Choosing a BCD – What I’ve learned from too many purchases

Spending money on new gear is always painful.  Like any new hobby it all adds up.  So why read this opinion?  Well, it’s always interesting to hear from someone that spent too much on things that didn’t quite work out the way I thought they might.  So rather than being a buyer guide, for which you can find a number of online, this is more about what worked for me and what didn’t, with what I finally ended up with.

I’m a PADI Dive Master, and SDI/TDI certified solo-diver (sometimes known as a self-reliant diver).  Oddly enough I get seasick… and as it turns out, my selection of BCD is relevant here.  I’ve only around 400 dives under my belt and mainly in tropical salt water (although I started my diving days in Lake Malawi – fresh water above 1000m).  I also do a lot of underwater photography, and this makes a difference to my selection.  I have three BCDs.  A jacket style BCD, a travel wing style, and a modular (non-tec) wing style with which I’m happiest with.   I bought most of my gear from Mike’s Dive Store (who are awesome and incredibly patient and helpful).


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The JacketScuba Pro X-Force – currently around £360 from SimplyScuba:
I bought this prior to my Dive Master training (and for that purpose).  It’s a mid-range jacket with enough features that kept me happy at the time.

Positive Experiences: As I hadn’t been diving for a while I did like the sung sense of security that the jacket provides.  There are grommets to attache a knife, with the correct fittings, integrated weights, trim pockets at the back, and a convenient zippered pocket no the velcro waist fastening.  My experience with it was trouble free, easy to use, and it felt great when I was bobbing along on the surface (i.e. it didn’t squeeze my stomach to make me feel sea sick).  With all the skills we had to master I found that it was pretty decent in terms of control.  I could place the weights evenly around the jacket to get my trim sorted out too.  The position of the knife is handy and makes for easy access.

Less Positive Experiences: With all things “cons” are a little subjective.  My less than positive experiences with this BCD are around the very thing that jacket BCDs inherently provide – snug and secure fits.  The integrated weight system actually reduces the pocket volume significantly and means storing gear in the pockets becomes close to impossible, and that means stuff dangling off the BCD, which is okay but not great when you thought the pockets should have solved that issue.


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The Travel Wing: Aeris Jetpack – currently around £325 from Sunderland SCUBA Centre:
I bought this with the idea that it would be a great way to move from a jacket BCD to a wing style and combine my frequent travel needs (i.e. light and small).  The BCD side straps detach and pack separately, as do the weight pouches.  The semi-dry bag acts as a kit bag and the BCD attaches to the back of it to make one single pack.  It’s a very clever design, and really quite useful.  However, due to the way it fits me I wouldn’t be a huge fan.  Which is unfortunate.  This BCD is definitely made for short trips and occasional diving if you’re flying to places with limited luggage allowance.  It’s not really built for prolonged use in one location.

Positive Experiences:  The size and weight were great.  I really liked that I could fit all of my diving gear into the kit bag, and squeeze my fins between the BCD part and kit bag.  It dealt with the substantial load quite well and sits reasonably comfortably on your back.  The kit bag has quite a few useful compartments for small bits and pieces.  The BCD has good lift for it’s size (not that I really need it) and there’s plenty of adjustment straps.  Having a wing really helps free up space for your arms when taking photos, and this I really appreciated.  I’d bought a pair of tec shorts from Apex to keep my SMB and other kit in so I wasn’t worried about the lack of storage.

Less than Positive Experiences: despite the clever design of the Aeris Jetpack I can’t help but feel it missed out on functionality and comfort under the water of the BCD.  For a slimmer person, such as myself, it doesn’t pull tight enough on the shoulder straps.  I also found that getting it set up comfortably (without the tank sagging very low on my back, or stopping it from shifting around while I was diving was quite difficult.  Not ideal if you’ve only got a couple of dives to figure it out.  I also found that, even in comparison to my other wing BCD, the waist strap pushed quite strongly on my stomach and it exacerbated my nausea from sea sickness.  From my body shape I wouldn’t recommend this BCD as it just doesn’t fit snugly enough to make it feel secure, and it’s flopping around meant sudden shifts in the weight distribution and a real pain to get good buoyancy for photos.  If you need a lot of weights you’ll end up with a weight belt, which isn’t the end of the world and it’s likely more comfortable than using the weight pockets anyway.  It’s quite buoyant, given the materials used for padding.


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Wing Style: Modular ScubaPro Hydros Pro – currently £495 from Mike’s Dive Store
I’d been pretty happy with the idea of using a wing but seriously, more money on another BCD?!  Yikes… by this time ScubaPro had just launched the Hydros Pro.  It’s really a rather excellent BCD.  Neutrally buoyant, hard wearing materials, compact and comes in a basic but very useful travel bag, reasonably light, and with the idea of modular components that can be added later (like mini d-rings for gear, or knife attachment points, bungees, and thigh pockets.  Although for me to feel the full joy of using this BCD I think I’d need to buy the additional attachment points so I don’t have stuff like the SMB dangling onto the reef.

Positive Experiences:  I have to say that I totally love this BCD.  It’s fits well, it works well, there are trim weight pockets on the back, there’s the option of lightening the load with a waist belt and crotch strap that replaces the weight pocket waist belt.  A friend had an earlier version that seemed to have a design flaw in the chest strap whereby a retainer popped out with certain amount of force when tightening.  This was quietly fixed and the new version seems quite fine.  The accompanying bag is more than adequate for most gear, and it fits in a small space.  The zips of the bag do seem a little flimsy though.  There are d-rings that make slinging a small stage tank to the BCD for solo diving easy enough, if not a little awkward, but is sturdy enough not to feel like the BCD will break under the additional weight.  There are plenty of attachment points for gear too.  I have to say, I’m now at the point where I’m happy with a BCD and won’t be searching for a new one any time soon.  The freedom of movement given by a wing, the packability, and quick drying nature of the materials make it ideal for me.  I’ve used this BCD for solo diving and photography and it works really well.  The most noticeable contribution to the joy of using it is that it you don’t notice it, everything feels secure and I can get on and take the shots I want without feeling it’s in the way or disturbing me.

Less than Positive Experiences: I have to say there aren’t any that spring to mind.  Other than the flimsy zipper of the accompanying bag, I would say that the additional mounts are a little pricy and they weren’t available when I bought the BCD… which was annoying given that they would have been useful.  The knife attachment plate is also only for ScubaPro knives and so the knife I have that previously fitted the jacket BCD no longer works with this one.


Overview: If you were to ask me I would highly recommend a wing BCD from the get go.  I’ve always found that, even if it’s trickier at the start, you get used to the gear quickly and then you’ll enjoy the freedom it offers quicker.  I would especially recommend a wing if you intend to do solo diving or photography.  As I haven’t had that many BCDs (or even tried a lot of brands) it’s not for me to state which is best.  However, my experience with the Hydros Pro has been a very good one, and thoroughly recommend it, despite it’s price.  At the end of the day buy what you can afford and enjoy diving, as the gear is only there to facilitate that.  I’ve found that, even with the less than optimal BCD, I’ve enjoyed the diving experiences regardless of gear.  Good gear definitely helps focus on the experience but don’t be one of those people that obsesses about the gear and misses the experience of meeting people, and the dazzling beauty of the underwater world.

 

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