I recently purchased a Bark pro-elite 12'6" Contender from Carolina Paddleboard in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. I had been riding a Bark pro-elite 12'6" Competitor. Before that a Hobie 12'6" elite standup paddleboard.
Surftech BARK Contender Specs
I've been paddling as an "Average Jane" for a few years and come from an endurance triathlon background. I believe there is no substitute for time on the water, but there does come a time when a new board just makes water-time more efficient and most of all more fun. I'd reached that point with the Competitor, it just felt heavy. It was reliable, I knew it and it knew me, inside and out.
The 12'6" Bark boards I considered were; a newer Competitor, the new Candace Appleby, the Phantom and the Contender. I built a spread sheet to compare their Nose Width, Mid Width, Tail Width, Thickness, Volume and Weight. I looked at the type of paddler they were best for (beginner to pro racer) and what type of paddling I do. Cost was also taken into account and what I could sell (how many souls do I have?) to pay for a new board with.
I wanted a board that was lighter and sleek and I could race with it, but was stable and comfortable for longer hauls (think Chattajack 31 or the Cape Cod Challenge.) I wanted to be able to feel "rails" and have little baby "foot wells." I wanted a jack-of-all trades board; one that raced well but would not have me hesitant if the water was rough (think Cold Stroke Classic.) I wanted less volume, lower to the water line, and less width.
The Contender fit the bill. I chose the Contender after riding it twice. Once on flat glass, once in some choppy, swelly washing machine water with frequent boat wake. I never felt unstable and actually found the rough conditions fun.
The nose width on the Contender is 6.49" down from 9.5" on the Competitor. The mid width is 26.85", down from 29"; same with volume, down to 203 from 233. It's not necessarily that much lighter, maybe a pound. I think what saves the stability on this smaller width and volume board is the tail width. The Contender actually went up to 16.7" from 16.5" on the Competitor. So it has less volume and is thinner top and middle, but not at the tail.
What I think this board does is gives someone who's 130-180 pounds the same industry standard Bark performance of the Competitor which fits both small or large paddlers. The Contender is sleeker and less mass to move for an average sized person. I'm 5'6" and anywhere from 130-145 pounds at any given time (winter pounds are killers.) The Contender is actually thinner than the Candice Appleby by just a smidgen. The Contender has my desired "foot wells" and I can feel the rails.
When riding the board, I felt it didn't quite "plow" through head-on chop and wake as much as the wider Competitor did. But that made sense with the more narrow nose and volume. It wasn't unstable, just different. With the wind and choppy swells at my back, the board was like a dream, it just kind of flowed. Paddle, paddle, flow…… I could look behind me without wobbling and felt like I had complete control of the board. In side chop and wind, with the board being thinner overall, I felt like it was more natural and easy to adjust my body and stance. I felt like the board was more responsive where as with the bigger board, I sometimes felt like I was riding a barge.
I am not a board shaper, didn't get paid by Bark to review the Contender, and I don't place overall at races. I'm not a surfer girl nor have the skills to compete in Hawaii (yet.) I know there are other board manufacturers that have phenomenal products, I just like Bark. They make custom boards for pro-athletes, beginners, weekend warriors and kids. They all perform. They hold their value.
Bottom line, I love my new Bark and feel like the Contender fits me. I feel the time I spend paddling and training will be matched by the performance this board can deliver. It's light and fast and stable, but not so fragile that it can't hold up to constant load-ups and drives to the water. I'm not afraid of someone touching it. I love the red, black and white colors. I feel like it matches my experience; I'm not new to the sport of paddling, I can appreciate it's construction and design.
The Contender Is like getting a tri-bike after using your road bike in triathlons. You can feel its just better. It fits me to a "T."
I never felt unstable and actually found the rough conditions fun.