By Tom Demerly for TriSports.com.
An informal poll on beginnertriathlete.com forum suggests the most popular wetsuit price category may be $100-$300 with over 50% of respondents indicating $200 is about what they’d pay for a wetsuit. While wetsuit prices have climbed steadily at the high end since the late 1980’s the sub $300 category is still where most sales are made. That makes Orca’s all-smoothskin outer S4 fullsuit at $219 relevant.
At $219 for a smoothskin outer fullsuit from a major brand, the Orca S4 is a good value.
When we unboxed Orca’s S4 at the University of Arizona pool for swim testing we thought we grabbed the wrong suit. The entire outer of the suit, save the forearms, is smoothskin. This includes the underarms. That’s usually reserved for suits above $250. The S4 reminded me of early “super suits” with it’s almost entirely smoothskin outer. The benefits of a smoothskin outer are better hydrodynamics (it slides through the water easier) and the suit doesn’t soak up water as the swim gets longer, losing some of its buoyancy. The later is important for mid pack swimmers in Ironman distance swims.
The entire front of the Orca S4 is SCS-coated Yamamoto #39 neoprene. Both 3 and 4 millimeter thick neoprene are used with the thicker panel being located in the bottom half of the suit below the seam across your belly button. This is a well conceived design since most swimmers need more floatation in the legs, not the chest. It also makes sense for fitting. The middle 80% of triathletes probably need some additional room in the chest and torso of a suit. The best way to provide that room is not to do it with a bigger pattern, but with better fabric that conforms to the swimmer more precisely without letting water accumulate inside the suit during a long swim. Orca put nice quality Yamamto #39 3mm neoprene on this chest panel, a strong choice.
Underarm panels need to be flexible so it’s easy to extend your arms forward during the reach phase of your stroke. Orca went with supple 2mm Yamamoto #39 in the underarms and shoulders. The combination of a well designed 3mm chest and the flexible 2mm shoulder and underarm make the suit feel less restrictive during the front half of your stroke when donned correctly.
Orca did a good job of putting performance features where they’re needed on the S4 and still maintaining price. The entire front of the suit- the part that remains submerged during your swim- uses SCS coating. The SCS coating reduces friction in the water allowing the suit to move with less resistance through fluid. This is a feature usually reserved for suits north of $300 but the judicious use of the coating on the S4 front panels adds value and performance. To maintain price point the back of the suit goes without the SCS coating.
Most wetsuit users aren’t as concerned about the low-temperature performance of their suit as they are the high temperature comfort. More people bump their heads on the USA Triathlon 78-degree temperature upper limit (USA Traithlon Article IV, 4.4 “Wetsuits“) than worry about a suit not being warm enough in very cold water. Orca knows triathlons so they designed the S4 with a good middle ground 3mm back. Is the S4 warm enough for very cold swims like Ironman New Zealand, held in a glacial-fed freshwater lake? It’s an individual decision but I’ll suggest “probably” for most swimmers. If you add a neoprene swim cap and wear ear plugs to keep cold water out of your ears and off your head this suit will take you down to the coldest swims.
Zipper design is conventional, sturdy and unremarkable and that’s what you get around $200. Remember though, reverse zippers didn’t exist in early high end wetsuits and athletes still had fast transitions. One concern about wetsuits that zip downward is accidental opening if another competitor gets their arm wrapped in your zipper leash and jerks it down. Even in very crowded swim starts like Ford Ironman Wisconsin and I’ve never actually seen this happen.
The forearms use a pull-panel with a laminated polymer over nylon fabric. Other than the fabric panels at the back of the calf this is the only non-smoothskin on the outside of the suit. The forearm catch panels are intended to increase “grip” on the water during the catch phase of your stroke. The legs are angle cut and have a stretch fabric back panel for quick removal and durability. Seams are taped in stress points for good durability even during quick removals.
Neck design used a low-rolled neck with the smoothskin wrapping inside the suit for a good seal. We didn’t see chafing issues with the neck of this suit even after an hour of swimming including flip turns.
Orca builds the S4 in 11 men’s sizes and 6 women’s sizes. Their typical height/weight range size chart got our swim tester in the right fit on the first try with no problems. Another potential benefit to slightly more flexible neoprene is a little extra wiggle room at either end of the fit range on a given size. As such this is a good suit to purchase online since there is a good chance the size you picked from their size chart will work.
This suit is a strong offering at $219. Our swim testers both thought the suit swam better than its price. When I spoke to Orca about the price point of the 2012 S4 fullsuit they mentioned they are under pressure to raise the price in 2013 due to spiraling neoprene costs. That may make the 2012 Orca S4 an even stronger buy for 2012.
If you are the middle 80% of wetsuit consumer who is shopping around the $200 price range for a full suit don’t miss out on the Orca S4. This orca may be an endangered species in rough water of rising prices, and like the marine mammal the brand is named for, it is a truly credible performer in the water.