A Portland Pudgy lifeboat was a key piece of gear in the recent, failed Atlantic crossing by balloonist Jonathan R. Trappe.
Trappe, 39, an IT manager from Raleigh, North Carolina, who become the first to traverse the Alps and the English Channel by cluster balloon in previous trips, selected the rugged, plastic Portland Pudgy dinghy to serve as the gondola attached to his cluster of 370 helium-filled balloons.
Produced and assembled almost entirely in Portland, Maine; the Portland Pudgy is a combination yacht tender and liferaft designed to allow cruisers to “self rescue” themselves in the event of an offshore emergency. Trappe could have used it the same way after an emergency landing in the ocean.
David Hulbert, president at Portland Pudgy, is an avid cruiser of Maine’s Casco Bay and says the bay’s constantly icy waters inspired him to design a tender that could serve as a pleasure craft during day to day activities and protect his family from hypothermia in the event of an abandon ship. Because of their rough water capabilities, the plastic vessels are largely popular among cruisers and dinghy owners alike.
With optional mast and motor attachments, the Pudgy made the perfect fail-safe in the event of a water landing. After learning how to sail during the preparations for his trip, Trappe could, in theory, deploy a sail and make way to land in the event of a mid-Atlantic landing or balloon failure. The molded plastic vessels also include several air chambers that can be used to store emergency gear and rations; and the hull is durable enough to not break apart after a rough landing at sea.
Close to 300 miles north of Portland, in Caribou, Maine, Trappe spent nearly two years planning a trip he hoped would cover up to 2,500 miles in three to six days. The trip largely depended on weather, and according to Trappe, could land him anywhere from “Iceland to Morocco.”
“[I hope] to catch those transatlantic winds and ride them across like a conveyer belt,” Trappe told The Guardian.
Waiting patiently for cooperative weather, Trappe sent word out to residents of Caribou via his Facebook page when they felt the weather was clear. Townspeople descended on the camp to help inflate and "harvest" the 370 8-foot diameter helium balloons and watch Trappe liftoff in his brightly colored polyethylene boat.
"In the quiet sky, above the great Gulf of St. Lawrence, traveling over 50mph - in my little yellow rowboat, at 18,000 feet," Trappe posted on his page several hours after launching.
Unfortunately, just 12 hours after lift off Trappe was forced to land in a remote area of Newfoundland, Canada; just 350 miles into his voyage. A post from Trappe’s Facebook page read, “Hmm this doesn’t look like France.”
According to Kevin Knapp, who was manning the command center during the failed voyage; Trappe’s craft was never able to reach a stable altitude, which caused the vessel to experience a yo-yo effect of altitude changes ranging from 21,000 feet to being dipped into the Atlantic waters.
Portland Pudgy reports that Trappe describes the trip as a “tremendous, beautiful, magnificent, failure,” to which they agree wholeheartedly to everything but the “failure” aspect.
“How incredibly lucky we are to have been connected with Jonathan Trappe’s glorious attempt at crossing the Atlantic under a cluster of helium balloons, and how honored that he chose the Portland Pudgy as his gondola,” Portland Pudgy people wrote on the company blog.
After landing in Newfoundland Trappe deployed exposure canopy, another key characteristic of the Pudgy Trappe considered when selecting a proper gondola, and spent the night sleeping inside the small vessel. He has not announced any intentions to repeat the adventure.