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Adrift no more: a lifeboat that sails

Feb 14, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #128
March/April 2003
An industrial designer accustomed to beautifying the interiors of airplanes, airports and trains has turned his attention to developing a lifeboat that can double as a yacht tender. The Portland Pudgy, which may go into production later this year, will be just under 8 feet long and built of roto-molded plastic packed with foam. The trim little vessel, the prototype of which is still being tweaked by designer David Hulbert in his Portland, Maine, workshop studio, resembles a tubby nutshell pram. It has pleasing lines and is as carefully engineered as any high-end, oceangoing yacht.

A profile of the Portland Pudgy shows its daggerboards, detachable rudder, and reducible and removable sprit rig.

It was designed to appeal to sailors who either do not feel comfortable carrying an inflatable raft because of the possibility of failure - recall those instances two years ago in which a disreputable raft-servicing company packed some raft canisters with trash - or are deterred by the expense or want a lifeboat that they can propel, either as a tender or to sail themselves to safety in the event of an extreme emergency.

Image Credit: Courtesy David Hulbert

The Pudgy will feature a fully enclosed canopy. The removable dodger is pictured here. A stern hatch will be added to store the removable rig.

Hulbert was the recipient of a Maine Technology Institute grant, a state-sponsored grant program, after he proposed the idea to build the craft, and he has been developing the Pudgy for the past year and a half. In the last six months, he has successfully sailed it, rowed it and powered it by mounting a 6-hp outboard on the stern. He calls it a combination "dinghy and survival platform."

"I developed the Portland Pudgy concept, because, as an industrial designer and recreational boater, I was concerned for the safety of my family, and was struck by the inadequacy of life jackets and standard dinghies in the icy waters of Maine. No dinghy currently on the world market offers any substantial lifesaving capabilities. The Pudgy will give another level of safety to recreational boaters who do not have the money or storage capacity for an expensive life raft," Hulbert wrote in his grant application.

"Life rafts, as we know them, cannot be propelled. If your boat sinks, you climb into your raft, flip on your EPIRB and wait, drifting. Over the years, there's been a change in the way we view these emergencies. It used to be that when you sailed away from shore, you knew you were on your own. You did everything you could to save yourself. The notion of simply waiting for help was completely foreign," Hulbert explained in an interview in his workshop. "You can sail, row or power the Portland Pudgy. It cannot sink; it has an exposure canopy and numerous watertight hatches for storage. It can be used every day, or it can be used as an emergency lifeboat."


The Pudgy can be rowed, sailed or powered, and is designed to be both a dinghy and a survival platform in emergencies.

The Pudgy features a portable gaff rig, which can be rolled up and inserted into a hatch in the dinghy's transom, much the way lumber schooners loaded wood through hatches in their bows in the 19th century. The base of the dinghy is packed tightly with closed-cell foam. The entire hull is a hard polyethylene shell with a poly foam lining, bonded together in the roto process. The air space between the cockpit area and the hull serves as added flotation and storage space, accessed by tightly sealed, screw-off hatches like you'd see on the deck of a kayak. Hulbert said that he has stood on the gunwales of the Pudgy and found that he still had more than six inches of freeboard. "A lot of dinghies are supposedly unsinkable because of foam in the seats or whatever. But if you fill them with water, you can't operate them; they're useless. Even if this boat is completely full of water, it's still functional," Hulbert said. Like any life raft or lifeboat, sturdy grab lines run the length of the gunwales on both sides.


While Hulbert has not yet made the prototype boat get up on a plane, he expects the final design to have this capability.

The boat is fitted with two daggerboards as well as a removable rudder and tiller - each of which can be cleverly stowed beneath the seats of the dinghy. The daggerboard holes are not capped at the top. You would think that water would splash out the top while the boat is underway. Not according to Hulbert. By adding a pair of raised rims to the underside of the hull on either side of the holes so that - as Bernoulli explained - a vacuum is created by water moving more swiftly over the raised edges than over the holes themselves. Water does not rise into the daggerboard holes, Hulbert said.

Hulbert will likely offer a sea anchor as an option on the Pudgy. He has spoken to Zack Smith of Fiorentino in Newport Beach, Calif., who will consider testing the vessel, with a sea anchor, in heavy-weather conditions.

Hulbert expects to be finished with the prototype, which is built of fiberglass and Elfoam T200, in mid-2003. He hopes to have the dinghies manufactured in Maine through a variety of marine retailers, although he has no firm commitments, he explained. He expects the basic Portland Pudgy dinghy/survival platform to retail for under $1,000 with options such as sailing rig, exposure canopy, sea anchor, and basic electrical system for an illuminated compass, navigation light and power spotlight available at an additional cost.

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