Charlie Curtis - Our Founder
He loved to dive from as far back as he can remember and happily spent most of his free time doing just that. Back in the 1960s Oxnard and Camarillo, California were relatively small, sleepy seashore communities where Charlie Curtis spent his time as a member of the United States Air Force, stationed at Oxnard Air Force Base (AFB) in Oxnard, California.
With his love for the ocean and underwater activities, it didn’t take Charlie long to discover the Air Force’s Kingfisher Dive Club. Although the old Air Force base is no longer there and the facility has since become a local airport, the memories linger on and Charlie fondly shared some of the early day accounts of how recoveries were handled within Ventura County with a current dive team buddy. "
At the beginning, there was no real organization [to a recovery]. Divers worked independently and got no where," Charlie said. When there was a water accident, the fire department or police or whoever was the first to arrive on the scene, simply called whichever local diver they knew and asked him to help with the recovery process. At each callout, the same divers usually showed up. Most of the divers responding happened to be members of the Oxnard AFB dive club, The Kingfishers.
The Kingfishers soon realized that their searches would be much more effective if they worked together. "Mostly we needed to learn how to communicate. It was imperative that we learn who was where and what each person’s task was," Charlie said. He said at the beginning, divers were told there was a drowning victim out there that needed to be recovered. The divers were given an idea of the general vicinity and just swam out in search of the victim. Understanding that a lot of good men, talent, and time were being wasted, members of the Kingfishers Diving Club decided to call in Leon Bray and Charlie Carrion, both Los Angeles County scuba instructors, for advice on how to train and organize a dive search and recovery team. Thus, the first official underwater search and recovery (SAR) team of Oxnard AFB was born. The team was under the jurisdiction of Colonel Roy L. Tweedie, 414th Fighter Group Commander and Lieutenant Colonel Edwin H. Brewer, Oxnard AFB, 414th Combat Support Squadron Commander.
Charlie proudly defended the team members’ physical abilities and pointed out that they were all skilled and talented people. "Applicants for the Air Force Dive SAR team had to be military; that ensured the dive team that the people had the necessary skills in first aid, and had the needed physical abilities," Charley recalled. He said that before becoming a team member one had to complete the Los Angeles County basic scuba diving course, and had to be qualified in deep water diving, rough water diving, and zero visibility diving, as well as being qualified in search and recovery procedures. "We didn’t train them how to dive, we trained them how to use their skills," Charlie said.
Charlie spent 2 years working with the dive team and stressing the importance of clear and proper communication during a time when serious trouble was brewing on the other side of the world. Charlie’s patriotism for his country got the best of him and he volunteered for active duty in Vietnam. He was transferred shortly afterwards, but not to the hot spot of the world as he had hoped, instead, he was sent to Texas to complete his Air Force tour of duty.
A year later, with his military obligations behind him, Charlie returned to Southern California. It was 1966 and Charlie began readjusting to civilian life. Oxnard AFB was gone and with it went the Air Force’s Kingfishers Dive SAR team.
Charlie’s reputation for his search and recovery talents was by then well known in the small ocean town and it wasn’t long before the local sheriff was calling on Charlie whenever there was a mishap at sea. Finally, one day Senior Deputy Sheriff Terrance T. Roth, approached Charlie with the prospect of forming a local dive, search and rescue team. Charlie used the outline developed by Bray and Carrion to train volunteer divers for the Sheriff’s Department. The result was the birth of the Ventura County Sheriff’s first Underwater Search, and Rescue Team in 1966 with Charlie as the team captain. There were nine members on the original team.
When asked about changes the team has gone through over the years, Charlie says there weren’t all that many. "Although the equipment has gone through a lot of changes, much of the training remains the same," he said. Until the team got pagers in 1992, Aqua Ventures, Charlie's dive shop in Camarillo, was the center point for the team. All dive team call-outs were routed through Charlie at his Aqua Ventures headquarters. Today, the shop is still the easiest place to pick up dive or SAR supplies, fill a tank, or just swap sea stories.
Charlie laughingly described the metamorphosis of a particular piece of rescue equipment the team so fondly refers to as Mother. Mother was a makeshift float used in recoveries. Multiple divers could work off a line performing a circular search pattern effectively using Mother. "In the early days the thing was so heavy it took four people to load it onto the trailer and four people to unload," Charlie said, pointing out how time consuming that process was. When asked how the float got its name, he explained, "It was such a… er… challenge to load and unload," he said with a grin. "Back then Mother was made of two 2 by 4s that were mounted crosswise. It was 6 feet long and had so much hardware on it that it needed to be surrounded by an inner tube from a wheel of a C-47 aircraft to stay afloat. The structure was held secure in the water by a 100-pound weight underneath, which was made out of a brake drum filled with lead.
Throughout the years, Charlie and other dive team members continued to come up with innovative changes to make "Mother" easier and more efficient to work with. Mother never really became "easy" to work with, so finally, sometime in the 1970s, Mother was officially retired. In her place, the team developed smaller, individual flotation systems for single-diver circular search patterns. This new system had many advantages over Mother. The flotation consisted of a 5- to 7-gallon bucket, and the anchor was a 25-pound break drum. The new system was christened the Mini-Mother. One diver could now easily deploy and maneuver their personal Mini-Mother into position as directed from shore. A single diver working a line no longer needed to worry about misunderstandings in communication between multiple people underwater. In zero or low visibility water conditions, divers working closely on a line together continually bump and kick each other. Something as simple as following a predetermined course direction can be a challenge with multiple divers under harsh conditions. The team discovered there are situations in which the buddy system can be more a hindrance than help.
Over the years, the Mini-Mother system has proven to be very effective for the team and is still used today. Charlie and other team members continually work on ways to improve and refine the team's search equipment. Charlie and the dive team don’t push themselves through constant rigorous training and bad weather conditions for nothing, there are rewards for their time and efforts spent on a rescue or recovery. "Sometimes it’s just the look of appreciation on family members faces when we’ve recovered their loved ones," he said. One only has to visit Charlie’s dive shop in Camarillo and see all the certificates of appreciation adorning the walls to know what Charlie is talking about. At 67, Charlie continues to stay active as a volunteer for the Ventura County Sheriff's Underwater Search and Rescue team because, he says, "I think everyone would like to do something for their community. Some people don’t have the time, only money. I don’t have the money, only time".
The wealth of information and experience Charlie has accumulated over the years is impressive to even the most seasoned diver and SAR professional. Charlie is always happy to share those experiences with others.
Photos courtesy of Charlie Curtis, John Peters & Diane Betzler