Working with a reasonably experienced sport diver recently on a TDI Intro to Tech™ program, I suggested she switch from an ill-fitting jacket style BCD to a backplate, simple harness and small wing suitable for diving with “regular” sport-sized single cylinder. Her initial response got me thinking.
“Oh, sure, I guess now that I’m getting into technical diving, I should look the part.”
I had to admit that my primary reason for recommending the switch had more to do with her comfort and buoyancy control than the optics of looking like a techie! Her traditional jacket-style BCD was a youth sized man’s model (she was very petite) and was never designed to follow a woman’s contours. Geared up to dive, she looked cramped and uncomfortable and it was obvious she was having trouble maintaining anything close to horizontal trim wearing it.
But her quip about looking like a techie, took me by surprise. I thought – incorrectly as it turns out – that most sport divers these days recognize that a backplate and wing configuration is pretty much a mainstream gear option for them even if they have every intention of diving well within sport limits.
Manufacturers are certainly doing a better job today of building BCDs suited to hard-to-fit divers than a few years ago. The majority design models for small divers, divers with curves and divers who are built like an NFL linebacker. Unfortunately, not every dive store has the space to carry a full inventory for their customers.
Here’s where the backplate and wing option offers a great, flexible and extremely functional solution: the system fits almost everyone perfectly. It can be customized easily and the same basic harness and plate can “grow” with the diver who progresses from single tank sport diving to deep trimix cave diving with doubles and multiple stages just by swopping wings.
Another huge advantage of this system is that for most divers, it helps balance the opposing forces of weight and buoyancy so that trimming out nice and flat in the water, and maintaining good control of buoyancy, is more easily accomplished than with some other styles of BCD.
One final plus, especially for people who fly to dive, is that a backplate, small wing and simple harness packs up small and travels well.
The trick is to build a backplate and wing package around both the diver’s needs and their body size and shape. When Greg Flannigan cobbled together the first backplate in Florida a generation ago, his intention was to produce a piece of gear that worked for cave diving with double cylinders. What he built was a stable platform that works with any type of diving.
There are three main components in the backplate system: Plate, Wing and Harness. Let’s look very briefly at each
The “standard” size backplate is about fits the majority of divers but smaller and larger dimension plates are available. Backplates also come in different materials and weights. Aluminum is a great choice for fresh water and for travel at a little less than two pounds. Stainless steel versions come in various thicknesses. The most common tip the scale at about six pounds. Steel plates obviously eat up more of your weight allowance on flights but do shift some ballast from your weight belt to your back… which many divers find more comfortable and helpful when trimming themselves for horizontal swimming.
Buoyancy is provided by the wing… usually a single bladder wrapped in a cordura nylon cover with a similar inflation and dump valves to those found on a jacket BCD. The secret to successful transition to this configuration is finding a wing that offers the correct amount of lift and has the right physical dimensions for its application. Basically, diving a single cylinder with a wing designed to work with doubles, will result in the wing looking like a taco with the tank as filling. There’ll be adequate buoyancy but little buoyancy control. Diving a heavy steel single or doubles with an 18 pound travel wing on the other hand will end in disaster since the wing cannot provide adequate buoyancy to overcome the weight of the equipment. In short, the diver will sink like a brick. A reputable store, like your local SDI or TDI dive training center, can help you make the right choices.
The harness is what holds the unit to the divers back. My personal preference is a single piece of 2-inch webbing with a few D Rings threaded on to clip off accessories such as lights and cameras. However, there are lots of variations including harnesses with padded shoulder straps, which may be a option worth considering if you dive in a 3mm wetsuit or dive skin.
In the past few years, the market has driven manufactures to offer a huge variety of backplates, wings and harnesses. If you think this type of configuration sounds like it may be the solution for you, contact your local dive shop and check it out.