While many will argue sidemount diving is a trend or a fad, the fact is it is an extremely valuable tool for certain diving applications.
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Technical training may be a perfect baseline for any public safety diver. Technical training can teach a diver to perform tasks while close to the bottom but maintaining neutral buoyancy, and move excess items around on the body in a fashion that helps streamline equipment and reduce the effect on diver trim.
by Dori Phillips:
So what is sidemount and why is it so popular? Simple answer really, it’s a new way to approach gear configuration to expand diving accessibility. That is not to say sidemount diving is actually all that new, but rather the techniques and the commercialization of the equipment are new. Early cave exploration, scientific diving expeditions, and wreck divers were using the techniques in small teams with highly modified (often with duct tape) versions of traditional scuba gear.
Today, most people come to me for sidemount classes and advice based upon one of the following motivators:
- desire to go farther, longer, deeper and do not want to use doubles
- site logistics prevent the use of doubles
- physical constraints
- desire to dive with rebreathers and/or stages
- it’s something new to try
The TDI course embraces all of these desires. Before the actual TDI Sidemount course, the use of sidemount techniques was only taught during technical dive classes or by special request. The use of double cylinders on the back was, and in some places is still, considered the norm for technical divers or those simply wanting more gas and redundancy. Today, the craze of sidemount is both practical and inspiring as the thinking diver emerges. Standards exist for a reason, but the nuances of the application to the environment, the diver and team is what keeps people engaged and interested, even debating.
Sidemount is simply tanks “on the side” instead of (or in addition to) on your back. A few of my friends call this technique “sidebars” when they have a tank on their back. Anyone can strap on a tank, however as many of us have witnessed over the years, trial and error until you figure it out is not the safest or most practical approach to learning a skill, especially not in diving applications. The positioning of tanks along the side of the diver’s body completely changes their trim profile. Valves are more accessible, body position shifts, the regulator hoses are adjusted and the BCD provides lift from above instead of underneath the weight of the tanks. All the core gear is fundamentally the same as a back mounted tank diver, but the configuration and techniques change. These subtle adjustments are where the gear heads love to geek out and instructor guidance is paramount!
Ok, so how hard can it be? It’s not really – but it takes training and practice, plus my favorite trademark phrase, “Think it through seriously” (yes, acronyms are awesome). Sidemount steps outside of the mindset, “You must do it exactly this way!” and introduces the always entertaining instructor response “it depends”. This is a huge part of why sidemount is so popular, we have options!
So let’s look at my sidemount configurations, yes – plural. We’ll start warm water simple and grow in complexity. In warm water around the world, AL80 tanks are easy to obtain and easily strap on to each side of my lightweight harness with wing. Each tank has a first stage, one second stage, pressure gauge on a short hose and a low pressure inflator. If it is a shallow reef dive and the boat or resort has AL40s, maybe I will use those. They are the equivalent of an AL80 but with redundancy and extremely minimal impact in the water. If I were actually a better photographer, that would be a perfect rig for such activities. In the continental US or Europe, I’ll likely use AA85 or HP100 tanks for weight and trim in salt water drysuit and a little extra gas. Now let’s consider why diving my rebreather requires the sidemount configuration. I need at least one bailout and strapping tanks to my front is just plain awkward. The sidemount approach puts even large bailout tanks out of the way and streamlined, therefore most rebreather students start with a sidemount course or configuration sessions.
The new way of looking at this approach to diving provides a logical way to mitigate concerns found with diving doubles, avoids huge double tanks on the back and opens diving access in more locations. Loading and filling cylinders is more manageable and physical barriers break down for those not built with a 6’4” tall 180 lb frame. Manufacturers are pouring out varieties of sidemount equipment and more instructors are embracing the options. This is a fun and inspiring way to look at diving, just remember to “think it through seriously” and start with a little guidance via demos and the TDI Sidemount course.
Dori Phillips is an active TDI Instructor Trainer and founder of Get Out and Dive, a dive training and events organization. Her diving has taken her to amazing places around the world from Canada to Antarctica, Thailand to the Galapagos and many points along the way. In addition to dive training, she is an organizational consultant and has supported various manufacturers, retailers, academic institutions and small businesses. Dori loves to dive and share with those looking to learn, from beginner to cave diver and open or closed circuit, her patience with any student who is willing to make the commitment has been recognized by students over the years. Embrace her “think it through seriously” mindset – and you’ll have a blast!
By Phil DePaloIf you read this month’s SDI newsletter, you read all about sidemount diving taking a role in the recreational world. Once considered a skill of technical cave divers, sidemount diving has found a place with everyday divers. What role can it play in Public Safety Diving? This question is best answered by looking at the benefits of sidemount diving.
- First, sidemount diving was originally used by cave divers in order to streamline their profile and aid them in navigating through tight spaces; doubles worn on the back were too restrictive and cumbersome.
- Second, sidemount diving aligns tanks parallel to the spine providing better weight distribution.
- Third, since the tanks are clipped to the BCD once in the water, it can reduce the amount of weight that is carried to the dive site because of the ability to carry cylinders one at a time instead of hauling around heavy doubles.
I will not disagree with some of the advantages noted above, but I want to compare those advantages to Public Safety Diving. The first point for comparison is in the ERDI curriculum which highlights standardization of equipment among teams and team members. In order to achieve a high level of efficiency a team must approach each unique operation using methods that are repeatable. This means using the same approach each time, starting from dispatch. As an ERDI instructor, I have had the opportunity to work with many PSD teams. I can tell you one trait of highly effective teams is preparation. Their equipment is always set up and ready to go. The gear is inspected regularly and is always returned in the same configuration. This sets an expectation among the team. If a team member has been away for three weeks, they can immediately respond to a call knowing the setup has not changed. This aids in response time and team member confidence in the operation and equipment. Standardization among team members and the equipment is essential.
Current methods of scuba instruction use back mounted cylinders, and with sidemount diving it is suggested that you have a minimum certification level of advanced scuba diver. Until this most basic training curriculum changes, I would not suggest sidemount diving for a PSD team. One might argue that if a team starts a training regimen involving only sidemount diving then members will now have it as an expectation. Many teams train and work with other local and regional PSD teams who may or may not use this method, but one thing is for sure, they learned back mount diving from the beginning. Keeping with the theme of standardization among teams and team members, we should choose the least common denominator. Pete Nawrocky of Dive Rite, talks about sidemount diving stating, “Hose routing is completely different than what is normally seen…” He continues on, “There are a variety of configurations regarding hose routing for the regulators second stage.” Sidemount setups should be customized to each individual diver, but this can lead to confusion among PSD team members using team equipment. PSD teams do not have the resources to provide each member with their own set of gear.
Another advantage is ergonomic configuration. This is certainly valuable to the recreational diver who dives with only their buddy, or even as an SDI certified solo diver. PSD teams respond with many resources and have roles dedicated to assisting the rescue diver with gear and transport to the dive site negating the ergonomic benefit for the PSD team member. Sidemount also highlights the advantage of carrying single cylinders vs heavy doubles, but PSD teams do not use doubles given the time limited profiles we use. The latest NFPA standards in structural firefighting require air bottles to alarm at 33% remaining time vs the 25% remaining previous standard. Similarly PSD teams will exchange divers well before the accepted recreational standards for remaining pressure. If you choose to use only a single sidemount tank, then you need to compensate with weighting.
PSD teams do require the use of an independent redundant air source as a backup in case of emergency and the ability to share this backup with another diver. One could make the argument that you are already slinging this backup cylinder as you would sidemount bottles, but this is usually a 19 or 30 cf pony bottle vs a full sized cylinder and as such, does not compare in size, usage or configuration. In sidemount diving, both cylinders are used for the primary diver; one is typically associated with the BCD and the other for the dry suit. Sidemount cylinders are also supposed to be used in a coordinated manner to maintain trim, adding the additional task of switching second stage regulators throughout the dive.
Many of the listed advantages of sidemount diving are beneficial for the recreational diver; PSD teams operate in such a way that these advantages are not applicable. In addition, we demonstrated how adopting a new configuration can add to inconsistency and a lack of standardization among teams and team members. This can lead to reduced response times, increased equipment problems due to lack of familiarization and difficulty working with mutual aid teams. A highly efficient PSD team will be consistent in training, equipment and practices so that each operation is routine, even though every operation is unique.
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About the author: Philip DePalo is an active Public Safety Dive Instructor in Baltimore County working with the Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Department Marine Emergency Team and the Middle River Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Company Dive Team. If you have specific questions, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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One of the most attractive aspects of side-mount diving is the versatility of your gear configurations, allowing the diver to be comfortable and confident in their setup. We’ve illustrated 3 basic configurations to help visualize the idea of sidemount and the benefits that come along with it.
Whether you are diving a single tank, doubles or tech you will enjoy these mutual benefits of sidemount configurations.
- Lower profile for confined spaces
- Less drag with a more streamlined profile
- Easy trim
- Adjust the gear to your body shape
- Enter and exit the water with or without your tanks
- Easier access to valve(s), keeping it in-sight
- More manageable and less load bearing for disabled divers or divers with limited or restricted back and body movements
- Easier to carry your gear for longer distances
Additional benefits to diving sidemount with doubles or technical configurations include:
- All the points above
- Longer dives
- Redundant gas supply
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