New Sidemount Options

I rarely write reviews of kit; however, I had an opportunity to dive two new sidemount harnesses last week. One a prototype of the HOG/EDGE SM system; the other the new SMS75 harness from Hollis. I wanted to share first impressions since my experience with the out-of-the-box usability of most SM rigs is one flavored with frustration and compromise. Both of these new offerings show some promise in my opinion, and both suited me and my style of diving well.

For the record, I was diving in Jackson Blue (a North Florida cave) wearing an O’Three 1-100 drysuit and using a borrowed set of Worthington low-pressure 17 litre / 108 cft cylinders, and carrying an aluminum 40 cft cylinder for decompression gas. On the off-chance that you are not familiar with these steel cylinders, each has a surface empty weight of a little more than 20 kilos.

First, the Hollis SMS75. I’ve been waiting for a chance to see and dive this rig since being told about its development earlier this year. As with all the Hollis gear that I’ve used over the years, the SMS75 is well-built and looks like it can take abuse, which for a sidemount rig is essential. The basic design at first glance looks similar to the SMS50 but there are several key differences. To begin with, more buoyancy with the emphasis on getting the diver’s hips and arse up without resorting to sticking trim weights on the shoulders. The rated lift provided is stated as 45 pounds (about 200 Newtons or 20 kilos). I have not tested that rating but I was near bladder capacity wearing the tank package described above in fresh water.

Next is the harness. The shoulder harness is connected to the waist band webbing via two adjustable retaining buckles rather than disappearing under the armpits and attaching somewhere uncomfortable close to the diver’s back. This design is more stable and delivers better control and is essentially a rethink of the “classic” steel or aluminum BP harness routing that I find cuts into my armpits. While most SM designers have adopted a follow the leader approach, it’s refreshing to see that both Hollis and HOG have given this aspect of their rigs some thought.

Another difference between the SMS50 and the 75 is that the SMS75 comes with “old school” bungees (also known as armadillo style bungees). This style of bungee (when properly adjusted) has the advantage of keeping the top of a diver’s primary bottles where they belong and not sliding around shifting balance points as the diver reorients him or herself to navigate restrictions.

The final chance is that the inflation hose is flexible rubber with an oval cross-section and not the hard, inflexible circular trash used on many rigs… including other Hollis rigs.

Other hardware seemed adequate and perfectly serviceable… without any need to resort to scissors and duct-tape.

One potential drawback of the Hollis system is that I’ve been told it’s available in only one size. It fitted me perfectly, but I’m more or less “stock” size (180 cm tall).

The prototype HOG rig has been back and forward between the workshop, drafting table and test group for more than a year, and is finally due for its official launch around Christmas 2013. Because of this, it’s not really practical to offer anything close to a blow-by-blow of the system I dived, except to touch on some design features that I believe will make it to the final product.

Harness innovations are similar to the Hollis SMS75 which is due in great part to the fact that Edd Sorenson consulted for both companies — and in fact dives regularly with BOSS HOG, Chris Richardson. The lift that HOG is aiming for is a few pounds/kilos/tens of Newtons more than the Hollis, and the unit I used delivered about 55 pounds of lift, again focused on the lower back and hips. The shoulder dump was pouched on the demo/prototype so I was obliged to rotate and use the LP inflator unit to dump gas. This made for a couple of less than stellar moments during a couple of days use, but obviously should not be a concern on the “real thing.”

Again, similar to the SMS75, the HOG unit had the smaller, higher profile Tech “door handles” on a wider than normal butt plate. This positions the anchor points for the primary cylinders close to the top of a diver’s hip bone rather than a few centimeters lower down and closer to the spine. This is a good option for most of us but I can see it presenting a mildly annoying cylinder trim challenge to those who dive aluminum cylinders.

The HOG unit has adjustable crimping bungees to control the distribution of lift… a little… and also has a smooth replaceable cover over the whole of the buoyancy cell. Jury still out on this. It’s “required” because of the bladderless construction of the HOG wing, and did not get in my way. I simply reserve judgement until I see the final product.

Both the HOG and Hollis were fitted with a Y-style crotch strap rather than the single 2-inch webbing “be careful of the family jewels” option that most every other SM unit uses. I love this type of harness and find it way more comfy and the better option for being pulled by a scooter. Not sure if this will be the default with full production units. If it’s an option, I will ask for it.

Overall, BOTH these units seem VERY well-designed and functional. The SMS is useable out of the box if the unit I used is any indication. The HOG has a couple of “minor edits” before full production for an end-of-year delivery… but Chris tells me they will be done.

My final take is that I will be replacing my existing SM units (ones loaned to students in workshops and clinics) with both the HOG and SMS75, and I while I will keep my SMS50 for a light travel unit, my personal SM rigs will be replaced with a HOG and an SMS75 before I get back in a cave (or wreck) in open-circuit gear.



USING ADDITIONAL REDUNDANCY: the maligned and misunderstood pony bottle

This is a short extract from a book on risk management that we hope to have finished next month.


I would guess that most dive instructors, especially those who teach technical programs, get regular requests from divers to explain how to “use” a pony bottle, how to configure it so it’s not in the way, and which size pony bottle is “right” for them.
These are great questions because any diver who intends to dive deeper than 30 metres /100 feet should carry a redundant source of gas. A dive buddy is supposed to represent the first line of backup, and a well-trained and well-practiced buddy is a great resource in the event of some major gas emergency. However, the best strategy is that whenever practical strive to have a backup for your backup. In this regard, redundant air via a redundant delivery system offers a huge cushion.
The question of size is perhaps the first question to answer because how to rig and use a pony bottle depends to a large extent on its size.
When we consider using a pony bottle as a bailout or as a backup in the event of a massive gas failure with our “primary system” (the normal tank and regulator), we factor in a full minute at maximum depth to get things sorted and to gather our wits before starting the ascent. With this in mind, let’s revisit the table for SAC adjusted for depth. Since we are still talking about recreational sport diving, the limit for maximum depth is around 40 metres or 132 feet. The ambient pressure at this depth is five bar or ata and therefore the average per minute consumption will be 70 litres or 2.5 cubic feet.

Let’s also apply a realistic dive factor. Since a pony bottle is only deployed in times of stress, we need to use a DF for that first minute that reflects high-stress. The norm for this application is a DF of 2.5, which translates into 175 litres or 6.25 cubic feet for that critical first minute!
(If at this point you are beginning to question the veracity of ads extoling the virtues of those tiny emergency cylinders of “spare” compressed air, please read on.)
After the first minute, we calculate a normal ascent rate (9 metres or 30 feet per minute) up to a safety stop. That journey – about 35 metres/ 117 feet – will take about four minutes. Once again, to help simplify the calculations, we use the ambient pressure at the midpoint between maximum depth and the safety stop, which in this case will be 3.22 bar or ata. We also drop the DF to 2.0. So we have ascent time X SAC X ambient pressure X DF, which equals 360 litres or about 13 cubic feet of gas.
Now for the safety stop. Even when a dive is within the no decompression limits, there is a strong suggestion from most experts that a five-minute stop is indicated after a dive to maximum depth. So the consumption for a five-minute stop at 4.5 metres or 15 feet with a mild DF of 1.2 adds up to a total of 122 litres or 4.35 cubic feet. Finally we have to factor in a little gas for the last part of the ascent to the surface. Therefore, the best estimate is that a controlled ascent following an emergency at depth will require at least 680 litres or close to 25 cubic feet of breathable gas!
It’s the considered opinion of most divers who have experienced a real gas emergency at depth in real-world dive conditions that these numbers are neither exaggerated nor inflated. When something bad happens at great depth, there is no such thing as a plan that is too conservative or too careful. The risks of drowning, embolism, decompression sickness and various other ailments that can result from stark panic and ballistic ascents are very real and totally unforgiving. The alternative to a controlled normal ascent are simply not worth considering.
Clearly then, the “right” pony is one that holds at least 680 litres or 25 cubic feet. Because of its general usefulness, buoyancy characteristics, ease of deployment, and attractive cost compared to smaller tanks, many divers invest in an aluminum 40 (nominal capacity 40 cubic feet / 1200 litres) as the best “emergency” pony bottle.
Two final words on the topic of pony bottles before we move on to gas volume management for more advanced diving. The gas carried in a pony bottle is contingency gas. It should never be factored into the gas volume requirements for a dive. It is there for emergency use only. If the dive plan calls for more gas than can be carried in a regular primary scuba cylinder – an aluminum 80 for example – then the total kit configuration for the dive needs to be reconsidered and calls for an additional primary cylinder or a high-volume primary cylinder such as a steel 15 litre / 120 cubic-foot tank.
A bailout/pony bottle is useless if it does not deliver breathable gas faultlessly. The valve, regulator and SPG must be tested before every dive. Do not take for granted that it is filled and in working order. Analyze and label its contents, check the pressure and wet-breathe the regulator at the start of each dive.
Let’s leave this topic with one last thought. As we were editing this chapter, I read about yet another incident where a diver “ran out of air.” This time a pair of brothers and a friend were hunting crayfish in about 30 metres / 100 feet of water off the coast of New Zealand. Calm conditions at a site familiar to all three divers. Describing the victim, his brother said: He was a competent diver with several years’ experience.

I would suggest an edit… a small change but something that I hope will speak volumes to you. He was USUALLY a competent diver, but not this time. Even several years’ experience cannot compensate for serious oversight.
Plan your dive, dive your plan.