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October 19, 2010

Portland company builds locally sourced life boats

by Meagan S. Riedmann

David Hulbert had a vision six years ago. It was a vision to create a lifeboat that couldn't be deflated or sink, and would be completely proactive, meaning it could be rowed or sailed to safety. Basing his idea on these principles Hulbert went into design mode. "The primary function is safety, safety, safety," said Hulbert, President of Portland Pudgy, at the company's headquarters on Anderson Street in Portland.

Having spent time as an industrial designer Hulbert had worked on a number of other transportation modes from airplanes to trains, but when he came back to Maine his focus turned to watercraft. Immediately, he knew that using inflatable materials was out of the question. "Those [inflatables] are designed for immediate rescue in warm water situations," he explains. Hulbert wanted to design a boat specifically for cold climate where conditions can be especially harsh. Knowing the risks, he decided to take a different approach. In a market filled with inflatables, he started using a polyethylene shell, a feature most often found in kayaks. He knew this would make the boats tougher, more durable, and allow for increased impact resistance.

"Most tourist life boats say they have a safe capacity of 12 people, but they are completely exposed. How is that going to be able to protect someone when the most dangerous risk is hypothermia?" Hulbert asks. Pudgies, on the other hand, are United States Coast Guard approved to hold four passengers and are fully self sufficient. "Everything fits into the sidewalls of the boat," he says, "you just drift on other lifeboats, but we have evolved ours." Even the standard Pudgies come with oars and a built in compass for navigation, and all the lifeboat packages come with an exposure canopy.

"Theoretically one should be able to survive a hurricane in this boat, though we haven't had anyone who is willing to test it in those conditions yet," smiles Hulbert. The Pudgy is also designed with a double hull and can't deflate or sink. "I think it's the safest small boat made," he attests.

It hasn't been easy to create this unique and completely American-made product. Hulbert admits that it took years for him to find a factory that could take on the fairly large and somewhat complicated mold. It was even being molded on the West Coast for a while before it made its way to Massachusetts at Gregstrom Corporation. "It's better for quality control for it to be in Massachusetts," Hulbert explains.

And that isn't the only New England connection. All the metals come from New Hampshire, the interior supports are made right here in Maine, the sails come from South Freeport, and everything is assembled in Portland. The polyethylene shell is also fully recyclable. This collaboration with local companies and the focus on the environment is what makes Pudgy a great asset in the Maine boating community. "Boating has been down in the recession, but since we offer something totally unique we have been lucky," Hulbert explains. The boat has been popular with sailors world-wide and has been featured in a number of yachting and cruising magazines. To fill the demand, Portland Pudgy is currently averaging around 75 boats a year with a staff of only two full-time employees.

click to enlargeThe Portland Pudgy is a multi-purpose dingy/lifeboat produced in Portland.
The Portland Pudgy is a multi-purpose dingy/lifeboat produced in Portland. Photo courtesy of Portland Pudgy

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