for speed. He traded it for a 1929 Ford roadster and converted it to what

Roger Hess, Pioneer Scuba Instructor from LA County on the Release was known as an A/V8. So began his mechanical education, which required a reduction in “normal” education. His father became aware of this change in focus at report card time in mid-11th grade and informed Roger if there wasn’t a change by the end of the semester he was going to do something about it. Roger’s grades remained low and he tried avoiding his father, a man of action, but Earl was waiting for him late one night and handed Roger a list and said “pack these items.” Roger asked why and was told he was now enrolled at John Brown Military Academy and was leaving in the morning - John Brown’s specialty was discipline and focus.

After graduating from John Brown, Roger returned home to southwest Los Angeles and resumed a romance with Marilyn Laughlin. They were

both jolted by Earl’s announcement that he’d accepted an offer on the market, was selling and the family was returning to Utah where Roger would continue his education. His mom, dad and brother John made the trip but Roger found a job at a manufacturing plant and begged off till fall. Roger and Marilyn were saddened by the pending separation and found a solution – they eloped. Marilyn was 17, Roger 18, and they’ll be celebrating their 63’rd anniversary September 21, 2010. They have three children, Donna, Kenneth and Laurie. After they purchased their fourth boat the Toronado, Kenneth came into the family business and was the youngest licensed captain on the West Coast at that time.

In 1953, Roger and his brother Neal became interested in SCUBA diving. Looking for an entry method, they discovered there was no organized instruction in southern California, but a couple of guys were operating a diving boat, the Sea Duce, and they booked a reservation. The boat supplied the SCUBA gear and you brought your own mask, fins, towel, sweatshirt (for cold water as no wetsuits yet), and your lunch. A short intro instruction was given by Sam who was from France and still mastering English. If you didn’t understand French, it left a lot to your own interpretation. Sam had come over from France to work with Rene Bussoz, founder of US Divers who were marketing “Aqua Lungs.

Roger and Neal fell in love with diving, became regulars on the Sea Duce and spent a lot of time talking to people and pulling them out of the water. Most of them said “I think I would really love diving if I knew more about it.” With this in mind, Neal made arrangements with the Chase Hotel in Santa Monica to use their pool, and the brothers made arrangements for the Scuba gear with the newly opened Dive N’ Surf in Redondo Beach. These classes were usually five to six people, mainly pool work and it was amazing how well they did the next time out on the boat. As the brothers studied the Navy Diving Manual and other diving related publications, they added more lecture material to their classes.

In 1954 Roger and Neal learned that the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation was developing an Underwater Instructor Certification Course (UICC). Al Tillman was one of the course instructors. They registered, graduated and were awarded their instructor certification in 1955, continuing to hold classes at the Chase Hotel until 1957 when Neal decided to return to college. Neal was an electrical engineer working for an aircraft company, but felt to reach top management he’d need a degree in Business Administration.

Accepted by Harvard, Neal went East where he found that diving instruction was about where the west coast was in 1953 (next to nothing), and in need of an instructor’s program. Neal did the necessary groundwork and funding for a national program – it was called NAUI. Roger was to assist with the first class but at the last minute was unable to get away and suggested Al Tillman as an assistant. Neal asked if Roger would contact Tillman, which he did, and Al was surprised there was a national program already set up, ready to go with 72 students signed up. With a start date two weeks away, Roger told Al that if he was interested to call Neal, which he did.

When Neal went East, Roger became the principal instructor for Dive N’ Surf and remained so for the next 10 years, with lifetime friends Bob and Bill Meistrell and Bev Morgan. They learned a lot from each other, but Roger felt he got the best of the deal. These guys were all natural watermen, the best he’d ever seen. Together they spearfished and dove for lobster, a lot before work, meeting at 5:30am to get in a dive or two. Roger worked right across the street from the first Dive N’ Surf on the Redondo Beach breakwater and as Bill, Bob and Bev were all still working lifeguards, manning the shop on days off, Roger would occasionally get called for lunch break relief.

Bill called Roger one day to ask if he could get some time off to do a small commercial diving job then proceeded to lay out the job. It was at the El Segundo Oil Refinery where tankers anchor offshore to transfer oil to the refinery, often dropping the inshore hose in the water. Bill told Roger as soon as he jumped in he’d see the hose – but, make it look good and take a little time. So, Roger jumps in, sees the hose, takes a little cruise around the bottom, finally comes up, says he found it and tells them to throw him the line and ties off.

After Roger’s out of the water rinsing off, the job foreman comes up and says “I know you can see our hose as soon as you go in – we don’t need the diving show. I have guys on the payroll standing around waiting for you to tie off the line. We’re going to pay you the same so, the sooner the better - and tell that to the other guy!” That was the start of Roger’s commercial diving career.

Later on Bob, Bill and pioneer diver Don Siverts formed a company called Marine Photography. Some of their dives were in excess of 225 ft. using compressed air. Roger was called on to fill in when they needed another hand, especially if the job called for consecutive deep dives two days in a row, as they needed a 24 hour surface interval between dives and a need for two dive teams. They did these dives on compressed air for five years without any accidents.

Besides Roger’s love of diving (still at it, staying within his limits at 80 years), the boats and most other ocean related items, Roger and his family also enjoyed the deserts, lakes, rivers and most all outdoor activities. They started with a pickup truck and worked their way up the RV line to a Class A motor home. Off-road motorcycle riding was a joint effort, with the whole family riding deserts and mountains. Roger never raced, but grandson Joel Nelson raced supercross as a professional.

In 1959, Roger and Marilyn started a charter boat business that lasted 50 years. Their first purchase was the Bluefin, a 36 foot Coast Guard inspected vessel, and they started taking out students and any other charters they could get for the boat. They became a two-boat operation in 1961 after purchasing the Longfin, a 42 foot Coast Guard inspected vessel.

In 1965, they sold the Bluefin and Longfin and bought Maverick, a 55 footer. They bought Toronado in 1971, their fist boat with multiple (up to 5-day trips) capability. In 1979 they built their first boat from scratch, the 80 foot Charisma. She was state of the art, built for multiple day work with state rooms and a salon that seated 35 – a beauty, and in 1989 they built Encore, the sister to Charisma. Roger’s now retired but still on the water with Release, a 37 footer.

Professional organizations Roger’s belonged to are:

  • 1955 – Los Angeles County Instructors Program

  • 1964 – Charter Boat Owner’s Association, President 1966, 67, 68

  • 1969 – Sport Fishing Association of California (board member representing California dive boats)

  • 1999 –Dive Boat Owner’s Association President

Awards/honors received:

  • 1955 – Los Angeles County Underwater Instructor Certificate (4UICC)

  • 1959 – US Coast Guard Merchant Marine Officer/Master for over 50 years

  • 1986 – Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce award for providing a plan to fund Catalina’s Hyperbaric Chamber. This fund grew from $15,000.00 to $20,000.00 the first year to $128,811.00 in 2008. In 1986, Chamber Director Andy Pilmanis and Sheri Boone, editor and owner of Dive Boat Magazine told Roger that the Hyperberic Chamber had lost most of its funding and might have to close. They asked for help from the dive boats. Roger suggested they make it a diving community program, bringing in divers, shops, manufacturers and the dive boats, where the boats would donate their boat for the day. The divers bought tickets on the boats, shops would charter or help sell spots, and manufacturers would donate raffle prizes for tickets to be sold with all funds going to the Chamber. Giving credit where due, Ken Kurtis took over directing the Chamber fund in 1996 till this day. He has added a banquet and introduced the ghost ship, Flying Dutchman, where divers that could not make Chamber day dive could still buy a ticket on the ghost ship.

  • 1986 – NAUI for supporting diving safety through education

  • 1990 – Los Angeles County’s award for making and assisting in diving rescues within Los Angeles County

  • 1993 – California Diving News Lifetime Achievement Award

  • 1994 – Los Angeles County Advisory Committee Member

  • 1994 – Rodale’s Scuba Diving Reader’s Choice Award for favorite dive boat in the world

After retirement, Roger found time to build a Cobra Replica, buying body and frame from a replica firm and using donor auto parts (Ford 429 V8 tricked out, Mustang front end and Lincoln rear end with disc brakes). Yes, it was very fast and lots of fun. Roger also restored a 1933 Ford Cabriolet as a classic and did a body off restoration. He’s entered it in two shows and won first in class in both. He still enjoys motor home trips with Marilyn and their two dogs and taking family and friends out on Release.

Special Thanks to Barbara Allen

Portage Quarry Recreation Club, Inc.
12701 South Dixie
Bowling Green OH, 43402

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