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Whitecaps, whales and the right boat

You can learn a lot about a boat when it starts gusting up and a sea begins to build. Does the boat want to knock your fillings out? How well does she track? Are the passengers comfortable, or are their knuckles starting to turn white? Most important, is she seaworthy?

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Seven of us, including a yellow lab named Seamus, recently ran out of Annisquam, Mass., as guests aboard Pete Shea's 35-foot Mitchell Cove on one of those mornings when what was forecast and what we found at water level represented different realities.

In the span of a week, summer seemingly had fled and fall arrived, and with it a capful of wind from the northeast and a lively sea. "All we need now is snow," someone quipped. A good morning to see what a boat is made of.

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"These are the days you wish you had the weatherman with you," says Tim Coleman, a longtime angling writer who fishes with Shea in New England in summer and Key West, Fla., in winter. "Put him on the bow and say, 'We only have 30 miles to go.' "

But the right boat, captain and crew turned what could easily have been a washout or an uncomfortable day into a memorable one. We ran offshore in 3- to 5-footers in a freshening breeze, with plenty of water on the windshield and plenty more sailing over the pilothouse. Conditions ranged from sloppy to rough, depending on your frame of reference.

The waves were steep and white-capped, but the lobster-boat hull shouldered them aside nicely without pounding or shuddering, and with no cavitation. Surefooted. You could feel the weight of the boat under your feet. Shea ran her between about 13.5 and 15 knots.

Our destination was a stretch of hard bottom about 9-1/2 miles off Rockport, Mass., where the water drops to about 240 feet and there's plenty of current and plenty of life - shoals of herring and everything that feeds on them, from cod and haddock to tuna and whales.

After a lifetime on the water, Shea, a 70-year-old retired Gloucester lawyer, knew what he wanted in his latest Irish Fin. "Seaworthiness," says Shea, who has owned a dozen boats in 50 years, from a 19-foot Lyman Islander to a 43-foot Post. "And the look of the boat. That's important to me. Reliability. And the hull is thick," he says, holding his thumb and index finger almost an inch apart. "It's safe, comfortable. A great fishing platform and good-looking to boot."

And the safety and peace of mind afforded by the ample freeboard and oversized scuppers was demonstrated whenever a 5- or 6-foot foot swell barreled under the beam or lifted the bow.

The Mitchell Cove 35 hull was designed by Calvin Beal Jr. and built by David Schlaefer in Bernard, Maine. She's powered by a 500-hp Yanmar diesel supplied by Mack Boring. The hull is solid glass, and the cabin is cored with Divinycell. This is her seventh season on the water.

The 35 has a significantly larger footprint than Shea's previous boat - a 32-foot Mitchell Cove built as a commercial lobster boat - and the fit and finish is yacht-quality, thanks to William and David Colbert.

In addition to being Shea's son-in-law, William Colbert, who also fished with us, is now a boatbuilder in New Hampshire. Colbert owns Grey Barn Boatworks in Newton, N.H., which turns out the lovely North Shore 22.

Shea wanted a boat that was safe, comfortable and good-looking. And he got it. "I've yet to hear anything negative about this boat," says Duke Porter, a retired fireman who has mated for his friend for close to 30 years. "And you know how guys are - they'll tell you." You might not tell Duke, though - he strikes me as a no-nonsense guy, especially with a fillet knife in his hand. He and Shea have been fishing together so long that the Irish Fin skipper refers to him as "my bald-headed wife."

We fished to the music of the scuppers while all around us small pods of minke whales breached and rolled and blew like seagoing locomotives amid whitecaps and gulls. At one point during the morning a school of tuna romped across the surface, with a posse of seabirds in pursuit.

"We've got our own private aquarium out here," says Shea, holding a rod under his arm and gazing at the scene like the rest of us.

We caught more than two dozen cod and a dozen or so haddock - not a bad haul, given the conditions. And cranking them up from 230-plus feet took a bit of Norwegian steam. The next day, my 10-year-old son said, "Dad, my arm hurts." So did mine. But it was the good kind of ache.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.