For the better part of a decade, Orca founder Scott Unsworth has been a good friend. I was forever impressed with the suits that he created and sold out of his trunk in New Zealand when he launched the brand (as Performance Speedsuits Limited) in the 1993, growing it with, at the time, advanced materials and design cues that took names like Hamish Carter to Olympic medals, and Cameron Brown, Chris McCormack to a bevy of honors. As the official wetsuit at Ironman New Zealand for many years, I headed down to cover the race one year and Unsworth arranged a swim for the two of us down the Waikato River in his suits, warm spring water mixing with the brisk glacial river water as we swam two fast miles with the swift current in his suits. Orca was market leader, and as authentic as it got.
Then, in the last five years, the market flooded with brands pushing the envelope technologically. BlueSeventy, Roka, and Tyr changed the game, delivering data and summarily shuttling Orca to the background with good—but not groundbreaking—suits.
Just a few years ago, Unsworth handed the reins to a group of bright, passionate Spaniards that aimed to revive the brand. It was the best thing to happen to Orca, when product manager and designer Pablo Trujillo grabbed the sketchbook and promised positive change.
This year, Orca returns to its familiar place as a technological leader. LAVA was invited this week to Orca’s 2015 line launch on the Spanish Isle of Fuerteventura last week at the famed athlete-focused Playitas Resort, proving us the best litmus possible: a chance to swim in each of the suits and find out for ourselves if their claims to suit improvement wasn’t just lip service. As a bonus, we were able to play in the suits with Orca’s key athletes: current Hawaii Ironman World Champion Sebastian Kienle of Germay; Ironman winners Asa Lundstrom of Sweden and Phil Graves of Great Britain and fellow Briton and ITU rising star Non Stanford among them.
Our prediction? For 2015, Orca will be the talked-about brand. Among pros, among age groupers, among retailers. Just as we experienced, you’ll only need see the suit in hand to guess it’s improved in a tangible, significant way. And a swim in it will confirm that suspicion. Orca presented two new major revamps, and one new suit that, despite being an entry-level offering, we think will be one of the most significant models in the line. For 2015, Orca is back in the game, putting the industry Rokas and Tyrs on their back foot.
And we haven’t even got into the Kona Dream, the aero-tested one-piece race kit that Kienle won Kona in last year, which is available for sale this year and we’ll get into in a subsequent story. For now, we’re gonna talk neoprene.
While still the same in name, Orca’s top-shelf Alpha and Predator are totally redesigned for 2015. There are slight changes, namely using a thin, beveled 1.5mm neck for greater comfort and less neck constriction, as well as reversing the Velcro hook-and-loop orientation at the back of the neck after zipping the suit up. (If the neck tab is offset when zipped up and touching your neck, the soft loop-side is what contacts the skin, rather than having the hook-side scratching a ragged rash onto your skin.) Orca said it’s complicated to reverse the two in production but it was a decision that made practical sense. We agree.
But the talk will be about the arms, and the paper-thin new rubber being used on Orca’s two fastest suits. Because for good reason, they’ve both just gotten faster.
Because both now use a proprietary rubber that Orca created in partnership with its manufacturer, Yamamoto. It’s called 0.88 Free, which refers to the thickness of the rubber used; 0.88 millimeters. For reference, the thinnest material general used by most brands at the arms and underarm is 1.5mm.
“The way Yamamoto gets rubber its different thickness, whether it’s 5mm or 4mm or thin 1.5mm is it’s sliced from a big couch of rubber,â€ Trujillo said. “We told them we needed it thinner for what we wanted to do and they said it’s impossible—the machine can’t handle cutting it thinner than 1.5mm.â€
So Orca went a different direction: how about compressing that rubber? They take a thicker piece and using a new technology, smash the rubber down to what they now have: a .88mm piece of neoprene. Doing so loses a bit of its buoyancy, but it’s not a critical area that needs it. Compressing it also released a level of stretch scarcely in neoprene. And Orca adds a layer of titanium for heat retention.
When packaged in box, you see instantly how very different 0.88 Free rubber is to anything else out there. With the arms folded across, the rubber lays flat, wrinkling over itself like a swimskin instead of holding taut and stiff like every other rubber we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s the biggest advance in wetsuit materials in the last five or so years, and we think is going to be the thing that sends Orca to the front of the wetsuit game once again.
Now, Orca has something that has nearly the thinness and mobility of a skinsuit, As the collaborator with Yamamoto on its creation, Orca will have exclusive rights to 0.88 Free rubber until 2018.
For the first time, Orca also underwent testing (doing both materials samples and using Non Stanford as the pool testing guinea pig) to see what this new material meant in terms of time benefit. Its results?
On the test bench using square material samples (stretching them by hanging a 250-gram weight), the 0.88 Free material had a stretch range of 80mm, compared to a stretch range of just 30mm for its next-best rubber, 44-Cell. Orca says the stretch of square samples reflects a 3.8 percent greater range of motion in the arm for both greater overhead reach and less resistance fatigue.
In the pool, Stanford exhibited a 1.3 percent better 100-meter time in the Alpha. That equates, Orca says, to a 15-second faster swim over the Olympic distance, a pretty valuable asset in ITU World Cup racing.
Kienle, testing in the Predator, made a 2.1-percent improvement over the old Predator. For him, that translates into a 25-second advantage out of the water, Orca claims. In the Alpha, he was looking at 38 seconds of advantage.
Alpha: Flex at its Best
This is the racer’s special, for the athlete that has to have it all; flexibility and full mobility, with buoyancy as a secondary factor. To that end, the legs have tons of moblity for six-beat kickers to whip their legs through the water with minimal resistance, but retains rear hip panel with 5mm ExoCell dots on 2mm InfinitySkn across the lower back like a flotation belt for a bit of hip lift in the water. The entire suit has SCS coating in the arms and legs, as well as Nano SCS in the chest panel for smooth speed through the water.
But the calling card here is quite easy: the Alpha incorporates that super-flexy 0.88 Free material throughout the arm and the all-important underarm gusset for full, free stroke range of motion. It may well be the new standard in restriction-minimized arm and underarm reach.
“When anyone tells you they’ve got a new suit and it’s gonna be fast, you’re always a bit skeptical; everyone’s got claims or a new gimmick,â€ Stanford tells LAVA. “I tried the Alpha on in the UK and was blown away by the range of motion in the shoulders; it really doesn’t feel like you’ve got anything on your arms.â€
The Alpha will price at $699.
Predator: Reach Over Distance
Where the Predator differs from the Alpha is in features that target the long-course (70.3 to Ironman-distance) athlete. Yes, it uses that super-awesome 0.88 rubber throughout the arms, but doesn’t use it in the underarm gusset, instead using a more current-standard 1.5mm SCS-coated 44-Cell neoprene, which is the general popular standard for underarm stretch. It’s doesn’t have the thin stretch of 0.88 found in the Alpha, but it’s solid in its own right.
Rather the big benefit comes in the legs. The Predator has a feature called ExoLift, to help keep the legs up on tired long-course swimmers. Orca uses a new 4mm Exo-Lift front panel to both lift and stabilize. Given the fatigue that occurs over distance, Orca created a core stabilization system that stiffens the suit in the core and legs, preventing the excess roll that a tired swimmer will exhibit late in a long swim. Orca likens it to the firm stability of a surfboard, allowing for effort-free float and body balance.
And in lieu if standard jersey on the inside, Orca then coats the interior of the suit’s torso with neoprene (think Aquaman suits with their rubber suit interior). The reason for doing that? Jersey is a fabric, and fabric absorbs water. Over a long swim, Orca found the jersey retains a not insignificant amount of water. By eliminating its presence, the rubber (and the whole suit) gets lighter.
Again, Orca went to the lengths of testing and proving their claim, using a load cell in the lab to measure newtons (converted into grams) to determine buoyancy. They found a traditional jersey-lined sample of rubber lost 7 percent of its buoyancy over a 30-minute immersion. The ExoLift material end up actually received a one-percent gain in buoyancy after the 30-minute immersion. (As an aside, Orca said the 3.8 wetsuit, followed by the Predator then the Alpha were their three most buoyant suits.)
The Predator will price at $899.
Both the Alpha and Predator will come complete with a waterproof wetsuit bag with drainage eyelets at the bottom.
This is the suit that caught our eye (literally), but surprised us the most, as it’s a whole new category product: the beginner with safety as a primary concern. Surprisingly we found it to perform nearly as well as Orca’s best suits, with greater durability.
Here’s Orca’s pitch: With the growth of the sport comes a cadre of beginning swimmers that don’t want or need to make a financial investment north of $500 (or even $300) to get in the water, get the buoyancy and feel safe. At $170, it’s already a hit.
Enter OpenWater. Identifying that triathlete, they created a suit that uses a safety orange on the arms to increase visibility by course safety officials or lifeguards. They don’t skimp, using Yamomoto rubber throughout with a 2.5mm 38-cell chest and back, a 2mm neoprene blaze orange arm that have external jersey for durability and water repellency added. Add Orca’s matching orange and black neoprene cap and orange clip-on floating dry/key bag for (both included with purchase), and you’re going to be the safest, most visible creature out there; safety kayaks and the boys on the lifeguard stand won’t miss you.
Bonus points for Orca? This suit will also come in kids sizes, for 8, 10 and 12-year-old sizes.
But there’s a second consumer: the average age grouper that just wants a good, affordable and durable training suit, allowing their dedicated race suit sit ready for the races. Because we’ve all been there: there’s nothing more infuriating than nicking your race suit with a fingernail on a training day. Use the more durable OpenWater for those club group swims at the lake and cove, and save the race suit for race day. The cost/benefit (and peace of mind0 is huge.
Much of the rest of the full eight-suit Orca wetsuit range remains staid, including the $449 Sonar, the $329 Equip the S5 at $239 and the sleeveless S5 at $219
Suits As Tested
Without question, the new Predator and Alpha they’re by far the best suits Orca has ever created. And Orca’s 0.88 neoprene is the real deal, really the closest thing to swimming in a sleeveless suit in our opinion. Orca says swimmers that can “feelâ€ the water can get that experience in this suit. When I’m fit, I know that experience. Right now? I can’t… but have a feeling when the fitness and feel for the water comes, that it will translate through the suit.
Blessed with hyper-mobile shoulder joints, I’ve always found the best test for wetsuit flexibility has come with overhead reach, out of water and in.
While the Predator and Alpha were the highlights here, there’s no one “bestâ€ suit. Rather, it’s identifying the kind of swimmer you are, and the suit that best suits your needs. Consider: we asked Sebastian Kienle and Non Stanford the same question: which will be your go-to race suit? Kienle said that with the added core stability over distance the Predator will likely be his choice. Conversely, the young, lithe Stanford with a six-beat kick over Olympic-distance swimming wants as much flexibility as she can get. Hence, her choice is the Alpha.
The only items the jury is still out on is with warmth; the thin material could be more susceptible to icy conditions (Alcatraz, etc.). Our ocean swim at Fuerteventura in cool but not cold waters was unnoticeable. A chilly swim and it may be a factor.
Personally, I’d lean toward the Predator for 70.3 or Ironman, and the Alpha for sprints and Olympic. With a three-beat kick, I kick enough to want a bit more leg flexibility for short races, however as the swim gets longer, I need to settle in and save leg energy and keep that body position nice and horizontal. With the stiffness and added buoyancy, that means a nods toward the Predator. As an arm-dominant pull swimmer, the unrestricted overhead reach in the new 0.88 is a game-changer, and lucky for Orca, they keep the technology their own through 2018. Application of the 0.88 material throughout the arm and—most importantly—in the underarm gusset, provides
Between the two suits, there’s enough of a difference in the suits versus competitors that I suspect we’ll see Orca approached by other athletes for sponsorship deals once word gets out. These new suits—and in particular that 0.88 material in the arms—really that much better than everything else out there. As I said, it’s a gamechanger for the brand, on either suit.
The big revelation is the OpenWater. I thought it would be a stiff, rudimentary suit, but the arms really surprised me, with much less restriction than I expected. More of a surprise was how it performed as a comparative against Orca’s top-shelf offerings.
I executed a rudimentary test at the Playitas pool: 100 meters at 70.3 pace. My results?
That’s right. The $179 trainer for beginners moved as well as suits four times their price. If there was a best value, this is it. And it was all in the arms. Maybe they will get heavier over distances (since the suit has jersey is fully exposed to the water), but hey, for this price, you can’t beat it.
But for speed over distance, I think competing brands will have a time beating the Alpha and Predator, all thanks to 0.88 Free. The only downside to the Alpha and Predator? Like any top-shelf suit, they’re going to be extremely fragile. That said, pulling the suit onto your arms is generally easier (and less damage-susceptible) than pulling suit up the legs and torso. It’s a great gesture (one that other brands don’t think to do) that Orca supplies surgical-style socks and gloves with every purchase for putting the suit on, helping alleviate stress spots that can turn into tears….but that’s a light insurance policy. At $699 for the Alpha or $599 for the Predator, we recommend those suits to be seldom-used, saved for races and key open-water or pool testing. In which case, we refer back to the OpenWater; for the price, the quality of suit that is from a performance, safety—and, of utmost importance—durability standpoint, it can’t be beat. This suit is going to live in my dedicated open-water swim bag for Friday group swim. The high-vis safety orange is an added bonus. We hope the brightness also wards away sharks. (Ok, joking there… or maybe not.)
When’s this stuff going to be available? It’s all shipping now. Hit you local Orca retailer and check these out; it’s worth the trip to see and feel this 0.88 Free rubber. Orca really has, for the first time in a while, carried the brand’s heritage back to the top. These suits are going to be flexible and buoyant. thus, they’ll be fast.
You can delve into the entire Orca wetsuit range at orca.com