No just another BC option for divers and students - Part one
It is often said in many areas that there is nothing new under the sun, just different variations on an old idea or theme. And so it is with certain aspects of dive gear. In this instance we are talking about Buoyancy Compensation Devices or BC’s as they will be referred to from this point on. Many of us remember the old “Sea Hunt” TV series with Lloyd Bridges as Mike Nelson. Mike never used a BC per se. What he used was a simple harness and back pack with his single tanks and the same with doubles. He wore a weight belt and, for emergency ascents, used a CO2 fired lift bag or marker buoy. Technically these items were his BC. Proper weighting, breath control, and a means of getting positive or staying afloat was the early BC. It was simple, streamlined, elegant, and easy to adjust to the individual diver.
Later SCUBA divers added a bladder in the form of an oval known as a Horse Collar that was worn over the chest. Used mainly for flotation at the surface it added a measure of safety and control. What it also was is a modular, customizable, adjustable BC that each diver fitted to themselves for a truly good and custom fit. There was no trying to fit into some manufacturer’s idea of a medium, large, or extra large. The diver was also free to accessorize the unit with his or her needs in mind. As time passed and more people got into the activity different forms of BC’s began to show up. One company came out with what came to be known as the “stab” or stabilization jacket. More like a fancied up life preserver it did offer more stabilization but also began the trend of limiting what a diver could do with it to what the manufacturer wanted them to.
Over time more and more companies sprang up and each came up with their own idea of the “ideal” BC or BC’s. They added pockets, D-rings, padding, quick releases, and integrated weight systems. They also came up with more or less standard sizes. All of this to aid the diver; but did it? A number of BC pockets are poorly designed and require divers to contort into unnatural positions to access them. They are also either too large or too small to be truly useful. The D-rings placed on these BC’s require the diver to adjust his or her style of usage to the manufacturer’s idea of where they should be rather than the diver’s actual needs. The padding requires the diver to carry more weight to offset the buoyancy of the padding and underwater gives no real additional comfort. The quick releases and integrated weights add a further level of complexity. Each company seems to use different styles of releases, buckles, and styles that require the diver to carefully study each diver around her to make sure they can render assistance, should it be required. To top it all off the standard sizes require many divers to try and fit into someone else’s idea of the right size. More often than not, they don’t. As a result a number of divers are uncomfortable, have trouble staying in trim because the BC is either too big or too small, and may have trouble with a tank that wants to shift and roll the diver to one side. Getting away from the basic design of early scuba diving, for some divers, has not been such a great thing.
This brings us to the subject of this essay. That type of Buoyancy Compensation Device commonly known as a Back Plate and Wing, or BPW as we will refer to it from this point on. The typical BPW can be either a hard plate or soft plate style. Both styles make use of a simple harness made of 2 inch webbing. The hard pack uses a one piece style harness commonly known as “Hog” or “Hogarthian” style harness. It is named for William Hogarth Main who along with several others in the 1990’s began to develop a configuration for underwater cave exploration. It is based on a minimalist philosophy where only the necessary equipment for the dive is carried. It is also based on the idea that simple is better. The less complex the divers harness is, the easier it is to self rescue or come to the aid a fellow diver. In doing so, it also results in the BC being fitted to each diver and this has the effect of creating a very stable and well fitting unit. At the same time when properly adjusted by a diver or instructor familiar with the unit it results in a BC that is no more difficult to put on or take off than any other, in the water or on land.
Before we get to how to adjust the BC’s we will take a look at one unit with a standard regulator set up. We will first look at the soft plate style that is equipped with a regulator set up most recreational divers are familiar with. That set up is a first stage, primary second stage, an alternate second stage on a longer hose, and a low pressure inflator hose for the BC. For example the Zeagle Express Tech differs from the BPW not only in having a soft back plate, but also by using two pieces of webbing instead of one continuous strap. It is still though a type of BPW as the unit has a simple soft back pack, webbing straps, and a detachable wing. The wing is detachable to allow the diver to use different size wings to suit various set ups. From a wing with 24 lbs of lift for use with tanks like aluminum 80’s in tropical conditions where little weight is needed on the belt to allow the diver to descend, to a wing with 35 lbs of lift that is more than adequate for heavy steel tanks like my LP 95’s.
The top of the straps are adjustable for length at the shoulders and pull through slides at the waist that allow for a truly custom fit and quick adjustment. I have had my own unit on a 13 yr female student that was 4’ 11” and about 90 lbs and less than twenty minutes later on her 6’1” 210 lb father. It took no more than 5 minutes to adjust the BC to each diver and have it fit perfectly. All that would have been required for them to use it in open water would have been to reposition the D-rings to where they worked best for them. I have added weight pouches to the cam bands to be used as trim weights to put weight over the largest air space in my body – my lungs. This aids in making it easier for a diver to achieve horizontal trim. Like the set up early divers used it is simple, streamlined, and uncomplicated. It is also easily adjusted to the individual insuring a proper fit. It makes use of a crotch strap to snug the unit down and keep it from riding up at the surface.
Many jacket type BC’s would benefit greatly from the addition of a crotch strap. How often have you seen a new diver fighting with a poorly fitted BC that looks ready to slip over their head? BPW’s do not have this problem. Another significant advantage to this unit is the lack of inherent buoyancy due to excess and unnecessary padding. This has the effect of reducing the amount of lead a diver must carry to compensate for that added buoyancy. In addition it is, in my opinion, the ultimate travel BC as its modular construction allows a diver to disassemble and fit the entire unit in a carry on back pack. I have traveled with this unit or with my BPW with its steel plate on warm water trips and my entire gear set up, including a three mil suit, will fit in a carry on back pack that will go into the overhead.
My jacket BC usually ended up getting shipped to Florida via UPS to avoid excess baggage fees. With either of these set ups I know where all my main gear is and not have to worry about lost luggage. And at a total cost of just under $300 for the entire unit, as I have customized mine, it is a most economical set up for the new diver and especially those divers on a budget.
This is one area that is of concern to the majority of my students in today’s economy. Being able to obtain a complete set of gear from the beginning is something I like having my students do as early as possible. Divers who own their own gear are more likely to keep diving. This is a proven fact. Yet when a student is presented with a conventional BC costing $500 or more, as is often the case, and a regulator that can run over $1000, is it any wonder they hesitate to make the commitment? Presented with this option at less than $300.00, buying gear is easier to justify. Couple that with the fact that the balanced diaphragm regulator like the Edge EXP that I sell with adjustable second, octo, and 3 gauge console retails for around $475.00. So now the new diver has a BC and regulator that will handle any environment they may encounter in fresh or saltwater for under $800.00. And that money saved can now be used on a dive trip or trips to gain valuable experience with their new gear!
Next let’s look at the standard BPW favored by a growing number of divers. It is not only “tech divers” that use them. More and more recreational divers are seeing the benefits of this type of BC and making the switch. This is what you will see me in whenever I am diving with a single tank. It is a stainless steel plate with one piece harness and wing. This is also the unit I use in the last few pool sessions of the Open Water course. I use this unit with a weight belt. While the regulator has the usual number of second stages, they are on hoses not commonly found on standard sport diving set ups. As a technical diver, or as some like to call it “extended range” diver, I believe in using a configuration that is a standardized as possible whether using a single or double cylinders. This is also the rig I use for open water checkout dives, and which some of my students choose to be in as well. The hose lengths on this particular unit are 22 inches and 84 inches. The primary regulator is on the long hose and the back up reg is on the shorter and is bungeed under the chin as seen below. In this configuration, should a buddy run out of air, the Out Of Air (OOA) diver is presented with the primary regulator on the long hose. Donation is fast and instinctual.
The donor then simply pops the back up regulator, as it is known in this configuration, into her mouth. I have found that this method of dealing with an OOA diver is not only faster, but offers a distinct psychological boost to the diver in need. Presented by gripping the hose and pushing it toward the diver it carries a very clear message. That message is; “I am here to help you! I was just breathing off of this so I know it works! Everything will be ok!” It eliminates the need for them to try and locate an octo that may or may not be in the so called “golden triangle” and ensures the stressed diver is presented with a working reg. Some instructors teach an OOA diver to just grab for the donors octo and for the donor to open themselves up to this by protecting their reg and allowing it to take place. To me this is more like saying “You are out of air! Well you are not getting mine! Try and find something to breathe from! Good luck!” and doing this while they are fixated on your face where they see an air supply. Not my choice for dealing with that situation.
End of Part One.
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