Portland Pudgy

Once, in the interests of research, I spent an afternoon bobbing around in a liferaft. Ever since, I’ve had an obsession with bilge pumps, because what I learned was this: I don’t ever want to spend time in a liferaft again. The discomfort was one thing, and should not be downplayed, but what really got to me was the sense of helplessness. A liferaft is a passive device, at the mercy of wind and waves, and once in it you surrender any control over your future. It is not a good feeling.

This is why I like the Portland Pudgy, a dinghy that can not only be rowed, motored and sailed, but also used as a lifeboat. There is something counterintuitive about having to spend money on something you hope you never have to use, which is why the purchase of a liferaft is often accompanied by mumbling and grumbling and visions of the sails or electronics you’d rather have spent the money on. A liferaft that can also be used as a day-to-day tender is a different animal altogether.

The Pudgy was developed several years ago by Portland, Maine-based builder David Hulbert. Its chunky lines and brightly colored rotomolded polyethylene hull bespoke the triumph of function over form and gave rise to the name. A certain clique of sailors—typically those bound for far horizons—immediately cottoned on to this colorful, utilitarian tender-cum-lifeboat. Recently, Hulbert introduced a revamped Pudgy with a few design improvements.

A Pudgy buyer can start with the base boat, which comes with little more than oars, seats and a compass. A long list of accessories takes you from the base rowing boat through a sailing rig with rudder and leeboards to a basic electrical package including a battery and LED lighting, a solar panel, a three-section survival canopy, sea anchor, boarding ladder, davit system and a Torqeedo electric outboard. Most of this stows either inside the double-skinned hull or under the seats. There’s also room for water, fishing gear and provisions.

The Pudgy is USCG-rated to carry up to four people, but they’d better be slightly built and very good friends; there are limits to what you can expect of a 7ft 9in dinghy with the floor area of a four-person liferaft. (But take it from me, a four-person liferaft is even less fun.) I’d not like to row the Pudgy any distance with more than three adults aboard, and with the need to sit on the sole and duck below the sail, two (at most) would be a more realistic sailing complement. The boat is very stable and rows beautifully, though, and I suspect that with more wind than the zephyr I experienced on our sea trial in Bristol, Rhode Island, its sailing performance would be satisfactory.

At 128lb the Pudgy is no lightweight, but with its built-in rollers and eyes for a lifting harness it’s easy enough for a shorthanded crew to deal with. Slung from davits it would be no more cumbersome than a RIB, and since it measures just 2ft 2in from keel to gunwale it could also be stowed upside down on a foredeck or, on a bigger boat, on the cabintop under the boom.

Although various sailors have built their own versions of sailing lifeboats over the years, there is no commercially available equivalent to the Pudgy. It’s tough, functional and practical, and if the choice came down to climbing into a traditional liferaft or boarding the Pudgy, I know where I’d rather be. For a cruising couple or a family with small children, the Pudgy makes a lot of sense.


LOA: 7ft 8in

Beam: 4ft 4in

Weight: 128lb

Sail Area: 41ft²

Price: Base boat $2,500