I’m 6’6" It’s a goddamn nuisance. Sure, I can easily reach stuff on the high shelves. But finding pants that fit was always an epic quest (all the better I live in the tropics where I haven’t needed long pants in years). I hit my head on things pretty routinely. No mirrors or pictures or anything are ever hanging at eye-level for me. Don’t get me started on riding on public transit or airplanes. Perhaps worst of all is the the question, “You must have played basketball!” I vitriolically loathe all competitive sports. Luckily for me (and the rest of us who are vertically challenged by overabundance) dive gear is configurable and that many brands and models are configurable. To a degree, anyway. As so many instructors around the world certainly have, I have been getting a TON of sidemount classes for the last while. And talking to a great many people who are interested in sidemount. There is one potential moment in the conversation, as we lead up towards classes, that I dread most of all: “I bought XXXXXXX harness because my dive buddy/friend/shop/the internet said it’s the best/because I got a good deal on it.” “Damn it,” I say under my breath each and every time. There isn’t a best. Full stop. Sidemount is not as simple as “put your tanks on your sides.” Sidemount is fussy as fuck. There is no one harness that will work for everyone. Anyone who says so is lying either to you or to themselves. There are a number of great harness on the market. There are also a number of terrible harness on the market. And, because bell curves are a real thing, there are a whole lot that are just “meh.” The question is which one is going to work best for you. Which one can be configured best to your style of diving and more importantly, to your unique phenotype. This is not something I can possibly present comprehensively in a single blog post. I’m tall and rather straight-shaped. Nelly is short and curvy. Some people are shaped like a triangle. Some like a pear. Some like a balloon animal of a giraffe (if you don’t believe me look up the actor Doug Jones). With the number of variables to consider, a post covering all of them would be longer than the wikipedia list of characters from the Friday the 13th movies**. What I can do is use my own harness to illustrate a very narrow set of the configuration issues to, perhaps, help convince you (or help you convince an interested friend) to carefully discuss matters with an experienced sidemount instructor before buying something and figuring it will work.
GETTING IT RIGHT
The XDeep Stealth is one of the most popular brands on the market these days. And for good reason; it’s a great system that is both customisable, flexible, and cleverly purpose built. (This isn’t any sort of advertisement - simply statement of fact.) The one in the above picture is configured for a person of average frame and build. Which is where the system really shines. With a small handful of webbing adjustments it can be cinched to fit a pretty good range of people to place the ballast and lift right where they belong, keep the wing streamlined, and place all the tank attachment points precisely. (It’s worth repeating that this really should be done under the supervision and guidance of an experienced instructor who knows this - or whatever - harness. Going it alone isn’t necessarily going to end in disaster… but you may wind up looking damned funny.) I can’t use it. Which sucks, because I really like the design. There is an attachment point for the shoulders to the integrated spine weight pocket that forces me to choose between the ballast being too high or the shoulders to splay too wide and fit oddly, neither of these options being welcomingly comfortable. So here’s what I do instead. I’ve got a harness built mostly out of parts by Andy Goring of Sump UK. (That is totally an advertisement: Andy’s parts are bloody amazing.)
The most interesting thing in this picture should be the location of the ballast. I wear ~14lbs specifically to deal with the weight of up to four aluminium tanks in saltwater. This weight is to offset the increasingly positive buoyancy as the tanks are breathed down. Weight needs to be worn very low to keep it close to where the tanks are going to be most buoyant. That is, their butts; the brass valves and regs stay heavy. Great, so I’ve got all the webbing straps fitted. I've got the shoulders to sit comfortably, I've got the waist at the correct position to secure my tanks the way I like them. I’ve got the weight where I want it. Now for buoyancy compensation.
So there’s the XDeep wing attached at the shoulders. Good to go, right? Nope. Not even kinda. See those weights poking out the bottom? Those are going to make me far too foot heavy at the beginning of the dive. The tanks are still full, I’m in fresh water, I need the wing inflated pretty well to keep me from crawling through the mud, and now my centre of ballast is around my waist and my centre of buoyancy is around my chest, resulting in the trim of a brand new graduate of a 3-day, $100 Open Water course.
So let’s balance the rig out by moving buoyancy and ballast closer.
Looks almost pretty slick, doesn’t it? The weights are now covered by the air cell. The centers of buoyancy and ballast are directly overlapping so that when I inflate the wing at the front-end of the dive I should be perfectly balanced in all positions, and I can really take advantage of the sidemount configuration. Except… See the metal shoulder doo-dads at the top that are no longer anywhere near anything they can be attached to? Yeah. Those. Damn it. Instead of making a nice little wedge-shaped shell to slide through restrictions I now have a giant ceiling scoop directly between my shoulder blades. The solution:
The older version of the XDeep wing wasn’t attached to the harness. I just bungee the separate piece onto myself after buckling up. (For the keenest-eyed viewers among you: yes, I wear it inside out to keep the inflator on the right side.) There. Done. Piece of cake, right?
Taking the single set of information from my own example it should be exactly that easy to now configure any sidemount equipment to any random person's body. What's more, this exact system, being completely bespoke, is the single best... possibly the ONLY system that anyone anywhere should use. Right?
TRIAL AND ERROR The first sidemount harness I owned was a prefab POS that has long since been discontinued even by the manufacturer. Nelly and I were traveling down to Mexico and I just needed something because we had a sidemount trip planned. A friend had bought it, never used it, and was basically just trying to get it out of his closet so he gave it to me for, like fifty bucks or something. I got it fitted to my height about as best I could. It wasn’t really designed for use with aluminiums, so instead of multiple tank-clip points I had to weight the tanks (which I was to learn on that trip, and have come to accept myself, is a cardinal sin in Mexico). About 15 minutes into dive one I muttered into my regulator, “Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, do I hate this thing.” I sold it for $50 the moment we got back to New York. I hope whoever bought it still dives it and adores every underwater minute with it… but I would also accept they may have doused it with gasoline and lit it on fire. So I tried something else. Then something else. Then something else. All the while enduring the insistence of friends and colleagues, “You need to just use XXXXXXXXX because it’s the best.” One of my favourite moments in the entire atypical body sidemounting endeavour was when Nelly bought a wing that she was all excited about for a variety of reasons… which we then found wrapped all the way around her torso, the edges almost overlapping in front of her, with both the LPI elbow and the dump valve at her navel. It’s actually a brilliant wing that would work on someone with a significantly different shape… but it made her look like an inflatable burrito. This was all, by the way, just my harness for here. I have a different harness for steels. Steel vs. aluminium sidemounted is a related, but different, topic. Nor does it discuss attachment points or bungee lengths or anything of the like. (For information on that, you can check out THIS post.)
AND SO... There is no best. If one is averaged-sized and shaped that certainly opens up a variety of options. If one isn’t, sometimes a bit more creativity might need to be employed. In any case, with the precision configuration demanded by sidemount it is unreasonable for anyone to expect that something is going to work right out of the box. Work with an instructor. Not just in the usage of the configuration, not just to get the tanks to sit properly throughout the dive. Work with an instructor to ensure that you're diving a stable platform that is both the best system for you specifically and that the whole thing is actually fitted to you specifically. You would be surprised at how something like a few centimetres change in bungee length means the difference between a streamlined, comfortable dive and flailing your way through the water like an injured manta ray tangled in ghost-fishing line with an unsurprisingly terrified, club-wielding monkey.
---- ** The list of characters from the Friday the 13th franchise really is one of the longest entries on all of wikipedia. The internet offers us the entire sum of the human experience instantly at our fingertips... and we compile data about slasher movies and sidemount diving. Ah well, at least it's better than the meme of the woman arguing with the cat.