The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Q&A: Portland Pudgy Tender And Liferaft Combo

Question: What are your views on the Portland Pudgy as a “proactive” life raft?

Answer: No question, this is an innovative and fascinating boat. Here are my thoughts based on having examined the a Pudgy and talked at length with the owners.:

  • One of the advantages that the web site pitches is that it is a “proactive lifeboat” because you can sail or row to the shipping lanes or land. Nice in theory and certainly an admirable idea, but with the availability of 406 MHz EPIRBs at a relatively reasonable cost, which take much of the search out of search and rescue, I’m not sure that this is that big a benefit these days. 
  • I would worry about the ability of a tired and seasick middle aged couple to deploy this relatively heavy boat off a pitching deck in an emergency. (We are concerned enough about this potential problem that on Morgan’s Cloud we have fitted the bottom life line aft near the liferaft mounting position with a pelican hook to allow us to disconnect the line and slide the raft over the side under the top lifeline without the need to lift it.)

  • I would also be concerned about the difficulty of getting into the boat from the water, even with the optional ladder kit, and the danger of getting banged up by the hard shell boat in the process. (Some years ago we did a survival course and were amazed by how difficult it was to enter a liferaft from the water, and this a raft that is intrinsically more stable than a boat. Also, the raft was fitted with an inflated boarding ramp and ladder.)
  • As far as I can see from the web site, the Pudgy does not have any water ballast or other system (other than a sea anchor) to stop it from being flipped in large breaking waves. As was graphically and tragically demonstrated in the 79 Fastnet disaster, it is vital that a liferaft have some effective method of reducing the chance of being flipped. Having said that, a Pudgy lying to a sea anchor might be surprisingly seaworthy. I would just like to see more data on this.
  • In a life boat situation the Pudgy is going to be very cramped for two and untenable for more.

In summary, I would not consider this boat as a substitute for a proper liferaft.

Finally, I’m always a bit skeptical of any piece of gear that tries to meet several needs rather than focusing on doing one thing well.

Incidentally, all this is an academic exercise since Phyllis and I strongly believe that the deck should be as clear as possible before going to sea, particularly in the high latitudes, and therefore we are not in the market for a hard dinghy, or even a RIB, as a tender.

Further Reading

Manufacturer’s Comment

David Hulbert, founder and president of the company that makes the Portland Pudgy in Portland, Maine, e-mailed us this well reasoned and detailed response.

Here are David’s comments in their entirety and unedited so that you, our readers, can make up your own minds:

Proactive lifeboat vs. relying on your EPIRB and waiting for rescue: The EPIRB is a great invention, no question, and every blue water sailor should have one. However, they’re easy to lose, and if you have one, it must work, and the battery must be charged. It’s also very important to recognize that in many parts of the world, search and rescue is simply not available. In the proactive Portland Pudgy, you can sail to safety. Many experts on survival at sea emphasize that this is critically important. As Steve Callahan, who spent 76 days adrift on a liferaft, points out, “Most of a long survival voyage is spent drifting slowly in moderate weather.” He goes on to say that if he had had a “dynamic” (i.e. proactive) liferaft/boat, he “would have sailed to safety in a mere six or seven days” (from The Liferaft, Don’t Leave Your Ship Without It).

Ease/difficulty of deploying Portland Pudgy or lifeboat: The Portland Pudgy, a rugged, solid boat, is heavier than most liferaft canisters. However, if you have your Pudgy set up on your deck so that it is easily accessible, and if you fit the life line with a pelican hook so that you can disconnect the line and slide the Pudgy off the deck, it can be easily deployed in an emergency. Bear in mind the old adage that you should not board your lifeboat (or liferaft) until you have to step up to it from your mother boat. You will not be lifting the Pudgy and throwing it down into the water as much as sliding it into the water. With regard to deploying liferafts—unfortunately, there are many tragic stories of liferafts being deployed and not inflating. The Pudgy is already a boat; you don’t have to hope that it inflates. Another difficulty in deploying liferafts is that in severe storm conditions they have been known to become airborne and flip upside down.

Ease/difficulty of getting into the Portland Pudgy from the water: Inflatable liferafts are notoriously difficult to get into. There are many stories of heavy people or people with poor upper body strength being unable to board. The Portland Pudgy is easier to get into from the water than a liferaft is. When you board the Portland Pudgy from the water, even without the boarding ladder, the procedure is as follows: you get in position on the side of the boat at the exposure canopy entrance, holding onto a grabline or the gunwale. Tip the boat toward you so that you can reach in and grab a hand-hold in the middle seat (the hand-holds in the middle seat allow it to function as a horizontal ladder). Kick out and pull yourself in over the gunwale. The boat tips down as you do this, but it will not capsize. One of our testers, a woman in her late fifties with a damaged, weakened shoulder, was sure that she would be unable to get in from the water, and was amazed at how easy it was. We had another tester who weighed 275 pounds climb in from the side easily, without causing the Pudgy to ship water or capsize. The boarding ladder makes it even easier: it acts somewhat like a stirrup that gives you “a leg up.”

Ballast bags/sea anchor/risk of capsize:

  • Ballast bags. Ballast bags on liferafts are not as effective as many sailors assume, for the following reason: there is no resistance to a bag of water when it is in the water because it weighs the same as the surrounding water. You only get resistance when the bag is lifted out of the water, and by the time this happens, the liferaft is already tipped very steeply and can be capsized easily by wind or waves. The USCG did a test of liferafts in hurricane force winds (created using helicopters and a C130 airplane). They tested several large liferafts, and all of them, with the exception of the 25-person Givens buoy liferaft, were quickly and easily capsized, potentially trapping the occupants under the collapsing floor of the raft. Somewhere in cyberspace there is a video showing about eight liferafts in the test, and all but one of them flipping.
  • Sea anchor. The sea anchors that come with most liferafts are notoriously flimsy and inadequate. The Pudgy uses a substantial and ruggedly built Fiorentino sea anchor, made especially for the Portland Pudgy. The sea anchor attaches to the Pudgy’s rugged bridle, which in turn is hooked to two attachment points that are spaced on either side of the bow, for triangulation. The stainless steel attachment points are very solid and cannot tear off (as is possible on fabric liferafts). A Dutch crew from the magazine Zeilen tested the Portland Pudgy as a lifeboat last year in the treacherous waters of the North Sea, and they make it a point in their article to talk about how pleased they were with the performance of the Pudgy with the sea anchor. The bow held firmly into the oncoming waves and wind, thus greatly reducing the risk of capsize. You can see the article here (It’s in Dutch but the photos are great.) Zack Smith of Fiorentino Para-Anchor also tested the Pudgy with its sea anchor in 12 foot seas and dangerous currents off the California coast, and was very happy with its performance.
  • Risk of capsize. All boats and liferafts can capsize. When most liferafts capsize, the occupants can be trapped under the floor of the raft. It is necessary for passengers to exit the raft to turn it over. The Portland Pudgy is a solid boat that is heavier than its exposure canopy. The bottom-heaviness makes the Pudgy want to right itself. The CO2-inflated 6-inch tubes of the Pudgy act as roll bars in rough seas. If the Pudgy capsizes with two adults inside and the inflated exposure canopy in place, the added 400 pounds of buoyancy in the canopy make the Pudgy lie partially on its side; the passengers can right the boat by shifting their weight or waiting for wave action to right it. Even lying partially on its side, because of the deep rigid floor of the Pudgy, a large domed air chamber is formed inside the partially capsized boat.

By the way, even without the exposure canopy in place, the capsized Pudgy floats high in the water and is very easy to right using the handholds in the keel, and because of the thickness of the double-wall hull, it picks up little or no water (no sitting in a swamped boat!). This can be life-saving. Hypothermia is a major cause of death in emergencies at sea.

Comfort/Space: The Pudgy has 16.1 square feet of floor space. The USCG requires 16 square feet for a four person liferaft. The Portland Pudgy’s middle seat is removable, and the flat floor is 6 feet two inches long, designed so that two people can comfortably stretch out to sleep. Unlike a liferaft, the Pudgy’s floor can be kept dry. Sitting and lying in salt water for prolonged periods can cause serious sores. Because of the double wall thickness and the foam under the floor, the floor is not cold as in many liferafts, and you can’t feel things like shark fins and fish bumping up against the floor.

Portland Pudgy as a Tender: The Portland Pudgy is an exceptional tender. It’s a 7 foot 8 inch dinghy approved by the USCG for 4 people (twice the capacity of any other 8 foot dinghy). It’s stable, safe, and rugged and has huge carrying capacity. One Pudgy owner, cruising off Newfoundland this past winter, credits his Portland Pudgy with saving his big boat when it ran aground: “because it rows so well in rough weather and can handle two 45 pound anchors being dropped in it for kedging off a reef. It is a real workboat built for real world conditions…In the sailing we do a dinghy can mean the difference between life or death, and this isn’t in reference to the lifeboat abilities of the pudgy just its stability and durability.” It rows beautifully—because of the long skeg it tracks perfectly, and it skims along because it’s so buoyant. It’s a fun sailing dinghy. We have improved the sailing rig so it’s faster and comes into the wind better. If you were to buy a tender such as a Fatty Knees and a decent liferaft, it would cost you more than the Portland Pudgy with its survival gear.

To sum up: the Portland Pudgy is different from a liferaft in two major ways. First of all, it is not made of inflated fabric tubes and cloth. It’s a boat, made of the same rigid, rugged polyethylene that heavy-duty ocean kayaks are made of, and cannot deflate or be punctured by a fish hook or shark fin. This material is intrinsically buoyant. The area under the floor of the cockpit is filled with closed cell foam. The large, watertight, air-filled storage compartments in the hull give added buoyancy. The USCG rates it at 1255 pounds of buoyancy. (This means it took 1255 pounds to submerge it, in a test.) It doesn’t need to inflate and it can’t deflate or sink.

Second, the Portland Pudgy concept respects the abilities and responsibilities of the sailor to protect himself and his crew. The Pudgy is proactive: you can sail, row, or motor it. It is carefully engineered to make it a tough, rugged boat that handles well and incorporates many safety features. All of the survival gear, including sailing rig, sea anchor, exposure canopy, oars, ditch bag, provisions, and fishing gear can stow inside the storage chamber of the double hull (with the exception of the rudder and leeboards, which stow under the stern seat). It has a dash-mounted, built-in compass.

The passive liferaft seems to encourage people to passively trust that the raft will inflate and stay inflated, and that help will come, when unfortunately, too often this has proved not to be the case. The Portland Pudgy is a new concept that is actually related to a very old concept (after all, Captain Bligh and Shackleton used proactive lifeboats in their epic journeys). It challenges many of the assumptions we have grown accustomed to about liferafts. Liferafts have saved many lives, but tragically, many liferafts have failed, and sailors should do some hard thinking about what their options are in protecting themselves, their loved ones, and their crew.

More Articles From Liferaft and Survival Equipment:

  1. Liferafts For Cruisers—Purchase Criteria
  2. Liferafts For Cruisers—40 Years of Real-World Experience
  3. Liferafts For Cruisers—Positioning and Mounting
  4. Q&A: Portland Pudgy Tender And Liferaft Combo
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For a cruising monohull yacht, especially one where deck space is rather limited, I can see the appeal of a lifeboat like the Pudgy. Conceptually, it seems similar to the main tenders fitted to many cruise ships: something seaworthy enough to use as a lifeboat, yet versatile enough to be launched every second day for tender duty.

I’m not an offshore sailor, my home turf is freshwater, and all within sight of shore, so take my comments with a suitable lump of salt:

* An EPIRB is a useful tool, but I would never trust my boat or my life to one. They usually summon help, but that help might not come right away.
* Everything I’ve read/been told about “blue water” seamanship says that on a monohull, you only launch the liferaft if: (a) The mother ship is on fire, (b) The mother ship is going down. For a multihull, fire seems to be the main reason to launch a raft, as a well-designed multi should remain somewhat habitable even if it flips and partly breaks up.
* For either mothership type, it’s obvious that the raft must be easy to launch, quickly—and I don’t see how the Pudgy would be any harder to launch than a normal raft (which you have to flip right-side-up once inflated half of the time).
* The Pudgy seems a bit small for my tastes; it’s half the size of my runabout, which is itself a pretty cramped boat for more than 5 people. But if it were much larger, it would need davits or a crane.


When I decided to start going further offshore on my sailing expeditions, I bought a four-man liferaft. Eventually three things happened:

1. I realized that the cost of constant repacks was horrendous and unless I actually watched the repack, it could not be trusted.
2. I realized that the “safety” offered by the liferaft was questionable at best: It may not inflate, it may fall apart, it may be punctured, my flares will probably put a hole in it (hand-held flares and an inflatable?), it may be blown away by a gust of wind, etc.
3. My EPIRB battery will last 48 hours if I am very lucky. After that, they try to figure out where I drifted (good luck with that).

Enter the Portland Pudgy. Now there is something that can carry a lot of gear, in an unsinkable, undeflatable platform. It rows and sails as well. I can do something to effect my own rescue. Added to this is the fact that I can hook myself in for the really rough seas that may capsize me, and since it is my primary dinghy I will be very familiar with its use. I will have launched and rigged it many times. I will be comfortable with the process (unlike a liferaft I may have never even seen).


When I think heavy weather, I think 45kt and above winds and green water over the deck. I have read of several instances where objects tied on deck (including rafts, dinghies) were washed away or damaged by boarding waves or knockdowns. That is a major concern with a Pudgy (or hard dinghy) on a sub-50ft yacht.

I am somehow not very comfortable with a life-and-death emergency product that I cannot test when I want to (e.g. liferaft). Even an EPIRB has a self-test feature. So I really favour a liferaft product that is stowable but that I can test and re-stow whenever I choose to. It just seems such a basic, reasonable requirement.

RDE (Richard Elder)

And for something completely different, a kayak that folds up into a suitcase!

Nicolas Kats

Another design comparable to the Portland Pudgy is Steve Callahan’s FRIB.
To look, google
I do not know if it is in production.

Victor Raymond

Judy and I have purchased a used Portland Pudgy for use as a tender and if needed a liferaft. In the storage locker we have space for the “grab it” bag and other life saving essentials. I hope we never have to use it as such but having the extra safety gear on board at all times might but helpful at other critical times such as shore emergencies.
The Portland Pudgy stows nicely on the aft deck and can be launched from the port davits. It is lighter in weight than the sailing rowboat that came with Raja Laut, is easier to handle and because it is poly ethylene vs wood is less damaging to us and the mother ship when contact is made.
In addition to the Portland Pudgy we do have a 10 foot roll up inflatable and an inflatable kayak. We hope the most difficult decision will be which tool to use.
The sale of our 3.3m Mercury RIB easily covered the cost of the lightly used Pudgy with a few dollars to spare. In addition we have saved at least 100 pounds in weight and that has to worth something.

Victor Raymond

I am not sure to whom you are addressing your last comment. I do have the Portland Pudgy and would prefer it anyday to any liferaft. Since I use it regularly I know the boat and how it handles. I also know what is on it and what is needed in case of an emergency. I have it set up on my aft deck so that I can either deploy it over the side or wait until our sailboat sinks beneath us (not a pleasant thought.)
The idea of deploying a liferaft in high winds and crazy seas is pretty scary. The Pudgy has a nice drogue and I know I would prefer lying to that in most conditions. I should also add that we have proper Mustang exposure suits that are part of our emergency kit.
I can’t say that we have it nailed until we actually use it but we have taken different route but reasonable precautions IMHO.


There’s no way on earth I would get into an inflatable liferaft on the ocean, not after seeing the ‘Survivorman: Lost At Sea’ episode. No way on earth. It would be the Portland Pudgy for me or I ain’t going.

Stein Varjord

Hi all.

Lots of good comments here, on an interesting topic. As “tenders”, I have a 5 man life raft, an 8-foot inflatable, and a rigid two man kayak. I strongly distrust the raft and dislike it almost but not quite as badly as i hate “life”vests.

I have the feeling that marketers put the word “life” with words not really related, like raft or vest or juice, 🙂 to make it seem important and good and make politicians think they do good when they make those objects mandatory to save life.

Boaters believe in that safety. They make choices believing they are safe in that situation because of the gear. Since very often the item is not at all giving the safety it claims, false claims put sailors in more danger than they would have been if they didn’t have the item. Thus, these items must cause more deaths than they save. If the sailor didn’t believe in the item, he/she wouldn’t have taken that risk.

A life raft that actually works, can safe your life, of course. But, as many have pointed out, it’s actually an item that as a core value will always be very unreliable and vulnerable. Those words don’t fit well with a disaster area (sinking/burning boat) you have to leave in storm winds and seas. where everything will take a beating, there is plenty of sharp objects and control is something you wish you had.

The reason “inflatable” is considered related to safety, rafts or vests, is obviously to get small size when not in use. Compactness has a high price, though. When we want the item to step into action, we accept a lottery with rather uncomfortable odds. Will it actually work?If not, can it be remedied quickly? The rate of some sort of failure is at least 10% for rafts and 20-30% for vests, if deployed in ideal conditions, according to employees I talked to some years ago at Falck Nutec close to Oslo.

That company is educating people about safety for work in the oil industry in the North Sea and Norwegian Sea and for airlines. They also do courses for mandatory offshore racing safety certificates, which is why I was there. These guys inflate about 10 rafts and 50 vests every day. All types and brands. Obviously, they reuse them, but many brands are very unreliable. They said clearly that the only brand of rafts that would survive as much as 100 reuses was Viking, ( Zodiac). Most others would be damaged at first use and mostly be beyond repair after 5 short uses. They said that the average product quality is ridiculously low, probably because you buy a hidden product. If you ever look at it, it’s too late to complain.

If we assume that our life raft did actually work, getting into it is a bit of a struggle, especially with wet clothes, but doable. We did it in no waves but with 1 degree C water, close to freezing. Then you have maximum 1 minute to get in. Probably less. After that, your muscles don’t work. When you’re in, the raft has a significant amount of water inside. The water will collect where you sit. If the raft has an uninsulated bottom, which is normal, it will stay as cold as the water outside. In tropical waters that’s liveable, but nowhere else. Critical hypothermia will come quickly. The water should be removed, but in bad weather, more will come all the time. An uninsulated bottom is either way far too cold to sleep on. I’ve never been in a raft in waves, but have been told it’s as if it was designed for making seasickness. Even the seasoned ones get it. Sitting in a raft, you will be acutely aware of your vulnerability and your dependence on the effort of someone from the outside. What you can do is wait, while trying to survive a bit longer.

So, I don’t like rafts. Then I should have a better solution? I wish I did. I think we have to accept that there is no perfect solution. As mentioned, I do have a raft, but I strongly prefer some solution that will make me able to move somewhere, not just wait. I intend to keep going to places where probably no help is available quick enough. One of the many reasons I strongly prefer multihulls is that they cannot sink, thus reducing the number of probable raft situations a lot.

As in the discussions about safety harness systems and life vests, if we are fully aware of their shortcomings, we will not behave as stupidly as we might when we trust our safety equipment to get us out of any possible trouble. Mostly, sailing isn’t dangerous at all. When it becomes dangerous, it’s mostly because we make choices that we could easily have made differently, if we were properly aware of facts readily available.

“Awareness”. Sounds like this big almost religious word. When I use it I feel like a fake preacher, but it’s still the right word…

Stein Varjord

Since this thread is about situations where hypothermia might occur, I just want to spread some info. It’s off topic, but the more people who know this, the fewer patients will be “killed by kindness”. As frequent boat users, it’s more likely that we will have to save someone from hypothermia. Just simple knowledge is needed to do it right, while lacking that simple knowledge means the patient will most likely die from your wish to do good. As an example, a hot shower or bath for a real hypothermia patient means the patient will normally feel quickly better and then suddenly drop dead with no revival possible.

The task is to try to let the patient heat up from the inside as much as possible. Do NOT heat arms and legs! It will make the cold blood there circulate into the body and brain. That’s the killer.

Heat only head, neck and torso, with that priority, but not too fast. Insulate arms and legs to stop further cooling and let the heat spread gradually from the core as the patients bode builds enough heat to do that. If hands and feet are frozen or close to that, some heat might be ok at those spots, maybe careful massage with warm hands, but don’t make any extremity warm.

The majority of people that die from hypothermia after rescue, would have survived if the rescuers knew the above. I hope to never need this knowledge, but I know people who did need it and didn’t have it…

Scott Dufour

I have never heard that before, and it makes complete sense. Jon, is that something you’d consider writing a little article about.