Plastic vs Fiber Fins: Another View

When you gather together aficionados of anything, you’re going to get varying preferences. If you hang with car guys, it’s Ford vs Chevy. Have a friend that bangs nails? Your hammer is better than his. Divers are no different and may even be more adamant in their loyalties with wetsuits, masks, spearguns…and especially fins.

With 30+ years of diving, I’ve been fortunate to experience and survive most all of the gear available then and now. I’m no different from any other diver, in that fins are the motors that get me there, down and up. Pretty important. So when I get a call from Specialfins saying, "Hey, about trying our fins?", it’s not a stretch of my public education to say, "Sure!".

Karma made this happen at a time that members of were buzzing about the qualities of fiberplastic versus plastic blades."This would be a great opportunity to do a side by side comparison", I thought. Like I said, public school…

And so I hit the beach with an embarrassingly expensive collection of blades to thrash. Life gets good sometimes.

My new favorites, the Matrix 30’s, were lovingly beside me and the guys at Specialfins (in Estonia of all places) had licked a few hundred stamps and sent four pairs of their blades complete with a very well- designed and good -looking carry bag. The quality was ridiculously obvious when I opened the wrappers on the pairs of their Classic Hard, camouflaged "Kelpie" Hard, "Kelpie" Medium and Hybrid Hard blades. The finish on the blades rivaled the smoothness of my truck’s hood, the fitting of the side rails and edging was perfect and free of adhesive drips and they mounted into stock Omer footpockets with zero effort. Zero effort was going to be the ongoing theme with these fins.

I started out with the well-worn Esclapez plastics as a baseline. With a sandy bottom one hundred feet below the float, the 51 degree (F) Pacific was in rare form with nary a swell and calm air. The irony of most fish and abalone being out of season hurt- deeply. The sinuses were cleared and the bottom made in a minute flat. Same ol’ stuff.

Next came the Classic Hards. I dallied about the kelp to get a feeling for these things, as I did the rest of the fins, and was immediately impressed by the quiet manner in which they flexed- no "oil canning", no sideslip and easy on the calves. A clear and easy tipover and the differences in the makeup of the blades was instantaneous: usually I clear at the surface and then about twelve feet down. I had to clear, it seemed, much, much sooner. I looked at the gauge and it was well past the twelve foot mark. By ten feet. I had gone well past my usual clearing point with less effort and was still going down! The bottom came up with that same reduced effort and in 10 seconds less time. Ten seconds more to enjoy the bottom. The blades sent me up without fuss and suffered no damage from the purposeful pushing off on the bottom. I cleared the snorkel with more left in me than I was used to, meaning that these blades were getting me home with air to spare. Reason enough for me.

The Kelpie Mediums were on next. The camouflage coloration of these fins matched the cold green waters very well. Six feet below me and they were dissolving into the gloom. Nice. Being an unabashed spearo, I was really hoping these things were going to act like they looked. I was not disappointed.

The tip over and first ear squealing occurred almost immediately and the bottom arrived just as soon. I had plenty of time to spend on the bottom and with each motion of the fin, the bottom moved past with more speed and less effort than I’d ever experienced. I spent a good few hours ending up a fair distance from my descent. My calves weren’t complaining and the effort to keep these fins in the water while kicking/breathing up at the surface was very easy and without the constant need to remember that these were different fins. They felt like a natural extension of my feet. The flex was elegant and without exaggeration, the push fairly constant without snap. Real nice.

It was time to unleash my Matrix 30 blades. Having been through the warranty circus that is carbon blades, when I got these from Paul Verveniotis at 20 Fathoms,, I was looking for "everything" in a blade and got it, and more, from the Matrix. The Matrix blades don’t have the molded-in bend in the heel area that the Specialfins do, but the Omer Millenium pockets have a built- in bend that the blades took an immediate shine to. The next thing that took a shine to these things was me. For the surface- to- 50- foot work that is the bread and butter of the Northern California abalone diver, these blades are just the best thing going.

The Matrix blades come in several flexes with the different flex being a result of the hand work being applied to milling the thickness. The lamination is clean and dry- no excess resin to make it "all nice and shiny," which equates to more weight. I’m a bit large for the 30 models I have but nobody is hurting less at the end of the day than I am. These blades are a couple of inches longer and seem lighter than the Specialfins models, and the coloration and fin shape will get you noticed in the parking lot at the Nationals. They exhibit a small amount of "oil-canning" at the surface but extending the toes and going with a fuller kick not only removes that tendency but makes good and deep things happen quickly. They flex like nobody’s business, especially when it counts- on the way up.

The Matrix blades remained simple, to the point, and genuine in their performance. All gear designers should take notice. The surface- to- bottom times were equal to the Kelpies and the length never became an issue in the kelp or the rock-strewn shore. These blades exhibit zero problems with a half season on them and I don’t see calling Paul with a problem. These things deserve a real strong look by anyone with a penchant for wearing rubber and shooting fish in California waters. 20 Fathoms is the real deal and Paul and Dennis are class acts to work with.

The Specialfins Kelpie Hard blades were all this as well, with the added benefit of the stiffness being useful. They slapped a bit at the surface but calmed down with some very minor foot movement that after a few dives seemed as if I had never made an adjustment and from there on, they just took off! The surface clearing and twelve foot clearing were one and the same and the bottom rose to my mask at an alarming rate. One hundred feet in 30 seconds?! Half the time of the plastic blades with less effort??! These things were Viagratm for the feet!! And when I looked back six feet, I couldn’t see them save for the outline made by the rails! Incredibly nice. A couple hours later I was just slightly aware of their stiffness, but more aware that I was a looong way from my float and feeling fine about the return trip. The flex was again wonderful and constantly pushed me through the kelp-choked surface with no snags and scratches. As with all the Specialfins blades, these suffered no damage from deliberate bottom push-offs, had no dings or dents from the rocks, and looked as new once they were rinsed.

The Hybrid Hards were purported to be the next best thing to nuclear reactors for the legs and they looked it. Rocket science with rubber footpockets: a combination of Kevlar and carbon fiber in a vacuum- formed blade complete with bent heel , as did all the Estonia- built blades .These things just replaced everything I own for open water work, C4’s included.

The curve of these blades in the water was gently feminine and the push was firm and free of surging and snap. By the time I made the bottom my ears had pretty much given up the need for clearing at the surface and resigned themselves to hitting thirty feet with the same couple of kicks that are my stock in trade. The midwater cruising was purposeful yet seemingly without the usual stress of pushing to get there. The blades both propelled and stopped my motion through the water and the shape of the blades acted as foils to turn me with the barest thought. They were quiet at the surface and quiet 70 feet down. They were a tad wider than the Kelpies and Classic but what really impressed me was the lack of sideslipping and wavering in their gentle sinewave-like motion. I could see that my leg’s input was not being wasted ,something that made itself apparent every time I’d look to see where my float was… way over there.

I made a few entry/exits with these rockets to see how they’d handle the surf and rocks and they came through with aplomb and no signs of damage. And I tried to ding ’em. (Hey, it’s not like they were mine, you know?)

To sum it up- for a new or light freediver/spearo/swimmer, the Classics demonstrated a very stable and natural kick, sure to please. The flex was free of snap and the side-slippage of other fiber blades never showed itself. The lamination (as in all the blades I had) was first rate and the bend in the blades helped cock the foot to point the toes for a purposeful push.

The Matrix blades belong on every California spearo’s feet. Period. Flexion perfection.

Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself the truth- you spend more time at the surface than below and the fins should reflect that. The Kelpie Mediums give the added dose of camo and had no surface slap, were cramp -free and the bottom left in a hurry when it was time to go. The rails of both the Matrix and Kelpie kept the waterflow over the blade where it belongs, turned on a dime and gave change and stopped you when you thought "whoa!" Flaring the Kelpies for a recoil-absorbing long shot is going to be a treat and, when you push off the bottom, expect not to have to leave either fin in the trash for breaking.

If you have the legs, ego or weight to need the Kelpie Hard models, get set to adjust the depths at which you clear and get used to seeing the bottom quick. Real quick. If you spend your time at depths that routinely make others wince, make it a habit to surface like a sub-launched missile or need to tow the foundation from the dock, place your order now. And don’t ask to borrow mine, thanks very much.

The Hybrids set a new standard for marine motive status. These things just reek cool and performance and do so without the worry of breakage so often seen from other carbon fiber blades. Be it the resin encapsulation used in the vacuum forming process, the Kevlar to carbon ratio in the material’s warp and weft, the shapeof the blade or the alignment of the planets, these things just flat-out perform in such a way as to leave everything else at the beach. Easily one of the best treats for your feets.

The Specialfins website, is replete with product descriptions and information sure to make the technical types happy, the spearo’s mouth water and the casual diver reach for the phone. Contact them and don’t be surprised at the high level of service you are afforded. The service is equal to the performance of the fins- first rate.