PHUKET: "CLICK, click"… with both tanks unclipped and held in front of us it is possible to make our way through the small window of the little dive-boat wreck sitting at a depth of about 18 meters off the coast of Racha Yai, Phuket.
Tanks still stretched out in front of him, Kevin from Kiwidiver pushes through the small window on the other side, a spot that would be too tight if he had on a"standard" BCD vest with a tank strapped to his back, but this was sidemount – not a tech sidemount, PADI’s recreational sidemount.
"Tech diving, where one tank isn’t enough," is a slogan that has been circulating in the dive community for years, and appears to be no longer applicable as recreational divers start to strap on two tanks themselves and continue to demand more out of their dive experiences. With every dive, we, as a community, push to explore beyond what thousands of divers before us have already seen, and we want more time to do so.
After a simple but thorough theory course and one day of feeling completely disoriented and lost in the pool, I was unsure if the fledgling PADI sidemount course was everything I was told it would be – thankfully, there is no harm in being wrong.
Sidemount consists of a "wing" BCD and in many cases two tanks, each with its own regulator and pressure gauge hanging down underneath a diver’s arms. Since there are two regulators, many of the drills in the pool are to help divers remember which tank they are breathing from. With a long hose going to the right tank and a short hose hanging around your neck going to your left it takes a little practice.
Checking the pressure on each gauge I look up to find Kevin giving the out-of-air sign, his hand calmly sliding back and forth across his throat. Slowly my mind starts to go through the process of remembering which tank I am breathing off and which regulator I need to give him… looking down I realize that my "out-of-air buddy" is still at the bottom of the pool, but I, completely distracted, have already floated to the surface – frustrated, I make my way back down to him and try again, this time paying a little more attention to my buoyancy.
After a good night of sleeping on it and dreaming of manta rays, there is a transformation.
On our third dive in open water, just outside the wreck, Kevin signals out of air. Without hesitation I pull the long hose regulator from its secure position on the tank under my right arm and stretch it out to him. I’m hit with a mouthful of bubbles as Kevin talks through his regulator, all smiles.
Nothing contributes to improvement more than patience and practice… and nothing is better than building the skill sets that bring you one step closer to being the first to pass into unexplored realms.
Tucking the regulator away I feel a warm rising sense of accomplishment somewhere inside, a feeling lost to many divers after they complete their open water course. I resist the temptation to spread my arms, close my eyes and imagine myself as a manta ray slowly gliding through the water.
Streamlined and positioned perfectly flat, the sidemount kit seems to give us the same effortlessness in the water that is so awe-inspiring to see in the denizens of the deep blue.
The effortlessness isn’t just from being streamlined. There is no need to make thousands upon thousands of the micro-adjustments necessary to keep a tank balanced on your back. These tiny adjustments are made without a thought by even the most inexperienced divers, nothing a diver notices until they’re not there. Now, however, I am aware of having shed the "keel" from my back.
Back at the surface, we unclip one tank and pass it up to a boat-boy before unclipping our second tanks, each tank sitting with 120 bar…the next dive will have to be a beach dive, so we can take full advantage of all that extra air, maybe using the additional time to follow up on the unconfirmed rumors of all the unusual, unique critters that are floating around Kata Reef.Advantages to Diving Recreational Sidemount:
• Redundant air supply
• More natural body position in the water
• Ability to pass through narrow passages
• Easy first step toward trying tech divingDisadvantages:
• Buddy unfamiliarity with equipment
• Desire to never strap a single tank on your back again
This is the final part of a four-part series on PADI’s new specialty diving certifications.