By Doreen Hemlock
It’s getting easier to enjoy South Florida’s waterways without owning a boat.
Boat clubs are expanding, offering members access to their club fleet for a one-time charge to join and monthly fees. Plus, new boat-sharing websites now let consumers take out privately owned boats, with or without captains, much like renting out private homes through Airbnb.
Freedom Boat Club, the country’s largest boat club chain with 10,000 members in 19 states, is leading the club expansion under a new owner and improved franchise system.
In southeast Florida, Freedom opened in July in Deerfield Beach and in March in Fort Lauderdale. It debuted in February in Stuart and last year in West Palm Beach-Lake Park. It also has plans to open in Miami soon and add marina space for existing clubs.
Nationwide, the chain aims to reach 100 clubs this year, nearly double the number three years ago. Members can reserve anywhere, so families can enjoy boating when they travel, said CEO John Giglio, 40, who worked his way up from operations to sales and took full ownership in 2012.
Marietta and Carlos Alvarez joined Freedom in Palm Beach County last year and now boat almost every week, about double what they did when they owned their own boat. They love the ease of reserving online, showing up at the pier, heading out and then leaving all of the cleanup to the club staff.
With their own boat, they were lucky to hit the water twice a month because of the work involved: transporting it to the water, cleaning it and then hauling it back home.
“This is one way to really enjoy the boating lifestyle — without the hassle,” said Marietta Alvarez, 62, of Jupiter Farms. She now sometimes packs a lunch for the couple to simply motor out for the afternoon, drop anchor and read books.
Boat clubs and boat-sharing sites are appealing both to older boaters seeking fewer headaches and millennials who may not have the money to buy a boat or simply don’t want to. They’re mobilizing new technologies to make it simpler for users to book, pay and search for boats online. And they’re tapping into the “sharing economy” that is propelling companies like Uber and Lyft.
Boatsetter.com of Aventura, for instance, now offers more than 200 privately owned boats for rental in South Florida, plus options for captains that know each boat. It expects to offer 1,000 boats in South Florida and 3,000 nationwide by January, said CEO Andy Sturner.
Launched commercially this year, the boat-sharing company is working with marinas to encourage boat owners to join and earn extra cash while their boats usually sit idle. On average, boat owners in the U.S. take out their boats just twice a month, said Sturner, a marina owner with a tech background.
So, what does it cost for boaters?
Prices vary by boat club locale, but Freedom’s fees in West Palm Beach run from $2,750 to $5,500 to join and $149 to $299 monthly, said Dan Lund, a 30-year U.S. Marine who recently bought the franchise for Palm Beach and Martin counties. Those charges include safety and navigation training, maintenance, insurance and all other costs — except the gas you use when you take out the boat.
Members can keep four online reservations at any time and even take boats for overnight stays. The chain keeps one boat for 10 members, buys new and keeps boats only three years, Lund said. The monthly fee stays the same — paid month to month, with no annual contract.
That makes clubs more affordable than owning a boat, said Joe Polidore, vice president with the Freedom franchise holder for most of Miami-Dade and all of Broward counties.
With the price of new boats rising, a 23-foot center-console fishing boat can cost $65,000. Put down 20 percent, get a 15-year loan, and that runs about $500 per month. Add at least $300 monthly for dockage and $200 monthly for insurance, and the total tops $193,000 over 15 years, not counting registration, licenses, maintenance and other fees. That compares with less than $65,000 spent over 15 years at Freedom in South Florida, Polidore estimated.
Renting through a boat-sharing site can range from hundreds to thousands per day, depending on the size of the boat. Taking out a 40-foot pontoon for about $1,000 for the day can work out to an affordable $100 per day for 10 people, with insurance included on Boatsetter.com, said CEO Sturner.
Insurance coverage and extra fees are both areas for boaters to watch carefully. Some boat clubs charge extra for maintenance and other fees, and some rental options don’t include insurance.
Avid boaters who like to head out daily might prefer ownership, and people who want to cruise for a week or longer with friends might consider a charter company instead, boating veterans said.
Yet there’s no question that options to traditional boat ownership are exploding since the recession.
South Florida Boat Club, a two-club group started in 2003 with locales in Fort Lauderdale and Key Biscyane in Miami, now has roughly 40 boats for members, about double the fleet three years ago. It expects about 60 boats in three years as membership rises, said sales director Richard Berglund.
“This has probably been the busiest year we’ve ever had,’ Berglund said.
At his two new Freedom locales in Palm Beach and Martin Counties, Lund said he has signed up 180 members so far, offering 18 boats mainly 19 to 26 feet and seating up to 13 people each. He plans to open at least three more locales in Palm Beach and one more in Martin County in the next five years.
But there are challenges to growth in South Florida, mainly because of limited marina space.
Freedom’s months-old Deerfield Beach and Fort Lauderdale locales so far have just five boats each, because “marinas in the area are full right now,” Polidore said. He wants the clubs to offer easy drive-up access to marinas in key boating areas, such as the Intracoastal Waterway.
Freedom CEO Giglio is looking into buying some small marinas to make sure the clubs can expand, especially in Florida.
“The real-estate turmoil years back when they were knocking down marinas and putting up condos really hurt our business,” said Giglio, who is based in Venice in west Florida and owns more than a dozen clubs on the state’s Gulf coast and in the Florida Keys.
Freedom already has increased annual revenues from about $15 million in 2012 to about $50 million now, and Giglio sees that total tripling in five years, provided clubs can find marina space.
With the chain expanding in California and to inland lakes, its growth is drawing interest from entrepreneurs to open franchises in Spain, Mexico and Canada. Giglio is considering international options.
For the Alvarezes, more clubs worldwide means more places to enjoy their Freedom membership.
The couple now regularly take their family for outings to nearby Peanut Island, which their grandson calls “Pirate Island.” When they visited their daughter in Maryland’s Annapolis area, they spent two days boating with her family and pals through a club in that area. And they also plan to book a day boating with friends when they visit the South Carolina area soon.
“When you’re out on a boat,” Marietta Alvarez said, “you never really have a bad day.”