Basic Sidemount Cave Diver

A WAY TO BETTER MY SIDEMOUNT CAVE DIVING

Last week was full of celebrations! First, I logged my 100th cave dive and then I took the Basic Cave Sidemount course with Steve Bogaerts. This is the start of a new era of diving for me and for you, joining Essential Scuba Training.
I started teaching myself cave sidemount with the help of my good friend, Alan Formstone, who I actively work with surveying and preparing a map of the Tajma Ha cave system. Alan took his Basic Sidemount Course with Steve Bogaerts early 2010 and was of huge help to improve my techniques. It’s been a series of tweaks and changes since then, adjustments, replacements and a few headaches. After completing some 50 dives or so, in what my own view of cave sidemount is, I decided it was time to take training from the best sidemount instructor I know. Steve Bogaerts is the owner of Go Sidemount, and inventor of the famous sidemount Razor harness.

Basic Sidemount Cave Diver with Steve Bogaerts


Our first day was dedicated to theory and gear configuration. Steve reviewed Sidemount history and the pros and cons of diving in sidemount configuration.First of all, let’s get a few things straight:

• Basic cave sidemount is very different to open water sidemount.
• There is a completely different skill set involved with sidemounting in a cave.

Now we can focus on the core principles of sidemount cave diving.
Sidemount has become popular in the last few years in recreational diving. Large scuba gear manufacturers and training agencies are all jumping on the bandwagon and bringing out equipment and courses for the growing demand, in what some people see as, a ‘cool’ image. This isn’t a criticism, but it is important to make sure it is done properly and not misused. When I was teaching myself sidemount, I went through a lot of changes in my harness, hose routing and primary light cord length. It seemed endless. Rather like caring for a bonsai tree… This was one of the reasons I was never 100% happy with sidemount, before taking Steve’s course.

Sidemount is very different to conventional cave diving in backmounted doubles, where we are all, or almost all, using a Hogarthian gear configuration. It seems straight forward. However, sidemount diving in a Bogaerthian configuration is such a precise type of diving that every inch added, D-ring displaced, or even the thickness of your wetsuit, will alter your trim and tank position underwater.If you believe what you read on the forums, sidemount diving is less stable and a harder way of diving. However, this is not necessarily true. If you get proper training, from a knowledgeable sidemount instructor, you will reap the benefits in no time. You will realize, if done properly, it is not unstable but actually more stable than any backmount rig, and very easy. However, if you are having difficulty checking two different SPGs then, maybe, you are not ready for this type of diving.

Let’s get back to my course with Steve Bogaerts. After reviewing the theory, we started on equipment configuration. This included regulators, cylinders, primary and back-up lights, and helmet. Some bits were added, others removed, until we finally have a set of sidemount equipment for basic cave diving, and fine tuned the rest of my dive gear.

Next it was time to fit the famous and controversial Razor harness. I opted for low profile D-rings, rather than the standard ones, as these offer better tuning for your sidemount cylinder’s trim. Steve has an incredible eye for detail, and if you take your sidemount course with him, he will dedicate a good amount of time to adjusting the Razor harness just for you. This is one good reason to come along with all the neoprene, or trilam, you have. It does get a little hot, but that is because of the fusion between you and the Razor harness. It is almost symbiotic 🙂
Now, we know any piece of equipement has its place, and, guess what, every basic sidemount skill has its place too!  Working on your Essential skills is paramount for sidemount training, so we went through trim, buoyancy, position in the water, and last but not least, propulsion techniques. It is very similar to backmount essentials, execpt this is seasoned sidemount style.
We often think of essentials as trim, buoyancy and propulsion, but we are missing one very important point – position. Due to it’s nature, sidemount gives you a low profile, but bigger width/girth. Positioning yourself in the water column is crucial. Maintaining buoyancy, trim and propulsion in all fours is not easy.
Next comes the usual suspect: line drill. First, a review of line protocol on land. followed by a challenging, yet funny, in-water line drill with odd things happening to my rig while swimming – BCD inflator sticking … bolstnap going on its own merry way… A nice cocktail thrown at me, revealing some weakness, and suggesting the perfect solution to get better: MORE PRACTICE!
So, be warned next dive buddy. If you plan to dive with me, we will go through line protocol before the dive. How does that sound? It’s gonna be fun!
I can hear a fly pass by!! 🙂

Off we went for a dive in Tulum, a cave called Carwash. Upstream, passing Luke’s Hope, and we turned the dive at Adrianna’s Room, just before the Cell Block. This was the cherry on the cake for me because it was my first dive there. And there is no better guide than Steve Bogaerts to discover this amazing cave. Yes, I know, it sounds crazy not to have been diving Carwash in three years cave diving here but there is so much on the list!
Now it was time to turn the dive and get to work on a zero viz, touch contact. Let me tell you this. It’s almost as if the cave knows and is making fun of you, as you swim in total darkness. Columns of pure rock walls are jumping in front of me, making my exit considerably more difficult and longer!But it was a great second day, with lots of things learned, and techniques improved.
The third day took us to Ponderosa aka The House of Pain! When we arrived the site was busy with cenote tours, and couple of cave classes starting. Chris Le Maillot and Fred Devos from Zero Gravity were there as well. After a quick chat with Chris, I found out they are hosting a GUE conference in December, and Steve Bogaerts will be talking about sidemount… How cool that is! I need to get a ticket …
The last day of training was an eye opener for me. I forgot to mention that Steve Martin, a good friend of mine, was assisting the course and serving as a guinea pig/buddy when the skills required me to do air share, or touch contact, leaving my instructor to see (if any viz 🙂  ) and give the right corrections.Both dives during that day took us into a line rarely dived – relatively small, but still do-able in back mount, according to Steve Bogaerts. Do-able with cave conservation in mind. Of course.
It is our duty to preserve our environment, so ‘cave softly’.

So, we started the first dive, with me as team leader, and Steve M as my buddy, until the end of line. As it was a drill, of course, I ran out of air… And, as not so planned, my buddy was already far away …so I was ‘abandoned‘… In real life it would have been very, very stressful. During this exit we were just in touch contact with the light on. Steve B was keeping the tension palpable but not too high. The secret is in your body position in the water column, as well as pace. There is no need to rush in, or use two propulsion techniques at the same time.

For our second, and last dive, we went down the same passage, turned right at a T intersection, and jumped at the end of the line to get back onto River Run main line. I forgot how the halocline is so well defined in this passage. That’s the only attraction during the inbound part of the dive. With, of course, the continual regulator switch, and SPGs check, to ensure a proper tank balance. At first, Steve B wanted me to go with feeling, to get the sensation of which tank is heavier. His rig configuration is so fined tuned that when laying flat if one arm is stretched out to the right or to the left, the whole body start to rotate. It works, but I’m still a long way from telling how much bars/psi are in my tank just by feeling them.
Next, the shit hit the fan, as you may all know, on the exit bound of the dive. This time, it’s a complete sandwich. Share-air, in light out, going through two jagged walls forcing us to swim sideways… Boy, let me tell you this: some sweat and growling during this drill. As mentioned later in the debrief, we hit the limit of the long hose in Basic Sidemount Cave Diving. It went slowly. My buddy lost the line at one point, forcing us to backtrack. Then once in the gully, the line changing side, was forcing us to turn, but we had very little place to do so. Several times my buddy almost lost the second stage… It was hot in there. For a second he turned his light on to ‘see’ what was going on. That was the funniest part of the drill, as it was impossible to see, due to heavy silting and percolation.
We sorted ourselves out eventually, and were relieved to see daylight. We were a bit shell-shocked by what had happened during the drill, so it took some laughter and de-kit time to recover before we went  through a complete debrief.

Basic Sidemount cave diving is great. It is even more enjoyable if you get properly trained. Add the input of  an expert such as Steve Bogaerts, and you’ll get the best sidemount cave training available at the moment. If you have any questions related to Basic Cave Sidemount Training, please contact Steve Bogaerts at www.gosidemount.com or me at www.essentialscubatraining.com

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About Jason

Essential Scuba Training is aimed at divers looking to better their skills in recreational and technical diving while using a holistic configuration. Be it recreational or technical and/or cave diving, Essential Scuba Training will put it's twenty years of experience at your service. View all posts by Jason

2 responses to “Basic Sidemount Cave Diver

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