In this article I want to concentrate on masks. Masks, in my opinion, is the single most important piece of equipment you’ll ever own. Your mask needs to work well: it needs to fit, be comfortable, allow you to see and to dive safely and comfortably. If not, then diving is over!
By Alec Peirce
Masks have changed a great deal. A modern clear silicone mask doesn’t tear, rot or dry out; pull straps to make it tighter, lift a knob to loosen it, close to your face and easy to equalize. But they didn’t start out that way. Trust me.
Let’s go way, way back to the 1950s: back to a time in Southern California where the sport of skin diving started – yes, we used to be called skin divers because the word SCUBA had not been invented. There were no masks and very few places where you could get them. There were no dive stores, and if there was a dive store, it had two masks, both exactly the same; and they were expensive at $10 per mask! In those days, many people made their own equipment.
The “Charlie Sturgill” diving mask, the Sturgill mask, is quite famous among vintage divers. Charlie Sturgill was a member of the one of the very first dive clubs in the world: The Bottom Scratchers in Southern California. He was a firefighter and had access to rubber firehoses, and he was handy with tools – a bit of a silversmith. If you were fortunate enough to be a club member, he would make a mask out of firehose to perfectly fit your face. It might take three or four months of adjustments to get a Sturgill mask. Once he had the face portion, he would insert a plate of glass and make a stainless-steel ring with a nut on the bolt to hold it together; a steel plate was silver soldered to the side. We guess there were around 50 of these made, and my good friend, pioneer diver Dr. Sam Miller, tells me there are very few left in the world: three that we know of for sure. It’s a very beautiful old mask.
Older production masks were round with glass, a metal band
with a screw on the front and strap on the sides, and were made of heavy, thick
rubber – if you weren’t lucky, you would scrunch your face to force it on and
make a seal. These old masks were different from modern ones in many ways. They
were made from black rubber because they couldn’t put color into the material
successfully, and the most obvious difference is the inner, single rubber seal,
which stuck to your face and hopefully kept the water out.
These masks were not perfect by any stretch. No matter how hard Charlie Sturgill and early companies tried, the mask was not a perfect fit and would often leak. You had to get rid of the water using the same method today: tipping back, blowing, and so on. In the early days it was popular to put in a purge valve: a one-way valve mounted in the front. When you got water in your mask you would tip forward – kind of weird compared today! Tipping your head forward, the water collects behind the purge valve, and when it’s sitting there, you would blow out through your nose and the increased pressure would blow the water out of the valve. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Not too badly until a piece of sand got caught in that purge valve.
The other thing that’s missing from these very early masks is anyway to equalize. On a modern mask, the nose bucket sticks way out so you can easily grab the nose by your fingers whether scuba or skin diving to equalize. Since we didn’t have that, we would commonly swallow – one day I swallowed the entire Lake Scugog by the end of the day and I burped half the day afterwards! It was difficult to hold your nose so masks soon started to include a way: inside the glass you could reach up to two pockets on each side of your nose and squeeze that way; other pockets were corrugated like bellows or had metal clips on the outside.
Eventually they discovered having a great big lens screen like a 1956 Buick did not give you the best vision and it was best to have the lenses close to your eyes – this started to change along with the nose pocket going out. Some masks like the Pinocchio mask had prescription lenses for people without perfect eyesight. If you wore glasses, we used to take an old pair, take the arms off, and hold them on to the mask with pieces of tape. If looked googly but who cared? We were scuba divers!