Sidemount: Keeping diving accessible for seniors
Aging divers and divers with physical limitations could find freedom within their gear configuration…
Words by: W. H. “Hank” Halliday
Recent issues of DIVER have featured sidemount diving: one focused on the need to practice skills and the other related to cave diving. I suggest a third, covering a lesser known application. Sidemount diving can offer some recreational divers a way to help overcome physical problems that might preclude them from traditional backmount diving.
Diving has been kind to me over the past sixty plus years and I’ve had the opportunity to experience homemade gear, regular scuba, hardhat, rebreathers, and now, in my eighties, sidemount. You may wonder why anyone would leave the world of rebreathers with its warm, moist gas and long bottom times to return to cold, dry compressed air. The answer is age.
Diving is an activity that almost anyone can enjoy, from pre-teens to octogenarians and beyond. Good health is the only criterion. Aging brings on a host of problems, including aching joints, painful knees, weakening muscles, and bad backs. When your body becomes compromised by structural damage or physical disabilities, you have to change your diving style. I’ve seen many of my diving friends stop this activity, as joints start to creak and gear seems to get heavier with each passing year. They’ve left the sport believing that it was just for the young.
Spinal cord surgery and a physician’s warning to not lift over twenty pounds (9kg) put my scuba diving into jeopardy. This was devastating! For me, being underwater is probably the most calming thing I’ve ever done. It becomes the Zen of my existence. To give it up would be earth shattering. I loved rebreather diving and in many ways it was a key to many great dives, and stepping out of that world was extremely difficult. Sidemount, however, was and is the answer to my physical problem and it’s worthy of consideration for anyone else who finds themselves unable to continue diving because of weight limitations or their inability to enter or exit the water easily. Without sidemount, my diving days would have come to an end.
There’s nothing magical about sidemount. If you’re diving from a boat you don your harness, get into the water and the dive master or your buddy hands you your tanks, which you clip onto your harness, right and left for balance, and you’re good to go. When the dive is over you unclip the tanks while still in the water and hand them up to the boat crew or your buddy. If climbing the ladder back onto the boat presents a weight problem, simply slip off the harness and let the crew lift it out of the water for you. Nothing could be easier.
I’ve modified my sidemount gear for my comfort. I’ve ditched the long hose and no longer clip my second stages onto my harness. The second stage not in use simply hangs around my neck. Both tank gauges are on short six inch (15cm) hoses and are right in front of me, giving me an excellent place to rest my hands as I fin through the water. One of the other neat things about a sidemount harness is back-mounted pockets for weights—no need for a weight belt.
Don’t cheap out and try to modify a standard BC into a sidemount harness. This advice is coming from a person who finds it difficult to resist modifying anything he gets his hands on!
When I was younger, I dived all year long, including ice diving in a local quarry in winter. Regular diving trips keep your skills sharp but now often months go by between trips. Because of this I always take time out to review and refresh my skills in the pool before leaving on a trip. I hang my tanks from a surface float and practice getting them on and off the drop line. I check my buoyancy and trim and make sure I can still drop a tank and swim with just one. With a mask off I repeat these exercises just for the fun of it but realizing that you could also have a mask kicked off during a dive. Those I dive with also realize that, by doing all of this, they know I’m safe and they don’t have to worry about diving with the “old guy”.
As we age most of us tend to prefer warmer climes for diving and in doing so seldom get a choice of the tanks we use. However, if you’re putting together your own equipment, consider steel. I know this sounds contradictory to the “make it light” mantra but you’re probably going to be diving with a younger crowd and they can do the heavy lifting (says he with a grin). Why steel? You don’t have the end-of-the-dive tank buoyancy problem and you’ll need less weight in your weight pockets. If you’ve noticed how buoyant an 80 aluminium tank gets at the end of the dive, multiply that by two. Again, proper weighting is something that you’ll learn during your sidemount course. Also consider that if you’re using bungies to secure the tank valves, get right and left valves.
Each dive operation has its own method of getting divers into the water. More and more outlets are turning to “Valet Diving” and wish to set-up and handle your equipment for you. As a diver, all you have to do is sit next to the transom on the boat with fins and mask on and the dive masters haul your gear to you and then help you into it and into the water.
Many dive operators are not yet accustomed to having recreational sidemount divers on board and my diving partner and I have three methods of entry to offer to the staff.
Get into the water with mask and fins on and have the tanks handed to you one at a time. The main problem with this is that it ties up the back of the boat and slows down the other divers eager to get into the water.
My preferred method is using a weighted drop line with spaced loops in the line. The staff can clip the tanks on to the line and lower them into the water. My dive buddy enters the water first and then I jump in, drop down to the tanks and get into them one at a time underwater. This frees up the stern for other divers getting in and in the case of a light current, my buddy can prevent me from drifting away from the line as I get into my tanks.
We’ve used a third method when the water conditions are rough with strong currents. In these situations the drop line could be dragged to the stern of the boat and into the rudder and props with me, in the surge, playing the part of a yoyo on the line. To handle this, my dive buddy enters the water and is handed my first tank. She gives it to me and while I get into it she retrieves the second one.
These are the methods that we’ve found work for us. You might find others that work for you. The main point is that whatever method you use, it must be safe and you must feel comfortable doing it.
In the water
I use two different coloured second stages so that I can tell them apart. I don the tank that has the blue stage first as it has the hose that supplies my BC and clips on my left side. I also have turret first stage hose fittings and omni swivels on my second stages. This allows for comfortable adjustment of the mouthpieces when I switch back and forth between tanks. Speaking of switching tanks, this helps keep lateral trim in check. I nominally use 500 psi on one side and then make the switch. It’s nice to have two tanks for balance. On your training course you’ll also learn to operate using one tank. I’ll often practice this skill at the end of the dive under the boat, dropping one tank on the bottom and then swimming around it just for practice while my single tank friends burn off their remaining air.
Although divemasters are eager to set up your gear, unless you make it abundantly clear as to exactly where to place the tank bands with regard to the valves, you’re better off doing it yourself. It doesn’t take many hours of diving sidemount to become accustomed to regulator positioning and the comfort of having your second stages right where you want/need them. A bad set-up can make for a disappointing dive.
If you’re a former diver or perhaps it’s always something that you wanted to do but feel that it’s impossible given your physical problems or age, consider sidemount. It could be your ticket into scuba or an opportunity to continue in this life-long sport, where age is only a number.