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July 01, 2014

Fishing Boat Review: Contender 32ST

“Nail it, and the boat jumps on plane in seconds, quickly taking on the flat running angle typical of a well-balanced step hull.”­

If you’re an avid fisherman, you know the name and the reputation. Contender Boats has been winning offshore tournaments for 30 years, and with the introduction of the 32ST, the company has taken another major step forward in design, construction, performance and quality. “Step” is the operative word because the new-generation Contenders are built on high-performance step hulls.

“We offer five models in our fleet in both traditional ­deep-V and step versions,” said Les Stewart Jr., Contender’s vice ­president of sales and marketing. “Stepped hulls account for nine of every 10 boats ordered in those models.”

The 32ST — and its more family-oriented sister ship, the 32LS — is built on a 241/2-degree deadrise, twin-step hull with a pair of lifting strakes extending the length of the ­running surface. The strakes work in concert with the steps to reduce wetted area, delivering more speed while burning less fuel. Our fully rigged test boat and its new owner were on hand during the two days we fished and ran it through its ­paces. The lines are unmistakably Contender: aggressive, sleek and modern. The gelcoat gleams, the pipework on the ­optional hardtop is a work of art, and the helm pod recalls those found on big convertible sport-fishers. The ­impeccable fit and finish reflects an attention to detail that remains a driving force at ­Contender.

The console on the 32ST, lower and wider than older models, provides excellent visibility in all directions, and room to spare for two 15-inch monitors, engine gauges, and controls. There’s ample room to walk forward, even with outfits stowed in the five vertical rod holders on each side. The interior holds a fully lined and finished head compartment with a large electrical panel with breakers and battery switches, and lockable rod storage. A comfortable molded-in seat for two sits at the front of the structure.

Leaning posts are available with a ­pull-out cooler or an optional livewell to augment the two 40-gallon livewells in the transom. All deck hardware is ­heavy-duty stainless steel, including the pop-up cleats and bow light. Forward deck compartments include two full-length rod lockers and two large insulated fish boxes. Two more 96-gallon fish boxes sit aft on either side of the bilge-access hatch. Livewell plumbing options include in-line pumps or a high-flow sea-chest system for tournament work. The list of available options allows an extensive level of customization.

I fished the 32ST out of Manasquan Inlet on what would be the perfect day to evaluate the boat. We ran to a lump about 5 miles offshore in a light chop to drift for fluke, but a rain squall followed by a strong easterly blow that built quickly, changing the conditions.

The F300 outboards proved a great match for the hull — light and responsive. Power up gently, and the bow rise is ­modest, and you’re on plane effortlessly. Nail it, and the boat jumps on plane in seconds, quickly taking on the flat running angle typical of a well-balanced step hull. There is rarely need to use the trim tabs other than to level an uneven load; the faster you push it, the better it performs.

In a chop the steps trap air, and the boat glides above it. Response to the helm is quick, whether making minor course corrections or throwing it hard over at high speeds. We touched 60 mph at  5,800 rpm, and at a brisk 41 mph cruise, we were getting a surprising 1.7 mpg.

After the squalls passed, the east wind picked up. ­Short-drifting an offshore lump, we ran into a head sea to position the boat, then turned broadside to drift. The boat took the head seas with ease, and when we started a drift, the hull settled in, exhibiting surprisingly little roll for such a sharp hull design. Even as the seas built to 4 to 6 feet, the hull refused to snap roll — a welcome surprise because the fluke were biting pretty well.

On the way back to the inlet, ­running in following seas at 3,500 rpm and 35 mph, the boat climbed the backs but fell into the troughs of the bigger combers, so I pushed the throttle up to 4,500 and found a more comfortable ride. With a step hull, when you think you should be slowing down to accommodate sea conditions, frequently the correct move is more speed. It might seem counterintuitive, but it works.

With the 32ST, Contender offers a tournament-ready thoroughbred with a level of fit and finish that puts it among the best. The performance is exhilarating, the fishability unquestionable. And if you want it all in a more family-friendly ­package with plush forward and aft ­seating, check out the 32LS version.