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February 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Fittest of the Fins

our gear expert dived in feet first to test the best

from the February, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

What makes for a good pair of fins? One that you find comfortable and that performs the way you want it to. But because we’re all different in our dive capabilities, leg strength and aerobic capacity, it’s hard to make a definitive decision as to which fins work best overall. It truly is what suits you, sir.

Atomic Aquatics SplitFins

Atomic Aquatics SplitFins

That being said, I asked a bunch of dive gear distributors to send their best-performing pair of open heel fins in size XL for my side-by-side comparison test. To ensure absolute fairness, I swam exactly the same route at Wraysbury Lake, near London, during the course of one day in balmy 71-degree water. This allowed me to do the test runs in a sleek semi-drysuit; I wore a single tank and a sleek-fitting BC with nothing dangling except for my regulator’s intermediate hose.

I’m of average fitness with body mass index and blood-pressure numbers in the normal range. I was well rested between each swim and made sure my heart rate and breathing had returned to normal before donning the next set of fins. As a control, I used some of the fins from the beginning of the day at the end as well to confirm I was getting constant results. I kept the range of my fin strokes to within the area of water pushed through by my body, and held an underwater speedometer calibrated in meters per second out in front of me at full stretch with two hands. I swam gently at first, accelerating until I was doing my heart-busting best to get the maximum speed out of the fins registered on the speedometer.

What has speed got to do with it? I was testing these fins in still water so all the effort I made was transformed into forward motion. If I had been finning into a constant head-on current of one knot, my speed over the ground would have been one knot slower. It’s the speed in still water that is meaningful and equates to thrust. At first glance, the speeds I achieved might not seem that quick but Richard Major of Wraysbury Dive Centre, swimming along behind me at the end of the day, reported difficulty in keeping up with me. This was even though I was using one of the poorer-performing pairs of fins and thought I was swimming slowly. On the other hand, I’m sure an athlete at the height of his powers would have managed better than three feet per second during the test runs. Here are the fins I tested, listed from fastest to slowest.

Atomic Aquatics SplitFins ($200; 2.9 feet per sec.; 5.8 lbs.; S-XL) On this split-bladed fin with a stainless-steel spring strap, I felt that the foot pocket was a little large and consequently they felt loose. I was concerned this would be reflected in a poorer performance but not only were these fins among the fastest during my sprint but I could also cruise at that speed with little effort. (

Omega Amphibian ($169; 2.8 feet per sec.; 4.6 lbs.; M-XL) These “flip fins” have a foot pocket that swallowed most of my foot. That meant that, even though the blade was stiff and unforgiving, I could go for it without any ill effects and no complaints from my leg muscles. The unique folding effect has advantages for shore divers because you can safely walk around in them, and they click into place as soon as you start finning. (

Tusa SF-6 Imprex Tri-Ex ($99; 2.8 feet per sec.; 3.9 lbs.; XS-XL) These conventional fins, despite being boring looking, were very comfortable. With most of my foot encompassed in the pocket, I experienced no pain in the leg department when finning hard, and achieved a surprising top speed as good as the best. Seems you don’t need fins with an avant-garde design to get good results. (

AquaLung Slingshot ($198; 2.6 feet per sec; 5.9 lbs.; S-L) These hefty fins have blades that look big enough to use as surfboards, and they have adjustable flexibility by means of movable silicone springs. I got good speed at the most flexible, i.e.., weakest, setting. At the stiffest setting, I was slightly slower, at 2.4 feet per second, and the fins were then agony to use, indicating a powerfully built diver might get even better results. (

Cressi Reaction ($110; 2.6 feet per sec.; 5.2 lbs.; XS-XL) These are fins for the super-fit. The foot pocket swallowed most of my foot, thereby making the best use of my thigh muscles, but the blades are so rigid I felt I had planks of wood attached to my feet. Although I got a good result, someone with stronger legs would probably have gone faster. Fins with stainless-steel spring straps are available at extra cost. (

IST Bora Bora ($80; 2.6 feet per sec.; 5.7 lbs.; S/M and L/XL) A narrow foot pocket that left a lot of my foot protruding from the back meant I got tired feet and calves quickly. The massive blades were very effective, reflected in the speed I achieved, but they were uncomfortable. I felt the tops of my feet would have got sore with extended use. However, they offer a lot of performance for very little outlay. (

Tusa SF-6 Imprex Tri-Ex

Tusa SF-6 Imprex Tri-Ex

Mares Excel Plus ($150; 2.6 feet per sec.; 5.2 lbs. XS-XL) Although I’m told the foot pocket is longer than on the first Excels, they still left about 1.5 inches of heel protruding. These are much stiffer fins and consequently need more effort to push through the water but that effort will pay off when you need it. The strap buckles are unique to Mares and allow you to lever the straps tight but with hands softened by long immersion, I managed to cut myself on them. (

Oceanic Vortex V16 ($190; 2.4 feet per sec; 5 lbs.; S-XL) A comfortable foot pocket and a blade that flexed easily meant I should have been able to keep up top speed for longer without my legs complaining. However, the two inches of my protruding heel meant calf cramps limited what I could achieve. (

Aeris Velocity ($90 list price; 2.4 feet per second; 2.5 pounds; S-XXL) American-branded, these look like simple paddle-style fins but are said to be designed by split-fin guru Pete McCarthy. Around two inches of my heel protruded out of the foot pocket, which didn’t auger well for a totally painless sprint, but I didn’t suffer any calf pains and got a fast result nevertheless. (

Beuchat PowerJet ($110; 2.4 feet per sec.; 4.8 lbs.; M-XL) A very rigid fin that felt unforgiving. Most of my foot was encompassed by the foot pocket and I got a good speed, but I wondered if my fitness level was good enough to get the best out of them. They’d probably suit someone with shorter, stronger legs. (

Scubapro Seawing Nova ($220; 2.4 feet per sec.; 5.5 lbs.; S-XL) With an avant-garde design that looks a little silly but works well, these were probably the most comfortable of all the fins I tested. The foot pockets completely swallowed my feet and the elastic, bungee-style spring strap kept them snug. I got a good speed that I could maintain without pain. (

APS Mantaray ($150; 1.9 feet per sec.; 3.2 lbs; S-XL) These American-made, lightweight small fins are very comfortable to wear but no pain, no gain. I worked exceptionally hard to get an effective speed, resulting in cramps in both my legs. Their positive buoyancy is unusual and needs getting used to, especially in a drysuit. They’ll feel good until you find yourself head-on into a current. (

John Bantin is the technical editor of DIVER magazine in the United Kingdom. For 20 years, he has used and received virtually every piece of equipment available in the U.K. and the U.S., and makes around 300 dives per year for that purpose. He is also a professional underwater photographer.

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