A nautical Swiss Army knife that floats


The Portland Pudgy is a combination sailing dinghy, pulling boat and lifeboat with foam for flotation

The Portland Pudgy is a combination sailing dinghy, pulling boat and lifeboat with foam for flotation

David Hulbert’s first attempt at naval architecture — when he was 10 years old — resulted in his rescue from Maine’s Penobscot Bay by a lobsterman, so it may be no surprise that his current design is part lifeboat. 


The Portland Pudgy also is a rowing and sailing dinghy and an outboard powerboat.

In today’s jargon, it is a multitasker, a gadget-intense nautical Swiss Army knife that employs the rotation molding technology used in building kayaks to deliver a vessel that Hulbert expects to receive Coast Guard certification for up to a four-person capacity, depending on the weight of the passengers.


 He also planned to be ready for delivery of the first Pudgy this spring. The price for the basic boat is $1,599. The life-raft canopy adds about another $1,200, he says, and the sailing rig will be $790. The idea for the little vessel came to the Portland, Maine, industrial designer when he was on a job in South Norwalk, Conn.

“I would spend lunchtimes walking up and down the docks,” he recalls. There were tour boats at the docks, some with oval-shaped life rafts with netting on the bottom. “I thought, That’s kind of silly. And I thought, If you put a bottom on that, you’d have a boat.”

In his work, Hulbert, a lanky, quiet 64-year-old, looks for solutions to problems. He says he has been the senior designer responsible for creating a new look for aircraft interiors for a major national airline, and did the same work for Amtrak. His jobs have included space planning for museums, offices and airports — where to put the bathrooms, vending areas and so forth. The life rafts in Connecticut jumped out at him as a problem in need of solving.

“One thing led to another,” resulting in Pudgy’s design, says Hulbert. “It’s an endless project because you can keep adding things to its function. Traditionally, I thought if you mix function, you compromise [in boats]. I think [Pudgy has] very little compromise in sailing, rowing, motoring and survival. Each function works very well. It’s not going to row as fast as a shell, but as far as a dinghy it’s great,” with its 6-foot oars and two rowing positions, thanks to a hinged seat.

Hulbert chose to build his boat of high-grade polyethylene, the same material used in whitewater kayaks. In one process a skin of high-density polyethylene is formed with a polyethylene foam liner. “There can be no separation [between the layers],” he says. “This stuff is really tough stuff. It’s not going to crack on you like fiberglass.

“In the development, I realized very early on in the process that if it was going to have these multifunctions, everything should be stored in the boat.” By molding the entire boat as one piece, he created a double-hulled boat, with the space in between — from the sole to the keel — filled with closed cell foam for flotation.

The hull sides incorporate watertight storage compartments for the boat’s accessories, including mast, sail and oars, and Hulbert designed oversized access ports to reach these spaces. The mast is inserted for storage through a port in the transom, and there are other ports for placing safety gear and other objects in the hull sides. The boat has two lee boards and a kick-up rudder that are stored under the aft seat.

Hulbert says he placed an overall limit on the size of the boat before starting the design. Overall, the boat measures 7 feet, 8 inches in length, with a beam of 4 feet, 6 inches. The cockpit is 6 feet, 4 inches long by 3 feet, 2 inches wide. The Pudgy weighs about 125 pounds without accessories — hefty compared with most inflatables the same length. Hulbert says inflatables with the same carrying capacity are typically about 2 feet longer, which adds to their weight.

“We wanted to have it under 8 feet so people would feel more comfortable about getting it on the foredeck,” says Hulbert, who sails a catboat in Maine. He and his wife, Deborah Paley, and their daughter, Sophie, have chartered boats elsewhere. He says when he was a child his family had a house on PenobscotBay, where he loved to row a boat during storms.

In an emergency, Pudgy’s life raft option turns the little boat into survival gear, according to Hulbert. “The concept was to have a proactive life raft. Instead of sitting in one place and hoping that someone can rescue you, you can sail to the shipping lanes or land.”

There is an inflatable canopy that mounts to the gunwale by straps and snap hooks. “If you were going on a bluewater cruise or heavy weather is approaching, you can preset the canopy on the gunwales on the deck so it’s there ready for deployment. All you have to do is pull the cord and it inflates,” Hulbert says. There also are optional stainless steel lifting rings, or eyebolts, mounted low on the sidewalls to which a safety harness can be clipped, as well as an optional sea anchor.

The self-bailing boat has hand-holds built into the keel for righting it if it flips, Hulbert says. In 30-foot storm seas, “There’s not a small boat in the world that’s not probably going to tumble,” he says. “But you cannot sink it [Pudgy], because the very material of the boat, as opposed to fiberglass, floats.”

Righting the boat is similar to the procedure used with any sailing dinghy: Grab the keel hand-holds, lean back and flip. “As it rolls over, it sits on the thickness of its sidewalls and comes up dry,” says Hulbert, who notes that a person must weigh at least 80 pounds to make this work.

Two of the boat’s unique details are its access ports and oar locks. Hulbert says that on the ports, he “wanted a handle that you could grasp and easily open. I wanted to have a 6.5-inch opening so you can fit in a million-candle spotlight,” he says.

The plastic ports on the market were inadequate, he says, so he designed a port with a bayonet opening with bumps on it that you can feel to line them up in the dark. The oarlocks are stainless steel, and Hulbert designed them “so when you ship your oars, they are locked in position.”

Hulbert had applied in February to have Pudgy tested for Coast Guard certification for up to four passengers with a 2-hp outboard, according to the agency. Hulbert says that would give the boat a rated capacity of up to 557 pounds for the weight of the engine, the passengers and their belongings.

“I had to look in the mirror a year and a half ago and say, ‘Would I choose this for my family if I was out in the middle of the Atlantic?’ And the answer had to be, ‘Yes,’ ” Hulbert says. “I’ve made it to that level.”

For more information, contact Portland Pudgy at (207) 761-2428, or visit www.portlandpudgy.com .