As many readers know, I began making wetsuits for triathlon in 1986, and selling them in 1987. It did not take long for competitors to spring up. The earliest I remember was another wetsuit company based in Southern California (as was I) called Aleeda. They hung around for awhile, but they were a surf company by pedigree and retreated back to surfing after a few years.
The stickiest, peskiest competitor was Ironman, as in, the Ironman Wetsuit. For the first 15 years of its existence the Ironman Corporation – aka World Triathlon Corporation – thought of itself as a licensing company rather than as an event production company (it's current and more successful focus). One of the longer running Ironman licenses was to a wetsuit manufacturer out of New Zealand, with a factory there, and these guys did a nice job. The first Ironman Wetsuits popped up in 1993. One of the founders and current owners of Xterra Wetsuits, Keith Simmons, was a principal figure in the original Ironman brand wetsuit in the United States.
The benefit to many of a license deal is the ability to leverage the strength of the license. The downside is the cost of the license, and in the case of this company the abject lack of any building of its own brand. With the Timex Ironman watch, two brands are being built. With the Ironman wetsuit only one brand is built. The eventual (and still) owner of Ironman wetsuits – Tim Moxey – made the very hard decision to cut the umbilical with Ironman and forge ahead with his own brand, and this he did in 2005. That brand name he chose was blueseventy, emblematic of the medium in which this brand's products are used, and the fact that 70 percent of the world is covered by it.
This is still a New Zealand-based company but it's truly international, with offices in the U.S. and in the U.K. In my opinion it does not enjoy the overall corporate revenues of companies like Aqua Sphere, TYR and Speedo for the same reason Catlike and Louis Garneau helmets do not enjoy road bike helmet sales of Giro: Because they eschew, or cannot find robust placement in, the mass market channel. But if you look at blueseventy's products – it's wetsuits, swim skins, goggles – one can make a case for this brand as a straight-up competitor to most full service swim companies.
Its goggles, like the $18 Nero and the $12 Element, are among my favorites. Find me another $12 goggle this good. Its swim skins are and have been industry leading, and blueseventy might be a reason, more than any other, for the pullback in the legality of the more aggressive of these suits in FINA competition – blueseventy made the "mistake" of creating suits that were just too fast for their own good.
This leads us to its wetsuits, and the blueseventy Helix may have its equals but not its betters. I have not found a faster wetsuit, nor a suit that has more of a high performance feel when you're swimming in it. I do not know and I have not asked but I cannot imagine ROKA did not look at the Helix closely before choosing its own design features. Each of these companies – ROKA and blueseventy – uses a similar strategy in the arms of its fullsuits, and I think it's notable the change in nomenclature and explanation by companies like these. Blueseventy touts its AQUA FEEL forearms, made with, "a permeable NeroTX fabric allowing the swimmer to feel the water through the suit. An increased awareness for the position of the arm in the water encourages better technique, greater power and reduces the risk of injury."
I think that over a period of a decade or more it's just become difficult for wetsuit companies to continue to state that pulling or catch panels actually do pull more water than wetsuits made without them. But it's also become difficult for these companies to just leave the arm alone, for fear of being out-featured by a competitor. So these companies are focusing on forearms that are more proprioceptive. Do you need proprioception? Speaking for myself – and maybe I'm just not good enough at swimming to appreciate the feature – I can't feel myself making any kind of technical adjustment due to these panels. I can't measure the benefit in my swim times. Nevertheless, this is the angle blueseventy, Zone3 and ROKA are taking, three of the five wetsuit companies overviewed in the last month.
That said – me? – I'm more interested in the basic features of the suit, stuff like, does it fit? Does the neckline and wrist resist water entry? Is the neck comfortable – does it choke or chafe me? Is it comfortable in the shoulders and elbows. Are my movements hindered? Is my body floated in the right places, but not floated in areas that make me fight the suit in order to swim efficiently and with economy of motion? Does the suit hug me in the midsection, which I like, but can I exit the suit quickly, or will I fight while trying to get the suit down over my hips? Does the suit resist tearing in the high-stress areas, most notably in the wrist, the calf and in the lower back? The answer is yes, or thumbs up, times all those questions. But that's to be expected of a wetsuit company that's been at the top of the heap for 20 years.
The one thing I would say about a lot of these suits I'm reviewing in this series – those by blueseventy, ROKA, Zone3 and number of suits to come – is that they are great fits for those of average morphology and who are shorter in the torso. This contrasts with the Aquaman ART, and the De Soto T1, who'll be more forgiving if you are a "special needs" athlete like me, who is not the svelte specimen you might not always have been or aspire to be, or if you tend toward a longer torso. In this case it's going to be a bit of a chore to get some of these other suits up, zipped and with room in the pattern for an easy arm recovery. You should pay attention to these pattern differences when deciding on a wetsuit. Me, while I'm "torsoey" rather than leggy, I'm still good in a Helix, it's still fast for me, but I've been putting on triathlon wetsuits since 1986 and I know how to get a snug wetsuit on and make it earn its keep.
The Helix is a $700 wetsuit and it's worth every penny of that assuming this suit is a good size match for you. It really is one of the signature wetsuits out there. The blueseventy Reaction, at $420, gives very little away to the Helix. It would be understandable if you put the two wetsuits on and were scratching your head trying to figure out which is the better. The Fusion is a $320 fullsuit and this is where you're going to be able to tell the difference. In my opinion, I would go out to dinner one time fewer this month and devote that money to the Reaction. You want a wetsuit that is built on the Helix patterns and with the Helix rubber.
Wonder why I'm not talking about this company's sleeveless wetsuits? The pic above, Helix leading, is the WTS men's race from last year in San Diego (image by our own, incomparable, Tim Carlson, as is the image highest above). See any sleeveless? No, you don't see any sleeveless, and if you saw the entire men's field you'd not see any. There's a for a reason for that, and really the reason should not even matter. The picture tells you everything you need to know.
Read more about blueseventy's excellent wetsuits here.