Bullfrog Boats: Washington company launches its 500th boat

The Bullfrog Boats story begins with owner and founder Craig Henderson, who has done a lot more than just build cool boats at the Bellingham, Wash., company.

Henderson is a product of West Washington University in Bellingham where while he studied industrial technology concentrating on plastics and manufacturing. He attended the vehicle research institute run by Dr. Mike Seal, who is also a well-known sailor in Bellingham. During college, Henderson worked as a machinist apprentice giving him the invaluable combination of theory and hands-on skills. These experiences contributed to the knowledge that has allowed Bullfrog Boats to become a nationally recognized leader in roto-molded boatbuilding.

Henderson eventually decided to build a boat that he could live aboard and eventually cruise the Pacific Northwest. The result was the Ironwind, a 53′ twin-keeled, steel cutter with a beautiful wood interior. “I learned a lot about boatbuilding from this project as it took lots of blood, sweat, and bandages,” he said. The boat served as Henderson’s home on Lake Union for three years, on Orcas Island for four years, before eventually becoming his residence in Bellingham. He finally moved ashore to focus on the Bullfrog Boats project.

Henderson eventually succumbed to the siren’s song of the recreational marine industry. “After having tried a number of dinghies for the Ironwind, I thought I had a better way to build a tender. I thought there would be a market for it and I could make a living building these boats.”

As a result of his training and previous experience, Henderson takes advantage of the high-tech applications that are available today and applies them to his company. He has been intimately involved in the building process from start to finish and more importantly has made sure to carefully plan and understand every step of the process right down to the most minute detail.

There are few boatbuilders involved in every step of the design, construction, sale and delivery of every boat. “Yes, I have had a hand in making all of the Bullfrogs,” said Henderson. “You would likely find my dirty fingerprints somewhere on every single boat.”

The Bullfrog project took about four years to develop and produce the first pre-production prototype. The basic design premise was to produce an economical, stable, and durable dinghy that you could take anywhere and do anything with. It would have to stand up to the abuses of beaching on sharp, rocky, barnacle-encrusted beaches without having to worry about potential damage from this kind of use. A tall order that presents problems to inflatables (or deflatables as they are referred to at Bullfrog) with fiberglass hulls or just plain old fiberglass hulls which when you scratch through the gel coat, start wicking moisture into the fiberglass layup, which is never good.

BULLFROG DESIGN

The design basics for any Bullfrog boat are standard across the entire model lineup, but are also unique to Bullfrog. Each design combines the unsinkability of foam-filled positive flotation construction, the stability of a wide-stance platform, and the durability of a polyethylene flotation collar with an aluminum hull. This is the only design in the world that incorporates all these features and as a result has been awarded a U.S. patent for aluminum polymer boats.

The term unsinkability is naturally an eye-catcher as a safety feature for boaters for the simple reason that as long as you’re on top of the water you stand a much better chance of surviving a high energy collision with a foreign object or an encounter with a sharp object like a gaff hook or knife that might accidently impale your inflatable. This is achieved through the construction of the tubes that form the outside of each boat. Each of these tubes is filled with flotation foam, which renders the boat virtually unsinkable.

If you’ve ever tried to step from a dinghy to a stern or swim platform or a boarding ladder on a boat, you know the problem. It can be dangerous in even a slight chop. The Bullfrog design solves this problem by incorporating a wide-stance platform with the flotation collar. The combination of design plus materials provides a platform that is stable enough that even when a big guy steps on the collar to step up to the dock or a boat, the boat barely heels at all.

You don’t always associate plastic with durability, but the process by which Bullfrog Boats are constructed provides owners with one of the most durable vessels ever produced. The technique of molding the polyethylene tubes and then filling the tubes with flotation foam provides an impact resistance that is five times that of fiberglass. The tubes are then thru-bolted to the 5000 series aluminum deep-V hull. The combination of these features provides the boat with structural rigidity and durability.

ROTO MOLDING PROCESS

Roto-molding isn’t a new concept in manufacturing but it is certainly a different way to build a boat. It took Henderson almost four years to perfect the technique by which the polyethylene shells are molded for each Bullfrog boat. First, an aluminum, two-part mold is created that is then highly polished to facilitate easy release of the part. The next step is to position the metal inserts in the mold to which owner-selected options will be attached.  A “shot” of polyethylene powder is then poured into half of the mold, which is then bolted together. This is where the process gets tricky, as the mold has to be rotated and heated in an oven large enough to hold the mold. The tricky part is that not only is the mold rotated, it also has to be pitched at a controlled rate while it is rotating in order to ensure that the piece being created is of uniform and constant thickness to ensure maximum strength. This takes about an hour. After which, while the mold is still being rotated and pitched, the mold comes out of the oven and is set over a bank of cooling fans so the mold is cooled evenly and uniformly. This ensures the quality and structural soundness of the final piece. Once the mold is cooled, it is unbolted and then using a chain hoist, the top half is lifted off and the piece lifted out of the mold. The final step in the preparation of the piece is to remove the flashing that is left at the mold joint that is quickly and easily done.

The next step is to add the access ports to the finished piece so that the parts can be bolted to the inserts in the polyethylene tube. Once that is completed, the finished tube can now be attached to the aluminum structure that forms the deep-V shape of the bottom of the dinghy. How that flooring and hull structure is made is another example of  how Bullfrog takes advantage of modern techniques.

MODELS

The most popular boat in the Bullfrog lineup is the 10’ utility tender/dinghy. This powerful 10-footer can go from its basic configuration of two seats with a 15-hp outboard that will haul three adults to the beach and back to a totally outfitted near shore fishing and crabbing dinghy with downriggers and an anchoring system.

As the popularity of the 10’-footer grew so did the requests for a slightly larger model with the ability to accommodate “just one more person” and slightly larger engine for more speed and extended range. The 11.5’ tender does all of that with a 30-hp outboard and a six-gallon fuel tank. The steering console is also molded fiberglass with a protective windshield that incorporates a stainless steel rail.

Bullfrog’s 15’ utility boat has a 60-hp outboard, 25-gal. fuel tank, and seating for six — the perfect dive boat, interisland commuter, or fishing boat. Plus with a 22-degree, deep-V aluminum hull, you can make the run out to the Banks in the middle of the Straits and if inclement weather sets in, you now have a fast, soft, dry ride back to more sheltered waters.

The 17’ utility boat has a 90-hp outboard that can drive the boat at speeds of up to around 40 knots. With the increased size, the boat is marketed to both the recreational and commercial marine markets. Workboat operators such as Foss Maritime and Olympic Tug and Barge now deploy the 17-footer equipped with options like a pilothouse or even tow post for emergency oil boom deployment.

The 22’ Offshore Ranger is the flagship of Bullfrog line and is an excellent rough water boat for its size. Whether you are a fisherman, diver, or just want to explore the coastline, this boat will provide a worry-free day on the water.

Professional Series Bullfrogs have a flat floor open design that allows for easy customization. Bullfrog Boats can install consoles and seats or design a boat that fits your specific requirements. The deep “V” hull design provides stability as well as a soft, dry, ride even when you order the optional twin 250-hp outboards which permit speeds of over 60 knots. The reinforced marine grade aluminum hull is built to industry leading ABYC standards.

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