Photography by Bill Doster
Boat clubs promise to deliver a hassle-free boating experience, but do they live up to the hype? We joined up to find out.
Just think, I should be in school right now…”
The voice belonged to my youngest daughter Riley, an offhand remark as she lazily gazed at the Gulf of Mexico. She was right. So should my oldest, Keeley, currently staking out the cushioned real estate opposite her sister at the bow. This morning, however, I played the “cool dad” card and told them both I was calling an audible. Today’s homework? To throw on bathing suits, grab snacks and drinks and follow me to the marina where our 22-foot Scout center console patiently awaited the day’s adventure.
My apologies to teachers everywhere, but come on … not all lessons are learned in the classroom. (That’s the Zen way of saying both kids were earning straight A’s, so I figured I wasn’t completely screwed should mom find out.) Next week, I planned to treat myself to some dad time and go fishing with a few buddies aboard the Cobia one slip over. The weekend had already been spoken for … the kids invited friends to spend the day on our Sweetwater pontoon.
How did I get all these great boats? Trust me, I didn’t overextend my credit—not on a writer’s paycheck. I did, however, follow through on an idea almost as polarizing.
I joined a boat club.
Alternative to Ownership
Well, at least I temporarily joined a boat club. After all, what better way to discover the pros and cons of the club experience than to, at least metaphorically, sign on the dotted line? And to start I went right to the industry leader, Freedom Boat Club, which currently boasts over 170 locations throughout the U.S., as well as a few more in Canada. There are even locations in France. (Let’s not tell the kids about those just yet.)
One of a boat club’s primary advantages is reinforced the minute we arrive at Freedom’s bayfront location in Sarasota. Here, a 50-vessel-strong fleet includes Hurricane deckboats, Cobia bay boats, center consoles from both Scout and Cobia, Sweetwater pontoons, Scout bowriders, even several Catalina sailboats. Most boat buyers are forced to choose one vessel to be a jack of all trades, but club members have the option to pick the best boat for the day’s task. “One day you’re out enjoying water sports with friends and the next day you’re on a pontoon relaxing with your family,” says Freedom President John Giglio of the variety of craft boat clubs offer. “It keeps the boating experience fresh for our members.”
The catch? Other members may have already beaten you to your first choice—or on a busy weekend or vacation week, every boat at the dock. That’s one reason why it’s advisable to ask any boat club about membership size, the ratio of boats to members, and booking history. “The ratio of boats to members varies by location, but the membership experience is always the top consideration,” continues Giglio, who notes Freedom’s 30 years of experience has helped them fine tune their business model and reservation system to ensure members get out on the water when they desire. “Our retention rate remains steady each year [roughly 93 percent] which is a strong indicator that members are finding satisfaction with the club.”
Of course, the other catch when going the club route is that you don’t own your boat. You’re out of luck for night cruises, as most clubs limit operation to daylight hours. Spur of the moment trips may be possible, but boats are often reserved well in advance. You will also have to stay within a designated boundary, meaning no long-distance runs, overnight trips or excursions far offshore. Most clubs also typically offer boats in a limited size range.
And then there’s the pride many boaters find in ownership. Details like maintenance, insurance, trailering and storage are often considered a fair tradeoff in return for getting to use and customize a boat however you see fit.
On The Water—Fast
Still, the ease of the club experience has obvious appeal. Arriving to the Freedom counter dockside, we identify ourselves as club members, a friendly rep locates our membership info and signs us in and we’re off to the boat within minutes, club workers hauling all of our gear. Once aboard, a rep goes over an iPad-based checklist, noting the locations of all the controls, anchor, storage and the like. We also examine the boat for existing damage, and note the current fuel level. Then we load up, cast off and idle out of the marina, bringing along two friendly Freedom reps to pepper with questions en route.
Fellow boaters will be pleased to learn that Freedom doesn’t just hand over the keys without instruction. Before members hit the water they hit the classroom, undertaking a mandatory four-hour new member orientation that touches upon not only navigation and rules of the road but also docking and maneuvering. Members wanting to head offshore are required to undergo additional training with staff. Boaters aren’t turned loose until they demonstrate proficiency at the helm, increasing the odds that the fleet stays ship shape.
Still, our Scout shows minor signs of wear. The rub rail is dented, the leaning post’s backrest is loose, and the gelcoat is beginning to lose its gleam as a result of the Florida sun. Turns out this particular vessel is at the end of its lifespan. Freedom updates inventory yearly, with no boat staying longer than three years. Members are guaranteed a relatively new boat in good working order.
It makes sense. “If we can’t get members out on boats, we’re failing as a business,” explains Giglio. “It’s critical that our boats are always well maintained.”
Worried that you might get dinged for a previous user’s lack of care? Pay close attention during both the check-in and checkout process, and make certain any problems are noted in writing before you leave the dock or marina. Giglio notes that, unlike a rental scenario, club members will often use the same boat repeatedly. With that in mind, they want to ensure boats are in good working order, not just for themselves but also for fellow club members.
As to just who those club members are, the answer varies. At check-in I spotted an obviously skilled fisherman, a frequent user. Others may be novices trying out the boating lifestyle before making a larger commitment, or experienced owners who have aged out of the rigors of ownership. The generic answer is the busy person who wants to be out on the water without all the hassles commonly associated with boating—trailering, maintenance and repairs, storage, insurance. A boat club may also offer access to a better class of boats than a buyer could otherwise afford.
Clubs, however, are still a sizable investment. Rates vary by club, location and amenities but typically members pay a one-time entry fee anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. After that, monthly dues can run anywhere from $150 to $500. Some clubs, including Freedom, complement full membership plans with seasonal and weekday-only options for those looking for a lower-priced alternative.
Memberships typically are not transferable, meaning that should you try a club and decide it’s not for you, it might be difficult to recoup your membership fee. Prospective members would be wise to consider adding language to their contract regarding what happens in the event a location closes. An example would be dictating that your membership be voided and prorated should your location close and another location not be available within a specific mileage radius from your home.
As to reservations, keep in mind that clubs typically limit members to a set number of active reservations (four for Freedom) at any given time. Many reservation blocks are also four to six hours long, rather than an entire day. Savvy members are known to reserve a new block shortly after finishing a trip. Popular weekends may require booking well in advance. Freedom also offers unlimited “spur of the moment” reservations (based on availability) for members as long as they don’t currently have an active reservation. Some clubs (Freedom included) also offer reciprocity at other locations across the country, or even globally.
Leave The Keys—And Hassles—Behind
As you might imagine, my daughters and I spent our day on the water doing much the same activities that most boaters enjoy. We cruised the ICW, walked a secluded beach, enjoyed a few waters ports and wound down at a favorite waterside eatery. Back at the dock at our session’s end, however, I did something I’ve never enjoyed aboard my personal boat. After a brief post-ride checkout, I simply tossed the keys to my Freedom rep—and walked away.
No need to wash down (dockhands quickly jump in to do that job), no maintenance before the next ride, no worrying about whether the boat will be secure until our next visit. It’s hassle-free as promised.
“We understand our model may not exactly fit every boater’s needs and desires,” Giglio admits. “There are individuals who should own a boat and we encourage them to do so. Freedom Boat Club will be here for those who are looking for a simpler alternative.”
Including a dad, trying to make a few lasting memories with his daughters.