If you have been diving for quite a while, then I’m sure you will already know what sidemount diving is. If you are new to diving then you may not know too much about it, or may not have even heard of it. Basically sidemount diving utilises a different equipment configuration to standard (back mount) diving. As you can probably guess, the cylinders (usually two but can be just one) are worn on the side connected with clips and bungee cord. This means the diver is far more streamlined in the water, and has easy access to both tank valves. Also both cylinders can be unclipped from the bottom and brought in front of the diver (this is called ‘No Mount’) to allow the diver to fit through spaces that would be impossible in classic back mount.
Sidemount has been rapidly increasing in popularity over the past few years, not only in technical diving, but in recreational diving too. The original sidemount divers were not really divers at all, they were cavers in the UK who had run into a problem while exploring dry caves back in the 1960s. And the problem was that occasionally a section of the cave was blocked by water, so to be able to push further into the underground network of tunnels they would also bring their scuba gear with them. As there were some very tight restrictions to break through the gear needed to be minimalist, and allow for the cylinders to be easily removed and replaced. Because these submerged passageways were very shallow, and usually very short, the ‘sidemount divers’ did not need to worry about buoyancy control, or even propulsion underwater. All they needed was a mask, cylinder with a regulator and a way to attach it to the body. It was common to complete these ‘sump dives’ crawling through tight flooded areas wearing Wellington (rubber) boots.
Since then the world of cave diving has seen a huge surge in popularity (for understandable reasons), however in the 2000s sidemount diving has also been in the spotlight for recreational diving too, but the key question is, if I don’t cave dive, why should I dive sidemount?
Sidemount is more comfortable
Most divers who use sidemount will say it is far more comfortable than diving back mount, especially those who have back problems and find it is difficult to carry heavy scuba cylinders. Usually sidemount set up cylinders will be attached to the harness in the water, so the diver doesn’t need to carry any heavy equipment around on the boat.
Sidemount diving offers more redundancy
Technical diving techniques have been creeping into recreational diving more and more over the past few years. Now in the PADI Open Water manual it talks about ‘Trim’ a lot, and it is common to see recreational divers in wings, or diving with long hoses. Redundant gas supply has always been an important feature of technical diving, but recreational divers used their buddy’s alternate air source or a pony bottle as an emergency option. Having a second cylinder and regulator means even if one fails, you have a working back up for ascents.
Sidemount offers longer dives
Of course another major benefit of having a second cylinder is having double the air supply. Great for underwater photographers and videographers who prefer to spend longer underwater (depth permitting) to get the shots they want. It is also common for recreational divers to use twinsets to have double the air supply, but most divers would say sidemount is far easier, and more comfortable than using a twinset.
Sidemount is more streamlined
Wearing the cylinders on your side, tucked under the armpits is far more streamlined than the classic back mounted system. This means less energy is required to propel yourself through the water, which in turn means less air is consumed. Most divers will argue that buoyancy control and good body positioning is easier using sidemount than it is with back mount.
Sidemount diving is fun!
Ok so this is not such an important benefit, but it doesn’t make it not true. There isn’t much out there that isn’t more fun than un-clipping one or both of the tanks, bringing them in front of you and pretend you are flying like superman! Also divers who continue with their diving education feel more satisfied with the sport as learning new skills keeps things fresh!
These are just a few of the advantages of diving with sidemount, and there are many more. However it is also important to point out any potential hazards of sidemount diving. Because you have two cylinders with separate regulators you need to use them both equally or one will float while the other will sink, throwing you off balance. Diving sidemount means that you need to pay close attention to air supply in both cylinders, and switch between them to keep them roughly the same. Another potential hazard is that you might push your limits too far too. Because you are more streamlined and compact it is easy to go through tighter spaces, so that section of the wreck that you never explored because you couldn’t fit before becomes territory you can now explore. Unless you are technically wreck trained you should stick to the rules of recreational wreck diving while diving in sidemount. This means that you don’t swim through any passage ways that two divers cannot swim through side by side.
Taking a sidemount course is a great way to further your diving skills, and although sidemount diving is not technical diving, it is a very good introduction to the skills and tools you use as a technical diver such as, long hose gas sharing and emergency gas shut down procedures. Most sidemount instructors also have a background in technical diving too, which means you will be tested thoroughly during your training. Remember the best way to get more out of your diving career is to keep taking on new challenges and never stop learning.
‘Recreational Sidemount Diving’ was written by Mike
Photo Credit: Beach Cities Scuba