Many boaters say the second happiest day of their life was when they bought a boat.
The happiest day? When they sold it. That common lament is changing with the recent surge in boat club memberships.
Boat clubs offer access to boats for a fraction of the cost of owning a boat. Members enjoy what clubs say is a hassle-free experience: Just show up at the dock and cruise away in a clean, fully fueled boat.
There are still plenty of boat owners, but the numbers have declined since the Great Recession to 11.8 million by 2015 – a drop of 1 million – according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Former boat owners opting for the club model say they benefit from lower costs and easier access.
“It was a pain trailering a boat. We went months without using it. The club is a whole lot cheaper than owning a boat. And we get to use new boats that are always in good shape,” said Rick Wade, a Freedom Boat Club member in Southport.
Freedom Boat Club is a franchise- based business with 130 locations and 15,000 members in the U.S. and Canada. The Southport location is owned by a franchisee based in North Myrtle Beach with additional clubs in Charleston and Myrtle Beach.
To join, members pay an initial fee between $4,000 and $6,000, plus $200 to $400 a month. A five-day membership that limits usage to weekdays is a popular option.
“Many retirees with their flexible schedules prefer to go out only during the week. It’s also less congested,” said Dave Patterson, the club’s Southport manager.
The Southport location has six boats available year-round ranging from 18 feet to 25 feet. New boats are purchased each year and rotated out after three years. Unlimited usage 12 months a year and free training comes with membership. Members appear to like the arrangement; the club has a 93 percent retention rate, according to the company.
The only additional expense for members is fuel unless the boat is damaged. The club maintains insurance, but members must cover the $2,500 deductible. Members who pay $250 per year can reduce their deductible to $500. Mechanical breakdowns while on the water are covered by TowBoatUS service included in the membership.
To entice those considering buying a new boat to join the club, Freedom claims members will save almost $26,000 over three years compared to purchasing a new $35,000 boat.
For someone looking to unload their boat and join the club, Patterson said, “We’ll buy the boat and credit the sale amount toward the membership and monthly fees.”
The North Myrtle Beach franchise plans to open a Freedom Boat location in the Wilmington area later this year. It will face competition from Sea Gate Boating and Nauti Times Boat Rental.
Marty Forester launched Sea Gate Boating, formerly called Reliant Marine, in 2012.
He calls his approach a “discounted rental boat program” instead of a boat club.
There are four levels of membership. Initial fees range from $499 to $5,999 with monthly fees from $129 to $599. The higher the membership and monthly fees, the deeper the rental discount and boat choices.
Sea Gate currently has 83 members.
The value of joining Sea Gate or any other boating club comes down to usage. Boat owners consistently overestimate the trips they’ll take. One survey found that sailboat owners ventured out 11 times a year, according to a U.S. Coast Guard report. Power boat owners completed 12 trips. And the popular pontoon boat sailed only an average of 15 times annually.
Club officials contend that club owners not only save money but boat more often compared to boat owners.
Forester estimates that his members hit the water at least 30 times a year.
Patterson said, “Our members go out from twice a week to twice a month at least eight months of the year. Even in February, we had a ton of people going out.”
Wade said he goes out about 40 times a year, a far cry from his boat owner days.
Sea Gate currently offers 17 boats including a 27-foot Boston Whaler that retails for more than $200,000.
Only half of the boats are owned by the company. Others come from owners looking to get value out of their craft when they’re not using it, Forester said.
“Our other boats are supplied by boat owners who want to rent their boats to offset some of their ownership costs. It also helps us reduce our high cost of capital,” he said.
As part of the deal with boat owners, Forester provides ongoing maintenance and storage, along with an annual payment based on the perceived rental value of the craft.
For the less-frequent boater, Nauti Times Boat Rental in Wrightsville Beach offers a simple deal. By joining their “Frequent Renters Program” for an annual fee of $150, customers get a 15 percent discount. The company rents only 21-foot Carolina Skiffs that hold a crew of 10 comfortably.
A full day rental is $375. Club members begin saving with their third full-day rental.
Owner Jeff Hughes cautioned that customers must be experienced boaters to rent his boats.
“I vet everyone personally, and we don’t have a training program for the inexperienced,” he said.
Nor does the company offer insurance. Hughes suggests people get a rider on their homeowner policy.
Both Sea Gate and Nauti Times provide another benefit to former boat owners: avoiding the wait, congestion and regular fights at the Wrightsville Beach Boat Ramp.
Forester just introduced “Boat Valet”: an alternative to the boat ramp for boat owners. For $299 per month and a launch fee, Forester will dry store a boat and deliver it to his dock after cleaning, flushing the engine and refueling.
“The town really likes the idea. It reduces the trailer parking problem and helps free up the boat ramp,” Forester said.
For those looking for another option, there is Boatbound. Applying the Airbnb model to boating, renters and boat owners can now join the sharing economy.
Want to splurge? A recent listing in Wilmington offers a 65-foot yacht at $999 for a 24-hour rental with a captain.