Is cave diver training in sidemount configuration is the way forward?
I have been a sidemount cave diver pretty much since the beginning of my time in Mexico, seven years ago. I first did, what most of us do, which is teaching myself the procedures… Thinking that it was as simple as clipping two tanks on my side and off I went. Well, that was not without a surprise! It is not as easy as it sounds. Specially if you want to enjoy it at 100%. Remember, water is where we’re having fun!🙂
In my opinion, the protocols that make a sound and safe sidemount diver are better learned with a trained and active sidemount instructor. Not here to convince you to take training with me or someone else for that matter (why would you go with someone else anyway..??). But mostly to share with you my views and thoughts on why, cave diver training and sidemount configuration go fin in fin, if you allow me.
But, is that it? Is it that backmounted cave diving/training is dead? Is backmounted diving part of history?
Is it a team friendly configuration? These are the questions I will try answering in this article.
“Side mount” (my text editor still thinks it’s a weird word!) is not really a secret for anyone anymore. With a plethora of online information available. Divers can even today buy videos and figure it out on their own, without the supervision of an instructor. If you ask me, this is more a commercial stunt rather than diver’s education. But let’s keep on track😉
Sidemounting is the sole safe configuration one diver would use to go explore a cave or a wreck with major restrictions, as in where a buddy becomes a liability. We all know the sad story of this famous Australian cave explorer who died pushing the limits in a very restrictive passage. Solo diving, although very controversial (and that may be why), is a lifestyle for the ones I like to call “bad ass” explorers, be it cave or wreck. So of course, now in our current fast paced era of instant gratification, everybody claims to be THE one “bad ass” diver and therefore embrace advanced forms of diving with little if any knowledge and training. This is dangerous and far from who relies on our professionalism: the beginner divers.
Redundancy, application vs team diving
Of course, sidemount offers the only real redundancy in terms of cylinder management and gas distribution. For more details on this, I recommend for the novice, to take further training if this sounds interesting to you or patiently wait until I write something about it🙂
As seen in recent online promotional (and a bit sensational videos), that a trained sidemount diver can carry up to ten cylinders…with so much empty “real-estate” on the diver’s back…🙂
Sidemounting certainly offers the ideal flexibility to engage in real advanced form of scuba diving.
Is there a real application? Well, maybe, after all. In a remote location, for transporting cylinders (i.e mules) and/or not enough funds to buy scooters or…a rebreather. A cave explorer could carry on as many stage/deco cylinders as he/she sees fit. Although some colleagues might argue, a backmounted diver could carry as many cylinders as he/she wanted, too.
We again here, have the perspective of an explorer in a remote place. Not the mainstream diver – Mr John Doe. I wonder how this videos are being perceived by beginner divers. A mix of reserved judgment and admiration, I guess.
Does that make the set of doubles with isolator manifold totally unreliable? Un-redundant? Maybe, in a certain scenario. But does that mean, explorers do not use double tanks? Can’t they go into restrictive passages? I don’t think we can call the early explorers, when sidemount was no popularized like it is today, as liars. Can we?
What about all these divers in the Florida springs, who pioneered cave diving and explored countless of cave systems, at extensive depth? Are they all phony divers? I don’t think so.
I am sure you would agree that backmounted doubles and sidemount configuration, are both perfectly adaptable to cave diving/training/exploring. The saying that goes around “Backmount is dead” is misleading recreational and novice technical divers in that thinking of sidemount as being the savior of all problems. It goes without saying that messages like this can be perceived as en entry passage to becoming an explorer. The word “explorer” is stretchable to some degree of course. Once we venture underwater, in the unknown, aren’t we all becoming explorers? This is another reason why I decided to write this article.
I will always remember that one phrase that particularly caught my attention “however you approach a (cave) dive, always keep in mind progressive penetration” – it makes so much sense, that it applies also to diver training – progressive training, followed by lengthy practice. Yes, it sounds like Master Miyagi’s training and there is a reason for that.😉
Is sidemount the be-all and end-all configuration?
Offering immediate access to exploration dives because of training being done in sidemount, is, in my sense, not doing any good to the world of diver’s education but rather satisfy the ego of a few and fulfills a more economical agenda of others. But maybe I am wrong.
What I am stressing out here is the trend around sidemounting for the too far, to fast.
Very few are the scuba agencies incorporating the team spirit in their curriculum. Ok, I do blame a certain agency for having nullified the buddy system but further than that, it is time to change the way the world learns to dive. And look outside the box, as our dear Course Directors like to say… The box being one closed minded agency and outside of it, is the rest of the world trying to do things right.
Sidemount diver training, the way it is done today differs to the most classic Hogarthian double tank diving in one crucial way: in case of an out-of-gas diver, the consensus says to donate what you are breathing from. In sidemount configuration, the diver is 50% of his/her time breathing from the long hose. The rest of the time, the long hose is clipped to the shoulder D-ring.
The main reason would be that in a low visibility situation, the OOG diver, would find by touch, the regulator in the mouth of his team mate and rescue him/herself.
To stay the closest possible to the general consensus and having been trained in a Bogaerthian way, some of us are teaching our student/divers to make use of a “brake-away” system to the second stage of our regulator, to make it accessible in case of an OOG while it’s being clipped to the D-ring.
But this does not please the other school of thoughts that are the classic Hogarthian backmounted divers. And for a reason: it defies the fundational rules of cave diver configuration…and training.
Suffice to say that sidemount is NOT a DIR friendly configuration. That’s it, I’ve done it. We could sum up the article by just this short sentence. I could even have given this title to the article…😉
So, it is easy to see how the two configurations can coexist. They are both valid configurations to be used in the safest and most enjoyable manner possible. We must not lose sight of the recreational divers, who are watching us, with envy and curiosity. In my eyes, sidemounting is great and will always be a very fun way to scuba dive but as educators, we have a responsibility, a duty of care if you prefer. Do not deliver too fast, skills that can only give the illusion of perfection.
I chose to wrote this article knowing I would pick some curiosity and stir some sediment. After all, I was there when sidemount became so popular. I co-wrote the Sidemount Essentials course with Steve Martin. I think it is time to recenter the approach we have to diver training.
For those who prefer not to get trained, I can’t say nothing. For those who will chose to get trained, I think they should do so in an informed way, by educators free from any agenda except delivering the appropriate training to the appropriate divers.
Please, feel free to comment as usual and Like if you do so🙂 Thanks