Ed Obendorfer has always wanted to captain his own boat, and he probably will...someday. But with seven children ages 7 to 20 and the nearest big waterway 30-plus miles away, the timing hasn't seemed right for boat ownership.
To get his fix, Ed and his wife, Kim, recently joined Carefree Boat Club near their home in Damascus, Maryland. After an initial membership fee, the Obendorfers pay $315 a month, plus fuel, to boat at one of four area waterways. As often as weekly (more often in the summer), they'll drive about 40 minutes to a dock in Baltimore or Annapolis, hop in a waiting boat — they prefer a 24-foot Sea Ray for their large crew — and head out for a day or half-day. When their allotted time is up, they return the boat to the dock and drive back home.
The family is part of a growing number of water lovers for whom the lure of ownership has bowed to the convenience of boat clubbing: pay dues, show up, boat, head home. No towing, no storing, no maintenance.
Clubs focused on "boat sharing" have been around since the 1980s, but membership growth has been particularly steep in recent years. The largest single operator, Freedom Boat Clubs, began in 1989 and has grown to 45 franchises with 4,000-plus members and 500 boats. Carefree Boat Club, which launched in 2002, had only four locations until 2007; it has now boomed to 17 locations with nearly 1,500 members and 200 boats, says Carefree president Doug Zimmerman. Clubs first sprang up near lakes and rivers in East Coast population centers and have only recently begun expanding westward beyond Michigan or Texas.
The growth has been spurred in part by an economy that began to soften in 2007, leading some consumers into a lesser commitment. Club operators say the experience lets them "test drive" a range of models that might whet the appetite for future ownership.
"Alternatives like boat clubs will help to keep boating alive and bring in new boaters, especially in a tough economy," says Joe McKee, owner of Ultimate Boat Clubs on Long Island Sound.
That's true of the Komassa family, who bought a one-year Freedom membership at Lake Travis, near Austin, Texas. "Neither my wife nor I knew much about owning or operating a boat," says dad Kris, whose twin 5-year-old boys had a blast tubing and cruising last summer. "We looked into buying one and really couldn't come to a consensus." The family was out every other weekend with different friends and different boats: They'd reserve a Sea Ray 240 for water sports, but checked out a Crest pontoon for more laid-back outings.
Just as Ed Obendorfer dreams of a waterfront home and his own boat once his kids leave the nest, the Komassa family is looking toward ownership. "We've learned a lot about the different boat types, what we like, and after our membership expires, we plan on buying one similar to what we've used with Freedom," Kris says.
While the concept is fairly simple and hassle-free, boat clubs do have drawbacks. For one, you're accountable for bringing the boat back at a certain time. "Fitting into that schedule sometimes is a bummer," Obendorfer admits. Also, most clubs require at least a one-year agreement with a steep upfront fee, so members who sign up but don't boat as much as they'd planned might feel shortchanged. And while clubs try to maintain a member-boat ratio close to 10:1, specific boats aren't always available, meaning the need for advance reservations can dampen one of ownership's chief draws: spontaneity.
Yet the overwhelming reaction of clubbers focuses on something as attractive as it is basic. Says Kris Komassa: "We wanted to get out on the water and be part of the boating community."
Carefree Boat Club of Southwest Florida
Freedom Boat Club of Lake Travis, Texas
Ultimate Boat Clubs, Long Island Sound