Build-it-yourself dinghies have become prettier, lighter, and easier to build, with the 7'9" Eastport Pram a paragon of the type. A carefully-built Eastport Pram weighs around 65 pounds, though 70 is not uncommon with a bit of extra epoxy and accessories aboard. This is very light for its payload and strength, but it can be challenging to lift onto a car-top if you're tired or have a bad back. What to do? A small inflatable is a common solution, but even if those are lighter, they make terrible rowing boats. And purists simply prefer the aesthetics of a nice lapstrake dinghy.
Designer John Harris, a boatman and self-professed smallcraft snob, has drawn up a fine miniature dink that will appeal to dinghy users with limited storage space and not-so-great upper body strength. Incorporating 21st-century technology, classical good looks, and boatbuilding techniques we've evolved over two decades, the wood-epoxy Eastport Ultralight is a 38-pound, 6-foot pram with a 400-pound payload. "At middle age, I'm just not as strong as I used to be," says John, "I needed a dinghy capable of holding two adults, a small child, and the groceries. Yet it had to be as light as a good kayak, so I could get it on and off the car top easily, or shift it from the dinghy racks at the marina to the launch spot, or get it onto the foredeck of my small cruiser."
Originally a personal project of John's, his blog post about the experiment generated so much interest that we're making kits available. Plans will be available as soon as we find time to convert the zero's and one's of the digital design into drawings coherent enough for scratch-builders.
"It probably helped that I wasn't expecting a whole lot of performance from such a tiny boat," John says. "But I've been delighted with what it can do. You can row the boat faster than you can walk, so a long pull across the harbor is just no big deal." Nor do loads up to 400 pounds seem to slow it down any.
The freeboard is high, actually an inch or two higher than the Eastport Pram's, to make it harder for spray to get aboard and allow for a lot of reserve buoyancy. With six-foot oars you have so much power compared to the boat's weight and wetted surface that it seems unconcerned with windage. It tows light and dry when empty, with the bow transom well clear of the water.
The ergonomics of the boat are excellent, both for portaging (you simply grab the centerline bench in one hand and hook the rail of the boat over your shoulder), and afloat.
The boat is extremely easy to build. We assembled Hull #1 in the booth at the 2015 WoodenBoat Show in Mystic. The CNC-cut hull parts snap together like a jigsaw puzzle, and very quickly. We figure it's about a 50-hour project to do a nice job. A streamlined set of instructions may be found in "wiki" form here.
First, there's no escaping the physics of a boat this small and light. Stepping aboard will not be like stepping into a Boston Whaler, or even a small inflatable. You need to be able to shift your weight in one smooth motion from dock or mothership to a seated position in the dinghy. Hesitate during the transfer of weight and the boat will slip out from under you like a banana peel. You'll use the same caution in embarking as you would in a canoe or a beamy kayak that weighs 40 pounds. It's entirely manageable if you're used to getting into boats with so little inertia, but someone going from a 140-pound inflatable to this dinghy might be startled and wet, in that order. There's plenty of stability once you're aboard, and especially once you're seated.
Second, beware of an important trade-off in keeping the weight down: there's no built-in flotation. The boat is wood so it's not going to sink if swamped, but it would be challenging to self-rescue. You could fit enough foam under the centerline bench to allow a wet rescue, and it wouldn't add much weight, but the foam could make it more difficult to carry the boat on shore (you lose that vital ergonomic hand-hold), and harder to place your feet near the centerline as you step aboard.
And finally, another compromise in creating an ultralight dinghy is that the thing is built with a thin hull shell. It's all 4mm plywood. The lower half of the hull is fiberglassed inside and out, while CLC's LapStitch™ joints provide stiffness to the topsides. It's rugged enough for casual usage, but some bad luck with a nasty bolt sticking out of a piling or a bad drop in the parking lot could cause damage. You'll have to exercise more caution in the dinghy park than you would with a bigger, heavier dinghy.
Kits for the Eastport Ultralight:
Kits are milled on our CNC machine from BS 1088 marine plywood, and wire holes are drilled for the stitch-and-glue assembly. Fiberglass is included for sheathing the inside and outside bottom of the hull, along with a complete epoxy kit. Copper wire and a pair of oarlocks and sockets are included.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Can I put on a motor on the Eastport Ultralight? No.
What size outboard will it take? The Eastport Ultralight is for rowing only.
Can I rig this boat for sailing? No. It's too small, and the interior layout is at odds with a sailing rig.
Seriously, can I put a motor on it? No. Please stop asking.
What size oars do you use? We find six-foot oars a perfect fit. They stow inside the boat if you insert the oar blades in the handles in the stern transom. This makes for neat and secure oar stowage.
How stable is this boat? Not as stable as an inflatable or a larger, heavier dinghy. Stability is similar to a small canoe or a beamy kayak. You do need to exercise some care in entry and egress.
What's the payload? As much as 425 pounds according to the computer, but you'd only want to try that in placid conditions. The boat feels solid and will handle well with up to 380-400 pounds aboard.
How rugged is the Eastport Ultralight? It's strong enough to hold its own in the dinghy park, within reason. Beach landings on cobbles are no problem given some care. The main thing to watch for are sharp rocks or bolts sticking out of pilings, that sort of thing. It's approximately as easy to damage as a well-built kayak or canoe. We think we've arrived at a good compromise between strength and weight, but it IS a compromise, nonetheless.
How easy is this boat to build? This would be a satisfying first-time boatbuilding project. You can read basic instructions (intended for builders with some knowledge of epoxy and fiberglass) in wiki form here. A more elaborate print manual will be created soon.
Are plans for scratch-builders available? Not yet. We're working on that.
Can you just email me the digital files for cutting the boat? Alas, at this time we are unable to share digital data, only kits or paper plans.
Could the Eastport Ultralight be built even lighter? See the last question. I think a 20-pound version is plausible, but it'd be an eggshell, incapable of surviving the kinds of routine mishaps that befall yacht tenders.
How durable is the Eastport Ultralight? All surfaces are coated in epoxy and/or fiberglass, so with reasonable care the boat can endure many seasons living outdoors. You will need to occasionally refresh the varnish and paint to ensure that the epoxy coating is protected from UV light.