New fashion or the best way to dive?
Sidemount diving popularity is growing fast. People who try it are saying “I’m never going back ” to backmount. But is it really so much better? This article tries to give some explanation, of what it is all about.
Short History of Sidemount Diving
Sidemount diving comes from cave diving. In the UK, around the sixties, advanced cave divers needed a configuration which allowed them to pass through small restrictions while still providing a redundant air supply.
There was no tailor-made equipment from any manufacturers, therefore divers had to use whatever they had.
Enter the scene the DIY harnesses, clips, bungeed backmount wings or just drysuits for buoyancy, and so on…
In the seventies, the “English style” appeared in Florida, where the high flow caves needed more streamlined equipment, so they paid more attention to trim and buoyancy.
Even In the nineties, the first commercial, factory-made rigs appeared, however, this setup was still only used by advanced cave divers.
Only after 2000, the real evolution of sidemount began. The Armadillo sidemount harness was a breakthrough, with bungee loops and many features which you can still find in the present configuration. Many agencies started to develop sidemount courses, and more manufacturers developed their own sidemount rigs. Eventually, it started to spread to open water divers, recreational and technical.
History of SM diving was mostly from Wikipedia
Two Major Styles
You can see two major styles: the “Mexico” style, where people typically dive in freshwater, warm temperatures and shallow. These harnesses are minimalist, lightweight and simple. In Mexico, you can find mainly aluminium tanks, therefore the equipment designed for those.
The other one is the “American” or “Florida” style, where divers are using more thermal protection due to colder water. Therefore the equipment is more robust, with more lift. Steel tanks are more common.
Benefits and Disadvantages
Having the cylinders on your side has many benefits. More freedom for your head, and easy access to your valves and regulators. In case of any freeflow, it is easy to determine where the gas leak is located.
Since the tanks are separate, you can not lose all your gas supply. In some places it is easier to transport your equipment, carrying the sidemount tanks one by one to the water, especially in Mexico.
You can carry the heavy part of your equipment to the water, then kit up, and walk easily to the entry point. Diving the caves in Mexico I learnt to truly love the sidemount system.
However some other places, for example diving in Malta, I have found sidemount diving a to be a bit more of a hassle. When you start to do deeper dives, sidemounting with one stage tank (3 cylinders) is still easily manageable, even up to having 4 tanks is ok, especially when shore diving.
But when we have to quickly jump in from the boat with 2 main tanks and 2 stage tanks, and as fast as you can go down because of strong currents… Honestly, I find twinset easier to handle.
So myself, I use what is better suited to the place I dive, and of course the dive itself.
Sidemount is a great invention also for recreational divers. If you have back pain or would like to have redundant air sources when diving, you can easily mount 2 tanks wherever you are in the world.
Also, you can increase the amount of gas you carry, which is helpful if you have to keep up with your dive buddy, who is suspected to have gills. 😀
Unfortunately, you can see many bad examples, where obviously neither the instructor nor the student has any idea how to set up sidemount equipment properly.
This is not the student’s fault, however, I hope they feel that something is wrong here… I really don’t want to be too anal about tanks being always perfectly horizontal and parallel with your body, especially during training.
You need time to learn how to achieve that yourself, and where you need help, there are many great instructors who can show you how.
The first dive will be a bit of a mess, I can promise 😀 Don’t lose your enthusiasm. The problem is, if you don’t do it properly, you’ll lose the benefits you were trying for in the first place! If your tanks are too loose and wobble when finning causing more drag, that makes your kicks ineffective and you’ll have to work harder.
What do you need to learn?
On the sidemount course, you’ll learn proper setup, and will be shown different equipment… There is no “ONE PERFECT WAY”. Divers are not the same, height, body type, gender, and it can make all the difference.
What works well for one, won’t for the next. Also, a good instructor can spot why you are struggling and will show you how to adjust the equipment accordingly.
Even small modifications can make huge changes in trim, balance and handling tanks and other ancillary equipment. The course generally includes 4 dives. No, you won’t become an expert, in 4 dives. But you will be comfortable enough and have a good general idea of how a proper setup should feel. Then it is up to you to practice, develop, and find the best way to improve yourself.
On the TDI Technical sidemount course, you’ll learn how to handle more than two cylinders. Just because I feel backmount is easier for technical diving, it doesn’t mean it is the same for you. We had a student with really stiff back and shoulders, and shutdowns on twinset were outright painful. After trying several adjustments, we switched to sidemount (he was already SM diver) and straight away, all struggle was gone.
While teaching, one cannot be close-minded and force their own opinion on students. A good instructor can see what is best for the student, and how can they be a better diver.
Sidemount is a great way of diving, but I would not say it is “the best” or “you will never go back” 😀
It has a purpose and it is fun! Come have a go, and decide for yourself. Most important to stay open-minded, try different approaches and see what works better FOR YOU.