Sunday, November 20, 2011

PADI Side Mount Diver Specialty

Vortex Springs
November 10, 2011 our core group of instructors headed to Vortex Springs for a weekend of training with side-mount guru Jeff Loflin. Just a month before we were blissfully unaware of the huge impact side-mount diving would make on the way we pursued open circuit diving.
We spent weeks researching and comparing data on the various systems available for side-mount configuration. Among the contenders
  •  Nomad JT- DiveRite's high quality system that has been refined over the years with several variations
  • The Razor- A holistic system that has evolved during cave explorations of Steve Bogaerts in the Riviera Maya
  • SMS100- Hollis' all encompassing technical Side-mount/Back-mount system designed with Jeff Loflin's considerable experience in side-mount gear design and function.
Hollis SMS100
  The final decision came down to the versatility of the Hollis SMS 100. The promise of having one piece of gear that could handle Technical Side Mount diving as well as single tank and doubles back mount helped us narrow down the choice.
We knew this would be a great additional tool for our diverse diving backgrounds. We weren't expecting to come home disciples of side-mount, ready to cast aside our beloved backplate/wing, manifolds and bands. There was a point midway thru the first day of diving that one of our group piped up that there will soon be a glut of manifolds on the used gear boards. We each plotted to be the first to unload our now out dated gear and reinvest in a wide range of tanks and valves for side-mount diving.
Jeff was great in letting us know exactly what we needed to be ready to go. Jeff's website has a list of every little piece of gear needed. Because Jeff helped in designing the SMS 100 it included just about everything we needed right out of the box. What a nice surprise to not be nickle and dimed to death.
The week leading up to our class was spent at DEMA and we had a chance to hear Jeff speak several times in both PADI and Hollis seminars in addition to his presentation at Tec Xplor following DEMA.
When checking in at Vortex Springs the staff was very friendly and reenforced our decision to train with Jeff. Everyone had great things to say about Jeff and it seemed that we had extra street cred due to being one of his students.
DAY ONE: Our class started with the usual paperwork and then into a most interesting history of sidemount diving and the evolution. It was nice to learn how things progressed and get an idea of where things are headed. One thing I observed right away was Jeff's clarity of purpose and enthusiasm. We were presented multiple options and his experiences with each. He never tried to say this is the only way to do it and even made a point of sharing stories of others that had success with each option.
We spent a good deal of time working thru gear configurations and once everything was squared away we made our way down to the spring to try our new gear out in the clear spring waters. Our first entry was without tanks. I loved this as it was a huge relief to my cranky shoulder. No stress entry. A great start! Next we went thru a progression of skills and took turns diving various tanks. My favorite was the 50 cuft. steel tanks that provided lots of gas, were small and almost unnoticed under my arms. The buoyancy of the steel tanks allowed me to go without weights. Aluminum 40s were equally streamlined but I needed a bit of weight at the end of dives. The 80 cuft tanks were a breeze to dive but became quite buoyant as the gas was consumed.
As we became proficient with our gear Jeff introduced some "fun skills". This included barrel rolls, diving with tanks extended in front of our bodies and snaking thru the swiss-cheese   of the cavern area. It was amazing to find that we could easy pass thru areas that would have normally found us bumping thru. Everyone surfaced pumped and excited to compare notes on what a great discovery we have made. The first thought I had was how much better would my cave classes have been if I had started in side-mount.
We went on to do two more dives and each one brought us additional skills and more comfort. I was amazed at the speed everyone was adapting to the new gear. This was a great day of learning and I was disappointed when it was time to break down the gear.
Jeff took us to a favorite BBQ joint just down the street. Turns out the owners are Texans and we had a good taste of home cooking. This was a bonus as most of my trips to Florida haven't included great cooking. (Never ever trust Tex/Mex outside of Texas) Jeff held court and our crew interrogated him thoroughly on all things tec. To our delight he shared great stories and advice on everything from gear to contacts in upcoming destinations.
We headed back to the Pineview Lodge at Vortex Springs. It's more or less a dorm room for 4 divers. I ended up on the top bunk. Usually not a big deal but the bunks are so high that I couldn't turn over with out brushing the ceiling. Otherwise the room worked great and was dirt cheap always a plus.
DAY TWO: We got an early start and had the gear ready to go by the time Jeff arrived. We were eager to get back in the water. Today we tried a couple of entries both giant strides and hanging tanks over the side. Plenty of options for any diving platform and any conditions. We added some stage bottles and even though it looked awkward we found that handling even 6 tanks was no problem and No Tox drills were a breeze. I keep thinking it can't really be this easy or we would have been doing it a long time ago.
A conversation over dinner led to a friendly challenge to meet Jeff's high standards for Technical Side-mount Instructor Skills. Jeff attached two cave arrows 24 inches apart on an ascent line. We were positioned around the line and asked to run thru the various skills while holding position both vertically and in our quadrants. I wasn't sure I had my stuff together enough to pass this challenge but was game to give it a go. To my surprise it seemed much easier even with my lack time in the gear. Everything was spot on and I was ready to chest bump my team. What a way to finish the course.
Back to our Texas BBQ spot and we each get a chance to do a classroom presentation. We were all nervous to present in front of an unfamiliar instructor trainer. we all have had plenty of experience with these presentations as IDC Staff, Master Instructor and Course Directors but it was still pucker time. As each of the team started their presentations began we each found our groove. High fives were exchanged as we each were confirmed as new side-mount instructors.
As cave divers we were anxious to explore the small cave system at Vortex. We planned our dives and headed in for a night time cave dive. The short swim to the gated passage was nice and easy and we had lots of company in the form of fresh water eels. I was surprised to see lights as we neared the gate. The moderate sized room was encircled with rope lights that gave the cave a 70's disco vibe. An air bell has been installed  by way of upturned cattle feeder. We made a stop inside and laughed at the strangeness of talking underwater at 84 ft.
Morrison Springs
The next morning we headed to Morrison Springs to check it out. Everyone was ready to get on the road back to Dallas so we decided to save a dive here for next time. It looks beautiful and truly "Gin Clear". I can't wait to see if the underwater view matches the beauty of the surface.
Even though we had a little over 700 miles to drive home it went fast as we relived the experiences and knowledge collected over the past two days. During the ensuing 11 hours we hatched a plan for a mini tec xplore for our shop.
Jeff Loflin is an incredible instructor and only stoked our fire for tec diving and side-mount in particular. We will all do our best to take these new tools and spread the word.

Contact us for information on side-mount training. We'll be too happy to get you started on the path.

Rich Thomas

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