Sidemount is the ‘right’ mount – why everyone should consider it! (PART 1)
Written by Urve Patel, 22/11/2022.
For about a year, I had been deliberating on obtaining a sidemount certification. Some people encouraged me, while others questioned and scoffed at the suggestion, describing it as a fad and irrelevant to open-water diving. In the end, I followed my heart and finally obtained my sidemount certification in October. And I can honestly say it was one of the best decisions I have made in terms of my scuba diving skills development. I also think that anyone serious about scuba diving should dive sidemount, even as a recreational open-water diver! Here’s why…
Before I explain the many advantages (and some challenges in part 2) of sidemount diving, let me discuss what it is and where it originated from.
What is sidemount diving?
Sidemount is a form of diving where the cylinder(s) are mounted (as the name suggests) on the side, compared to the traditional ‘back’ mounted set-up that is commonly seen. This requires a special type of harness and BCD with cylinder attachment points at the hip and on the upper chest armpit level on either side. While this might sound uncomfortable, the degree of freedom and weightlessness it provides is nirvana for divers, and one of the very real reasons that sidemount diving is increasing in popularity.
The Origins of Sidemount Diving
Sidemount diving has its origin in sump diving of the 50s and 60s in the UK. A sump is a passage in a cave that is submerged underwater. When UK divers encountered these water fill passages, they came up with various methods that would allow them to pass through them. At first, they used whatever equipment they could get their hands on – from old ‘standard dress’ equipment to WW2 rebreathers. But with the advent of the aqualung came a new way to traverse these sumps. However, the size and nature of these water-filled passages meant that divers couldn’t simply use back-mounted cylinders. So again, the cave divers’ inventiveness came to the fore and sidemount became the way in which UK sump diving progressed and is still used today (albeit with more modern equipment).Upon
So, what are the main advantages of sidemount diving?
There are many ‘fit-for-purpose’ reasons for sidemount diving; caves, mines, sumps, and wrecks where you need a low profile to navigate narrow restrictions. However, there are several very important benefits that make sidemount diving an excellent choice for any diver, including the open water recreational diver!
Here are my main reasons why everyone should dive sidemount – even as a recreational diver!
Trim, Streamlining, and Buoyancy
Trim refers to the orientation of the diver and is usually referenced as ‘in trim’, ‘head down’ or ‘feet down’. ‘In trim’ is when the diver is horizontal in the water and is a key requirement for moving efficiently through the water. So, how does sidemount achieve this? A good trim is a function of correct weighting, weight positioning, and air positioning in the BCD. While good trim can be achieved in back-mount diving, correct horizontal trim is hallmark of a competent sidemount diver. This is primarily due to the pro-trimming effect of having your cylinders streamlined with your body, weights placed along your spine, and air positioning near your lower back. The overall effect of an ‘in trim’ orientation is reduced hydrodynamic drag and efficient movement through the water.
With your cylinders mounted on your sides and streamlined, the resultant centres of gravity and buoyancy is near to the centre of your body. Thus, regardless of whether you turn sideways, upside down or inverted, it doesn’t matter, you will be neutrally buoyant and balanced.
Redundancy and Access to Valves
When you dive sidemount, you have two of everything! Two tanks, two first stages, two second stages, etc. This means that if a sidemount diver suffers a regulator or valve failure, or the complete loss of breathing gas in one side of their system, they still have an entirely independent cylinder and regulator available to them. This redundancy is a key requirement for technical diving and can provide additional safety in recreational diving.
In addition, due to the cylinder attachment points on your side, you have access to the tanks. Thus, valve or regulator issues (e.g. leaks) are very easy to see and diagnose. Performing gas shutdowns are also straight forward even with limited mobility.
Since the tanks are attached to the sides of the diver, it relieves strain on your back both in and out of the water. Out of the water, the tanks are carried by hand into the water for shore dives, while for boat dives, the tanks are handed down into the water to the diver. In the water, the divers enjoy the increased ‘headroom’, allowing them to look in all directions without being limited by the tank or regulators hitting the back of their head.
You have twice as much air allowing you to stay underwater much longer, so long as your bottom time doesn’t force you to come up.
In the unlikely scenario that your buddy runs out of air, you can donate an entire tank. There is no need for awkward Roman handshake or the need to stay on the right-side of the ‘rescuee’. The sidemount configuration has two completely independent tanks and regulators, either of which could be donated in an out-of-air scenario with each tank containing enough air for a full safety stop.
Develop New Skills
The sidemount course teaches you skills that lay the foundation for cave or technical diving, especially in terms of buoyancy. Obtaining perfect trim and buoyancy in sidemount can be frustrating, especially at the beginning. However, diving in the sidemount configuration as a recreational diver can help you practice your buoyancy skills while ‘in trim’. This is important when you move to diving in overhead environments such as caves or wrecks, where contact with the cave or floor can cause loss of visibility. It is also required for decompression diving where you need to hold decompression stops and perform tasks such as switching and stowing away excess hose.Other than buoyancy, the primary skills you learn during a sidemount course include the shutdown drill, the S-drill, BCD inflator drill, hose failure, second stage ‘free-flow’ drill, frog and backward kicks, and helicopter turn. Many of these skills are not covered in Open Water course (for obvious reasons) and performing them at first can make you feel like a novice diver. However, understanding their importance, and practicing and perfecting these skills can make you an excellent diver!
Even if you opt not to go beyond the recreational sidemount certification, it does not mean the skills you learned on the course are now useless! They eventually form part of your skillset as a diver and can be relied upon in an emergency.
Flexibility and configurability
Do you want to use one or two tanks? Do want two long hoses or one? Do you want the short hose routed around your neck or not? The flexibility to adapt your sidemount configuration to meet your needs is one of its major advantages. While your instructor may teach you in a particular configuration, once you have your license you can change around your set-up to your hearts content (but practiced safely at shallow depths (< 6 m) before going into deeper waters).
If you opt to go single-tank sidemount diving, then you only need a little modification to your regulator set up (addition of an ‘octopus) and weight distribution (one or two weights on the opposite side of you body). However, in my opinion, diving single-tank negates the redundancy and balance of two tanks. Regardless, sidemount configuration is flexible and is set-up by a competent diver to be fit-for-purpose. Cool Factor!
In or out of the water, sidemount configuration looks COOL! Just check out the photo below! If you want to impress your friends and family, then learning to dive sidemount is the way to go. Gone are the days of awkwardly donning/doffing your BCD in a cramped boat, shuffling your bump to the edge of the boat for a back roll, or wearing a bulking BCD and tank on your back.I hope reading about the long list of advantages above has picqued your interest in giving Sidemount a go! If you are keen, come and talk to us at Flow Dive Center about the PADI Sidemount speciality! We will be offering Sidemount Discovery soon! Speak to us to learn more!