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Backplate and wing versus jacket BCD

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With such a topic there will be opposing views and I don’t aim to convert the unconvertable.  This story is about my experience to find ‘the right BCD for me’.

I learned to dive in a simple jacket-style BCD. Dive shops like these for training, simple with not much to explain.  My first BCD was a jacket with integrated weights, slightly more complex but otherwise much like I had learned with.

Technical diving introduced me to the backplate, harness and wing (BP&W) BCD. Initially I didn’t think much about it, probably because I was so busy with procedures and safety drills that I didn’t give it a thought. The only thing I recall being inconvenient was a lack of pockets, but my jacket pockets had mostly been taken up by the integrated weights anyway, and I soon got some leg pockets.

My first tec BCD was a harness and wing without a metal backplate, but I soon added a stainless steel one. It was very well made but with back-mounted twins, a pony, reel, and leg pockets I accepted that there was just too much stuff to be streamlined.

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Anyway, diving has always been about exploring and finding something new; there were wrecks in Truk Lagoon and all this equipment was accepted as the price of admission.

Later, when using the BP&W with a single tank, it became obvious that this configuration really was more streamlined.  Experiments ensued: a complex harness versus simple webbing, moving the tank position, relocating weights for trim, and so on.  Unexpectedly, the simpler the system the better it performed.  Then came a home-made sidemount experiment – not perfect (far from it) and a challenge for the (then) untrained, but the result was astounding, real streamlining did exist and gliding was fun!

Sidemount diving is another story but I still do a lot of single tank backmount dives, teaching courses, or just drifting around the shallows taking photos.  However, even for simple dives I want the best trim, buoyancy and streamlining that I can get, so I achieve lower air consumption, better distance and longer bottom times (enabled by Nitrox if need be).

My original jacket BCD is of good quality and it looks like new even after years of use, but it now feels like a parachute underwater and it only gets wet for open water courses.  All other backmount dives are now with a BP&W system, and these are the main reasons why:

  • When trimmed there’s a lot less frontal area than a jacket, and a lot less drag.  A BP&W, properly configured, really is streamlined - there’s less effort when you glide after every kick.
  • With a wing on the back it’s easy to obtain horizontal trim in the first place.  A few jacket BCDs have rear inflation for this reason too but are still bulky.
  • A BP&W system is easily customised.  Change wings for single or twin tanks and keep everything else in place. Add D-rings to connect accessories wherever it works best.
  • Without a jacket that encircles the diver, a webbing harness gives a great sense of freedom.
  • In cold water with a drysuit, a heavy stainless steel backplate reduces the lead needed and it distributes that weight evenly.

I also use a modern wing design that’s narrower across the top and bottom and shaped down the sides, in contrast to my first ‘old style’ wing (an oval shape with even thickness all round). For about 3 to 4 litres of buoyancy, the old style wing leaves much of air between my head and the tank valve, so the weight at my waist drags my feet down.  The narrow top of the new wing forces the same amount of air into the sculpted side sections, moving the buoyancy closer to the centre of gravity and making trim easy.  I like easy, and I have no desire to fight my BCD for decent trim.

But what about those missing pockets?  I now use a dive pouch that I can fit more into and clip onto a shoulder strap D-ring and have a good look inside – try doing that with jacket BCD pockets!

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