My first contact with sidemount diving was made when I went to Iceland in September 2014. I was a freshly certified advanced open water scuba diver, had just done my drysuit speciality and went for a dive in Silfra with two more divers from Germany. Both of them had funny little tanks attached to their sides, which I confused for pony bottles at that time. The instructor told me that sidemount was just another way of scuba gear setup, a fancy one. I didn’t mind and I was way too unexperienced to realize anything about their buoyancy or about how they were both able to handle their cameras really well in the water. It was not until after I came home that I saw this on my videos and got very interested.
I went back to South Africa, did my rescue diver and after that I went back to Iceland to get my dive master certification. By that time, I had done a lot of diving, a lot of reading and I was keen on going further with my diving education. Many people go for the instructor certification at this point, but I decided not to. I wanted to up my game, learn more about scuba diving, try different things.
Now, in September 2015, I find myself at Rudis pool in Simon’s town, writing this article after a good dozen of amazing scuba dives in the cape region. After contacting me about his plans to build a small community of well trained and eager tec divers in the region, I stopped by his shop and signed up for a try sidemount course because I wanted to see what it’s like and how that setup would compare to the setups that I had dived so far.
Why should I try sidemount diving?
One of the main reasons for me was, that I wanted to look beyond the things I learned about scuba diving so far. I wanted to take the status quo and replace it with something unknown, to extend my comfort zone.
Generally, there are some advantages to sidemount that come into play and make this kind of diving interesting. I just want to list a few of those here, the ones that I find the most interesting and the ones that drew me towards sidemount diving.
By the way that your sidemount rig is set up, you will have very little drag and your profile in the water will be perfectly in line with the way that your going. Looking at the Hogarthian model of dive gear setup, you will find that sidemount will bring a lot of the points made in it come free of charge with the way that your general setup is done.
You won’t move faster and it will not relieve you from the task of tucking in your gear so it doesn’t float around and break stuff. But you will enjoy the fact that everything is in it’s place and that you have complete control over it.
That being said, a big advantage for me is that the cylinders are actually in a place where I can see and access them in whatever way I want: I can open and close the valves, I can detach and re-attach them to my harness whenever I want and all that without them being in the way or blocking anything. For most scuba divers this may seem unnecessary but the longer you do scuba diving and the more you get into this sport, the more important control becomes to you and the ability to solve problems on your own.
This point seems funny to me, as I write it, because right now the sidemount harness is just a big, time consuming monster to me: Setting it up after another student has dived in it is a huge act and it takes a long time just to get it into an OK state for me. But knowing that once I have my own gear, not only do I never have to re-adjust it for every dive but also the amount of settings that I can do are just mind-blowing. Compared to all the back mount BCDs that I have seen and dived, the way that sidemount rigs are set up just seems so right.
Everybody who has done more than advanced open water diving as a certification knows how complicated problem solving under water can be: Freeflows, half-opened valves, broken or damaged regulators… All of those problems do not occur often and if you’re diving within your limits will not pose a life threatening problem to you. But it’s just very nice to know that now you can solve all of them on your own and that the way sidemount diving is taught and done actually prepares you for it very well without any extra effort. Because you dive with two cylinders and both of them have a complete set of SPG and first stage and regulator, you are no longer relying on a buddy for air in the case of a regulator free flow. Just change the reg, close the valve on the failing side and end your dive. With fathering, you can even end a dive on a free-flowing regulator if you have to.
Is sidemount only for tech diving, does it make sense in recreational diving?
My short answers would be: No and yes.
No, I don’t think that sidemount diving is solely for tec divers and that is kind of proven by the amount of recreational divers that use it today. My friends from Germany are both non tech divers and have done hundreds of dives on back mounted gear as well as hundreds of dives on sidemount rigs now. Yes, sidemount came from inherently techy diving sections like cave and deep wreck diving but that does not mean that it only works there. It did solve one or more specific problems of these domains but when you look at it, some of them a pretty general problems in scuba diving and everybody benefits from solving them.
In my opinion, sidemount can make a lot of sense in recreational scuba diving and it might even be easier for most people to learn, if it wasn’t for the gear-setup. I found it much easier to get my buoyancy right with the sidemount rigs than with all the back mount gear that I used. Setting up the cylinders in terms of the clips and straps is a bit more complex, but then again you don’t have to master that to be able to dive it.
Where can I learn to do or more about sidemount diving and what do I learn during the course?
There are several diving agencies that offer sidemount courses and you can refer to the one that you are using to find out about the courses they offer.
I did my certification with PADI and will provide some more detailed infos on this here. With PADI you can basically choose from two courses for sidemount diving: The recreational and the technical course. The recreational sidemount course consists of a small theory section, one confined and three open water dives in which you will learn how to set up your gear, get your trim and buoyancy right and how to control the cylinders. You will also learn about the differences in regulator handling and how to deal with out of air situations (which slightly differ from the way you’re used to from your OWD course).
The Tec sidemount course consists of a slightly larger theory portion and another five dives. You learn about the handling of multiple cylinders, feathering, gas switches and staging cylinders and handling of regulator failures.
The basic course costs around 4500ZAR here in South Africa, some dive shops in the US can charge around 1200$ US for the course and in Europe prices range from 400€ upwards. So to give a proper price range I’d say you can land anywhere inbetween 300 and 1200$ US, depending mainly on the location and instructor experience.
Sidemount diving in Cape Town, South Africa with Rudi Human
If you find yourself in South Africa and are interested in sidemount diving, I can strongly suggest to pay Rudi a visit at Ollava Dive Center in Simon’s Town.
Rudi Human is a very experienced and passionate scuba diver with years of experience from thousands of dives and aims to bring excellent diving to South Africa. I have been very impressed with the way that Rudi is setting up his operations in Simon’s Town and how he and his team try to bring the diving in the region to another level.
Ollava specialises in sidemount and technical diving, but does fun dives as well. So while you’re doing dives with the sharks at Miller’s point or with the seals at Seal Island you might also squeeze in an extra day or two and try out sidemount.