APOLLO BIOFIN XT V ATOMIC V MARES PLANA AVANTI QUATTRO FINS
The conventional Italian Quattros are the industry standard but the top US split-fins seem to be their hot on their heels. Or are they powering ahead? John Bantin finds out
I'M DUMB, DUMB, DUMB! I don't use the gear properly. I don't read the manual correctly. I'm doing it all wrong. That's what disgruntled manufacturers and distributors say if I write something that they dislike.
There is an element of truth, of course. I admit to being a typical diving consumer. I try to be as representative of you, the readers, as I can. I just go diving and write about what happens. The unvarnished truth.
That can be an expensive commodity. If this publication was owned not by an old street-fighting journalist but a lot of anonymous shareholders, we might be telling a different story - one written by our advertising-sales department.
But people are getting used to our ways of doing things. At the last international DEMA show, I was repeatedly and enthusiastically taken aside by people who wanted to show me new products. In the past, some of them had indicated a desire to drag me outside and teach me a good lesson instead!
But the truth can also be expensive for me. I recently had to swallow my pride and admit that the five test divers I had asked to compare fins side by side had found that many split fins performed rather well, even though I personally had been able to get on with only a few such designs. But you know what they say: "Publish and be called a stronzo!"
APOLLO BIOFIN XT|
MARES PLANA AVANTI QUATTRO
How can you measure which fins perform best? The winners of our recent definitive test were well satisfied, whereas the losers protested that you cannot measure performance in a swimming pool.
Whenever people ask me which is "the best", whether it be fins, suits, regulators or any other bit of kit, I counter by asking them what they already have. "And are you happy with what you're using?" I ask. If the answer is positive, I say: "If it suits you and you're happy, you've made the right choice."
Of course, I get to use everything and have to find a way of differentiating between products. I recently collected my fourth pair of Mares Plana Avanti Quattro fins, having managed to give away the three previous pairs once they started to look a bit scruffy to covetous dive-guides in remote locations.
The Quattros remain an industry standard that I am still happy to use, but our recent fin comparison revealed that, while they were still among the best, the Apollo Biofin XT was a better performer. On the end of Chris Boardman's athletic legs they were the only fins to beat the 5kmph barrier. Now I have been sent a pair in my size so I can use them to steam off in fast-diminishing perspective.
The Quattros are a water-scooping fin but these Apollos incorporate a Nature's Wing split-fin design. The XT stands for Extra Torsion, which means that they are stiffer than the standard natural-rubber Biofin.
The pair sent to me were in functional battleship-grey. They look to be impervious to wear, the sort of fins that will still be hanging in the garage long after the owner has given up diving, like the original rubber Jetfins.
The foot-pockets are short by contemporary standards. My heels protruded slightly, so I had to take some of the load on my ankles as I swam. Straps and buckles are conventional quick-release. The blades measure 33cm from toe to tip, which makes them surprisingly compact compared to contemporaries, though each fin weighs nearly 3.2kg.
At the time of our Big Fin Comparison Test we were unable to get hold of any of the split-fins most praised by the US diving press. But now Typhoon, that giant of the suits and rubber-goods brigade, has decided to offer Atomic fins on the UK market and sent me a pair to try.
Like the Apollo XTs, the Atomic fins have thickset rails down the sides of their blades to give rigidity along their length. They have a similar if wider split down the middle but are made from a stiffer, lighter thermoplastic and the blade is dipped sharply away at an angle from the sole of the foot.
They look modern, finished in black and a contrasting colour. The coloured parts are stiff but flex because they are joined by the softer black material. Patent quick-release EZ-LOK buckles can be freed from the fin by squeezing two points with a hand.
The foot-pockets are longer than those of the Apollo XTs, encompassing the whole foot, and have an interesting non-slip effect on the bottom. The blades measure 42cm from toe to tip and are even stiffer than the Apollos. These are massive fins in every way, each one weighing slightly more than 3kg.
The idea behind Nature's Wing or propeller-fin technology seems to be to exchange torque for revs. You fin more easily but faster within a narrower range of leg movement, so that you use less muscle-power for the same effect.
But does it work in practice? I criticised the standard Apollo Biofins (like the XT but less stiff) for occasionally allowing each part of a split blade to touch. It gave me the impression that I had touched the reef. The Atomics seemed so large that I felt I would have a hard job not kicking everything, including my buddy, but I suppose you get used to this.
The Quattros have that familiar mix of soft and stiff materials to give the four-channel flex. Also in shiny black, my new pair are as sexy as Emma Peel in a wet-look vinyl catsuit. Of course, they will grow to be matt black as the fine scratches build up.
APOLLO: Conventional quick-release buckles - no frills|
MARES: Advanced Buckle System cams the strap tight - look, no hands
ATOMIC: Patent quick-release EZ-LOK buckles - simply squeeze!
As on the Atomics, the Quattro foot-pocket encompasses my boot up to the heel, so each fin becomes an extension of my lower leg. Its novel ribbed interior stops the fins being jammed on by suction and makes it easy to get them off after a dive.
The strap is held by an advanced buckle system (ABS) that cams the strap tight and I can put them on and tighten without using my hands, just using the opposite foot to slam the buckle shut. The blades measure 39cm and each fin weighs in at around 2.8kg - and I used to think they were big! Measurements and weights mentioned are all for size XL.
I took all three pairs and an underwater speedometer on a dive trip. I don't claim to be any sort of athlete but went out of my way to ensure that my comparison was fair.
If I was part of a comedy duo, my straight man would have the short, fat, hairy legs. Mine are of the long, gazelle-like variety, and my lazy, loping gait is probably less suited to the high-frequency finning effect demanded by split-fins, so I admit that this comparison may hold true only for divers like me.
I would get down to 10m over a flat sandy bottom with each pair in turn, then fin as if my life depended on it, noting whatever came up as a maximum figure on the speedo display. I was careful to fin over the same short course, to be sure that my heart rate had subsided to normal before I started each time, and to do a number of runs in the same direction, over a period of a couple of hours.
It proved difficult to separate what are arguably the three best fin designs in the world. They were equally comfortable and equally effective. The speedo indicated that the Apollo XTs and Atomics were inseparable from each other in the water and even with an Apollo on one foot and an Atomic on the other I couldn't tell which was which without looking.
Naturally, my top speeds were less than the young athletes we had used for our fin comparison test had achieved. I always managed to top-out at a creditable 3.7kmph but never managed to go any faster.
The main difference I found between the split fins and the Plana Avanti Quattros was that with the former I could start finning at high speed straight away, even if the effect took time to register. With the Quattros, I felt as if I was starting off in a higher gear, with more pressure on my calf muscles.
However, once under way and really going for it, I could break the 4kmph barrier easily each time, though calf cramps might finally interfere with what I was doing. Using frog-kicks and sculling, there was no difference between any of these fins.
I consider them all to be the best and would happily use any of them on a permanent basis. However, ultimately the Apollos lost out on weight to the Atomics, which in turn lost out because of their extra size in the water, in the boat and in the bag.
So for me the winners remain the Quattros which, happily, are also somewhat cheaper than the others.
The tests were conducted with the help of Diver's Lodge TDI technical diving centre in Hurghada.
Mares Plana Avanti Quattros come in six colour choices and three sizes at £82. Apollo Biofin XTs are available in slate-grey natural rubber only and in three sizes, and cost £95. Atomics come in two colour choices and four sizes and cost £129.
Blandford Sub-Aqua (Mares) 01923 801772, CJ Evans International 01202 680522, Typhoon International 01642 486104