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WET & WILD : Sea Sabres Still Making Their Point: Diving Takes Intellect, Camaraderie

March 25, 1993|DAVID HALDANE | David Haldane is a staff writer for The Times Orange County Edition.

Sam Miller remembers a time when the Sea Sabres made their own scuba backpacks, abalone irons and wet suits.

"A lot of this stuff we made at Rockwell and slipped out the back door," recalls Miller, 61, a former aerospace employee who went on to become an Anaheim chiropractor.

Those were the days when scuba-diving was still in its infancy; manufactured equipment was rare, and many divers preferred to make their own.

The period also saw the birth of the Sea Sabres, Orange County's granddaddy dive club.

"It's a support group," says Jack Ruehlman, 46, an engineer from Diamond Bar. "Scuba-diving is mentally and physically demanding. This develops close camaraderie; I've known these people for 10 or 12 years."

The club, in fact, has been around almost as long as Ruehlman has been alive.

Begun after World War II by a group of employees at North American Aviation in El Segundo--the company that later became Rockwell International--the club got its name in 1951 from the F-86 Sabre jet, which the company was then manufacturing for the Korean War. Later it moved to Downey and, in the late 1960s, to the Rockwell building in Anaheim. Finally, a decade later, the club dissociated itself from Rockwell and moved to its present meeting place in Fullerton.

At its height in the late 1950s, according to Miller, who's been a Sea Sabre since 1955, the club was bursting with about 300 members. Today, with 136 members, it is struggling to maintain economic stability. But in the interim, Miller says, the group has done some interesting and significant things. He says Sea Sabres members were among the first in America to:

- Design and manufacture their own backpacks.

- Conduct organized scuba classes.

- Develop an underwater signaling system.

- Raise a sunken ship from the bottom of the ocean.

- Open a full-service scuba shop.

- Explore Farnsworth Banks, a now-popular dive spot off Catalina Island.

"This is a knowledgeable, seasoned club," says Linda Blanchard, director of education at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point and the group's current president. "So many other clubs are full of beginners."

Today the Sea Sabres hold monthly meetings at a Fullerton bank, where they hear lectures on such underwater topics as photography, dive travel, equipment, marine life and game hunting. They also hold raffles, plan at least one boat dive a month and conduct four camp-outs each year.

But the old club's reach has been reduced by bad economic conditions and competition from newer clubs operated by huge retail chains that offer financial inducements for joining. While Sabres-chartered dive boats used to be packed, Blanchard said, many now sail only 60% to 70% full. And though old members tend to remain in the club, she said, new ones are becoming a rarer breed.

"Until last year, all our dive boats had waiting lists," Blanchard said. "Now people don't go on as many dives as they used to."

For those who attend club meetings, however, the Sea Sabres remains what it always has been: a convenient place to learn, communicate and get excited again and again about diving.

"It's about the only social thing I have," said Robert Cooke, 30, of Anaheim, speaking at a recent meeting that featured slides of the Red Sea. "Diving is a very expensive hobby that's best done with other people."

Miller, who's been diving for most of his adult life, offered his own sober assessment of the Sea Sabres' significance. "The club means companionship and knowledge," he said. "It's an ongoing organization with lots of living history. The club means tradition."

Divers interested in finding out more about the Sea Sabres can call the club's president, Linda Blanchard, at (714) 496-4418.

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