The cockpit of the McKee Craft 28 Express is engulfed in a tense silence-everyone is quietly praying for the first strike of the day. Mayhem takes over when three guys scream simultaneously: "Fish on! Fish on! Fish on!" I look over my shoulder to see half of the crew leaning against bent rods, their reel cranks spinning in never-ending 360s, as the other three guys clear their… "Stop right there, Rudow-you can't fish with seven guys on a 28' express," you say.
Good catch, and normally you'd be right. But this is the only boat of this size and design that can handle a crew this big. The reason is simple, and it allows you and me to cut all the BS, all the marketing hype that usually muddies the waters when discussing a new boat. After spending more than 200 hours running Boating Magazine's 2007 project boat to the Mid-Atlantic canyons, barrier island back bays, and inshore wrecks, I can boil the essence of this fishing machine down to one sentence: The biggest cockpit of any boat in its class, period.
Go ahead-try to find a production-built outboard-powered 28' express that has a larger cockpit. I defy you to do it, because such a boat simply doesn't exist. Prior to building this boat, McKee Craft invited me down to its North Carolina plant to help design a hardcore Mid-Atlantic angler's dream boat. My first words: "We need a bigger cockpit. Shrink the cabin and helm deck, and give me fishing space." McKee did. Instead of the common 1⁄3-1⁄3-1⁄3 cabin/helm deck/cockpit layout commonly found on expresses in this class, the McKee dedicates more than half of the boat's usable space to fishing room. Look at the boat in profile, and you'll see that just over half of its waterline length and nearly half of its LOA is aft of the helm deck. Now consider that the forward third of the boat narrows to a razor-sharp entry-great for splitting open the seas, thank you very much-while the aft end maintains the full 9'11" beam. This cockpit is so much larger than usual for a boat of this size that we mounted a Stidd fighting chair to the deck. Even with the chair in place, half a dozen anglers had room to cast, crank, and catch without bumping elbows.
Of course, a sacrifice must be made to gain so much fishing space. Here, it was the cabin. The McKee Craft's cabin is about the size you'd expect to find on a 24' express, with a simple V-berth, head, and basic stowage. The helm deck is also smaller than those found on many similar boats, with helm and passenger's chairs that are farther forward than normal. That means that when the seas kick up, it's not as comfortable to be sitting on the helm deck as it is to sit aft. The captain's comfort level could be boosted by swapping the roto-molded seats on our boat for ladder-backs with armrests, too. This design also means there's no helm deck L-settee, common to this size and type of boat. And thank goodness for that-it's nearly impossible to sit sideways in those seats as the boat runs, anyway. Besides, the livewell unit located just aft of the helm chair was cushioned on top to provide extra seating, and the sink and tackle stowage station was also useful for this purpose.
The gigantic cockpit alone is enough to get any serious angler stoked, but there's more. Check out the macerated fishboxes. When we finally hit maximum capacity on one of the two, it held a mix of giant golden tilefish, mahi-mahi, and tuna and totaled about 500 pounds. Fill both of these boxes to the brim, and you'd better have an entire day set aside to clean fish. Note to overnight and long-distance anglers: Since all voids between the hull and deck of this boat are pumped full of high-pressure foam, these boxes are insulated far better than the norm. In fact, I left a 40-pound bag of ice in one during the heat of summer, and when I returned three days later, half of it was still there. Boston Whaler is the other well-known boat built with an injected foam sandwich construction method, and it also has well insulated fishboxes. The 285 Conquest, however, lists for about $15,000 more than the McKee Craft and can't match the cockpit volume.
You want lots of room for your tools of the trade? There are under-gunwale racks to hold six rods, four gunwale-mounted holders, and a spread of five rocket launchers on the hardtop. Inserts for the fishboxes allow you to lock down half a dozen rods per side. The project boat also had a removable crow's nest, which made spotting flotsam and working birds far easier than usual on a boat of this size. Need more? How about fresh- and raw-water washdowns on quick-disconnect coil-hose fittings for easy cleanup? Three integrated Plano trays and three slide-out drawers for tackle stowage under the freshwater sink/rigging station? A rounded livewell with two dedicated pumps, a main and a backup? Cockpit coaming bolsters? And one other rarely seen feature that boosts fishability: a svelte transom with no bench seat, livewell, fishbox, or other space-eating unit molded in. In fact, with a 6' standup rod, it was possible to clear the back of the outboards, and steer fish away from the props until the final seconds of the fight. Put all of these elements together, and speaking purely of fishability, you have the best 28' outboard-powered express on the water.
In the past, boats that leaned away from cruising and toward fishing generally didn't offer what you'd call eye-popping performance. This has changed in the past few years, thanks in no small part to advancing outboard technologies. The 28 Express takes advantage of this. The seas are calm, and you want to make a 56-mile run to Poor Man's Canyon? Get ready to fish in a hurry, because you could be there in about an hour. The project boat topped out at 54.0 mph (empty and trimmed; 50 mph was a realistic top end when loaded) and cruised comfortably in the low 40s. Throwing down the throttles triggered a neck-snapping surge of power, and climbing the backs of waves didn't slow us down one bit.
Boats with relatively wide beam-to-length ratios, such as this, usually trade in some comfort in the ride to gain the additional interior space. That's true in this case as well, but fortunately McKee outfits the boat with huge Lenco tabs. Put 'em down and get that sharp bow meeting the waves to help smooth out the bumps. Trolling or cruising in a beam sea? Then you'll be glad for that beam and the wide hard chines, which combine to make this an exceptionally stable platform. Hate getting damp? Good thing this hull doesn't throw much spray. Have lots of friends, and hate to turn them down when they ask you to take them fishing? If you're running a McKee Craft 28 Express, just load 'em all into that huge cockpit, and point the bow toward the fish.
Anglers share the same problem: not enough spare time. That means we sometimes fish in less than perfect conditions, which for me this season included a day of trolling through 6-to-8-footers. Now, I don't endorse heading offshore in such conditions, but it's reassuring to know that the McKee Craft 28 Express, with its unsinkable foam-filled hull, can take it-the self-bailing cockpit sheds water quickly, and the 24.5-degree deadrise allows the hull to maintain a solid 25 mph when it gets rough.
Anglers targeting kingfish or other species with live bait will find the livewell to their liking and will especially appreciate the twin 290-quart fishboxes, which are extremely well insulated. Equipped with tight-fitting insulated lids, they provide space to ice down a dozen 50-pound yellowfins with room to spare.
The helm station is positioned forward and allows six anglers elbow room even with a fighting chair in the pit. However, that helm station position does have a drawback: On rough days the ride is toughest for the person standing at the wheel. Other criticisms? The windshield support bracket needs to be beefed up and the cuddy cabin door needs a latch for securing it in the open position.
All in all the boat performed flawlessly, with almost nothing breaking; the only exceptions were a leaky freshwater sink fitting and a washdown pump that went bad near the end of the season. So, what came over the gunwales of the project boat? Marlin, bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, dolphin, wahoo, tilefish, flounder, sea bass, and even swordfish-this boat will give you the freedom to catch those fish, whatever and wherever they may be.
EXTRA POINT: Just how fast can the 28 Express shed water? One day I zigged when I should have zagged into an 8' wave, and 200 to 300 gallons of brine washed into the cockpit. Thanks to well-designed drains and oversize scuppers, it was gone in less than 10 seconds.