Our dive school, Sairee Cottage Diving, is now offering the PADI Recreational Sidemount course, and we were lucky enough to be selected as “guinea pigs” for the first course! Diving with multiple tanks is something that has interested me for a while now and when I heard of this opportunity I was naturally very excited! The course is a three and a half day course, which is as long as our Open Water course and it is this long for a reason. Diving with a Sidemount configuration brings many benefits, such as twice the amount of air, added safety, longer dives and looking cool, however it also brings a range of challenges with it. It was like re-learning how to dive! A real challenge with many new techniques and procedures to be learnt.
We did a lot of theory, which mainly consisted of equipment setup and streamlining as well as adjusting our equipment properly for maximum comfort. The rest of it was learning how to be in the proper “trim position” which reduces drag in the water and allows one to dive more efficiently, using less energy. It took quite a while to adjust the wing, which is the Sidemount equivalent to the BCD, to the correct size for the both of us. Then we had to learn how to properly don the gear and where the two regulator hoses sit during the dive. Turns out they are both wrapped around your neck while diving, which was a very unusual feeling at first. Once we fitted the tank bands to the correct height, it was time to waddle over to the pool for our first confined session.
We sure raised a few eyebrows as the three of us all struggled into the pool with two tanks each and then tried to get used to buoyancy and the trim position, all swimming around and more so into each other! Our instructor pretty much just let us try it for a while and get frustrated under water. He admitted that this is exactly how he learnt. It is unbelievably different to the single tank diving we are used to. He also taught us the proper way of frog kicking with minimal effort, the art of back finning, which is basically our reverse gear, and the helicopter turn which lets you turn on the spot. These are advanced finning techniques and not necessarily part of the course, however they are very beneficial skills. Especially because one of the reasons for Sidemount is the added flexibility to squeeze through tighter spaces, which may require some of these techniques to move around. You could certainly hear the screams of frustration under water from both of us, possibly to the amusement of our instructor. We both forced ourselves into a corner of the pool to try the back finning technique, but instead of moving backwards we kept banging into the pool wall. Argh!!
After a solid “sink or swim” session, we moved on to some essential skills. We had to learn how to deal with a gas failure. The instructor would come up and free flow one of our regulators and we had to figure out which one it was and then turn that tank off. Oh and yes, when diving with Sidemount, you need to breathe both tanks down at the same rate, with a maximum of 30 bar difference, otherwise buoyancy will be all over the shop. This means regular switching of the regulators. Furthermore we were taught how to donate air in an out of air situation. Basically your left tank has a short hose and your right tank a long hose. In an out of air situation, you donate the long hose. If you are breathing from the long hose, you need to untangle it from your neck first and then offer it to the donee while switching to the left regulator yourself. This is quite different to what we learnt in our Open Water and Rescue courses so far. After quite a long session we were both still a little uncertain and frustrated at the whole thing!
The next day, it was time for our second confined session, which we conducted off the beach. So slightly deeper water and a bit of a swim out. Donning the Sidemount gear in the water is quite exhausting and swimming also seems more difficult at the surface. Still not feeling super confident, we descended to a shallow 6 meter depth where we practiced gas failures, air sharing and finning techniques. I thought I almost got back finning, but I kept pulling myself up, rather than straight back, which was frustrating. Our instructors filmed us under water so we were able to see our body positions after this dive. This I found very helpful and we both learnt a lot from it. After an 81 minute dive, we surfaced a little more confident. Still not comfortable in the equipment however. In the afternoon that day we went on another 70 minute dive, where we pretty much just swam along to get used to the gear and our instructor would periodically surprise us with a drill for gas failure or out of air. Slowly but surely, we began to look and feel a lot cooler under water. This, of course, is the aim of the game!
We were pretty tired and sore that night. Apparently, if we weren’t aching we didn’t do the trim position correctly. The next morning we were on the boat with our Sidemount gear, dropping in at South West Pinnacle! We had to fix both tanks to our wing in open water, which proved quite tricky. Then, finally, we descended on our first proper Sidemount dive! I had a lot of trouble equalising my ears, however got down after a while. We stayed at around 27 meters close to our NDL and then spiraled up around the pinnacle. it was awesome and quite possible one of the best dives yet! Every time I looked over to Emma to signal for an “OK!”, she looked super cool under water, in the perfect trim position. I’m very proud of how far she has come and it was such an awesome experience to share together. There were giant groupers and huge schools of barracuda down there and having the two tanks just made me feel more relaxed about air. We got a 60 minute dive out of it and surfaced with 100 bar in each tank! Awesome. After this dive we both felt comfortable and confident with the new equipment. We were now technically certified Sidemount divers and went on our own little dive near White Rock. I had trouble equalising again and we drifted away from the site and decided to end the dive. Just as we did, we saw a giant turtle swim right past us into the depths. The first one either of us saw on Koh Tao!! We were so excited it was the coolest thing.
This course is challenging and rewarding. I believe it made me a better diver, having learnt about new equipment and finning techniques.