Homemade mini-sub on display

Photos by Camas Frank

MORRO BAY After months of conservation and preservation work by volunteers with the Morro Bay Maritime Museum, an entirely unique craft is now on display joining the organization’s growing landlocked flotilla on the Embarcadero.

The bright yellow two-man submersible is, like the Museum’s other acquisitions at the site, no longer seaworthy, but it did have a maiden voyage before being mothballed more than 40 years ago.

According to the information gathered for the display by the Museum’s historians, test dives were made on June 4, 1976, at Port San Luis, eventually achieving a depth of 160 feet for the 7,000-pound mini-sub.

It was an era when all manner of DIY projects tempted the imaginations of suburban masculinity from the pages of Popular Mechanics, many involving conversions of automobiles or novel uses for self-contained electrical power.

The Abalone Sub, as it was termed after initial design phases came not from the pages of a magazine, but the ambition of an Arroyo Grande father and son duo to harvest Abalone in the tradition of the old full-suit divers. They never got that far with the project, but Donald Biegel and his son Robert did get some help with design from a Cal Poly mathematics professor and built a 27-foot surface support vessel to go with their 36-volt electrical craft.

Chuck Rawlins, owner of a dive shop based in San Luis Obispo, saved the vessel from going to the scrap heap by donating it to the museum, where board member Brad LaRose started conservation efforts.

Their Vice President of Operations, Larry Newland, noted that often during the work people misunderstood the nature of the craft, thought it was better purposed as a barbecue or believed the Museum was crafting a meat smoker for events.

Four spherical tanks in a frame gave the craft ballast, around a central upper cylinder where the divers would entrench themselves and pilot the craft. A lower cylinder surrounded by air hoses housed the batteries wired to a propeller motor and that was the heaviest section when fully loaded.

Although now on permanent display as an installation after a brief detour for the Estrella Warbirds Museum Auto Show in May, Newland notes the sub isn’t complete.

The original paint scheme has been restored but they would like to add some hull markings noting the experimental nature of the vessel, and two racks which housed the original pressurized oxygen tanks are still empty. Any donations of non-operational replacements would help complete the picture.

As of mid-June 2019, the Museum is in talks with the U.S. Coast Guard to obtain permits to host an operational U.S. Army Air Force pilot rescue craft from the World War II era. That vessel was originally stationed in Avila Beach and would be their first long term floating exhibit, although only on loan from the current owner.

Their hope would be to have that bit of military history ready for visitors on the July 4th holiday.

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Photos by Camas Frank


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