the road to (pudgy) portland

the road to (pudgy) portland

BJ Porter tells a fat tale…

“Here’s a picture of several anarchists fondling one while making smartass and disparaging remarks at the Providence Boat Show last year. The anarchist in the back (who I will not identify unless he chooses to come forward) sorta looks like he’s about to hurl in it, which I think accurately reflects his impression of the boat.

The question you have to ask yourself, is that if you DO get shipwrecked and have to use it to stay alive, do you think you can spend a week at sea with a bag over your head? Because that thing is PAINFULLY fugly. Heavy & ugly; I can not imagine it could get out of it’s own way.

On the plus side, if memory serves from the feel of the deck and hull you SHOULD be able to easily use it as a cutting board to fillet any flying fish that are not too repelled by it’s hideous appearance to fall into the boat.”  – B.J. Porter in Cruising Anarchy, April 6 2008.

Isn’t the internet grand?  All the wonderful stuff you spew out there, captured for posterity to someone can throw it back at your head two years later.
So last June I drove up to Portland, Maine to pick up my very own Portland Pudgy from the factory.  How quickly things change in two years.  This article is a brief overview of my “Road to Damascus” moment, where I went from hating these things to buying one of these things and coming to love it – and what I learned along the way.

The Need
Our family spends a lot of time cruising in the summer, pretty much every weekend we can which is almost all of them.  Right now we’re coastal cruisers, but some day hope to take some time to see the world.  But even today two children now 13 and 10 we are getting to the point where they have more independence and can sometimes go their own way.  A few years back we bought a small sailing dink which they loved but outgrew.  Needless to say I didn’t fit in it either; it was strictly a toy for the kids.  Looking forward though our thought was for a “second car” for the boat, an expedition vehicle that we could use so the kids could take off and explore harbors and beaches or a separate group could leave the boat without stranding everyone else.  Also a backup dinghy in case something happened to the RIB – be it theft, loss, punctured tubes, deflation or mechanical problems nothing says “your vacation sucks” when you can’t get off the boat any more.

Our requirements?  It would need to fit a couple of people while being able to row well, sail reasonably, be impervious to beaching on rocks and sands, stow easily and be manageable by a couple of older kids.  Motoring ability was not a real factor since we expected this to be a wind & muscle powered vehicle.  Cost is certainly a factor, but not the driving one as this is a long term purchase expected to be with us for years.

The Market
There are a LOT of dinghies on the market, and a lot of options.  Fiberglass dinghies, sailing dinghies, nesting dinghies (from kits), wood dinghies, used, new and host of possibilities were out there.  Eventually we ruled most of them out, for example most of the fiberglass or wood dinghies were, frankly, too pretty to be dragged up on a beach.  Dyer makes a beautiful boat but I’d never want to drag it across rocks.  I’ve not the time, space or inclination to build some of the nice looking nesting options.  So boats that you couldn’t kick around got eliminated.  Boats with too big and awkward rigs, too little capacity, insanely expensive price tags and the like all were eliminated.

The Thread
So in light of all this I’d been watching dinks for several years.  I was leaning towards the Walker Bay dinghy with the RID Tubes on it and a sailing rig but I knew my decision was a couple of years off.  It looked like an ungainly agglomeration of functional parts but it appeared to meet most of the requirements though I didn’t love the solution.  I’d seen the Portland Pudgy at the Providence Boat Show and had a chuckle over it before when a thread on the boat was started in the Cruising Anarchy forum.  Frankly on its own it was an easy target to mock as the boat looks ungainly and the marketing materials for it aren’t the slickest.  It is positioned strongly as a life raft which on the surface looks faintly ridiculous.

But eventually the inventor of the boat, David Hulbert, showed up on the thread and made some comments that got me thinking.  There is a lot below the surface of the boat’s design which isn’t obvious.  And David’s a creative and responsive guy, he’s been continually refining the boat based on owner feedback and you can see the improvements and changes.  And he got me thinking more, and when I started to look at it this odd looking little boat I realized that there was that functional beauty to it and that it might work for us.

The Boat
Even though I have one strapped on by bow I still don’t think the Portland Pudgy is a thing of beauty.  It is, well, pudgy looking.  But it DOES have a lot of beauty from a pragmatic standpoint.  When he designed the boat David Hulbert was looking to fill a need that he had and couldn’t fill with what was commercially available.  His goal was a boat that can row, sail, motor and act as a life raft – perhaps not with performance that sets the world on fire but still do it all well enough to satisfy.  He wasn’t looking to build a racing dinghy or a sport boat; I think his goal was something more in line with a sport utility vehicle or a lawn tractor.  Flexibility, safety, functionality and fun were the over arching themes.

One of the appeals of the Pudgy is that it is completely self contained.  All of the gear – sailing rig & blades, oars, exposure canopy, sea anchor and other gear stows inside the boat.  Everything packs away when it is on the boat, there are no rigs jammed into lazarettes and cupboards or oars in inconvenient places.  There are inspection ports you can slide all this folding collapsible gear into – one of my only design suggestions is to add one more port to the other side of the boat so you can put the rig on one side and the oars on the other.  After discussing with the designer their single port choice makes sense if you are buying some of the more advanced options like the life raft kit or the electrical system; that port side area is reserved for those components.

It is also pretty tough to damage.  While we were at the factory one of the workers was installing some hardware onto a hull.  He was pounding it, hard, with a heavy hammer.  The sort of blows that would shatter gelcoat and fiberglass weren’t even leaving mark on the molded plastic hull.  It is a heavy boat, a few pounds heavier than some of the sailing dinks and that is one of its only weaknesses that I’ve seen – but as a boat approved for four people the weight is competitive with other boats with similar capacity. Capacity wise this boat is rated for 557 lbs. of people, motors and gear and it can hold it.  In a USCG test it took 1855 lbs of weight to submerge it to its gunwales. 

There are a lot of nice little well thought out features too – for example it comes with a Ritchie compass installed, a wheel on the keel to help you drag it, and grip handles on the keel to help you right the boat if you manage to capsize it.  One of our favorite features is that the boat is self bailing when empty.  When hurricane Earl near-missed us on our vacation in Maine we had the only hard dink on the dock that wasn’t full of water after the torrential downpour.

One of the big selling points is the Survival Package, which includes an exposure canopy (which adds 430 lbs of floatation), a boarding ladder/fender, an HD Para-anchor, and some other gear which turns the dinghy into a four person “proactive” life raft.  By “proactive” Mr. Hulbert means unlike most life rafts you can sail this boat to safety with the sailing rig installed.  We didn’t go this route; it’s not what we bought the boat for.  Apparently when rigged for rapid deployment is truly does deploy quickly (in tests it took 17 seconds to inflate the exposure canopy with CO2) and it has actually saved someone’s life in the field.

The Company
David Hulbert is the brains behind the boat, its inventor and the head of their small manufacturing operation.  Working from a small industrial building in Portland, the hulls are molded elsewhere in New England then brought to the shop for finishing and installation of the accessories and hardware.  Hulbert explained that initially they had some production problems with the molding process which was one of the largest hurdles they had to overcome.  But now they have a reliable molding process and the boats are coming off the line quickly.  To date almost 500 boats have been sold, one popular customer niche has been the Alaskan fishing fleet – they have proved quite popular as on board life raft/safety boats.  Hulbert says standard procedure for delivery is drop shipment anywhere in the country (or the world).

As for the future, the boat is being continually refined.  It is an evolutionary process that Mr. Hulbert describes, with feedback from customers he’s taken some active steps to make the boat perform better and be more useful.  He has some stiff competition though, and lacking the distribution channel like the Walker Bay has I can imagine it is an uphill battle marketing what appears to be a superior product whose greatest strengths don’t leap out at you the first time you lay eyes on it.

The Field Test
After a couple of months with this boat on our deck the overwhelming response is that we love it.  We’ve had three kids (ages 13, 13, & 10…not small) in the boat sailing around, our two have gone to beaches and into town on their own, I’ve sailed it and rowed it, my wife has rowed it places – all of us agree that it’s a smart little boat that does what it is supposed to and does it pretty well.  It tows well and we’ve even hauled it behind our RIB to get more people to the dock in a single trip.  We store it lashed on the foredeck and hoist it on board with a block and tackle – some use the halyard but we found the extra purchase made the process a lot easier.  To launch it we literally just toss it overboard, it is self bailing after all and isn’t going anywhere no matter how much water you get in it.

Will it set your pants on fire under sail?  No – from what I could tell I was tacking it through about 110 degrees…and this is not a planing hull!  Of course I’m not sure I tack my Laser at better angles that that so it could be a comment on my sailing ability as well.  But it moves along well enough to suit, and it is fun to sail.  We clocked it over four knots in a good breeze which isn’t bad in a 7’-8’ long boat.  It is very stable – in 20 knots of breeze with all sail on it’s not at all tippy.  And it’s a very dry boat; one trip across Block Island’s New Harbor in 15+ knots of breeze the people sailing the Pudgy were much drier than those of us pounding into the chop on the RIB.

As a sailboat the Pudgy has been substantially improved since its initial release.  The company recently re-engineered the sailing setup to add a larger sail that can be better trimmed, a longer telescoping boom, and longer leeboards to reduce sideslip.  The rig can be easily reefed and breaks down to stow in a small bag that fits in one of the watertight compartments.  Although the rig would benefit from the addition of a vang (and that does pose some engineering problems which Hulbert is working on) we had the opportunity to sail the boat directly against the original configuration when we came across another Pudgy in Maine with the 1.0 version rig – and the new setup is a marked improvement.

There are a few areas where it could be improved, such as the addition of a vang.  While I understand the need for the non skid flooring it is pretty painful to sit on with bare skin, you need a towel, floatation cushion or something on the bottom of the boat if you are going to spend some time in it wearing only shorts.  An easy way to remove the seat (it flips back and forth for two rowing positions but is in the way when you are a big guy like me sailing), and a second access port on the port side of the transom would be nice (all the long gear gets stored on one side of the boat, which makes it list one way when the rig and oars are inside).  According to Hulbert the exposure canopy, CO2 cylinders, para-anchor and other survival gear store in the port side which makes the boat float level again.  But all in all the field test is a complete success, we love the boat and are very pleased with the way it works for us.
Quite a swing from my original take on this little boat!

Related Media:
Portland Pudgy Corporate Site
Video of the Portland Pudgy under sail, with the original and new rigs.
David Hulbert on the Pudgy: