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chosing fins
Oct 12, 2016

Almost everyone has at some point used fins, a snorkel, and a mask. This trio is what most people think of when they consider snorkeling and diving, or just want to splash around in the pool or perhaps a small lagoon. The problem is that, just as with snorkels and masks, many never graduate past using a cheap pair of fins that barely works and quickly breaks. That’s too bad as fins are an important, essential part of the diving and snorkeling experience. Our feet simply aren’t made for propelling the human body through the water. Fins help us do that quickly and effortlessly. With the proper pair of fins, the legs do all the work and hands are only used to make small adjustments.

fins

While fins are important for casual snorkelers and add a lot to the enjoyment of the sport, they are totally essential for scuba diving. With the extra drag of the scuba equipment and the necessity to precisely control movement, having the right set of fins is mandatory. So knowing what is out there, what options are available, and what works best under what conditions is important

When choosing fins

Always remember that with an efficient fin, there will be a direct correlation between how much oxygen and energy you use and how much air you use. This is particularly important for novice divers who will no doubt need to conserve air more than an experienced diver who is relaxed in the water and already has sound air consumption. As with masks, your primary concern when purchasing fins should be fit and comfort.

types of fins

There is a vast array of fins on the market and you will need to consider your level of experience, kicking style and ability, leg power and type of diving you will be doing in order to determine which type of fin will best suit you. Diving fins should neither be too short (like swimming training or boogie boarding fins), or too long (like spear fishing fins). As a general rule, the stronger the leg, the longer and stiffer the fin should be.

However, fins with rigid sides and a flexible middle made up of different materials will generally provide more thrust power with less effort. Many top end fins will incorporate a number of materials in the blade and foot pocket including carbon fibre, graphite, and polymers to maximize the amount of energy transfer from the leg to the fin. Believe it or not, there is a great deal of science that has gone into the manufacture of fins!

 

As a general test for blade stiffness, if you turn a fin upside down with the foot pocket at your shoulder and fin tip held by your fingers and bend the fin 90 degrees, it should be reasonably difficult to maintain in that position. If the blade flexes too easily it will not offer enough power for you, whilst, if it is too stiff and difficult to maintain in a 90-degree position, the blade is likely to be too powerful and difficult to use. Note this test is not possible on a split fin blade, where split fin selection criteria should be based on rigid sides, a blade with at least 2 materials for flexibility and grooving in the blade to enhance water channelling.

 

Full foot versus open heel?

Despite the vast array of choice on the market, there are just two main styles of foot pocket – open heel and full foot. Both types of foot pocket will come with an array of options for blades.

 

Full foot fins

These are usually cheaper than open heal fins, easy to don and less bulky, however, if they are not a perfect fit for you will cause lots of friction issues and blisters.

full foot fins

Never compromise, always go for fit when selecting full foot fins. Do not be talked into buying wet suit socks to ensure a proper fit for full fit fins or be tempted to purchase full foot fins where your toes feel cramped because they are on sale! Ideally, you do not want the top of the foot pocket to come too high on your instep as this may result in friction and chaffing. If the fins feel comfortable and a good fit, try standing up on your tiptoes while wearing them, if your fins stay on at your heel, they will not fall off in the water. Quite simply put, if full foot fins do not fit perfectly do not purchase, you are wasting your money and will live to regret your decision.

 

The downside of a full foot fin is that is the water is cold, they do not offer any thermal protection for your feet. Another negative is, if you are shore diving, you will need to consider where you will be walking as, without boots, your feet will be vulnerable over rock pools and similarly on hot dive decks.

 

Adjustable fins

These are what people generally wear for scuba diving. They don’t have a rubber heel built in. Instead, there is an adjustable strap around the heel that keeps the foot in place. Adjustables are generally worn with diving booties which are pretty much mandatory when diving in even moderately cool water. This means that when you buy a set of adjustable fins, you need to try them on while wearing the boots. A big advantage of adjustables is that the straps can be replaced. If a strap breaks, you don’t lose the (often considerable) investment in a pair of fins

buy open heel fins

As a result of the restrictions on full foot fins, most divers tend to go for an open heel fin type where a neoprene dive boot or dry suit boot (socks) is required to be worn underneath.

diving boots socks
Diving boots (socks)

Open heel fins are more adjustable, comfortable and versatile than full foot fins and provide cushioning and chafing protection, but tend to be bulkier, more expensive and can have complex strap adjustment mechanisms. An open heel fin worn with a dive boot will offer thermal protection in colder water and given that water is a much better conductor of heat than air is, I have never complained about my feet being too warm in tropical waters!

Versatility is key with an open heel fin, the same fin being able to be worn with a pre-fitted dry suit boot or even a pair of trainers (yes, I have seen this!), eliminating the need for multiple fins being required in different conditions. Open heel fins also have the added advantage of providing additional stability and maximum propulsion.

 

In terms of fit, open-heel fins need to feel as though they are holding the boot and the foot in the foot pocket. The foot should not feel as though you can wiggle it easily from side to side and similarly not too much of your boot should stick out of the bottom of the foot pocket. While fit will vary between style and manufacturer, most manufacturers, as Water Foxy provide a shoe size range as a guide for each fin size to make fitting a little easier.

 

Blade type – split fin versus paddle blade?

While all fins are designed to provide forward thrust underwater, there are numerous different blade designs. The blades may have side rails to provide extra stiffness. They may combine soft and firm areas in an effort to provide maximum thrust. The blades may have vents said to reduce drag. Some seem designed on a computer and use geometric shapes whereas others seem inspired by nature. Some have ribs that can make a blade firmer and keep it from wobbling. And there are split fins that create a propeller-like effect said to increase speed at reduced effort. No two pairs of fins are alike.

split feens open heel

Ask any experienced diver or dive professional this question and it will undoubtedly provoke a lively discussion! Whilst paddle blade fins have been around for many years, split fin technology is a relatively recent addition to diving.

 

The whole idea of a split fin is that the blade causes a vortex in the water as you swim along. Also, on the divers upward fin stroke, where minimal propulsion is achieved in any fin, the split blade opens up and allows water to easily pass through. These features essentially provide excellent propulsion for less effort and ensure that a split fin is more efficient than a paddle fin.

In essence, split fins are easy to use and as a result, many divers find that they can conserve up to 40% more air with a split fin over a more traditional paddle blade. People who suffer from cramping, are injured or have weak knees, ankles or back problems will benefit from using split fins because they are so easy to use. Splits also make an excellent snorkeling fin, allowing you to conserve energy and ultimately stay out longer and see more!

Many new or inexperienced divers have ineffective fin techniques (“the bicycle kick”) or are simply not good swimmers. Regardless of your fin technique, with a split fin, you will get somewhere efficiently and this makes the split fin an excellent option for novice divers.

 

With all these positives for split fins what is the catch I hear you say? Well, whilst split fins may be more efficient than paddle blades, they are not as powerful.

What this means is that whilst split fins may be easy to use when the conditions are good, when the conditions turn, you simply will not have the power that a paddle blade fin can offer. In any sort of current, give me my paddle blade fins any day over splits! Because of the extra grunt that a paddle blade will offer, they tend to be the preferred option for most dive professionals when power is key for chasing students, conducting rescues and so on.

 

In summary… What to get?

You really need to assess the type of diving that you intend on doing most of. If this involves cruising around on easy sites with little current, or you are prone to cramping or nursing an old injury, then splits are probably the answer for you.

If however, you want to go on and do more technically demanding diving in conditions that are less than perfect, go for a paddle. If you cannot make your mind up, then have both, that’s what many people do.

Fins come in many sizes and weights. If you travel a lot and like to travel light, that can make a difference. A smaller size fin is a whole lot easier to transport.

fashion fins

If you think that your fins look nice and fashionable, never forget the most important part: the fins must fit well and be comfortable.

 

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