By age 22 he was the Pacific Coast spearfishing champion
“Back then the water was so clear, you could see down forever,” he once recalled, adding that the abundance of fish off Palos Verdes and Laguna Beach was far greater than it is today. “So spearfishing started to spread by word of mouth,” he said, and hunters were looking for guns that were easier to hoist and did not “go off like a spring-loaded bazooka.”
For nearly 50 years, beginning in the late 1960s, Mr. Riffe built and developed spearguns and other devices that revolutionized the sport in the United States. His company used supple woods, like teak, which could be grooved to fit a spear shaft snugly; corrosion-resistant magnets, which kept spear tips from wobbling; and textured nylon grips, which kept guns from slipping from the spearfisher’s hand.
“He was a gentle giant, and he had a passion for engineering the perfect speargun for the world,” said his wife, Jackie Riffe, who co-founded Riffe International. Along the way, she said, her husband boated and hunted with the likes of Desi Arnaz Jr., Bing Crosby, Jacques Cousteau and Buzz Aldrin. “Everybody wanted to hear Jay Riffe’s stories,” she said. “He was known all over the world.”
Jesse Taylor Riffe Jr. was born on Feb. 23, 1938, the son of Jesse Sr. and Eva May (Mortimer) Riffe. He started his diving career at age 8 as a “caddy” for his eldest brother, John: John would dive down to grab lobsters and abalone and Jesse Jr., who came to be known as Jay, would swim above and collect the catch in a rucksack.
John would go on to become a Navy frogman while Jay worked as a lifeguard, married Jackie Pierson and moved to Australia in 1973 to help start up the DoALL Co., a maker of industrial machinery.