By Kelly Rockwood, Training Consultant – PADI Americas
One of the great things about working in the PADI Training Department is the opportunity to help create, review and test new PADI programs. I was lucky enough to be included in formative research we were doing for the new PADI Sidemount Diver course held over the Labor Day holiday in September 2011. Giving up a holiday weekend was a small price to pay to be among a group of people helping test this new equipment configuration.
Jeff Loflin, a respected PADI Course Director and author of the first Sidemount Diver Distinctive Specialty course, led the research as our instructor.
In the morning, we met in a classroom where our instructor reviewed the development of the PADI Sidemount Diver Course Instructor Guide as it was currently written. The group then discussed a few edits to these standards that they felt would improve the course.
We followed this with information about the specific equipment used for sidemount diving and how it differs from a single cylinder backmount equipment configuration.
After lunch, we had a hands-on practice session configuring our own sidemount equipment before jumping in the pool for skills learning. While trim is important for backmounted diving, it is critical for sidemount diving. It is amazing how even slight adjustments to the cam band (moving it a slight amount either further up or down the cylinder) can dramatically change your profile in the water.
While in confined water, we worked on trim, removing and replacing the cylinders (both underwater and at the surface in the deep end of the pool), switching from one cylinder to another, monitoring our gas use, regulator recovery and clearing, air sharing with our buddy, hovering, deep water entry with one or two cylinders and swimming with one or two cylinders. We also removed one cylinder and adjusted our weighting for a single cylinder sidemount configuration and practiced some skills while wearing only one cylinder. During the debrief at the end of the confined water session, we discussed the Performance Requirements as currently outlined and made suggestions for skills and training that divers taking the program might find beneficial.
We were up early to catch a boat to California, USA’s Catalina Island for the open water dives. While confined water sessions are essential for learning and mastering the skills necessary for sidemount diving, diving in the open water brings it all together. As California water is temperate, we also had wet suits, dry suits, hoods and gloves to contend with.
The first dive was challenging because the water had some waves and a slight surface current. Each of us was assigned a different method for donning our sidemount cylinders. I put both cylinders on in the water, while other testers attached their left cylinder first (so they were able to connect a low pressure inflator hose before entering the water), made a deep water entry, then connected the right cylinder in the water. Other entry methods included donning both cylinders and completing a giant stride, back roll or controlled seated entry.
During the dive, we practiced skills previously learned in confined water, like regular recovery and clearing, out-of-air drills (both by switching to our second cylinder and securing an alternate air source from our buddy), hovering for 30 seconds, removing and replacing the cylinders on the surface, monitoring gas supply and switching regulators to maintain similar pressures in each cylinder. We even performed a tired diver tow at the end of the dive. The student divers with no technical diving experience found this first dive challenging, while those who were familiar with handling stage or decompression cylinders found it liberating to be free from the constraints of double cylinders strapped to their backs. Most of us tweaked our equipment configurations during the surface interval.
On the second dive, some of us clipped one or both of our cylinders to a line, lowered the line into the water, got in and then donned our cylinders. Others practiced an entry method different than the one they used during the first dive.
We checked for neutral buoyancy, switched from one cylinder to another, shared air with our buddy while swimming and removed a cylinder in a sandy area beneath the boat to practice swimming with one cylinder. We also swam through and around the kelp and other obstacles to become comfortable with our buoyancy and trim. At the conclusion of the second dive, we unclipped and handed our cylinders to the boat crew or clipped them to a line for retrieval. Those without previous sidemount experience seemed to be much happier at the end of this dive as they had the chance to adjust their gear configuration during the break between dives.
We then practiced a few optional skills not currently included in the outline, like adjusting the cam band for trim while neutrally buoyant and swimming with both cylinders unclipped from the bottom rail and moved in front for ultimate streamlining. Too cool!
Based on our research experience, we suggested some revisions to the draft of the PADI Sidemount Diver Course Instructor Guide. Some were slight modifications, others more significant. Personally, I am a total convert to sidemount diving, because it is easy and has multiple options for equipment configurations.