Thoughts about the latest sidemount harness from the folks who brought us the SMS100 and SMS50
Last November I had an opportunity to dive the prototype of a new sidemount harness being developed by Hollis. Already a SMS100 and SMS50 user, I was interested to see what the company’s “mid-range” design could do that the 100 and 50 could not.
That November introduction involved diving the Hollis rig at Jackson Blue Spring in Florida. I enjoyed diving it and immediately phoned my contacts at Hollis. I explained the 75 was almost exactly what I wanted from a sidemount harness. I wanted one to dive in a variety of conditions to test if my original assessment was correct. I had to wait a while. Quite a while and when my first shipment of SMS75s arrived from Hollis a couple of weeks ago, I was extremely happy to finally have units in-hand.
Not only did I had pre-orders from students who were signed up for sidemount courses, I was even more excited to get my personal unit in the water for proper testing outside a cave environment to see how it fared in colder water and lumpier surface conditions.
I’ve never been disappointed with kit from Hollis. My experience with the company’s wings, fins, instruments, DSMBs, reels and so on has been really positive. It may cost a little more to design and produce gear that’s going to last ages, but I hate having things break because of cheap components and crappy quality assurance controls. I cannot say price is never an issue, but I am willing to fork out a bit more cash in the hope of avoiding the sort of disappointment that inevitably follows using shoddy kit of any sort.
With that said, right out of the box, the SMS75 is impressive. As with the SMS100 and its tiny travel cousin the SMS50, the 75 looks like professional-grade gear, and in a side-by-side comparison with other units in my personal dive locker, the Hollis stands out. If you know power tools, I think a fair comparison is comparing a heavy-duty DeWalt or Milwaukee cordless drill with a $29.99 special from a no-name manufacturer only doing business on eBay. Anyhow, built from rugged 1000D Cordura, the SMS75 looks tough enough to take a beating, and the finishing is excellent… no hanging threads, gaping or marginal seams or dodgy sewing.
As well as the build quality, the SMS75 has several design features that result from outside-the-box thinking. These deliver benefits that are easy to appreciate and that make rigging simply and comfortable with the least possible fuss.
The traditional habit of taking the shoulder harness and anchoring it behind a diver’s hip is a throwback to the design restraints of the North Florida Cave Diver’s backplate and wing setup. When faced with the challenge of taming a set of double steel back-mounted cylinders, legend has it that Greg Flannigan and Bill Main solved the issue with a continuous length of two-inch webbing and a purloined Florida Department of Transportation road sign. Fixing the over-the-shoulder harness was easily done by threading it through the backplate and almost every backplate manufacturer almost thirty years later, uses the same method. Most sidemount manufactures – including Hollis with their SMS100 and 50 – follow suit. Trouble is that this routing for a harness while reasonably stable, is not the most comfortable nor does it make things easy when trying to doff and don kit.
With input from a couple of Hollis Ambassadors, Nick Hollis, himself a sidemount diver, Edd Sorenson and other hard-core cave divers, the shoulder harness on the SMS75 is different. It attaches to the waistband away from the diver’s lower back and close to his or her side or front effectively creating in combo with the unit’s crotch strap, a stable three-point anchor system.
Not having two-inch webbing biting into your armpits may take some divers a few tries to get used to but for me at least, it felt immediately more comfortable. Once adjusted it also felt more stable, but there is a temptation to over tighten the shoulder straps which pulls the waistband out of anything approaching alignment. The trick is to get it snug and then let gravity and the crotch strap do its work.
THE BUOYANCY CELL
Another obvious innovation is the trapezoidal-shaped buoyancy cell on the SMS75. Unlike a traditional wing, it puts most lift around the diver’s hips and none at all on the shoulders. The traditional wing used in tandem with an aluminum or steel backplate spreads buoyant lift more or less equally between the shoulders and hips. For the typical sidemount diver who wishes to attain a horizontal trim, a traditional wing, or an integrated buoyancy cell delivering any appreciable lift at the shoulders will create a challenge: this type of cell tends to float the diver in a heads-up orientation.
The benefit is that right from the first couple of seconds in the water, a diver using the SMS75 trims out at or close to horizontal. While some other sidemount systems often require modifications or trim-weights on the diver’s shoulders, I’ve found that small changes in the tank cam bands is all the adjustment necessary to get a diver “squared away.”
I’ve long been a fan of the more traditional loop bungee (AKA Armadillo or Old School bungee) over the straight bungee or ring bungee. I find it keeps the neck of the primary cylinders under control and helps to set up their orientation where it’s supposed to be (at the diver’s side) and at an angle that is correct (parallel to the diver’s lateral line). The SMS75 ships with loop bungees, and this once again saves time getting the system set up ready for diving.
LOCATION OF CONTROLS
One last innovation. The SMS75 features ‘reversed inflator/dump:’ the OPV/Dump is located on the top of the unit behind the diver’s head while the inflator is protected and tucked away on the diver’s left hip with the working end of the hose and its inflation valve located on the left breast and held in place by small-diameter shock chord.
For those used to finding the draw string for the dump close to their hip – or a little lower – it will take a few dives to unlearn the old muscle memory and relearn a new one… but in my opinion, the ubiquitous plastic elbow fitting is the weak spot of almost all buoyancy devices. Having it tucked away and out of the way is worth a few minutes learning a “new trick.”
DIVING THE SMS75
In two words: It’s magic.
There are several good sidemount harnesses on the market. They each have pros and cons, and frankly I have no issues diving many of them because they work and are fun to dive. However, I teach sidemount and one of the toughest “asks” of any instructor is getting the student and his or her harness to fit together like a hand and glove. You can get there with almost any unit from a reputable manufacturer, but it takes some work. In the most extreme cases, that work involves scissors, a grommet punch, and lots of cable-ties or an industrial sewing machine. In the easiest, there is always some modifications to be done.
The SMS75 is an exception. This past weekend, I worked with three divers wearing SMS75s and had them all just about done inside of an hour of surface and in-water time.
WHAT I WOULD CHANGE
Hey, I am a sidemount diver, so of course there are two things I would change, even on the SMS75. I’d like the double ring clip attached to the center of the butt plate to have slightly larger clip-off points, and I’d also like a second set of door handles either side of the butt plate… but neither is going to stop me from diving it.
The marketing message from Hollis tells us:
“The SMS75 is an evolution from years of sidemount development, which started with the SMS100. A product that has been copied, modified and a benchmark for technical sidemount for years. Even more popular has been the lightweight SMS50 line. These two have taken sidemount mainstream and the building blocks this new harness. While it will cater more to hard-core cave divers, SMS75 was created to handle all environments.”
All good stuff, understandable, and not full of bullshit. Most of the OC diving I do these days is in overhead environments – caves or wrecks – and the choice to dive this style of kit configuration, after more than 18 years diving traditional backmounted doubles, was based on both lifestyle AND mission specific criteria. Sidemount is not a panacea. Nothing is. It is simply an extremely flexible and useful tool that works for many different types of diving.
I think it’s fair to say that with the SMS100 and the SMS50, Hollis helped to convert many divers to “going sidemount.” Hollis was a relative late-comer to sidemount diving, but they listened to community feedback and in just a few years, have become one of the manufactures who are front and center in the sidemount market. With the SMS75, its divability out of the box, the ease with which it can be configured, and the range of diving that I feel it’s suited for, Hollis definitely has a winner.
Important to note that the SMS75 is not revolutionary. It is not going to turn a bad diver into Superman or Wonder Woman and it does not have a special switch that will suddenly fix an OOA problem. However, it is a fine piece of kit. Well designed, balanced, well-made, easy to use, and reasonably priced.
And while it’s unlikely to bring peace to the Middle East, it certainly has the ability to bring sidemount diving within the grasp of a lot more recreational and technical divers. And if you haven’t tried it, give it a shot… you might like it.
A FEW DETAILS
As an aside, the SMS75 is rated for 40 pounds of lift (enough to float about 18 kilos). The smaller SMS50 is rated at 23 and the SMS100 is credited with a touch more than 50 pounds lift. The SMS75 is available in three sizes: SM/MD, LG/XL and XXL and the system weighs seven pounds. It also ships with two cam bands, SS bolt snaps and enough equipment line to rig two primary cylinders. Suggested retail is $695US.