Thinking About Switching to a Back Plate and Wing?

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Ginnie Springs-Photo By Lauren Kieren

When I first started diving in 2009,  I didn’t realize there were many many choices for scuba gear.  And I didn’t even realize the back plate and wing existed.   The shop we went through had a good selection of quality recreational gear,  but like most shops they are limited to what agreements they have with manufactures and what makes sense to keep in stock.  Tina and I ended up going with the recommendation of our scuba instructor and getting Sherwood jacket bc’s with integrated weight pockets.  This seemed like a really simple setup and we just accepted the status quo.   We also got air integrated sherwood wisdom computers, a few hand held dive lights and of course a snorkel. The computer was attached to a retractable leash and the lights went into the pockets of the jacket. The system worked ok but I was never really satisfied with how it all felt under water.

Gearing Up: At Mt. Storm Lake WV

As we got a few dives under our belts,  I began to notice some people at our local dive lake in back plate and wing bc’s. I didn’t even know these things existed and they looked uncomfortable, old school and I couldn’t figure out where to put the weight pockets.  Most of the people we saw were “tech divers”  I never really got a chance to ask any  questions because they seemed busy setting up gear and I didn’t want to intrude.

Tina and I did a bunch of dives in our jacket bc’s. We always just accepted the fact that the jacket would “ride up” and float around. The fit was never quite right. I even tried a few different jacket bc’s and none ever seemed like a good fit.

It wasn’t until late 2010 that I had a chance to test dive a back plate and wing.  Honestly this changed my whole perspective on scuba.  My scuba PADI instructor had just gotten back from a trip to High Springs to dive Ginnie Springs, where he bought a Halcyon infinity BC system. We were at a lake and he let me take it for a short dive.  At this point I was already interested in going further in diving and I was looking for a system that I could use for single tank and double tank diving.  I had been looking at a Zeagle Ranger but I couldn’t quite figure out how you would attach doubles. It turns out you can’t.

The infinity comes with either an aluminum or steel back plate, has padded back and shoulders and a single tank 30# or 40# wing.  It also comes with weight pockets that you can slide on to the waste belt or remove them. And it comes with a steel single tank adapter.   Think if this as a transition BC from jacket to back plate. Except that you will never need to buy another system again.  The quality of halcyon justifies the price but you can get a similar setup for equal or less then a new jacket bc with another brand so don’t let the price scare you away.  Even after trying the halcyon infinity, It would end up being a few years until i would get one.

What the back plate and wing bc will not come with (you can get them) is pockets to put stuff in.  My sherwood jacket bc had pockets,  but they were so high up towards my arm pits  that it was damn near impossible to get anything in and out under water anyway.  My world view of scuba was that the jacket BC held everything you needed for the dive.  If you needed weights, there were pockets for that. If you wanted to keep a small light on you; there was a pocket for that.

It wasn’t until later, when we moved to Texas and we were starting to see our jacket bc’s fall apart.  I realized that once something broke on my jacket bc then there was no way to fix it without sending the entire unit back to the manufacturer for repairs. One example was with Tina’s Sherwood Luna.

My Sherwood Jacket BC

The back of the bc has soft plastic pads that are supposed to grip the tank when you cinch the cam bands down. These pieces became brittle and broke after just a handful of dives.  We had no choice but to use the jacket as is.  Later my sherwood bc broke a plastic buckle because someone accidentally dropped a tank on it after a dive.  I was frustrated because these parts would only cost a few dollars to buy,  but it was impossible to fix the bc without major work of replacing entire pieces.  This is when I started looking seriously into the back plate and wing.   My big questions were:  “Where do I put the weight pockets?” , “Where do I store my dive light?” , “What are all those metal D rings for?”, “How does the tank attach to the back plate and do I need a single tank adapter?”, “Don’t those bolts poke you in the back?”, “isn’t that thing uncomfortable?”, “How easy is it to go from doubles to singles and back?”,  among others.


STA and Weight

I found my answers by calling shops like Extreme Exposure in High springs Florida, Deep Sea Supply company in California and reading all I could find online, it started to really make sense.

Where do I put my weight pockets?   The back plate and wing is a system that uses a hard (often metal) plate shaped to fit the contour of your back. This plate sandwiches a wing between the plate and your tanks.  The weight of the plate and tanks is usually enough to provide plenty of ballast for you.

The beauty of the system is that you can change the type of plate to match your diving.  For example. An aluminum plate will weigh about 2-3 pounds and is perfect for single tank diving on an AL-80 in tropical water with little to no wetsuit.

Halcyon Infinity Steel Back Plate

If you do need additional weight, you can add pockets that slide onto the waste belt or you can mount the pockets to the cam bands.  Halcyon has a special lead ingot that you can mount inside the single tank adapter, called a keel weight,  which weights 6 pounds.  A steel plate weighs 6 pounds also.  You can easily add up to 20 pounds of lead to your single tank back plate and wing using a combination of different plate, weight pockets and keel weight.   Should you need more then that, then you could theoretically use a weight belt, but honestly I’d consider using a steel tank at that point.

What about having ditchable weight?– If your gear is properly balanced and you do not have too much ballast in case you ever have to swim without the help of buoyancy compensation then you should’t need ditchable weight. This is known as a balanced rig.  However if you still want to wear a weight belt that’s  also perfectly acceptable, but may not be the most comfortable thing.  I have found that I don’t think twice about not having ditchable weight. But I also have a drysuit and wing as redundant lift.   I have achieved a balanced rig as described above with a combination of tank material, back plate material and some lead placed here and there.

Cave configuration of backup lights.

Where do I store my dive light?–  This was a question that stumped me. I was looking at pictures of the back plate and wing online and because I was so ingrained in thinking that I had to keep everything I needed for the dive attached or in a pocket on my bc. The philosophy that I have come to appreciate so much is based on what used to be known as the DIR (Doing It Right)  system.  This method of stowing gear has the backup lights on the harness, connected to the D-ring with a bolt snap tied to the light. The primary light is on the waste or is hand held.  Lights shouldn’t really go into pockets if you can help it.  The main reason is that they can come on during transport or during the dive and drain the battery without you knowing. All other gear gets stowed in thigh pockets either on a drysuit or wetsuit.

When I first sitched over from a jacket BC, I didn’t have pockets pn my wetsuit and didn’t want to add  pockets to my waste belt.  Nor did I own a drysuit.   But I found that you can do a few different things. 1). You can glue pockets to a wetsuit and 2). you can buy neoprene pocket shorts and wear them over the wetsuit.  I chose to go with option 2, because I use my wetsuit for just snorkeling and I don’t want to glue something to the legs of my wetsuit. Plus the pocket shorts can be used with different wetsuits.  The thought of wearing pocket shorts hadn’t even crossed my mind. It doesn’t help that pocket shorts made for diving really aren’t main stream and wearing cargo shorts with a wetsuit is kinda goofy.

And let me tell you that even if you wear a jacket BC, the pocket shorts are amazing.  You can keep your mask defog, your extra computer, a light, dive tables, a slate,  and whatever else you need in them.  No more dangly christmas tree diving.   Having pockets on my thighs was wonderful. I could actually get in and out of them.

What are all those metal D rings for?-Here is the cool thing about the back plate and wing.  Every piece of the system is replaceable down to the smallest part.  The metal D-rings all have a purpose but you may not need them when you just start out.  The halcyon system is geared toward introducing you to the “Doing It Right” way of diving, or DIR.  This method has its roots in cave diving, where gear failure is not an option.  If you just plan on diving a reef or fun dives the rest of your life then you only need two of the D-rings however the idea is that if you ever want to go further in diving such as tech, cave, and scootering; you don’ have to change the system that you are used to. Besides it looks cool.    The right shoulder D-ring is used for temporarily clipping off things like a light or a double ender when working with an SMB (surface marking buoy). The left shoulder ring is for clipping off things like your stage bottles in tech diving. The left hip D-ring is used for clipping off your pressure gauge or if you have an air integrated computer, clip it there.  The D-ring on the crotch is for attaching your scooter leash and the D-Ring on your butt is for towing extra gear or holding gear that won’t fit anywhere else.

Aluminum Plate and doubles wing. Just add double tanks and dive

How does the tank attach to the back plate and do I need a single tank adapter?- As I mentioned before the beauty of the back plate and wing is the modularity.  The back plate that you get for a single tank works with doubles too.  Actually the back plate was initially designed for doubles and later people started making adapters to use it with a single tank.  What happens in the case of a single tank is that you sandwich the wing between the single tank adapter (STA) and the plate, bolt the two together, and then you just slide the cam bands over the single tank just like a jacket bc.  Some plates don’t require a single tank adapter, and there are some advantages of this. The single tank adapter does make the tank sit a few inches higher off your back so if you roll sideways, you may just roll all the way over.  Deep Sea supply makes a wing and plate system that does not need the STA.  I’ve seen many people with them and they look very nice.  For doubles you basically sandwich the wing between the back plate and the tanks. The doubles are held together by steel bands with a bolt doing through them. So really the assembly is pretty much the same. The nice thing about doubles is that the mass is closer to your back and in my experience, tends to be more stabile.   I like diving single tank, but I like doubles better.

Don’t those bolts poke you in the back?– Actually no,  the plate is shaped so that the bolts sit in a channel on the plate and don’t stick up enough to poke you.  However on doubles it’s possible to have the bolts from the double tanks too long and this can poke you.  In fact we just had to fix Tina’s drysuit because she got a pin hole from the doubles poking her suit. That was my fault. I didn’t recess the bolts engage into the plate.

Isn’t that thing uncomfortable?– Interestingly enough, it’s actually very comfortable. You may find that without shoulder pads that the big heavy double tanks will dig into your shoulders while walking to the entry of a dive site. Like in the case of Troy or Manatee springs in florida. But when you are at that point, you will likely have a dry suit on anyway.  Even for single tank diving with no wetsuit on, I don’t really mind the weight of aluminum doubles without padded straps.  Now the rest of the harness is amazing. Where you really see a difference is in the water. The system is like being strapped into a parachute harness. The bc will not ride up on you, it will not fall side to side or any other direction. If properly adjusted it will stay in place for the entire dive and it’s amazing.  Once you are in the water you will barely notice the harness.   Furthermore you can replace the entire harness webbing for about $20, unlike a jacket bc that will require you to just get a new bc.  The plate doesn’t dig into your back provide that you have a quality plate.  I’ve read that some cheaper plates can dig into you but I use Halcyon and don’t have this problem.

Is the harness hard to get in and out of, and do I need quick release buckles?- The properly adjusted harness is super easy to get in and out of.  I thought the same thing when I first started wearing one.  However my shoulder straps are very loose on me until the waste belt is cinched tight.  The crotch strap is designed to put tension on the shoulder straps once it’s all in place.  This allows you to have the shoulder straps loose like you are putting on a coat.  Using a quick release is really unnecessary and if they are plastic, you will likely break them at the worst possible time.  Maybe metal ones would be ok, but I don’t subscribe to them because I feel they are completely unnecessary.

How easy is it to go from doubles to singles and back?-Super easy. The only thing that changes is the size of your wing and removing the single tank adapter. Remember that the system is totally modular.  We use the same back plate for single steel tank dry suit diving that we do for double 104’s. We use a 30# singles wing for singles and a 40# doubles wing for doubles.  Also the 40# doubles wing works for double aluminum 80’s, double LP-85s and double LP-104’s.  We will need a larger doubles wing (a 60# will  be good) when/if we get into more technical diving.

I hope if you were considering making a switch to back plate and wing system, that is blog answered some of your questions.  Certainly there is more to it and you will just have to give it ago and start your own journey of discovery.

I suggest looking at some the the books that describe DIR way of diving for tips and pointers. Followed by a GUE fundamentals class.  Even if you have a ton of diving experience. This class will be worth every penny.

Another  good place to start is “DIR-The Fundamentals of Better Diving” by Jarrod Jablonski Global Underwater Explorers, Copyright 2000-2002

Enjoy this video of us playing with doubles at the blue heron bridge from the summer of 2016.