I recently earned a recreational side-mount certification. It has become my preferred configuration. It is easier on my body and supports good diving practices. When working with already certified Open Water divers on additional diver certifications, I wear my side-mount rig to expose these divers to a different configuration.
Having said this, I initially thought side-mount would not be for me. The purpose of this post is to encourage those considering side-mount and provide them some information on what to expect.
The largest part of the learning curve is the hardware. The equipment is different and more. It takes some getting used to and some gear tweaking. It is not off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all diving. My pool session was a disaster. I actually requested a second after switching to different sized cylinders (I started with LP-95's and switched to LP-72's), moving the tank band locations, changing out the chest-bungee system, and adding a small bungee to a chest D-ring to accommodate my BCD inflator. That is a lot of tweaking!!! Following a successful pool session, I changed my chest bungees again and added two double-enders to assist in donning and doffing my cylinders. My three open water dives went very well. By OW dive 2, I was sold!
A couple of more open water dives and a little more tweaking and I had it the way I wanted it. Love my rig (Mares Pure Side-mount Heavy), the configuration, and the increased stability and safety (due to redundancy) in the water.
My learning experience has shown me that this might be one of the more difficult certifications for a newer diver. The higher task loading and additional gear may be frustrating at first. Patience and multiple pool dives to get the gear set up properly will help the new student feel better prepared before going to open water.
Divers can prepare for this certification in a couple of ways. First, learn to frog kick, helicopter turn, and back-fin BEFORE taking your side-mount course. This not only provides the certified diver more tools, it reduces the learning and task loading during the course. I found this incredible helpful and divers should learn these propulsion methods anyway to be good near the bottom. Secondly, get used to carrying and switching to and from a pony bottle or other redundant air supply. This will get newer divers used to switching second stages and operating valves while on a dive. A PADI Self-Reliant Diver Course teaches these skills and provided me prior experience with these tasks. Third, learn to shoot a DSMB while diving...also worked on in the PADI Self-Reliant Diver Course. Finally, make sure you have good buoyancy control and trim in your back-mount rig. Good buoyancy control and trim are always important.
If the diver considering side-mount diving will cultivate these skills prior to adding a new BCD and more gear, the training will be less overwhelming and easier to absorb. Side-mount is awesome!!! You should try it! I plan to experiment with side-mount in a no-contamination PSD environment and in the river. I'll keep you posted!