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Deep Dive: Orca 3.8 Wetsuit

We take a deep look at this race-day-only option from Orca and break down why it’s just as good for veteran swimmers as ones who struggle in the water.

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Review Rating


Basics

A full-body race suit intended for the developing swimmer to maximize buoyancy, stabilize the core, and promote neutral body position



Pros

Buoyancy to excel in smooth to choppy conditions


Comfortable, smooth interior liner


Stellar arm range of motion with elastic panels


Bonus gear (wetsuit bag and dressing gloves for hands and feet)


Cons

Durability of thinner neoprene with regular training


Mild wetsuit rigidity during rotation


Can become reliant on suit to fix poor technique


Price

$600

Brand

Orca


Orca continues to stand out as a leading manufacturer of swimming wetsuits. The internationally branded company founded out of New Zealand is pumping out high-quality Yamamoto neoprene wetsuits designed for triathlon, open-water, or swim-run events. In the triathlon category, Orca has created subsequent wetsuit categories for “the natural swimmer; the total swimmer; and the progressive swimmer.” The Orca 3.8 falls into the progressive swimmer category. One with swimming experience might assume the progressive swimmer category implies the Orca 3.8 a low-end training wetsuit. In fact, this is quite the opposite! The Orca 3.8 is a long-time tried and tested racing model that could arguably match the quality and performance of the Orca Predator and Alpha (the other race models in the total swimmer and natural swimmer categories, respectively). The Orca 3.8 boasts superior buoyancy and shoulder panel flexibility while promoting a stabilized body position. This might beg the question, “What happens if you put an experienced swimmer into a progressive swimmer wetsuit?” Let’s find out.

SEE ALSO – Spring 2021 Triathlete Buyer’s Guide: Men’s Wetsuits

Orca 3.8 Extended Review: The Good

Do you remember playing your favorite Nintendo video game and punching into the controller: UP, UP, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, A, B, SELECT, START? It is better known as “the Konami code,” but if you were playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles you got extra lives. The Orca 3.8 somehow feels like it has this code built into its design to “power up” and beat the swim level of the triathlon game. 

Let’s face it: Swimming can be drag. Literally.  If you are not swimming the right way, you can create drag that slows you down and tires you out faster. Whether you are a developing swimmer or simply a swimmer losing form and technique over distance (or maybe you’re getting older, like me), the 3.8 boosts you up with a one-two combo of maximal buoyancy and supported body position. In other words, you won’t drag in the water as much. From the hips down, the wetsuit’s neoprene thickness ranges between 4-5mm, propping you high in the water and reducing muscle fatigue. Overall, expect high hips during the entire duration of your swim, whether in perfect or crummy open-water conditions. Even a big kick becomes unnecessary with the buoyancy from the 3.8. Likewise, sighting ends up requiring a lot less effort, especially when the conditions take a turn for the worse. Having that extra buoyancy really comes in handy when the ocean is cold and choppy. 

The upper half of the wetsuit has ultra-thin 1.5mm arm and shoulder panels allowing full, unimpeded range-of-motion to pull “naturally” through the water. The 3.8 also has a well-suited fit and comfortable interior lining inside that makes it smooth to the skin and does not rub anywhere. If you consider these top three features (overt buoyancy and ultra flexibility in critical areas, plus its superb neoprene quality), the wetsuit will allow you to invest more attention to stroke mechanics and (like that cheat code) level-up in your race performance.

Orca 3.8 Extended Review: The Not-So-Good

At first touch, the Orca 3.8 feels thin compared to something like the bulkier Xterra Vortex. The difference comes from the .88mm “Free” forearm panels, plus the 1.5mm 40-Cell shoulder panels. Although this design allows for a ton of elasticity, it does raise questions of durability with long-term repetitive use. Unfortunately, Orca’s one-year warranty only applies to manufacturing faults and defects, and given the price point of $600, it might be best to save this wetsuit for special occasions rather than take it out every weekend for the open-water group swim. 

Additionally, there are some criticisms over the wetsuit’s technological features, like the “Core Lateral Stabilizer” and the “High Elbow Panels.” Two of the challenging swimming components to learn and master are a neutral body position and a high-elbow catch. From the experienced swimmer perspective, the “Core Lateral Stabilizers” did maintain a straight, lined body, but provided some stiffness in rotation. This makes sense since the feature is 5mm thick (again, highlighting that buoyancy), but unfortunately it also creates a touch of rotational resistance. Luckily, hip fatigue never set in after a long swim, but differences in others might cause issues. “The High Elbow Panel (HEP)” is advertised to “keep your arm elevated before the grip phase, providing greater stability.” Upon examination, the panel is just thicker neoprene (4mm) compared to the 1.5mm running down the arm length. Best guess is the HEP is allowing users to keep a high elbow during the pull phase by creating a slightly more buoyant point on the arm. The typical progressive swimmer might gain some biofeedback (contrasting a high elbow catch with and without the wetsuit), but it’s not going to be apparent to the veteran swimmer that has the technique mastered.

SEE ALSO – Spring 2021 Triathlete Buyer’s Guide: Women’s Wetsuits

Orca 3.8 Extended Review: Conclusions

What makes someone a progressive swimmer versus a natural swimmer?  The first things that come to mind are probably how fast one can swim versus the other, but even that is tied strongly to mastery of swim technique. According to Orca, you are a progressive swimmer if you need maximum buoyancy. In other words, without the wetsuit, you are riding low in the water. The Orca 3.8 does indeed provide superb buoyancy without compromising flexibility in the shoulders. And although that same flexible freedom was not quite present when rotating, the design does reinforce proper body alignment that can deteriorate for those inexperienced and untrained athletes. 

Undoubtedly any developing swimmer is going to swim faster in the 3.8 because of these features, thus closing the result gap between the veteran and beginner racer. But doesn’t extra buoyancy benefit all types of swimmers? It would be interesting to know how a veteran swimmer would fare in the Orca 3.8 versus other companies’ race models—like the Alpha and Predator.  But as veterans grow older, sometimes they need an assist, just like those developing swimmers—maybe they need a little extra neoprene to stay warm in cold conditions. And sometimes when the water is not so calm, veterans might need an assist to plow through the wind chop of the ocean. This is why the Orca 3.8 is not just a great wetsuit for the progressive swimmer, but also for that natural swimmer who needs an extra edge under certain conditions.