HEAD to HEAD:


Mares Dragon

Top dump valves - one of two remote-controlled dumps is matched by a manual dump

pull-out weight pouches secured by patented buckles

Air Trim control is neat yet chunky. The oral inflation tube is stowed above it.


AUTOMATIC GEARBOXES IN CARS, tumble-driers, microwave ovens, a computer in every home - all things they said would never catch on. The fact is that we would still be living in caves if it were not for the few far-sighted people who could see that one day there would be a shortfall in world cave supply.
When you have just learnt to dive and been taught to control your buoyancy by raising a corrugated hose, you are unlikely to want to buy a new BC that doesnt have one. But these corrugated hoses should go the same way as starting handles, mangles, typewriters and cooking over the hearth. You dont need one on your drysuit, so why have one on your BC Surely an inflation valve and a dump-valve would be enough
Two rival Genoese manufacturers have gone further. They have added what they see as a degree of sophistication, in the hope of wooing divers away from their mindless infatuation with that corrugated rubber hose.
Mares calls its system Air Trim (AT). Down the road at the Cressi factory, the designers have come up with the Flight Control System (FCS).
AT is worked pneumatically whereas FCS is fly-by-wire - it has a mechanical connection operated by a mechanical wire link. Both systems work remarkably well, and when I was recently sent two new BCs with these respective systems fitted, it seemed only right to compare them head-to-head.
Perhaps I should say head-to-Head, as Mares products are now distributed locally by Head UK.
I have always liked Cressi BCs. They give good surface support while avoiding the trap of being bulky under water.
The new J101 follows this ethos. It has a lightweight (420 denier) buoyancy-cell in the shape of an inverted T.
Under water, air for maintaining neutral buoyancy is lodged high behind the neck, and when the BC is fully inflated, big areas under the arms give perfect surface support in armchair style. Although in size M that is not quite 11kg of lift, its enough because its in the right place, low down under the water.
The wide cummerbund is separate from this buoyancy cell but the 5cm-wide strap, closed with a large pinch-clip over it, is threaded through loops in the inverted T.
If you dont loosen this as and when required, the jacket will tend to hug you closely if you inflate it fully. Its easy to tighten up while under water. The hard backpack spreads wide behind the hips and is covered with a thin cushion.
The J101 weighs less than 3kg in size M.

Predatory insect
The Mares Dragon AT is much more substantial and, at about 4.5kg in size M, about 50% heavier, although it is made from similar 420 denier nylon. It is plush-lined to make it comfortable for use with dive skins or lightweight wetsuits, and has a neoprene padded collar. If you dive in water warm enough to dispense with a suit, this is the obvious choice.
The Dragon again has a buoyancy-cell in the shape of an inverted T, but this one is bigger in that it has small extensions that pass over the shoulders, and two extra parts that allow air, over and above that which might be lodged up near the shoulders, to sit either side of the tank during horizontal underwater swimming, in the manner of the old dragonfly design.
A dragonfly is a predatory insect with four wings but the term dragonfly caused such a furore among BC manufacturers that Mares dropped it.
The hard backpack with hip support is hidden behind a big cushion, which even has a beaver-tail that can be used if you need it, or folded up out of the way. Because the harness is completely separate, there is no uncomfortable torso squeeze when the BC is fully inflated.
Its cummerbund has a huge degree of adjustment, so it also suits those who are less high and more mighty than me.
The Dragon AT provides around 18kg of maximum lift in size M, a lot more than the J101, but I noticed no real difference in my ride-height while using a standard aluminium 12 litre tank at the surface. It seems enough is enough.
Both BCs have two large side pockets. The Dragon pockets are slightly smaller yet more accessible, because the zip toggles run to the front when closed, making them easier to locate and use.
Cressi BCs have always had very straightforward and sensible integrated-weight systems, and the J101 is no exception. On each side is a fold-out pocket closed with a pinch-clip. There is no separate weight-pouch. Undoing the pinch-clip lets the pocket unfold, and the weight (block or shot pouch) drops out of the hole in the bottom.
Its a perfect arrangement for use in an emergency but a lot less than perfect when the time comes to hand your weights up to the guy in the pick-up boat, because you simply cant. It may be relatively easy to add weight when high and dry but in the water it is all too easy for the weights to tumble out before you can get a grip on them. I found that the pockets happily took around 4kg of lead each.
Mares formerly used a unique integrated-weight system with pouches held in place by a fixed stud and spring release called MRS (Mares Release System).
The Dragon AT uses MRS Plus, reminiscent of all the integrated-weight pouches with quick-release buckles now used by its other competitors worldwide. I am not sure if this is an improvement or not. Mares must have its reasons for changing from what was an effective, precise arrangement.


The Cressi J101

Flight Control thrusts forward uncompromisingly

the drop-down pocket weight-release, with oral inflation tube stowed in a pocket above

top dump valves - a single remote-controlled dump is matched by a manual dump


Red toggles
With weights in their own pouches, you pull on the two red toggles to release them. Its easy to pass them up to the boat, but should you need to drop them in an emergency you will need to replace the pouches and probably use a conventional weightbelt in the meantime. The pouchesare claimed to take up to 6kg each.
Both Cressi and Mares products come with a single tank camband with a choice of slots to help you choose the trim. Neither have any additional pockets for trim-weights, though the Mares website does mention them. Both BCs have two large stainless steel D-rings at the front shoulders and at the bottom edges of the buoyancy-cell.
The Mares bottom D-rings are positioned closer to the front. Both have auxiliary dump-valves mounted at the top of the buoyancy cell on the right-hand side, operated by a toggle at the end of a cord threaded conveniently through to the front shoulder strap.
Which brings us to the buoyancy remote controls. Both are fed with traditional direct-feed hoses from the first stage of the regulator, and both have hoses long enough to thread discreetly out of the way through the jacket.
The Mares Air Trim system uses pneumatic power, so it will work only if you have gas in your tank. That should not be a worry, because if you had none you could still dump air manually on the way up and inflate orally by blowing into an inflation tube, like a longer version of those supplied with life-jackets on airliners.
Contrary to what some people with agendas might say, you can use the controls to inflate the BC as sensitively as with a conventional direct-feed control. Its the same with the remote control for the dump-valve - you can release a dribble or the lot.
The control mechanism is surreptitiously located conveniently near to where your appendix might be. The two controls are differentiated both in colour and shape, with divers Braille to help tell one from the other.
The system is a delight to use, and although the control is big in a sort of Lego style, it never gets in the way.
It operates two dump-valves simultaneously, one at the upper left shoulder and one at the lower right back. This equates to efficient operation regardless of whether youre sprinting head-down or descending gracefully feet-first, and air is dumped on the way up whatever your attitude, unless you happen to be lying on your back and face-up - an unlikely scenario unless youre demonstrating how to blow bubble rings while ascending!
Cressis Flight Control uses a conventional direct-feed inflation button built into its remote control. To dump air, you push a sliding knob to drag a control wire connected to the upper left dump. It works, though I prefer to pull on the toggle of the right dump, probably because that is what Im used to (theres a bit of caveman in all of us!).
There is a conventional lower dump-valve with a toggle on the end of a cord threaded through to the front of the jacket for fast head-down descents.
My main grievance with the Cressi system is the way the control protrudes forward from the BC in a loud and proud manner. It got me into a lot of misunderstandings with divers standing in front of me on the boat with backs turned, waiting to jump into the water. I also became a close friend of someone who had failed to understand that this was a peculiarity of the J101 design, not something for which I had opted.
Why on earth did the Cressi designers not arrange for the Flight Control to pass across the abdomen, rather than providing a convenient place for a diver to hang his towel
The Cressi J101 is sleeker and lighter with plenty of surface buoyancy, although less than the Mares Dragon AT. You must decide whether the inability to pass up weights to a boat is a problem. It all depends on how much weight you use. For me, the J101 is spoilt only by the cockiness of the Flight Control System.
The Mares Dragon AT takes up a lot more space in your bag. Although it weighs more, it needs a little more weight to see it under the water and there is a little more resistance when swimming.
The Cressi J101 takes less room in the bag, yet is intended for use with a heavier-grade wetsuit.
The MRS Plus integrated-weight system seems a little ordinary. The Mares Air Trim buoyancy-control system may be thought problematic because of the complexity of its pneumatic system, but it seems less likely to fail than a system that uses mechanical connections.
Is the throttle or clutch cable on your car more likely to fail than the hydraulic brakes There certainly is no sign of any bulkiness to the plumbing within the Dragons bag.
Both products have merit in that they do away with that corrugated hose. Price speaks for itself. The Cressi J101 costs£280. The Mares Dragon AT MRS Plus costs£400 (AT) or£330 (Ergo). Both come in five sizes XS to XL.

  • Cressi-sub, 01484 711113, www.cressi-sub.net
  • Mares, 01539 724 740, www.mares.com