Back in February 2010 I attended a Dealer seminar hosted by Oceanic, an annual event for Oceanic to showcase their new products from all their brands for the upcoming year. 2010 was an especially interesting year as they introduced the Aeris and Hollis lines to the UK, Hollis being their technical, high end orientated products. There was one particular set of products that immediately took my fancy.....the side mount kit. Side mount diving has been around for a fair while in various fashions for cave diving but it has never broken into the recreational market before due to lack of manufactured equipment. Step forward Hollis with the SMS100 side mount rig, a pre-configured harness and wing that has been specifically designed for side mount. Simply put, it looks awesome.
After a very inspirational talk from Jeff Loflin, an experienced US tech and cave diver who helped develop the rig, I was straight on the phone to one of our instructors and very excitedly told him about the future of UK diving (he didn't take much convincing). The great thing about the whole concept is that PADI now has a recreational side mount course program so that an amateur / leisure diver such as myself can benefit from this style of diving. The course is open to anyone with Advanced Open Water or above. Any divers currently diving with a wing and harness system can easily adapt what they have (usually with just a butt plate and a couple of bungees).
The course So.....it's April 2011. I've bought myself a shiny new SMS100 and dedicated Hollis 212 DC1 regulator sets (could have quite easily converted my existing main and redundant pony regulators but the 212 DC1 looked so pretty!). Our instructor, Graham, has been out and done all his courses to teach....now its my turn. The way Graham runs the course, one evening before we all got together and initially configured all the new kit (some instructors don't allow this extra time, instead setting up on the first day of the course). With tank boots knocked off, cam bands strapped to the cylinders, attachments clips fitted and regulator hoses routed we were ready to go.
Day 1 Having been stood down a couple of times previously due to extreme weather conditions at the beginning of the year we couldn't have asked for better weather, glorious sunshine and temperatures in the mid 20's. With me on this course was Alan, a fellow Divemaster (and one of the school DMs) using a modified Dive Rite wing/harness and butt plate and Jonno, an experienced tech and cave diver who was using a highly modified rig for cave diving. The first dive is really just a chance to get your weighting right, trim sorted so that you're lying flat and getting used to the kit and have a go at some of the techniques and skills required including shutdown drills, air sharing and cylinder removal (allow the diver to pass through smaller openings if required). Kit up. The beauty of the system is that if I had a front entry drysuit I could have completely kit up a two 12l cylinder set myself, no help whatsoever. When set up, the cylinders and regulators are two separate components of the system which are simply clipped into place at a front and rear point. So with everything donned, including the SMS100, each cylinder can be fitted before standing up and walking over to the water. Because the weight is distributed down the side rather than on the back it is possible to walk upright without toppling over on to your back. Now, lets talk about shutdown drills. Have you ever seen a diver do a shutdown drill with a manifolded twinset? Reach round the back of the head to the valve handles, isolate the two cylinders, shut down one and switch to the other...repeat for the other cylinder. Looks awkward and difficult doesn't it!? Well sidemount takes ALL that awkwardness away. With the cylinder valves tucked nicely under your arm you just need to pull the cylinder forward, shut down the offending set and switch to the other. It couldn't be simpler. Air sharing is very easy. One of the regulators has a 2 metre hose which is handed to the victim. The length is to allow exit from an enclosed space (single file if needs be) making recreational air sharing a breeze. Cylinder removal for passing through tighter spaces takes a bit of getting used to but once your muscles have remembered where the rear clips and mounting rails are it's not difficult. There was a benefit that I wasn't expecting. I always find I suffer from back ache after a dive, presumably just the weight of the cylinder on my back throughout a dive. It didn't register until after the dive that my back felt good, not even a twinge of pain. Even after two solid days of diving it was fine. If anyone reading this suffers in a similar way, seriously consider this as a preventative measure to having to give up diving. The second dive is a chance to put the skills to use and explore what you can do with side mount. Having sorted out my weight and trim I felt very happy in the water and thoroughly enjoyed myself. A great thing with side mount is how balanced the diver is at an angle or orientation. With the cylinders so tightly tucked into the side of the body the centre of gravity is kept very true allowing the diver to invert, roll on to the side or even on to the back and still carry on. Let's see a twinset diver do that! We were lucky to have a few interesting sights in the lake with swim throughs, a obvious reason to try out our new found balance and cylinder removal skills.
Day 2 The second day is just about practising skills and getting more adventurous, on the fly shutdown drills and cylinder removal. More swim throughs and fine tuning your style and kit configuration. Some of the key benefits from my point of view are:
- Redundancy – a full backup kit including 12l cylinder (lasts a lot longer than a 3l pony in an emergency!).
- Balance / stability – Trust me when I say it is a fantastic experience.
- Streamlined – Great for penetrating wrecks or other enclosed spaces.
- Ease of kit up – Make any twin set diver very jealous.
- Comfort – I have never felt so at ease in the water nor so free to move in full coldwater gear