my research led me here … “Sidemount is a scuba diving equipment configuration which has diving cylinders mounted alongside the diver, below the shoulders and along the hips, instead of on the back of the diver” ……. I was to find out that Side-mount was that and much MUCH more.
Sidemount – The Trim Awakens
It seems like a hundred years ago now that I actually started to dive and indeed I got off to a flying start. I did my Divemaster out in Egypt and was very lucky to be mentored by Hicham Ayad a fantastic Lebanese technical instructor and all round cool dude. I was also ear bashed into good diving habits by a stickler of a Russian ex Spetsnaz commando and Tech instructor by the name of Artur Zaloga . Drinking Vodka with him, watching old climbing movies and listening to his stories was always the highlight . And all this immersed in the diving culture of the top Red Sea school the Divers Lodge , belonging at the time to Karim Helal of TDI fame .Still , I eventually moved on , gained a little more experience elsewhere and for a while considered making diving my life . I had been dealt a good hand of cards and I was having a great time … but life had other plans with the birth of my daughter and a return to white water kayaking , So I began a new amazing chapter back home.
Since then I had been a “destination Diver” only pulling the fins on during trips abroad until recently when I was finally forced to give up hope of ever kayaking again due to a long term debilitating shoulder injury sustained on a nasty Alpine grade 5 river. And now also unable to find the time for ultra-running I decided a new direction was needed. My old friend and kayaker Neil Farmer, a person with whom I have shared many an adventure had himself become an accomplished UK diver. He had on occasion tried to cajole me into joining the UK scene as a replacement for our kayak adventures but I had up until then remained unconvinced. Maybe it was time, so I kitted up to go “cold” and dived right in so to speak! Since then the diving lust has returned with a vengeance and I feel the passion building every time I jump into the freezing cold foreboding UK sea. So much so that I now have an uncontrollable compulsion to see all those wrecks and caves hidden beneath and to learn the art of diving to its fullest extent.
After “getting my feet wet” for a while (literally) I had arrived at the conclusion that If I was to make a return to any form of technical diving it couldi not be done safely in the classic backmount style due to my shoulder injury (3 operations after a white water kayaking accident abroad has left it seriously lacking in mobility and strength). Not only was backmounted twins and their weight causing me a lot of discomfort but my inability to reach my valves was a serious safety concern and one I would need to resolve if I was to venture further. I had read about a style of diving called “sidemount” and all its benefits , one of which was the ease of safety shut-downs. So I decided to look further and finally to book a sidemount course to see what it was all about ……..
One constant that appeared everywhere in my research was that learning good sidemount is all about the instructor and finding one that regularly dives in sidemount style was paramount. I dug deeper and a few instructors stood out from the rest . A decision was now needed, whether to learn here in the UK or to learn in a friendlier more relaxed environment abroad. As I am now predominantly a regular UK diver the decision should have been black and white, but many years as a rock climber had made me a great believer and advocate of “bouldering” (hard but safe, hence more relaxed and fun climbing at near ground level) and its ability to safely develop skills far beyond where they would be if learnt at the sharp end of a run out. The decision was made , I would put down my sidemount foundation abroad in bright warm dive sites with the sun on my back and develop from there.
Given the heritage of my past mentors I at least owed them someone special to take up the mantle of keeping me safe 😉 …. Steve Martin of Sidemounting.com was my clear choice and he would be charged with imparting his vast knowledge to make me a fully qualified sidemount diver. My choice was perfect and I would later find him to be a true advocate of Sidemount and a fantastic , fun yet very disciplined instructor.
The plan was now to travel to the island of Gozo and take the Sidemount Essentials course and stage workshop .This course has been specially devised by Steve to help divers develop into experts of sidemount diving. A truly all-encompassing course covering equipment set up, skills , dive theory, dive planning and during the course every aspect that we touched was covered with discussions, past experience and occasional whiteboard explanation. The course would polish my existing skills, learn me new ones and enable sidemount up to my present technical qualification level and set me up for the journey beyond.
Communication with Steve before Gozo was excellent and part of his course is a set of online video workshop presentations covering all aspects of sidemount including cylinder set up , Wing and Harness set ups , tips , skills … almost 15 hours worth. YES! you read it right , 15 fucking hours !! 😀 😀 Luckily they are excellent and shot in a very easy to watch, friendly and informal format. Discussing all the aspects of the chosen workshop and explaining in-depth as it moves along a very logical progression. No watching the “Big Brother” this year for me , just a daily diet of Steve Martin, his dog and his very patient brother 😀
Gozo itself was a beautiful island and a divers dream with dive sites near every cove. Wrecks , caverns ,walls …. take your pick it’s all there in abundance. My course was based in part at the friendly and exceptionally capable Gozo Technical Diving. Ran by the super chilled Tom Steiner and the beautiful Audrey Cudel. It was a fantastic dive centre to spend time and a hot bed of interesting and diverse characters . I always feel that I gain a lot from the people I have the pleasure of meeting on my travels and Gozo was no exception. During my time there I was lucky to meet Matt Jevon a very fine diver/instructor and sports psychologist, you can read some excellent articles written by him here at Psychological Skills for Diving and he was impressively way more knowledgeable about Hawick Rugby club than I was 🙂 I also bumped into Freddy and Andreas of 8 Days of Cave Diver training fame, these two very fine and friendly Swedish chaps were laughing,joking and smiling constantly. Also my pleasure to meet a very charming South African named “Scuba Steve” of course 😀 and did I mention James Walker ? 😀
Day 1 Xwejni Bay started at 8:30am when Steve rocked up to my hotel in Xlendi with a smiley sandy haired Londoner by the name of James Walker in the front seat. James was to be my partner in crime for the next few days.
James was friendly from the onset and an absolute legend who kept me laughing every day. Steve keeps his courses to a tight 1:2 ratio so he can give you all the attention you need. As James and I had covered the video learning back at home so we were able to move through the equipment and theory workshops quickly and it wasn’t long before we had left the diving centre and were headed for the sea. The fin technique workshop started with myself and James face down on a wall dry finning away much to the delight of the tourists nearby. 😀
Soon though we were gearing up to start our weight checks and get wet. Steve certainly gives you his attention underwater , he is totally involved with you . James and I were subjected to drill upon drill , repeat repeat . no no pull your knees up , don , doff , don , doff , switch switch switch switch, don doff don doff …. After a solid 2 hours of skills training in the bay I waddled up to the car and collapsed on the wall…. And If that was not enough it was back to the dive centre for video analysis . In my head I am “Mark , master of the deep” yet on the video I have a dive double “Mark,the floundering seahorse” .. James and I look at each other ashamed of our past delusional self opinions and our new self realization of mediocrity 😀
Day 2. Hondoq..The Bay of Bad Buoyancy takes us to a new dive site and donning while floating around is our first skill of the day , my long hose is a slippery python who just doesn’t want to be contained and my buoyancy is so tuned in that my old sink like a stone while weighted to the max technique just does not want to let me leave the surface.
Steve patiently waits while James and I sort ourselves out and make a team descent , butnot perfectly so its back to the surface , go again , again and then its perfect .. another LONG dive of skills , skills and a few more drills . It seems more fun this dive, we are definitely improving at Steve’s hand.
Day 3. MV Karwela is our mission this extends our training to dive planning , Nitrox bottom times ,navigation, wreck penetration safety , lots of points openly discussed and advised on by Steve … We geared up , hit the water and went through our safety checks , descended , drilled then took a bearing …..
I was the depth man , James the compass … he headed out into the bay looking ahead for signs of the Karwela , soon we were excitedly on her and while exploring her depths a fantastic hole opened up in the floor inviting me in , it was freezing in there so up I went , followed by James who was doing the full “Darcy Bushell” out the hole behind me 😀
We found the staircase and glided up it to escape out the windows above and make our ascent to shallower ground as our decompression limits approached … it was a great dive and we most definitely were a little excited to be exploring it, the dive wasn’t over yet though as we spent another hour at 10 metres doing S-drills , don doff don doff , OAE OAE OAE , drill drill drill ….. Such a nice guy above water is Steve Martin , a strict Sergeant Major under it 😀 …. I finished that dive happy , Steve’s thorough lessons and repeat practice were taking effect , I was dialling it in , it was all clicking into place.
P29 tight penetration … easy cylinder removal and exit.
Day 4. P29 Minesweeper patrol boat is the wreck of the day… Another morning spent discussing dive planning and skills before heading over to Malta on the ferry. its only a stones throw and we are gearing up ready to go. It’s a little rough and the entry is surging but no problem to the sidemount diver as we don our kit easily in the water . Safety , team descent, drill and we are off on our chosen bearing .. there is a solid current and we are forced to swim hard to move forward, it takes us a while to reach the wreck but its worth it. It’s a beauty and there is a tight penetration that requires the removal of my cylinder , in backmount I couldn’t even consider going in there but no problem in sidemount especially after the amount of don/doff repeats I had done 😉
I had a pose on the gun when I was topside to , sure why not, when in Rome 🙂 … We left the patrol boat behind and finned our way back to the drop off , It was the last day of James’ course so we celebrated with ……….. you guessed it , skills skills skills don doff don doff , S-drill S-drill S-drill ….and more back fin. Eventually after another eternity of skills our air was running out, happy days I thought 😀 😀 , so we set up for a cylinder removal and headed for shore happy !
That night we went out to celebrate properly our completion of the Sidemount Essentials course with a pint and a meal with Freddy , Andreas, Matt , Steve and Scuba …When outdoor men get together stories abound , Mexican caves , huge white-water rivers, Pakistan Border post encarsements, deep dives and wrecks and more wrecks … men talk 😀 😀 Steve and James drop me at my apartment late that night and with a heavy heart I say goodbye to James, until next time compadre’ but as luck would have it he reappeared at St.Abbs the following week !
The awe inspiring Azure window and Blue Hole
Day 5. Inland Sea to Blue hole with added “exciting whirlpool” exit 😉 This was to be a deco stage workshop and dive . Learning to handle a stage in sidemount with the associated understanding of equipment set up,trimming,procedure, gas switching , donning , doffing and the now expected drill upon drill that Sergeant Major Steve gives me 😀 😀 We arrived at the Blue Hole to find a small swell , not quite a maelström but looking uncomfortably white all the same. Water is a powerful beast and certainly the connection between surface and sea is the most turbulent….. We decided that we would make a decision on the exit strategy when we were actually under the blue hole , plenty air on our plan to reverse the dive if needed. We put in on the little pier at the Inland sea and after spending a short time discussing stage handling we finally put the thumbs down and dropped beneath the sea.
heading from the Inland sea to the Blue hole
The dive was beautiful , a narrow canyon winds its way between the cliff face to the open sea, then a long wall dive before swimming under a huge under sea arch and ascending into the middle of the blue hole. We reached the blue hole and looked up … it appeared clear , the swell must have subsided. We continued on into a set of chimneys and a large cavern , all the time doing stage skills and the occasional sneaky “freeflowing” regulator drill … he’s a fly one that Steve 😀 😀
out in the blue … and a beautiful blue at that!
Eventually gas was getting low and our decompression limit running out so we headed up and back to the blue hole .. 40 mins must have passed since we last looked and this time it was decidedly more white and aerated above, we were already way beyond the point of no-return so heading back to the Inland sea was out, an exciting exit it was to be. On the deco stop I was constantly aware of the aerated water above and to be honest I have never exited in such an enclosed hole so I was a little nervous as I entered the white-out of the aerated maelstrom above…
Ascending into the white-out of aerated swell
My head popped out the water and I quickly fully inflated my wing .. Aerated water is not as buoyant as hard water and even fully inflated I was barely head above when the surges hit. I was starting to worry a little as I was swirling round in wide circles and constantly being sucked towards the back corner where the surge was pouring into crashing rocks, finning hard to stay out of it but Steve looked calm and its not like my kayaking career hasn’t seen me swimming round in a few big whirlpools 😀 this one was a Himalayan sized beast, maybe If I had been in my kayak there would have been cartwheels, rolls and smiles but neck-deep laden with steel tanks I wasn’t having quite so much fun. One of the positives of sidemount however is the ability get those tanks off quick and easy, so pretty soon Steve was up on the rocks and I was handing single tanks out the water before a treacherous ascent across the hole. If I’d been backmount laden it would have been a different experience , in fact a nightmare. Thanks Steve for a fantastic finale’ dive to my week………. Roll on cave training !
So what do I think of sidemount now ?…… Sidemount gave me just what I was after , superior mobility and excellent self-reliance. You can see all your own equipment, easily access and if necessary repair it. You can manipulate your cylinders safely. You can achieve exceptional trim and buoyancy. It’s a system so flexible it fits into every diving discipline from caving to open water recreational .. every one benefits. This flexibility requires you to learn a few more skills and gain a little more knowledge but this is only beneficial . It begs the question why don’t we all dive this way ? …… the answer to that is I don’t know, but maybe one day we will 😉