I was visiting my favourite dive shop the other day and I noticed PADI has finally released some theory material relating to its sidemount certification. As I picked up the book, I noticed the Tec configurations of the divers on the front cover. The book also started off talking about Tec diving and boasted the question to the reader of whether Tec diving is really for everyone.
I was quite surprised that PADI puts sidemount diving in such a serious Tec light. Any recreational diver looking at this material will immediately shy away from the sidemount experience thinking it is for Tec divers only. In my opinion, sidemount is also for recreational diving.
I’m new to diving and have held my qualifications for less than a year now. I was introduced to sidemount diving very early in my diving career and, I have never turned back.
I recently went on a dive trip to Sodwana Bay for some recreational dives. As always, my two 12l tall steel rentals, full face mask and sidemount kit went with me. When I arrived, the dive operation looked puzzled as I unloaded my kit. They were even more surprised when I asked them to load both my cylinders, each with a first stage regulator and only one short hose and a gauge. Then I pulled out my full face mask (FFM) and one of the dive masters commented on how uncomfortable this entire setup of mine must be and why I do this to myself on a recreational dive.
I was fairly surprised that diving sidemount was not a more common occurrence at the recreational dive sites.
I looked at him dumbfounded and didn’t know what he was on about. Uncomfortable? As this was my first sidemount dive where I had to enter the dive site from a boat, I thought he must have been talking about the launch. This had me a bit worried but I got into my shorty, donned my BCD and off we went. After a short ride, the skipper killed the engines and I started to kit up on my own with no help necessary. My cylinders were at my side and my mask was connected in less than 3 minutes. No weight belt, no heavy cylinder on my back and no confusion as to where my regulators are. I don’t even have to hold my mask in place or my regulator in my mouth as I back roll off the boat leaving my hands free to secure my cylinders to the forward bungees during the roll thanks to my FFM. I was still looking for the uncomfortable part.
We descended onto the reef and, after a quick equipment check, took in the sight of this magnificent reef for the first time. Needless to say, I had a very comfortable 87min dive while breathing through my nose, having a much wider vision and, indulging in some conversations with myself. I surfaced with close to 75 bar in each cylinder and by that time everyone was already on the boat, with the exception of myself, my dive buddy (who was also on a sidemount setup) and the almost out of air dive master. I tend to get very seasick so getting on the boat last is also a real bonus for me.
So, here I was, still searching for the uncomfortable part all the way back to shore. The best of it all was that I was done for the day. I basically did two dives but I only had to go through one boat launch and pay for one dive.
I was fairly surprised that diving sidemount was not a more common occurrence at the recreational dive sites. They even went as far as to say they’ve never seen such a setup. To be fair, I’m probably a little biased towards this way of diving so let’s talk about the cons.
Sidemount diving can be intimidating and frustrating in the beginning, especially as a new diver. It does take more commitment and practice to setup your gear correctly and get your trimming right. In the beginning kitting up will also take longer as you are not used to the clips and bungees. You should also be willing to commit time and effort into getting the setup that works for you. Sidemount setups are definitely not one size fits all. Once you get the hang of it though, you will never want to dive any other way.
I guess the only inhibitor I could really think of is the dive operations themselves. Divers will require additional training with specialised equipment and it will take longer to get them comfortable in the water. The other downside is that sidemount requires more expensive and specialised gear. The BCDs, tank straps, additional first stage regulator and longer dives will push the training and dive prices up. Dive operations attempt to get divers diving as soon as possible with the minimum amount of gear and effort. So how do we change this or at least get the dive centers to provide the option?
If you dive often, are able to afford your own gear and if you are willing to go through the additional training (which will just make you a safer and better diver anyway), dive sidemount. It’s more comfortable as there is nothing on your back and you dive without any weights. You also don’t necessarily have to rely on a buddy for emergency air, as your contingency is a completely independent second cylinder and regulator system. Rental gear is also an option but I personally wouldn’t dive with a different setup every time after I spent so much time perfecting my own.
I repeat… Dive sidemount, it really is better… Especially with an FFM.