The first time I heard of sidemount was around 2004-2005. I was working on my initial cave diver credentials and listened, with great interest, to Bill Reneker talking with a couple of other OGMFs about the diving they’d done and were doing. As I’d only reluctantly taken up cave diving (“to be a better diver,” as is so often the reason), but hadn’t yet actually been completely infected by the bug, their diving sounded like absolute madness to me. But I went home and started reading up on the Golem Gear Armadillo harness, just the same. Its esoteric weirdness, its obvious single-purposedness intrigued me.
I think, even now, about how I’d always envied hobbies like rock climbing that depended the precision engineering of little bits and bobs I didn’t even know the name of because I’m a tinkerer. Perhaps it was the tinkery nature of sidemount that contributed to the appeal of cave/technical diving to me in the end. Dunno. Don’t care.
Didn’t actually take up any sidemount diving until many years later. Had a completely bollocks class on the topic where I could obviously see that the instructor barely had any idea what they were talking about. And started poking around for harnesses that I thought would make sense. At which point the story gets dark. Because I spent quite a good amount of equipment money learning that while there are some real winners of harnesses out there… there are also a whole lot of losers. What’s more, there is no one perfect harness, no matter how much you poke at it or move shit around or replace d-rings with something that you think might work better. Configuring a harness is like playing Cat’s Cradle - you move one thing just the tiniest bit, and everything else on the entire harness has to be precisely reconfigured around that tiny move. Sometimes you discover that you’ve exacerbated what you were trying to fix. Sometimes you delight in finding that you’ve fixed what you were aiming at… only that you’ve caused two other problems that weren’t there before. What works for steel doesn’t necessarily work for aluminium and vice-versa. Are you actually sidemount diving, or are you simply wearing a sidemount configuration? Which directions are you going to wear your regs? Which directions do you want your valve handles pointed? What type of bungee do you have available? Are you only shore diving, or off a boat as well? I could probably fill pages of questions that need to be considered as you get yourself configured. And, truth be told, I’m mostly self-taught to that end. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve had a ton of great mentors over the years and relished the opportunity to talk with and to dive with a good handful of folks who were building their own sidemount harnesses in the early days because commercial versions didn’t exist. I’ve been able to mine them for information and ideas and goals and possibilities. But because the configuration, done right, is so very, very personal there really wasn’t anyone near me who could teach me exactly how to configure thing to my unique structure.
Nor Nelly’s structure, because I am the tinkerer in the relationship, while she wanted a sidemount harness that just worked. So she had to endure dives and dives and dives and dives of me troubleshooting our way into working configurations for ages. Anyone I’d ask would frequently respond, “Oh, you buy the harness that I use, it’s the best,” or, “You should take a class with XXXXX, but they’ll require you to have this harness.” These seemed unsatisfactory answers to me… so troubleshooting it was. Eventually, I started putting the pieces together. Like one of those old Magic Eye pictures of the sailboat, it suddenly all snapped into focus. Cut to years later: now. I’ve worked with a whole lot of different people with a whole lot of distinct bodies who have shown up wearing all manner of harnesses. Some fresh out of the box, some beaten to shit. Some are the fanciest-pantsest, best promoted on the market throughout a scope of greater or lesser actual, in-water usability. Some are some cobbled-together-out-of-whatever-was-in-the-garage bits of creativity. But when push comes to shove, I’ve worked with enough folks now that it doesn’t take too terribly long to get things dialled in for something that will work with what they’ve got for the environment we’ll be diving. And then, after a dive or four, we can usually get everything dialled with precision and comfort. It’s pretty exciting. I like being able to help people to spend a day or so making configuration changes that took me years to start to make sense of them. I can hardly claim to be able to pass on the knowledge of how to do what I’m doing for them, as the diver in front of me, so that they’ll be able to replicate the solutions for their friend who has a totally different build. But I can, at least, save them the grief of struggling with something that feels awful and having no idea how to make it not. Yesterday a guest came up to the garage with a brand-new, out-of-the-box harness. We spent a few hours measuring, tweaking, discussing, putting it on, taking it off, tying knots, lighting bits of bungee on fire, donning drysuits and doing it all over again. What’s truly professionally rewarding is that after only a couple of hours we managed to hit the fit just about right in just about every way. Now that their dive buddy has arrived to (with everyone’s fins) we’ll head out to the water today and start the process of precision adjustment. It’s a hell of a lot of fun. And I should probably stop typing and go finish packing the car so we can go have that fun. I am going to close this up with a bit of an advert. Which I don’t make any money on; I don’t work for the company, nor get any kickbacks of any way, nor represent them, nor am I sponsored by them. I have nothing to do with them other than as a relationship as a consumer and a satisfied customer. Hell, I don’t even use what I endorse (because it doesn’t quite fit me and I’ve got my bespoke harness from over the years already). XDeep Stealth harness with the Rec wing. Of all the things that manufacturers have thrown out there over the years, trying to come up with something mass-produced that will fit everyone, despite a configuration that needs to tailor-fitted, XDeep managed to hit the mark the best. Most flexible, most broadly configurable, simplest, and most well-constructed for the type of diving we do here. Far and away, in my opinion, the best plug-and-play system on the market. That’s what our guest this week showed up with (and I’m grateful for it). That’s what I always recommend to people. OK, fuck this. I’m going diving.