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Orca S2 wetsuit test
Posted on: Tuesday 15th April 2008
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In 2007, Orca developed a special cut-price wetsuit as part of their sponsorship of the London Triathlon. Called the S1, it was a half-way house between a watersports wetsuit and a triathlon one and offered novice triathletes a perfectly functional wetsuit for not very much money. They also used it as the basis of London Triathlon's wetsuit hire fleet.
It's now 2008 and Orca's deal with London is over - Speedo are the new wetsuit sponsor. However, that doesn't mean the S1 is dead. Through an exclusive deal with Wiggle, Orca have developed the S2 which is being sold at the astounding price of just £99.99 and should be available to rent later this summer. Even more outstanding is that the suit has been improved with new DeltaStretch shoulder panels and a Slipstream zip at the same time as the price has been reduced.
Let's be clear about one thing before we start: we are reviewing a £100 wetsuit here and not a £300+, top-of-the-line one. That means that there's a whole different set of expectations and a whole different set of needs. To start with, we suspect that most of the market for this suit will be from first-time triathletes who would rather own their own suit than either hire one or pick one up second-hand or ex-hire. We are also, if truth be told, probably dealing with athletes who won't be swimming at the front of the field. While this means that they don't need the latest in time-shaving trickery it does mean that they need good buoyancy, good thermal insulation (they might be in there a long time) and decent flexibility so the suit doesn't tire them too much.
Because we needed to get an early review into the system we decided that testing in the lake was not going to be a realistic option - you can only ask so much of your testers! - so we decamped to Hampton Pool early one morning to try them out. This year we have two testers who will be going to put all out trial suits through their paces. Both are very competent age group athletes and swimming is their primary discipline so they know what to expect from a bit of rubber.
The suits were ordered from Wiggle on the basis of the size charts and both fitted pretty well. Certainly there were no major gaps or wrinkles and both collars and cuffs looked to be pretty well sealed. Once in the water it was clear that both suits were going to provide plenty of flotation, but with a 5mm chest panel we would have been surprised if they hadn't! That said, the back of the suit is only 3mm and then there's the 2mm underarm and shoulder panels which are in a double-faced material which gives lots of stretch but without the cost of a top neoprene.
In terms of construction and panel layout it would be hard to fault this in a suit costing twice as much - the savings have come in the materials. The S2 uses what is, in today's market, a lower grade of neoprene with a similar saving in the liner and the coating. To put this in perspective, wind the clock back five years and you would have seen this quality of rubber in a mid-price suit!
There are some nice little touches; all the seams are blind sewn and glued with the stress points getting a bit of tape re-inforcement. The arm and leg cuffs are generously taped which means that you could cut them back if needed - although we felt that the legs were actually cut quite short and, with the inserted stretch panel, that made them plenty easy enough to get off.
To give an idea on the suit's performance we had the testers swim both steady-state and at race pace. The idea here is to see if the suit starts to induce and fatique or starts to let significant amounts of water in through the neck, cuffs or zip. Here are their reports:
The tester's views
Alan: Putting any wetsuit on isn't ever going to feel like getting into your favourite jeans but the Orca S2 felt reasonably flexible to put on and comfortable to wear, although raising my arms above my head did show up some restriction on the chest. It's a big improvement on my first Orca Speedsuit, purchased around four years ago for nearly twice the price, which left me with aching shoulders whilst on the bike. The sizing taken from the Wiggle site was right for me, although I do wear an Orca Apex 2 in the same size. Personally, I would want to try before I paid my money as it's a bit like buying pair of shoes.
In the water the suit offered sufficient buoyancy, important for body position and the confidence of a swimmer experiencing the washing machine effect at the start of a first triathlon race swim.
On the move the suit felt flexible enough to stretch the front of the stroke for the time required to complete a sprint race swim or longer distances at a more leisurely pace. It was only when stepping up the pace that I noticed it was cold under the arm pits and around the shoulders (possibly as result of the thinner neoprene) and water moving in the wetsuit. Getting out of the suit was not a problem, a big consideration when you race for the first time feeling the whole world is watching you trying to escape from your wetsuit. For less than £100 the Orca S2 meets the needs of a first season or someone not looking to spend big money in case they choose not to join the world of triathlon.
Jo: The S2 was very easy to get on. It was slightly baggier around the hips than I would have liked but elsewhere it was a good fit. The neckline was comfortable, essential for longer swims where you might start to chafe. The arms were longer than I like but were taped so they could easily be cut down and legs were a perfect length, coming above the ankle. The suit also came off quickly and easily.
At an easy pace the suit was fine but I found once I picked up the pace a significant amount of water entered the suit up the sleeves and pooled inside the suit in the slightly too roomy hip area. Overall the buoyancy was excellent and in terms of mobility, for a suit of this price the ease of movement around the shoulders wasn't too bad at all. I've only ever had relatively cheap wetsuits and this compared favorably with the 2XU suit I currently use.
Possibly the only question I'd have is regarding the suit's insulation. The test was done in a heated outdoor pool and I would like to know whether the shoulder panels let in the cold. [Ed: you'll know soon enough when you get in the lake in two weeks!!] My overall verdict is that it is definitely fit for purpose as an entry-level suit. The S2 would certainly float weaker swimmers very nicely and doesn't overly restrict arm movement.
Tri247 says: the old adage is that you get what you pay for and, given that you've only paid £99.99, we reckon you've probably got a bit more than that as well. With all the major suit vendors looking to get into the bottom half of the £100 to £200 segment with an entry-level suit in an attempt to satisfy the first time market it's interesting to see how they differentiate their offerings from the S2. The reality is that there isn't much difference at all - based on last year's tests where all the suits swam to with a very small degree of difference we suspect the same will be true at the bottom end of the market. How much, for a novice, is that notional ten seconds worth? £30? £40? £50?
If you are looking for a cheap, first-time suit and you don't want to pick up a second-hand one or hire for the year then S2 is made for you. As to whether it's the right suit for you in terms of fit may be a different matter - fit is just as important here as it is in a £350 suit. Buying over the internet may be the only element of risk here if the size is wrong - but Wiggle's policy on changing suits for a different size is the same as anybody else; just keep it in mint condition and mind those fingernails.