When we bought Aleta she came with a hardshell dinghy, a Teddington, purchased in New Zealand. The Teddington is an attractive vessel, but only suitable for one person with a small outboard. We found with two people that even with the smallest waves there wasn’t enough freeboard to stop her filling with water.
Choosing a Dinghy
The search for our next dinghy began – a search that takes many cruisers the rest of their lives. Dinghies come in three varieties, hardshell, inflatable, and collapsible. Selection criteria include, overall size and weight, capacity, portability, storage on deck or on davits, initial cost, and expected lifespan.
Reading the forums, cruisers who have them swear by their hardshells. They plane better, don’t tear on rocks or sand, and weigh no more than inflatables. Trouble is you can’t make them smaller. On long passages they need securing on deck, usually upside down on the forward part of the cabin trunk. Teddy the Teddington had custom mounts fitted to Aleta’s deck for just that purpose.
Inflatables come in all shapes and sizes, but for serious cruising you’ll want one made with some kind of sun-proof fabric and a rigid floor, both of which add weight. Also, inflatables need about twice as much horsepower as a hardshell to get going, so you’ll need a bigger engine. And while inflatables can be deflated and stored inside your boat, in practice most people don’t bother and haul them on deck like a hardshell. Inflatables can be surprisingly expensive, too.
That brought us around to the third alternative, a fold-able boat. The leader in the market is Porta-bote based in Mountain View, California. Porta-botes are still something of a curiosity in the cruising community and in many ways we are early adopters of the technology.
What attracted us most is the Porta-bote’s size and weight. Our 10’ 8” Porta-bote weighs about 78 pounds and folds up to the size of a long surfboard. That makes her easy to get on and off the deck for storage purposes. Folded she’s between 3” and 7” thick. That’s flat enough that we can easily see over her underway, something that was a challenge with the Teddington. Total capacity is 585 lbs. (266 kg), including an engine that can weigh no more than 56 lbs. In practice the biggest four-stroke engine possible is six horsepower. If you can buy a two-stroke engine (which you can’t any longer in the United States), you might get something more in the 10-15 hp range with that weight.
Porta-bote’s website (www.porta-bote.com, itself a wonderful relic from the 1990s) promotes the use of their boats as dinghies. Thus having checked a bunch of the right boxes we bought one.
We christened our ‘bote Nell Quickly, or Nell for short. Putting her together the first time proved a real test of our marriage, but it gets easier with practice (putting Nell together, marriage is another thing). Once launched, Nell was larger and more stable than Teddy and we felt far safer in her. Our little 2.5 hp engine could push Nell along gently, but with our new 6.0-horse motor, we can easily get her up onto a plane.
Porta-bote’s Other Side
Since nothing in life is perfect and there are always compromises, let’s talk about some of Nell’s limitations. Most of the issues we’ve run into have to do with construction quality, not design. For reference Nell is one of the latest generation of Alpha-style Porta-botes, the ones with a folding transom.
Nell is constructed of four copolymer polypropylene panels stapled together. Her seams are protected by plastic tubes. When the bottom, keel tube pulled loose one day it was a real challenge hammering it back in place. It hasn’t moved since. Porta-bote technical support said that the generous application of a tube of Goop would permanently secure the tubes. But if that’s such a good idea, why not do it during manufacturing? It’s also not clear that the staples are stainless steel, creating some concern about longevity in salt water. We’re monitoring that.
As you can see in the photos, Nell’s transom folds on two large piano hinges. Originally, those steel hinges were fastened with aluminum pop-rivets. Now any sailor knows that when you combine aluminum and steel and salt water electrolysis sets in. In about six months the pop-rivets dissolved to the point where the transom literally came off in my hands. Bad Porta-bote! Bad!
Calls to the factory led to an admission that pop-rivets were used for ‘cost reasons and ease of manufacturing’. Support promised to send me ‘good’ rivets, but they never arrived. Born with a surfeit of Yankee ingenuity, I tackled the problem head-on. I drilled out the lousy pop-rivets and replaced them with stainless-steel bolts, washers, and Nylock nuts: fasteners that would both hold and not rot away. For now I’m keeping a watchful eye on the other rivet points.
Putting Nell on davits has been something of a challenge. ‘Botes have no hoist points, no cleats and seemingly nowhere to attach them. We found our solution last year in Florida, when another ‘bote owner had used eyebolts in place of the pins that secure the forward and aft seats. He then rigged lines and shackles for his davits. That mostly solved our davit problem, except when Aleta is heeled over and Nell’s stern drags in the water. We need taller davits.
Many ‘bote owners have swapped out the original black plastic seats for wooden ones. Wooden seats are cooler and serve as a platform for cleats, better oarlocks, and more robust davit hangers. That’s next on our list of modifications.
Making a Better ‘Bote
Despite these issues, we still love the fold-a-boat concept. It’s my belief Porta-bote could solve their problems in a couple of ways. One thought is to sell a bare dinghy kit consisting of the shell and transom parts that users could assemble using fasteners of their choosing. Alternatively, they might manufacture a marinized version that would cost a little more, but built with materials able to withstand use as a true cruiser’s dinghy.
We cautiously recommend Porta-botes. They’re stable, lightweight, quick, and best of all portable. But buy one only if you’re fully aware of their shortcomings and are willing to address the more dangerous aspects of their pop-rivet construction. There are lots of secondhand ‘botes on Craigslist and eBay. It may be that older ‘botes are a simpler, more reliable design because they seem to last forever. Finally, being rare, ‘botes are much easier to identify and therefore, we like to think, less attractive to thieves.