Editor’s Note: This review was originally published in December 2005. Since that time this gear has been used seasonally and continues in use today. As I pulled it out of my storage container the other day it dawned on me that any gear that lasts five years and is still serviceable needs to be revisited. Enjoy.
As I said in the preview for this article, I’m not a Navy SEAL. Never have been, and am too old to ever think about it now. In fact, I’ve never been in the Navy. I’m an Army vet and a cop. Where do I get my swimming expertise? Well, if you can call it expertise, I got it the old fashioned way: swimming. I learned how to at the grand old age of four, taking my swim test in the ocean surf in Ocean City, Maryland, no less, and I’ve been attached to the water ever since. As an avid scuba diver, I’ve learned to appreciate equipment that makes my enjoyment of the water safer and more pleasurable. I’d have never thought that the equipment used by “original frogmen” would do that, but it proved me wrong.
For snorkeling and general water safety, the AquaLung Combat Swimmer’s or Scout Vest is ideal. For snorkeling and scuba diving, the Rocket Fins are fantastic (and really build up your leg endurance). For general playing in and around the water, the AquaSphere Goggles – imported to the U.S. by AquaLung – are the most comfortable I’ve found. Let’s look at each of them…
The biggest surprise to me was the AquaLung Rocket Fins. These “old UDT frogman fins” have always looked clunky and unnecessarily bulky to me. The instructor at my local dive shop always snickered when I asked why he stocked them. “Some of the old Navy guys insist on them.” Since I live in a Navy community, there are plenty of “old Navy guys” still around, and as a result, that dive shop sells plenty of these fins. But why? When I was at a lake with my wife while she did qualification dives for her Open Water Scuba certification, I saw a whole team of divers, all of whom had these fins. Their answer for having them was simply when I asked them why: “Because they were donated.” As it turns out, they were all in the Navy and DRMO (Defense Reutilization Management Office) had given their ship a bunch of these fins for recreational use.
Taking a look at them from a purely objective point of view I noticed a few things that seemed good design features. At the tip of the fin and at the back of the strap are holes to make these fins easy to carry hooked on a single finger. The point is that carrying them is easier than grabbing both straps and having your hand tied up with just fins. Further, as I examined them closer, I saw that they had the same rigid outer edges as most older recreational fins. But, since they were also much wider, the amount of surface pushing water during a kick cycle was increased. I recently learned that with most fins 70% of the effort is wasted as the water being moved washes around the sides of the fin instead of off the tip – which is where you get your push from. Doing the math, I realized that the extra width of these fins reduces the loss – or increases the efficiency of – each kick cycle by as much as 20% – and you really feel that in your legs. The last design feature I had pointed out to me was that the foot pocket was made large enough to fit on over regular boots; not scuba boots, or wetsuit boots, but regular combat boots. While that may not do a recreational scuba diver any good at all, it doesn’t seem to hurt. As big as that pocket is, my feet (in scuba boots) were still quite comfortable.
Now let’s take a look at the Scout Swimmer’s Vest. This horse-collar type vest is made of 1000 denier nylon, has a large utility pocket on the front and redundant CO2 manual filling. There is also an oral inflation tube that opens via a screw in / out end. Just in case you overfill the vest with the CO2 cylinders (because no one has lungs that strong), there is an Over-Pressure Release Valve that keeps the vest from bursting – because, well, at that point it would be useless, right? Actually, even worse, if it busts it’s just extra weight for you to try to stay afloat with.
The vest is designed to be worn deflated, and then inflated when the need arises. To inflate the vest is easy: just yank the fill cord which opens the CO2 cartridge and fills the vest. Because “two is one; one is none”, there are two CO2 cylinder fill devices. With one on either side you can pull a cord with whichever hand you have free and immediately enjoy 18 pounds of positive buoyancy. Is eighteen pounds enough? I would certainly think so. I’m not a lean mean fighting machine, but I’m far from fat. Still, if I put on a 3mm wetsuit, it takes twelve pounds of weight to get me neutrally buoyant (so I float at eye level). Without the wetsuit, that twelve pounds will be enough to make me sink. However, the buoyancy provided by the Combat Swimmer’s Vest would be enough to keep me afloat. So, I translate that into everyday wear and what I would have on my boat. Regular clothes, tennis shoes (or deck shoes), wallet, two knives, keys, SureFire flashlight, cell phone, challenge coin, lighter, watch. The Doctor’s office gives me a seven-pound allowance for everything when I get weighed. I always argue for a larger allowance, but I don’t think I get anywhere near that eighteen pound mark. If I fell into the water with all that on, I’d have to ditch it quick to keep from sinking. With the Combat Swimmer’s Vest on, all I’d have to do is yank one of the CO2 releases and I’d be afloat with all my gear intact.
The last item I was able to try out was the third necessary part of this trio: the fins support mobility; the vest supports flotation; now I just needed to be able to see where I was going. The AquaSphere Seal Mask – imported by AquaLung – have proven themselves excellent for all surface or near-surface water activities. For swimming in general they are excellent. The lens curves just around the corner of my eyes allowing for an unhindered field of view. The frame is semi-rigid which means it can curve to the contours of my face. The skirt is soft silicone and seals well to my face. This goggle is one of the most comfortable I’ve ever worn for swimming, skiing, tubing, or boating in general. The only reason I couldn’t use it scuba diving is because it doesn’t cover the nose and there would be no way to equalize the pressure inside.
So, the fins? I’m a convert. They are in my dive bag and I’ll use them for all future dives. No longer will I laugh or ogle the “old Navy guy” fins. The vest? Excellent piece of water safety equipment. Anyone who works on or near the water would be well served to have one of these on. It’s comfortable and unobtrusive and just may save your life. The goggles? Excellent piece of swim gear. Comfortable like no other goggle I’ve ever worn, with a field of view that compares to most dive masks I’ve tried. All in all I was quite pleased with the equipment I was able to try.
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