Friday, 29 March 2013

PADI TEC SIDEMOUNT

On 24-25 March 2013 I completed my PADI Tec Sidemount course with Mark Rowe of DiveBritain at Vobster Quay. 
 
I should mention why I did this course.  Firstly because sidemount seems to be the in thing at the minute so rather than write it off as a fad (which is what I had been doing) I thought I should actually see what it’s all about.  Secondly my good friend Mark had just completed his TecRec Instructor course with TBI in Dahab and is about to move out to Dominican Republic to teach diving full time, so this was an ideal opportunity for him to iron out the creases before he delivers his first proper sidemount course.

Sunday 24 March 2013
I arrived early and was of only a few who had decided to brave the weather (coldest March since 1962 apparently).  I booked in and collected the hire kit (at £35 per day) whilst I was waiting for Mark.  I had decided to go for the Hollis SMS 50 and Hollis SMS 100 (depending on the dive) although they also had the Dive Rite Nomad, Hollis 221 Regulators and 2x 12l cylinders.  I’ll elaborate on the kit later but I should say at this point that the cylinder valves should be opposing and have a stub on the opposing side of the valve (basically a set of twinset valves but without the manifold) for mounting (other mounting methods are available). 

Mark arrived and after completing all the paperwork we started talking through various equipment configurations; single, double and technical (pros and cons) on not only the hire kit (which he also owns) but his own kit.  It is obvious Mark has a passion for sidemount diving and when I could eventually stop him talking we kitted up and headed into the water.  By this point there were a lot of people leaving Vobster Quay as both the water and surface temperatures were cold and (apparently) the visibility wasn’t brilliant. 

We jumped in the water (sheltered first then open water) and the first things that were noticeable were the shoulder d-rings were a lot more cluttered than I was used to and the majority of the buoyancy was around the waist; I was glad I left the umbilical torch behind.  We briefly ran through all the basic skills (propulsion techniques including helicopter turns and back finning, buoyancy and trim; although I found it hard to judge trim as there was no manifold/first stage to press the back of my head against so I just did the best I could) to meet the course requirements although I could do them anyway before moving onto some of the sidemount specific skills.  Using steels cylinders meant that not a lot of weight was required however when trying to reach the  rails on the butt plate it was a real effort to lift the cylinder up compared to an aluminum stage cylinder I’m more accustomed to.  S-drills and valve drills followed before we exited the water.
 

Snapshot from GoPro footage
During the surface interval we de-briefed each other (me on any areas Mark could improve his teaching of specific skills and Mark on my performance) before getting some lunch and a hot chocolate.  During the first dive as well as having no umbilical torch I carried no drysuit pocket contents (SMBs, spools, wet notes, spare mask) as I was starting to think about where I could put these items as the cylinders would restrict my access to the said pockets.  I will now say to emphasise how cold it was that during the surface interval those who were mad enough to stay had gloves, hoods and p-clips freeze but some unlucky diver had their mask freeze to the kitting up bench.  When they were trying to prize it off the lens stayed frozen to the bench and the strap and skirt came away.  Oops!

Dive 2 was more of the same but this time we left the platform and conducted the skills on the move as we explored the underwater attractions that Vobster Quay could offer.  The steel cylinders were becoming a little bit of a pain and I now realise why Mark likes to dive aluminium regardless of country or location and some of the skills were alien to my backmount diving muscle memory.  I also now know why my friend Jason refers to sidemount as widemount when unsuccessfully trying to exit the plane via the side door.

It was still early; well the dives had been short; but with the diving done for the day we headed off to Homefarm Guesthouse where we would be spending the night.  Some of the reviews on trip advisor seem a bit harsh so I decided to write one here.  The guesthouse is run by an elderly couple; it’s clean, basic and provides an excellent breakfast (cooked, cereals, fish, and porridge), has en-suite and has free WiFi.  Not only that, they let you dry all your undersuits and drysuits infron of their Aga overnight.  What more could a diver need?

We completed some theory and discussed the day before walking about 600m to The Populars Inn for dinner.  Again I was very impressed; local beers and ciders, the home cooked food was excellent and free WiFi.  The only thing I would advise would be to take a torch if you go at night; just in case.

Monday 25 March 2013
After an excellent night’s sleep we headed down to breakfast, collected our now dry clothing and headed back to Vobster Quay.  We collected our equipment but this time we added an additional 2 cylinders; our stage/decompression cylinders.  We headed back in and went straight to the platforms.  As stage cylinder handling was not new to me we conducted cylinder ditch and retrieval on the move and this was much easier than with the steels.  Although the sidemount configuration is supposed to be streamlined I again found the area by the shoulder d-rings increasingly cluttered which I do not like.  Mark also decided to throw in some more OOG drills which were fine along with finning whilst using the long hose and ascents.  Again, nothing new so no problems.
 
By now all of the skills had been conducted so we swapped out the Hollis SMS 100 for the Hollis SMS 50 and used aluminum cylinders as our primarys which were fixed to the shoulder d-rings by chokers instead of bungee.  These were much easier to handle and would be great to use in warm weather conditions (or the UK but you’re more likely to find aluminum cylinders abroad).  I also found the butt d-rings on the Hollis SMS 50 easier to use than the rails on the butt plate on the Hollis SMS 100.  Unfortunately the dive was cut short due to a freeflow from the turret of my primary regulator so that was isolated and we ascended. 

Summary
So, is it still a fad?  Honestly I’m not sure.  It was interesting but it would take more than 4 dives for me to convert so I doubt I will be using it on my Florida cave trip in May.  However it was good to be back in a student role and some of the unfamiliar equipment allowed me to empathise with students learning SCUBA or twinsets for the first time. 

Regarding the course, Mark was a great instructor who has a passion for sidemount and I wish him all the best in Dominican Republic.  PADI still have some work to do as there is yet no official student materials or visual aids but overall it has the capacity to be a very good course.

I just need to practice a bit more!

The boring bit!
All opinions expressed in my articles are my own and may differ to other instructor’s and agency guidelines; by no means are they wrong and I would not wish to disrepute any of them.  This article is for information only and should not replace proper training.

Safe diving!

Timothy Gort
BSAC, PADI and SDI/TDI diver training
l Mob: 07968148261 l Email: tim@rectotec.co.uk l