I must admit, the first time I heard about sidemount, I was a bit skeptical. What is this mysterious two tank diving, why are they on your side - not your back? It felt like it was against everything I'd previously learnt in diving, since my open water course. Here at Dive Central Gili, we just got some brand new Sidemount gear and, with several sidemount instructors in the team who have not stopped raving about it, I felt it was silly to have an opinion before I'd even tried.
One quiet day in the center, a few of us decided to try it out in our swimming pool. Together with the shop manager and one of our Sidemount instructors, we got kitted up and jumped in to the water. Without even trying, we all got straight into a perfect trim position; buoyancy control was effortless! I was happily surprised and had to admit that this dive configuration was not hokus pokus at all - it was in fact absolutely amazing!
So now the question for some of you might be - what is sidemount?
When diving on Sidemount, the tanks are mounted alongside the diver, ranging from the shoulders to the hips, compared to diving with the tank on the back. It originates from technical cave and wreck diving, where the sidemount configuration allows you to penetrate small, narrow areas. The tanks are connected with clips and bungees, allowing you to easily un-clip the tanks and move them in front of your body. This not only gives you greater flexibility, but it's also super fun, and you look cool as hell!
It might sound a bit strange, especially if you've been diving for a long time with only one tank on your back, and you might be as skeptical as I was. However, the perks of diving Sidemount are plenty - to start with, you have double the amount of gas, so any "out of air" emergency situations are easy to avoid. The two tanks might feel heavy and clumsy on the boat before rolling in to the water - but once below they give you greater stability, better trim, buoyancy and streamlining. Sounds like a divers dream, eh?
It is slowly becoming more and more popular in the diving community, partly because it is highly efficient in small spaces, but also because it is something new. When the normal single tank on your back becomes ordinary and "easy", why not expand your knowledge and experience by trying a different style and technique?
So what are the cons? Well I must admit, going from a skeptical diver assuming that it is too difficult and unsafe, after trying it, I can only find a few. The first and most obvious being the extra time it takes to prepare the equipment. The tanks have to be staged in a certain way, and the harness needs to be adjusted to fit your body. Once everything is prepared, getting the kitted up takes a bit of time and effort. It can also be a bit tricky to lug around, for example, if you're doing a shore dive with long surface walks. The other problem I can see is that you might be diving on sidemount with a buddy that is on the usual single tank configuration. They may not have knowledge of your equipment and how it works.
Learning about the equipment and learning how to detach and re-attach the tanks in different positions whilst underwater was a lot easier than I expected. Preparing in the pool before actually going on the dive was also paramount for me, just to get my confidence and comfort level up, and to give me a basic understanding on what sidemount diving entails.
In the pool we learned how to "gun" our tanks, bringing one of your tanks in front of your body, allowing you to penetrate a small space (if needed) whilst on a dive. We also learned how to "wing" our tanks. This is like gunning but with both tanks out in front of you. We repeated these new techniques on the dive in the ocean whilst swimming through tangles of mooring lines. I expected to get pulled back by my tank on my back, as was a normally a problem, but instead I could pass through with ease; pretty damn amazing!
I think mostly why I liked it so much was the freedom it gave me, not being restrained by the equipment, you can literally leave one tank behind if you needed too.
As a professional diver I see how beneficial training is for improving your diving skills, buoyancy, comfort level and general dive experience. It's easy to get stuck in old habits and feel like diving is only one specific thing, but actually the branches are so many! So try sidemount! Not only is it cool, but it will also prepare you for different diving experiences like tec, cave and wreck diving. I was sold in an instant!
The get the PADI Sidemount diver takes only two days, 3 dives and one pool session. So to any divers out there in doubt... TRY IT! Fun and uber-cool, you will not regret it!