January 27, 2013

A little boat called Pudgy to anchor Maine-to-Europe balloon flight

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Portland Pudgy is a chubby, blunt-nosed dinghy, possessing neither the glamour nor the grace of the sleek pleasure cruisers that dominate Maine's boat-building industry.

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Portland Pudgy operations manager Daniel Mosher installs electrical components in one of the company’s boats recently at the Portland headquarters.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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David Hulbert, designer of the Pudgy, in one of the dinghies he calls the world’s only unsinkable lifeboat that can be sailed, unlike a rubber raft that would “drift aimlessly.”

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TO WATCH one of Jonathan Trappe's test flights, click here

But the squat little boat serves a serious purpose, said David Hulbert, who manufactures the boat in a former refrigerated warehouse on Anderson Street in Portland. It could save lives.

"When your $6 million yacht sinks, your Portland Pudgy will not," Hulbert said.

According to Hulbert, the Pudgy is the world's only unsinkable lifeboat that can be sailed, a far superior alternative to the inflatable rubber raft, which would just "drift aimlessly" and could sink if punctured, he said.

Jonathan Trappe, a North Carolina man who plans to fly across the Atlantic using cluster balloons this summer, said he spent months searching for the right gondola for his journey. He needed a capsule light enough to be suspended in flight but buoyant enough to double as a boat if he had to ditch at sea.

A Web search led him to the Portland Pudgy. He bought one last summer and spent 53 hours living aboard it in Casco Bay. He took the Pudgy on a test flight a couple months later in Leon, Mexico, where his balloons carried the Pudgy thousands of feet into the air before he successfully landed the whole thing on a lake.

Hulbert's initial reaction to Trappe's plans: "It's insane. It's really nuts. This is not exactly what the boat is designed to do."

But after observing Trappe's methodical approach to the airborne adventure, Hulbert is optimistic about Trappe's prospects for survival.

Hulbert is now trying to figure out how Trappe could land the boat in rough seas. Even if the Pudgy tips over, he said, Trappe could easily push the boat right side up, and there would be no water in the cockpit.

Hulbert imagines Trappe ditching in the ocean just a few miles off the coast of France and then sailing the Pudgy to landfall as media around the world make note.

Manufactured from the same roto-molded polyethylene plastic used for kayaks, the Portland Pudgy is designed to be versatile. It can be used to reach a vessel docked in a harbor or as a life raft, should the boat go down.

In that sense, the Pudgy is a throwback to the masted life rafts used in the heroic age of polar exploration a century ago, when explorers like Ernest Shackleton sailed lifeboats over the open ocean for hundreds of miles.

The Pudgy's systems are self-contained inside the waterproof sidewalls of its double hull, including survival gear: the complete sailing rig, a CO2-inflatable canopy, a sea anchor, oars, an LED light pole, and a ditch bag containing rations, first aid, a mirror, a water distiller and a flashlight.

The boat has an ingenious, multi-purpose design, said Larry Brown, a Cape Cod resident who uses the boat as a recreational sailboat and writes regularly for Small Craft Advisory magazine.

"It's the best thought-out very small boat I have ever seen," he said.

The Pudgy is indeed very small, weighing in at 128 pounds and measuring only 7 feet 8 inches from bow to stern. But it has more that 16 square feet of floor space, enough for four people to sit or two tall men to lie flat in the cockpit. Its U.S. Coast Guard-approved capacity is 557 pounds.

Optional accessories include a sail kit, canopy, sea anchor, boarding ladder, electrical system, bailing pump and solar panels.

Prices range from $2,595 for the basic boat, $3,845 for the sailing version and $6,400 for a lifeboat with sail.

Hulbert, an industrial designer by profession, became obsessed with building a safer lifeboat 10 years ago while sailing in Casco Bay with his daughter, Sophie, a toddler at the time.

He said he realized how quickly they both could die in the cold Maine waters without a life raft, but he didn't want a rubber raft. He wanted an unsinkable lifeboat that he could sail to landfall.

He couldn't stop thinking about the idea, said his wife, Debbie Paley.

"He basically lived and breathed and dreamed the Pudgy," she said.

Since he began producing the boat seven years ago, Hulbert has sold about 530 worldwide, mostly for ocean-cruising sailboats and motor yachts. Fifteen fishing boats in Alaska carry Pudgies made by him and his two employees, he said.

Nobody has yet had to use a Pudgy as a lifeboat, as far as Hulbert is aware. But one customer, Don Quackenbush, 55, of Fort Myers, Fla., said the Pudgy has already saved one life and maybe two, including his own.

Quackenbush's yacht was at anchor two winters ago off the coast of South Carolina when he heard a man calling for help. He said an elderly man from a nearby boat had fallen in the water after his wooden tender capsized. Quackenbush rowed to him in his Pudgy.

The man, who had been holding onto a ladder on his own yacht, was too weak to climb the ladder. Suddenly, he slipped below the surface and drifted beneath the Pudgy.

Quackenbush reached over and grabbed the man by the hood of his jacket. Standing on the edge of the Pudgy, Quackenbush pulled the man onto the boat. He said he was sure he was going to end up in the water, too, but to his surprise, the Pudgy barely budged.

"The boat didn't flip over. Nothing happened. It didn't even take on any water," he said. "If I didn't have the Pudgy, we would have died. No doubt about it."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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