Hi divers, Alec Peirce again with another interesting piece on vintage scuba. I started diving in 1958 and it’s been a fantastic journey for me, and I’ve loved every minute of it. In all those years, I’ve seen a lot of changes to scuba gear. In the ‘50s we made a lot of our own or ordered it because there weren’t many dive stores – I ordered my first pair of fins from Jamaica, New York in Queens.
It’s important (and interesting, I hope) for you to understand where modern gear came from. Someone didn’t sit down and design a modern BC or weight belt: they developed with some interesting consequences along the way. There’s been a lot of weird stuff – some of us bought it and used it and we discovered it didn’t do what it was supposed to.
How did we compensate for change in weight? As you go deeper, your suit compresses and gets heavier and heavier. How come we didn’t end up stuck to the bottom? The quick release came before weight belts back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Sometimes if you weren’t very careful you would get stuck on the bottom: you’d kick all you want, starting to rise, and you’d dump the weight belt and hopefully get back to the surface. How did we make it more comfortable and easier for us to compensate?
Let’s take a look at some of the modern weight belt systems. This is a modern weight belt: brightly colored, cycolac material that’s virtually unbreakable. Onto that weight belt you’ll put weights like the old days. The weights have changed a little bit. Bullet weights come in different sizes and are coated with plastic. Lead isn’t good for the environment and there’s been an attempt to not introduce raw lead. Dive stores won’t sell uncoated lead weights anymore. It’s typical to thread these on the belt and we have a system not unlike what we had 30, 40, 50 years ago.
There are also newer weights available, which are pretty neat. A shot weight is very flexible and soft and are nice on your buoyancy compensator – with modern buoyancy compensators you can put your weights in the BC. They come in different weights and there’s even an ankle weight: if you have a problem and your feet keep going up to the surface, you can put these on to help keep your feet underwater.
Modern weights are colorful, durable, and do a great job; but they came from old-fashioned weight belts. With early weight belts, we used the materials we had on hand. This one has a hunk of lead that’s been molded to fit and the belt itself is a very thin one-inch webbing. The quick release buckle is a common design and I have several in smaller and larger sizes; some are chrome-plated. On one side you see a loop, and on the other a hook – if you needed to get rid of it in a hurry you could pull on the loop and it would fall apart. This is a small weight belt without too many weights on it so it was probably used when diving in warm water.
As weight belts developed and became more sophisticated, the belt got bigger. Even with modern weight belts, a two-inch web size is common. The weights were similar, and these are pass-through weights because they had two holes and you had to thread the buckle through them. This particular belt also has an interesting buckle, which they don’t make anymore. It has a hook on the side and a hole over here: you’d pass it through the hole and it would hold the whole thing together. In the old days if you got stuck on the bottom you had to dump your weight belt easier.
The very earliest weight belt didn’t have any of these fancy buckles. It had a loop where you’d run the loose end back through and again – you’d yank on that end and the whole thing would come apart. We quickly started to get different types of hooks – there was a hook on the bottom to fasten things on like tools. Even back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, companies were starting to think about making equipment for scuba diving – we weren’t just using war surplus weights and belts like when we started.
Back to the original question: How did we work the weights so we didn’t end up stuck on the bottom? It was really very simple. In the early days of scuba diving, when you had a weight belt but no buoyancy compensator, you had to decide what depth you’d be diving at before the dive. Today you can go to 30 feet, then back to 60 all over the world: it doesn’t matter what depth you’re at because a little bit of air in the BC if you get too deep and dump a bit out.
We had to decide what depth we’d dive at. For example, I want to make one at 30 feet. I knew from experience how many weights I needed. Let’s say I needed weight to dive comfortably: not shoot to the surface or sink to the bottom. With 18 pounds, I’d float like a cork! I’d pick up a nice eight or 10-pound rock from the shore and start to go down, equalizing and working my way down the shoreline. In some cases, if you were diving from a boat, you’d pull yourself down the anchor line. The point is, you put on the right amount of weight for 30 feet.
When you got to 30 feet, you could drop the rock or let go of the anchor line and it was perfect! You could swim around a bit but not too high because you’d start to rise to the surface; and if you got too deep you’d get too heavy, hence quick release weight belts. If you were going to dive at 60 feet, you needed 12 pounds and a bigger stone; and if everything was right, you’d stay at 60 feet.
Today the good safe diving practices indicate you should do a safety stop, which is a great idea: any modern diver does it. At the end of the dive, they come up to 15 feet for a three-minute safety stop, and pretty soon you’re neutral; you’d swim to the surface and would be perfectly safe. We couldn’t do that because we were weighted at 60 feet, and once we ascended we were on the way to the surface. A 15-foot safety stop was not even thought of at the time and you couldn’t stop anyway. It sounds restrictive but it wasn’t that bad.
Diving is easier today than in the ‘50s and ‘60s but we didn’t know that. We were doing what was available and it was exciting: being frogmen; this exciting new sport of scuba diving. It’s still interesting for me – after 60 years of scuba diving – to look and see how things have changed. You divers today are so lucky: the gear today is safe, comfortable, and easy to use.