Sidemount the be-all and end-all configuration – Yes or No?

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! πŸ™‚

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.

A configuration

“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 πŸ˜‰

Sidemounting is the sole safe configuration one diver would use to go explore a cave or a wreck withΒ 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 πŸ™‚

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… πŸ™‚
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 thisΒ  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. πŸ˜‰

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… πŸ˜‰

In summary

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 πŸ™‚ Thanks

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

4 responses to “Sidemount the be-all and end-all configuration – Yes or No?

  • Kevin

    Great article Jason, and I think your conclusion is correct. No, sidemount is NOT the be all and end all.

    I’m a Side mount Cave Diver too and in a cave or a wreck, I would say absolutely it is the optimal rig, and I would (and do) disagree with those that sat back mounted is the way to go. I saw with my own eyes the swath of destruction a back-mounted diver made as he blundered through a cave, snapping off stalagmites like a bulldozer in a forest.

    In open water, single tank, single sidemount is too fussy and strapping on a BCD or a doughnut is just easier. I do dive this way, because that’s the rig I have, but it really is not as easy as just jumping in like you do with standard single tank rigs.

    For multi-tank open water, I will give the nudge to side mount. It is SO much easier to get into the water from a pebbly beach carrying tanks at your side. Back mounts are just so bloody heavy!

    I’m in PI in a few weeks, whereabouts are you?


    • Jason

      Hi Kevin and thanks for your interest and message.
      I would like to believe there are some very good and if not very good, at least, careful backmounted divers. I also saw caves accessible only by sidemount divers with un-repairable damages due to lack of skills/awareness and/or simply divers being conscious of being in a place too far from home. The latter tend to take away abilities linked to position/propulsion in the water column.
      Do you dive with a doughnut??? Dude, it’s 2015!! πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ What is your recreational configuration of choice?
      I do like to signle tank sidemount from a boat. And this is what I am doing where I live at the moment. (Dubai, UAE) If I go tech diving, it will depend of the team. If I would be the only one in sidemount, then I would go backmount, just to keep everyone happy… Unless they insist on seeing me in sidemount. I do believe some of my team like sidmeount but can’t really get to the point of even trying it. Most likely from the laughter they would get as they walk by their backmount divers friends. πŸ˜€
      If I really have the choice, then I would dive in cenote, where I can park not too far from and would carry 3 to 4 tanks and putting them on me while kneeling in the shallow… But that’s me πŸ˜‰

  • Kevin

    Lot of people buying donuts Jason πŸ™‚ I think they’re better than BCDs for maintaining trim.

    When I’m cave diving I use a Diverite Nomad LT and it can handle up to three AL80’s. I’ve used this effectively in open water in Egypt doing single sidemount, but, like I say, I don’t think it’s the optimal rig, it’s just what I had with me.

    For deep tech I use the Diverite Nomad, as it’s double bladdered and has lots of lift and so handles more bottles.

    Here in Bali, my optimal single tank rig is whatever the dive shop has πŸ™‚

    If your friends don’t need the extended range of multiple tanks, I imagine they would wonder what the fuss is about. Taking the time to educate them and suggest they try it is good diving etiquette I think, and I’m always happy to answer questions if anyone asks me. I can’t say I’ve encountered laughter, just curiosity and a willingness to learn. I personally would not chose my rig based on what other people are doing, but then I’m not a team diver. πŸ™‚

    • Jason

      Doughnuts… And I was thinking the old orange ring with the Co2 cartridge!! LOL I do agree, the wing you are calling the doughnut is indeed ideal and help divers achieve better trim.
      I have dived all sorts of sidemount rig and the LT if I am not mistaken offers 35lbs of lift. I dive the Stealth since it’s out and has the same kind of lift. In the fresh water of the caves in Mexico, I carried up to four tanks, no problem, or at least one: drag
      Proper training is paramount to using a rig in it’s optimal configuration. I am not a fan of dual bladders. I believe after 35/40m diving in a wetsuit is not ideal either. That is how/what I teach.
      As for my team mates here, some of them are SM divers and others are…pure storm-troopers if they allow me πŸ™‚ My article is exactly about this Kevin. And one of my very good friend and seasoned trimix/cave explorer would say: For the ones diving sidemount with more than say, 6 tanks (and that’s a kill) would as well put 2 on their back and save the hassle of tank rotation, if it is a tech dive… I mean it is possible. All is possible. Deep tech sidemount is possible. Is it the best configuration for a hypoxic mix? To be continued…

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