Cave Diving, Cave Exploration and Cave Mapping in Yucatan, Mexico
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Category — Interviews

Interview with Steve Bogaerts: Part 3 of 3

In February of 2009 my wife and I got pregnant with our first child, which is a wonderful joy as we were trying.  The pregnancy set off a chain of events which resulted in us moving back to the United States.  Well, that move created mass chaos in my life and the fact of the matter is I just didn’t have the bandwidth to maintain the blog.  I was busy moving, buying furniture, going to the doctors and getting my life restarted.  Luckily, some of the insanity is dying down and I can get back to some of my recreational activities like blogging.

Before we get to the third part, I want to thank Steve for being a wonderful instructor and for taking the time to participate in this interview.  His responses were well thought-out and I think will help people when they are considering instructors.  You can find Steve’s new web site at: http://www.gosidemount.com.  So, without further adue….

I asked, “You have a new harness on the market called the Razor, what can you tell us about its development?”

Steve answered, “Well as they say “necessity is the mother of invention”.

I originally designed the Razor Harness for use on Side-mount / No-mount exploration dives in very restricted cave where every piece of extra equipment tries to kill you.

The problem was that in many cases to get to the part of the caves where I was exploring required long penetrations using DPV’s and multiple stages thus increasing my equipment load considerably. But when I got to the area I wanted to explore I needed to be as small and streamlined as possible. I wanted some way to integrate these disparate requirements in one system.

Over the years I have dived just about every Side Mount rig on the market as well as various homemade versions.

All of them worked to a degree but none were ideal.  Like most Side Mount divers I spent a lot of time making modifications to improve the various rigs but was always constrained to a certain extent by the original design and never had a Side Mount harness that I was 100% happy with.

As my exploration dives became more and more challenging, particularly over the last few years, I started to run into the limits of both the equipment and the equipment configuration I was using.

Trying to squeeze myself into ever smaller places was pretty rough on all my gear. I was getting hung up and stuck quite often and in fact in the year of exploration leading up to the connection between Sistema Sac Actun and Sistema Nohoch Nah Chich I managed to destroy 3 different Side Mount rigs. I was running out of equipment to dive in.

I ended up making a simple No Mount harness to go under my Side Mount harness so that when the cave really started to get small I could ditch the comparatively bulky Side Mount rig and carry on No Mount.

The problem was managing all this equipment a long way back in very small cave usually in zero visibility while trying to run a line or survey.  I was spending too much time dressing and undressing while underwater a long way back in the cave and not enough exploring.

Also trying to make sure that I had all the stuff I needed on the right harness at any given moment was a problem and at various times I forgot line arrows or survey slates for example because they were attached to the Side Mount rig I had left behind me in the cave and not my No Mount harness.

Additionally having passed through a section of No Mount cave sometimes it would open back up again and then having a Side Mount harness again would have been an advantage so that I could swim more efficiently.

As well during this period I started exploring from a tiny Cenote called Por One which lay between the Sac and Nohoch systems.

Por One has a nasty no mount entrance where you have to descend down a very tight chimney in the shape of an S.

There was absolutely no way to enter wearing my Side Mount harness, even with both tanks off, so I would begin my dives just in my simple No Mount harness.

Once through the entrance the cave continued in no mount sized passage for quite a distance and often I had to crawl, wriggle and dig my way through to make progress.

Eventually the cave opened up a bit and again a Side Mount harness would have been good to have but there was no way to get my existing Side Mount rig through the entrance and beginning section of the cave.

I needed a simpler more flexible system that fitted my current, more demanding needs.  I decided to start from scratch and design a completely new harness for myself.   It had to function as both a No Mount harness and a Side Mount harness. It had to work with multiple stages and with DPV’s.   The harness also needed to accommodate a totally separate and removable modular buoyancy system.

Ideally the harness also had to meet the following criteria on my rather extensive wish list as well:

  • Small and light so as to be easy to carry on long treks through the jungle.
  • Comfortable to wear and easy to get on and off on the surface.
  • A simple design with no stitching or fancy hardware.
  • Rugged to stand up to the most challenging dives in the most challenging environments where it was going to take a beating.
  • Safe and reliable because my life depended upon its performance.
  • As low profile and streamlined as possible to allow me to fit in the smallest areas possible.
  • Easy to use in very challenging conditions.
  • Easy to adjust.
  • Easy to repair if and when it does get damaged.

Over many hours of brainstorming, lots of test diving and various “Eureka” moments in the middle of the night the Razor Harness finally evolved into what you see today.

There were several prototypes along the way but the final version that I am currently using meets all of my requirements and is by far the best and most flexible Side Mount / No Mount harness I have ever used and has made my exploration dives far more efficient and productive and safer too.

I finally have a harness I am totally 100% happy with and that level of comfort is directly translated into the difficulty level of the dives I can now undertake that I would have hesitated to do before.

After years of experience diving in Side Mount I really thought I knew what I was doing but the last  few years spent experimenting with the Razor Harness have completely redefined my approach to, and philosophy of, Side Mount diving.

It has been like an evolution for me and I feel like I have learned so much and become a much better Side Mount diver along the way and that has been a really enjoyable experience.

I soon realized that if it worked so well for me then the Razor Harness would work just as well for other divers as well.

I started teaching all my Side Mount students in the Razor Harness and noticed a dramatic improvement in their skills, abilities and comfort as well.   Their pace of learning accelerated considerably.

One of the best ways to really understand something is to teach it to someone else.

Teaching other divers to use the Razor Harness really forced me to think deeply about, and refine, all the skills sets and procedures and this has been a really helpful process for me personally as well as a lot of fun.

The current system I teach is the distillation of all that trial and error. That experience refined and streamlined equipment, skill sets and procedures.

Each of the components in the system is designed to fit together seamlessly and work as part of an integrated whole.  The Razor Harness is at the heart of this system and is the foundation of all my “Bogarthian” Side-Mount procedures.

My philosophy is holistic in approach and is designed from the inside out so that as additional layers of equipment are added there is no change in the core equipment, equipment placement, procedures or skill sets.

“Less is More”

The Razor Harness itself is simplicity and elegance personified with only 2 continuous pieces of webbing and 1 closure point.  It is simple, strong, rugged, reliable, low profile and extremely minimalist in design. It fits like a glove and is very comfortable to wear.  The Razor will fit anyone no matter what their physical size or shape and is quick and easy to set up and adjust so that each individual diver gets a custom fit using standardized hardware.  It can be adjusted at several points to ensure the optimal fit for each individual.  All the attachment points such as D rings on the Razor Harness can be adjusted quickly and easily to allow personalized positioning of equipment placement.  Extra attachment points can be added easily if required.  Weight can be added to exactly where you need it on the Razor Harness to optimize trim.

You can easily use any BCD you want with the Razor Harness either wing or jacket style or no BCD at all if using a Drysuit or light tanks and lung volume.

The beauty of not having an integrated BCD is that you can add whatever level of buoyancy is required according to tank size & material, total equipment load, environmental factors, exposure suit type etc.”

I asked, “Are there any other related developments on the way?”

Steve answered, “Yes I am currently working on a modular buoyancy control system specifically to go with the Razor Harness.

When I first started using the Razor Harness I was diving it without any kind of BCD, controlling my buoyancy with just lung volume.

That worked out okay just diving with 2 AL80 Side Mount tanks although at the start of the dive, when the tanks were full, I had to dive at the top of my lung volume and it did not really become comfortable until the tank pressures dropped 500psi and the tanks became a bit lighter.

I really needed a small amount of lift to compensate for the weight of the gas in the tanks at the start of the dive but did not want to add a large and bulky BCD.

In one of my “Eureka” moments I decided to try out a 2l Camelbak hydration bag that I had lying around as a BCD. The 2l volume gave me 4.5lbs of additional lift.

I wrapped the Camelbak horizontally around my lower back over my Razor Harness and held it in place by attaching a bungee cord to one side, running that around my waist and through the front loop of my crotch strap and clipping it off to the other side of the Camelbak with a small snap bolt.

I inflated it orally through the bite on mouthpiece of the drinking tube and dumped air out of it by pinching the mouthpiece between my thumb and forefinger while holding the drinking tube up.  You can also suck the air out of it if you want to really empty it or are in an orientation where dumping will not work.
This is a real advantage when I find myself head down twisted like a pretzel in a restriction!

The concept was so simple and yet it worked fantastically well.  I called it the “BAT Wing” which stands for Buoyancy And Trim Wing.

The BAT Wing is designed to be worn over the Razor Harness. In my opinion sandwiching the BCD between the harness and the body is not ideal for the following reasons:

  • You cannot remove the BCD underwater.
  • The harness restricts the BCD.
  • You need to use a bigger BCD to cope with the reduction of usable volume.
  • The harness may cause air trapping in the BCD making control of buoyancy, trim, gas dumping etc more difficult.
  • Inflating the BCD restricts the harness.
  • When the BCD is inflated it can make the harness uncomfortably tight.
  • If you leave the harness loose enough to allow comfortable BCD inflation the harness will not be as snug and streamlined as it would otherwise.
  • Layering BCD’s for redundancy is more difficult and compounds all of the other issues above.

The most important reason for me to have my BAT Wing over my harness is the ability to easily and quickly remove/replace it underwater while diving if necessary.

Having the buoyancy so low down on my body was the ideal position to help maintain horizontal trim and the fact that it is so close to my center of gravity helped to optimize control when changing orientation in the water.

The BAT Wing is positioned in the small of my lower back and the super low profile meant that I could enter very small areas of the cave with no problem at all.  If needed it was very simple to remove the BAT Wing underwater as it was worn over the Razor Harness just being held in place by a single small bolt snap.

When I got to No Mount areas I could either take it off altogether and leave it behind or wrap it around my butt mounted tank to get it neutral and make towing the tank easier.

When I get to No Mount areas I have 3 options; leave the BAT in place but suck all the air out of it to minimize the profile, take it off altogether and leave it behind or wrap it around my butt mounted tank to get it neutral and make towing the tank easier.

I quickly upgraded to a 3l version that gave me just enough lift (6.6lbs) to dive with a single AL80 stage in addition to the AL80 Side Mount tanks.

I have recently upgraded again to using the MSR Dromedary Hydration Bags instead of the Camelbak’s as they are better made, more rugged and durable and come in a larger range of sizes 2L, 4L, 6L and 10L.

The beauty of not having an integrated BCD is that you can add whatever level of buoyancy is required according to tank size & material, total equipment load, environmental factors, exposure suit type etc.

I am currently using a 2l for No Mount dives, a 4L for Side Mount single stage dives and a 6L for Side Mount multi stage dives.

In addition it is very easy to layer the bags one on top of another for redundancy.

While this system is very, very good I have a few ideas that I hope will improve it further.

At the moment I am in the process of developing a commercially viable modular BC system along the same principles specifically for the Razor Harness and hope to have something available very soon.”

July 15, 2009   3 Comments

Interview with Steve Bogaerts: Part 2 of 3

In the second part of this three part series, Steve Bogaerts answers my questions and one of QuietDiver.com’s reader’s questions about preparing for training and Steve’s philosophy on sharing the

course’s skill sets ahead of time.

As a bonus feature, I have included two videos that Steve took of me while I was taking my Advanced Side Mount course with him.  When this video was shot, I had about 30 sidemount dives and we were on day two of the course.  These videos were particularly useful in helping me developed a complete mental picture of what I looked like in the water and how some of my bad/non-existent habits needed to be modified or developed.   During the  course  Steve shot an entire disc worth of video that we reviewed each evening during the debrief.   We discussed each item that needed to be improved whether it was gear or skill.  We also shared some laughs and some good memories of the cave we dove earlier in the day.

Today, I review that video occasionally and have had other people shot video of me to tune up my skills and gear.  Video can be an integral tool at any level of training to help the student visualize his mistakes and his successes.  Now lets get to the interview!

Anonymous reader asked, “Thanks for the interview with Steve, I have a question or 2 though if you are  interested. I would like to know specifically what skills he covers in the various classes?

Steve answered, “I do, of course, have skill sets for each level of training however I am slightly reluctant to list them for several reasons:

Training to do skills that you are going to learn in a class does not make a lot of sense since that is what the class is for.

The most important thing to do is go diving, practice the basics and come to class with a open mind ready to learn new skills.

Practicing skills incorrectly reinforces errors and bad habits that are harder for me to break later if/when a student does come for formal training.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

The reason to get training is to learn new skills in a supervised, structured, safe environment under the

expert and experienced eye of an Instructor who can make corrections and knows exactly what he/she is looking at.

I would far rather my students waited until class so that I can show them exactly how to perform each skill the right way and then they practice that.

“Practice makes permanent, only perfect practice makes perfect”

You don’t know what you don’t know.

Some people will assume that once they have a list of skills that they can teach themselves and have no need of structured, formal training.

At best they will be missing out on a great deal and at worst making serious mistakes and potentially endangering themselves through lack of knowledge.

Worse, they may try to teach other people; which is like the partially sighted leading the blind.”

Hans:  What would you like to see perspective students do to prepare for your courses?

Steve answered, “Go diving; time spent in the water is invaluable.  You cannot learn to dive from a book or on the internet you need to put the theory into practice and get wet. Also work on general all round fitness and watermanship abilities.

Work on the essential skills: buoyancy, trim, propulsion techniques and all round awareness. You cannot add more complex skills until the basics have been mastered.

If you can comfortably hold your position neutrally buoyant, trimmed horizontally, at any depth in the water column and can fine tune your position with precise fin movements and buoyancy control using lung volume then that will make everything else much easier…………including my job as your Instructor!

Q. What do you suggest divers who do not have regular access to caves do to remain prepared for cave diving?

Steve answered, “If you don’t have access to cave diving where you are then go open water diving. If you can’t dive in the open water due to the weather then dive in a pool. There is no substitute for time spent in the water. The most important thing is to get wet and practice the basics.

In fact as the cave environment is both unforgiving and fragile it is not really the best place to be learning and practicing new skills. New skills should be practiced and perfected in the open water before entering the cave environment to protect both the diver and the cave.   When learning or practicing skills keep it simple, just do one thing at a time.  Make sure you understand exactly what you are trying to achieve and break complex skills down into their component parts.  Mentally visualize what you want to do and all the steps required for completing each skill.  Make sure you have a clearly defined sequence or structure to work through and follow that each time you perform a skill in order to build up and reinforce muscle memory.

Do not try and rush your skill execution “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. As you practice your execution will become smoother and more efficient, you will build up muscle memory and the speed will come.
Core skills must be mastered before more advanced skills can be.

When adding more advanced skills they should build on solid core skills in a logical, systematic fashion.
One important point to remember is that practice only makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect!  Make sure that you are practicing the skills correctly otherwise you are reinforcing errors.
This is the main reason for getting instruction from a qualified, experienced Instructor so that you learn the skills correctly in the first place.  Once you have that basic grounding then feedback while you practice independently is very valuable.

One of the best feedback tools is video. Get a buddy to video tape you while you dive then review and critique the video.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

In a couple of days, I will post the 3 and final portion of this interview.  I am glad I have had the opprotunity to bring this information to you.  I know my heart got pumping as I edited tonights videos.  I look forward to your comments and questions.

If you want any clarifications, please do not hesitate to contact me!  I will get you the inforamation you are looking for.

June 7, 2009   11 Comments

Interview with Steve Bogaerts: Part 1 of 3

Steve Bogaerts fitting a Razor prototype to Hans Kaspersetz

In the past two years I have trained under three different instructors.  Each had their own specialty and really expanded the breadth of my knowledge and depth of my skills.  I have been fortunate to develop strong relationships with these men and continue my learning through regular contact and diving with them.  I sought these instructors because of positive referrals from other divers and reputation.  Therefore, I decided to interview instructors here on QuietDiver.com so you can decide for yourself who you want to train under.

Steve Bogaerts, my sidemount and specialty cave diving instructor, has agreed to participate in our first interview.  Following is the first part of a three part series in which he explains his unique approach to teaching side mount diving.  I will be publishing the next two parts over the next week and a half.

I asked Steve, “You teach Side Mount and have an innovative approach which is breaking the course into three segments.  Can you tell us about each of the segments?  Why did you choose this approach?  What should a student expect to learn in each segment?”

Here is Steve Bogaerts’ answer.

Actually there are 4 levels.
Intro to Side Mount
Level 1 Basic Side Mount Diver
Level 2 Advanced Side Mount Diver
Level 3 Exploration / No Mount Diver

The Intro course is a 2 day program and Levels 1, 2 & 3 are all 4 days in duration.

Traditionally the Side Mount Cave specialty course has always been a 2 or 3 day program but I found that I just cannot do it justice in that short a time frame.

Steve Bogaerts building a custom Razor side mount harness.

I have many years and thousands of dives in Side Mount/No Mount configuration and it is just not possible for me to fit all that knowledge and experience into a single 2 day course.

In addition most divers are not really ready to be in true Side Mount cave after just a day or 2 in a brand new equipment configuration.

In my opinion that is unsafe for both the diver and the cave.

Nearly all of my students come to me via word of mouth recommendation.

The reason divers come to me specifically to take a Side Mount Course is because of my experience and expertise in this particular area.

I really want my students to be able to benefit from my experience and knowledge in the best way possible so that they get the very best training I can offer that is challenging, detailed and complete but at the same time enjoyable.

To achieve this over the last few years I have completely changed the way in which I teach Side Mount.

It is not just the course structure that is new but pretty much my whole philosophy of Side Mount diving, the skills sets and procedures, and the way in which I teach the courses.

When you completely change your equipment configuration from Back Mount to Side Mount a lot of other things are going to change as well and a whole new skill set is going to have to be learned and practiced.

Being a good Side Mount diver requires a great deal more thought and attention than just hanging 2 tanks off of the side of your body.

Before more advanced Side Mount skills can be learned basic ones have to be mastered and before we enter a more challenging environment we need to make sure our skills and comfort level is matched to it.

The course levels are all natural stopping points and divers can choose to remain at each level either permanently, as they have no desire to go further, or temporarily to get more experience before moving up to the next level.

Put very simply the Intro to Side Mount Course is a short open water only introduction to diving in Side Mount configuration for someone who has never tried it before.

This is not a certification level and represents the first 2 days of the Basic Side Mount Course.

The Level 1 Basic Side Mount Course teaches you the skills and procedures necessary to cave dive in Side Mount configuration but still in larger cave until further training and experience is gained.

Any new equipment configuration takes some time to master and this should be done in a low stress safe environment so the intent here is not to dive in very small cave.

The Level 2 Advanced Side Mount Course builds on the skills and procedures learned in the Level 1 course as well as adding additional skills with the intent to train divers to be comfortable and safe diving in true SM cave which increases the environmental hazards and psychological stress levels considerably.

The Level 3 Exploration Side Mount/No Mount Course gives you the tools to be able to explore effectively and safely in the most extreme environments one will encounter in cave diving.

Some people want to dive Side Mount but have no desire to go in small cave so the level 1 course is the perfect choice and a natural stopping point for them.

For those wishing to actually dive smaller cave then first they have to master the basic skills and procedures of diving Side Mount in large cave in Level 1 before entering the far more challenging environment of true Side Mount cave that is introduced at Level 2.

Levels 1 and 2 can be taken concurrently or with a break in between.

On completion of Level 2 at this point it is time to go diving and build up some experience in Side Mount configuration in all types of cave including the small stuff before moving on to the Level 3 course which is very intensive and demands an extremely high comfort level in very challenging cave while dealing with potentially very stressful situations.

A minimum of 50 dives in Side Mount are required before taking the Level 3 Course.

There are also a number of complimentary specialty courses that can be taken in Side Mount after either Level 1 or Level 2; Stage/Multi Stage, DPV and Survey.

These course all introduce different aspects of cave diving and give a diver the knowledge and skills to plan more complex and demanding cave dives while learning more about the cave environment.

Additionally they are all tools that anyone wishing to explore at some point will need as well.

Hence all 3 of these specialty courses are also prerequisites for the Level 3 course.

The Level 3 course is really aimed at divers wishing to do the most challenging and demanding cave diving possible with a view to exploration.

This course puts in to practice all the skills learned and experience gained to this point as well as introducing No Mount techniques and exploration methodology.

To a large extent the courses have evolved around the Razor Harness and are designed to compliment it and to get the most from it.

The Razor Harness is at the heart of my “Bogarthian” Side Mount Philosophy.

I want to thank Steve for participating.  If you have any questions for Steve, please do not hesitate to leave a comment here on the blog.  I will make sure we get answers for you!

May 30, 2009   10 Comments