Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Life Raft or Lifeboat?

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Used with permission.
Back in July, I wrote a post about dinghies: what they are and why they're so important to cruisers (read The Cruiser's Car). I ended the post by describing the fine dinghy that came with our boat, and our intention to get rid of it: "Once back in the States, we plan to purchase a new hard dinghy and new motor…a very specific hard dinghy and motor. More on our dinghy plans and rationale in a future post…"
So here we are.
We plan to get rid of the dinghy that came with our Fuji 40 because it will not meet our needs. Why won't it meet our needs? Because we need our dinghy to be more than a dinghy.
We made a very deliberate decision not to carry a life raft aboard Del Viento. This decision flies smack in the face of the prevailing cruiser mindset. No life raft? Insanity!
Not insane, practical...logical. Instead of going to sea with the de rigueur blow-up life raft, we plan to outfit our dinghy such that it may be used as our lifeboat. To get an idea of how radical and contrary this idea is among cruisers, read the admonition in the recent Toast Floats post Preparing for Disaster. I'm actually surprised more folks don't adopt this approach (of course, it doesn't work with an inflatable dinghy and inflatables make such outstanding dinghies, it would be difficult to sway inflatable lovers). But none other than Lin and Larry Pardey are proponents of the don't-carry-a-life-raft-aboard-instead-use-your-dinghy-as-a-lifeboat philosophy, and they are highly regarded in the cruising community (though, now that I think about it, their respected choices are rarely followed).
If we wanted our dinghy to serve only as our dinghy, it would be difficult to justify replacing what we have. As a dinghy, our Mercury inflatable is large and stable, hard to beat. Even more surprising: Our Fuji 40 comes with a life raft too, a four-person Plastimo with a certification that expired in 2009. We'll sell this in the States too.

Some definitions: A life raft is usually either packaged in a valise and stored in a locker, or packaged in a canister and stored on deck. If your boat is sinking, you toss one or the other into the water and (hopefully) watch your new plastic salvation inflate. A lifeboat is what larger vessels carry--I'm talking ships (remember the lifeboats on the Titanic?). They don't inflate, they just are.

Of course, the reason most cruising boats and other smaller vessels carry life rafts rather than lifeboats is size. Now our boat isn't any bigger than the average cruising boat (a bit smaller actually, at 39.1 feet LOA), and we certainly could not carry a dedicated life boat. But by dual-purposing our dinghy, we won't have to.

While adopting this approach puts us in the minority (way in the minority), we think it makes total sense. Following are the points I think are important when comparing the life raft to the dinghy-as-life-boat (DALB), as I see them:

Points Supporting Our Approach
Portland Pudgy in full lifeboat configuration

  • A life raft, even recently serviced, may not inflate. This is not uncommon. [A dinghy-as-life-boat (DALB) is a sure thing, you use it daily and know it works.]
  • A life raft is passive, with no means of locomotion. [A DALB will have a sail kit stored aboard (sail, mast, rudder, lee boards). This may allow you to sail yourself ashore or into shipping lanes.]
  • A life raft is subject to puncture and chafe. [A DALB is hard, not subject to puncture or chafe, and is unsinkable.]
  • A life raft requires regular repacking at considerable expense. Though there are facilities worldwide, you will have to coordinate your travels carefully to be located near one when you need to have your raft serviced. [A DALB is maintained by you.]
Points Against Our Approach
    Typical life raft
  • A life raft with a hydrostatic release deploys automatically. If things go down hill quickly and you find yourself in the water, the raft will likely bob to the surface and inflate soon after. [A DALB will be secured on deck while underway and will have to be unsecured and deployed manually, perhaps in challenging conditions.]
While Lin and Larry built their own DALB, they are Lin and Larry and we are not. Fortunately for us, almost 10 years ago, David Hulbert, a retired engineer in Portland, Maine, designed and built a prototype DALB he calls the Portland Pudgy. His prototype was so effective he decided to make more and he built a company. They are not cheap, and many think they are not pretty, but they are awesomely practical. Mr. Hubert brought his Pudgy to the the 2007 Annapolis Sailboat Show. Windy and I talked to him at length and even sat in the thing, trying to determine if it would be big enough for our 2011 family. We decided at the time it was, but Portland Pudgys have not returned to the show, so we've not had a chance to confirm what we decided then.

Following is a video interview with David Hulbert demonstrating the boat for BoatingLocal.com (read their complete review):

Also, the Pudgy offers other benefits over an inflatable dingy: it's fun to sail (doubling as an instructional water toy for the girls), it tows well (litlle resistance), it features internal storage (all of the safety and sailing gear are stowed aboard always), and it rows easily.

A couple months ago, Peter Neilsen, SAIL magazine's editor-in-chief, reviewed the Pudgy and wrote of the size: "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."

He ended the review with the following endorsement: "It’s tough, functional and practical, and if the choice came down to climbing into a traditional life raft 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."

Now, more on our dinghy motor plans in a future post...



  1. We saw the Pudgy at both Oakland Strictly Sail and the Seattle Boat Show. I was highly impressed. My notion was that when the kids went ashore, it would be impossible to lose them as the Pudgies are very bright. The only reason we too are not investing in this Portland company is that a family of five, three of whom are on the cusp of full womanhood, will not fit. It's a great option, however, for the size of your family. Now work on a quick release mechanism for deploying the dinghy off the bow that does not rely on either your jib or main halyard. Think about running another, dedicated block, for example.

  2. life raft as a good choice in arranging the room is flexible and does not take up much space, and ease of placement that is easy to reach the life raft is easier to operate.
    This article is very informative and useful for many people

  3. I was looking to buy an inflatable dinghies but was looking for all the characteristics. Thanks for sharing all the information with us.

  4. Really nice and informative..I found this blog very useful.We offer you marine safety equipment services,lifeboats,davits and Inflatable Liferafts in Dubai


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