As an ambassador for Orca they recently invited me to try a wetsuit from their new open water range.
I have long been a fan of Orca products, the very first swim-specific wetsuit I tried on was an Orca S2, a hire suit on a sea swim, it fitted me perfectly. I bought the exact same suit the next day and when I have worn them ever since. When Orca contacted me a few years ago to be an ambassador I didn't need to be persuaded. When you are a huge fan of a brand already it's an honour to test out new products for them.
Straight out of the box
Orca is the Apple of wetsuits, it's a beautiful brand with its simplicity making it ooze style. From the slick packaging to the understated branding, everything about Orca feels like quality, even before you have even handled the neoprene goodies inside. I was given the following items to see what I thought...
Fine Welsh Weather
I took the Vitalis for its first outing in the mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia), after a week of snow, wind and then some classic Welsh rainfall, the kind that floods entire valleys and closes roads. I felt the high mountain lakes would be the perfect place to give it a really good test.
I headed up to Llyn Bochlwyd on the flanks of the Gyderau with my friend Charlotte. It's a beautiful location, less so in the howling wind and rain, but it was great conditions for testing out a wetsuit designed for the cold.
I don't often swim in a wetsuit, mostly born out of the fact in the mountains whatever you want to wear in the water you have to carry. I go lightweight, taking as little as possible. I'd rather swim in a cozzie and take a tiny towel so I can take a huge flask of coffee and an extra few layers.
I may have moaned a few times about the extra weight but I soon forgot about it once we started walking and laughing our way up the hill. On arrival at the lake, we picked out the least windy part of the lake to base ourselves. I embarked on the arduous task of trying to get myself into a wetsuit in the rain. If you have ever tried to don a wet wetsuit you will understand how difficult this is! Charlotte sat in her coat trying to keep as much of her warmth as possible while I fought to get the increasingly damp wetsuit up my increasingly damp legs. Eventually, I gave up and put the suit on the best I could. I am pretty tall, with a long body, I need the legs to come really high up my calves for the neck and shoulders to fit. The suit has a flap called a 'batwing', you pull this over your head from behind, it helps retain the thermal properties. When I pulled it over my head I felt like I was being strangled from behind, full of regret for not putting more effort into pulling up the legs. But, in the mountains, in winter, you just have to get on with it so I pulled up the arms, got on my booties, hood and gloves and zipped in! I was ready and giggling with Charlotte at my fancy outfit compared to hers!
I'm normally a bit fussy about my entry and egress but being top-to-toe in neoprene meant I was far less fussy (not at all) about sinking into mud and weeds. The water was extremely cold (the gauge was Charlotte's face!), despite a little bit of water down the back of my neck, I am not sure I really felt the temperature of the water, I was snug as a bug wrapped in neoprene.
I really wanted to hate the hood, it had some sinister vibe about it and squashed my face up like a hamster but spent the entire time in the water saying it was my new favourite thing, it was so warm and made me feel really weirdly secure, even underwater which is normally mind-numbingly cold at this time of year!
The wetsuit is super buoyant, it was quite difficult to get my legs underwater. Kind of reassuring that I could stay in the water for a pretty long time and would be safe, or at least still floating. I don't measure time or temperatures but I can say I didn't feel the need to get out when we did. I didn't feel remotely cold when I got out. It was a different experience not to feel that at this time of year.
Pros and Cons
The weather in the UK can mean that many swimmers either head to the indoor pool or have very brief 'dips' when the conditions are too chilly for them. The Vitalis wetsuit from Orca is certainly an extremely warm wetsuit that could lengthen your season and allow you to keep swimming for longer. I didn't have any of the usual shivers or afterdrop after this swim that I experience in these conditions.
The fit is excellent as always. I find Orca a really good snug fit, As previously mentioned I am tall with a long body so the legs do have to come up pretty far on me, occasionally I have issues with the booties not being long enough but today all was fine. The shoulders had great flexibility. There was a little seepage on the neck but I suspect that if I got into this on a dry day I would have taken more time to fit it better. I found the batwing a little restrictive around my neck, but as before I think this was due to not being able to get into the wetsuit in the rain properly, and I soon forgot about it once in the lake.
There is always a case that wetsuits are great for locations where you have access to a car/changing areas etc.., I found carrying everything up and more so when sopping wet back down again a bit of an effort.
The buoyancy was superb, it felt like it was in all the right places and gave a great feeling of security in the water.
At £369 it's in the category for swimmers who are pretty serious about their swimming.
I was unable to wear the gloves and had to wear an old pair instead, the new gloves come up much smaller so if you are considering them I would go up a size.
I loved the new style Hydro booties, these are my third pair and the addition of the Thermal X thermal lining is a real game changer, as is the grip on the heel/ankle. I can be pretty vain about the booties but they are soo warm and who doesn't love toasty warm toes!
I hated the hood when it first arrived, let's not beat around the bush. It's a ugly piece of kit and gives you the opposite of a facelift! But blimey is it warm and snuggly when it's on. Orca sell a hood and vest combo, seriously tempted!
Despite rarely being seen in a wetsuit, I do own six (I know!) and am a bit of a geek about them, I mean they all do different things right?! I swim in a wetsuit often, just don't shout about it. Wetsuits are 100% about being warm in the water and there is often a time when this is my priority in my work.
If I had to give the new Orca Vitalis Thermal Openwater wetsuit a rating I would give it a double thumbs up! Its Thermal X Thermal lining is super warm and I really like that Orca has included this in their range of accessories too. It's also really refreshing to know that this suit is a women-specific fit, it makes such a difference to warmth having a wetsuit that fits well.