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September 21, 2007

McKee Craft Freedom 24

A Versatile 24-footer that offers plenty of choices for the angler.

Based on the successful launch of its Freedom 28 a couple of years ago, North Carolina-based McKee Craft recently stroked another home run by adding a shorter version of the boat to its lineup. The Freedom 24 not only fishes hard for its size, but is comfortable and safe when Mother Nature decides to throw a curve, as I discovered during a real-world test last summer.

Gentle swells were supplanted by stacked five- to six-footers by the time we reached a series of artificial reefs 20 miles off Carolina Beach. I steered the boat while my hosts, McKee owner Wayne Hewitt and Scott Harris, McKee's vice president for sales and engineering, retrieved baits from the 52-gallon live well and set our spread for trolling. The helm comes standard with a premium offshore wheel with power knob, tilt hydraulic steering and a large mounting area for wide-screen electronics, so I was able to circle the marker buoy while keeping a close eye on the GPS and sonar. The wraparound windshield and rugged factory-installed T-top provide a protected vantage point for operation.

"Although this boat is styled after our Freedom 28, it has a personality all its own," Harris told me as we waited for a strike. "We designed it for serious offshore and inshore fishing with single or dual outboards, and like all McKee Crafts, the 24 is unsinkable and constructed of all-composite materials. The hull and deck are bonded with our Pressure Bonding System to create a single, unitized part that is strong and rigid. And we back it up with a transferable ten-year warranty."

The 24's deck is cambered for rapid self-bailing, and the molded non-skid provides excellent traction. The spacious cockpit is roomy, and a walk-through door and Euro-transom allow more maneuverability aft. The lockable console compartment will house a portable head, and a salt water washdown and 13-gallon fresh water system are also included in the base price. In fact, options for the Freedom 24 are limited, as McKee prefers to sell its boats as a comprehensive package rather than charge for individual add-ons. Among the notable exceptions are a flush-mount compass, weather-curtain package and a foldaway rear bench seat.

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SPECIFICATIONS

LOA: 24'
Beam: 8' 6"
Draft: 1' 10"
Weight: 3,600 lbs.
Water: 13 gals.
Deadrise: 24.5 ¿
Fuel: 180 gals.
Max hp: 400
Price (as tested): $71,995

Aside from its structural integrity, the Freedom 24 also shines with fishing features. The combination leaning post/live well features an integral two-drawer tackle box and three-drawer tackle center for convenient access, along with a backrest and foldaway footrest. Rod holders are strategically positioned in the covering boards and across the transom, with more on the standard T-top, which includes outriggers, electronics box, spreader lights and overhead lighting.

In conditions such as we encountered during our test, the 3 1/2-inch toe kick and wraparound cockpit bolsters are welcome features. And when the fish are biting, the twin 170-quart macerated fishboxes will also come in handy. Both boxes, along with the cavernous 300-quart compartment in the foredeck, are fully insulated, and the hatches are equipped with heavy-duty, pneumatic rams. Eight-inch, pop-up bow, stern and spring cleats give the 24 a clean (and tangle-free) look. The recessed stainless-steel bow rail and Euro-transom add to the contemporary profile.

Our test boat was set up for competitive king mackerel fishing, and was powered by twin 200-hp Evinrude Ficht Ram outboards. The hole shot made you hang on, and our top speed was 52.8 mph with 138 gallons of fuel. Range was impressive, as well. At a cruising speed of 40.5 at 4000 rpm, the 24 is capable of running 282 nautical miles with a ten-percent safety reserve. Despite the growing seas, our ride home was soft and mostly dry, thanks to the boat's 24 1/2-degree deadrise, weight (3,600 pounds dry) and fully injected, closed-foam flotation.

In a perfect world, every fishing day would be blessed with fair skies and following seas. In the real world, however, that's not always the case, which is why the Freedom 24 will be appreciated by hardcore fishermen around the country. It truly lives up to its name.

McKee Craft, Fairmont, NC; (910) 628-0926; www.mckeecraft.com.