What’s better than spending the day on the water in your boat? How about spending the day on the water in someone else’s boat? That’s the appeal of boat-sharing clubs, which have been doing stupendous business since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Freedom Boat Club, for example, has seen unprecedented growth over the past year. The company, which was founded in Sarasota 30 years ago and has clubs all over the U.S., Canada and Europe, with 37,000 members, grew from 209 locations in 2019 to 253 last year, a 21 percent surge. In the past year, the company booked more than 400,000 boating trips.
“Individuals and their families are attracted to our business and have been calling and visiting us nonstop to see what we are all about,” says Scott Ward, the vice president and general manager of Freedom’s Sarasota locations.
Overall, Freedom owns 3,100 boats, including more than 60 in Sarasota and 50 in Bradenton. Since last March, each of those local boats has been used regularly.
Members call ahead of time to reserve a date, time and type of boat, but, lately, they have been put on a waiting list or have been forced to schedule their trips weeks in advance. Ward says that because of the spike in interest in the club, Freedom is looking for new locations and moving to buy more boats.
The cost of memberships at Freedom varies. There is a base entry fee of $7,000, then, for $389 a month, you can boat as much as you like all year long. Other Freedom plans are less expensive, but may restrict use on holidays and weekends. There are no extra fees, but you do pay for the fuel you use.
Freedom isn’t the only local boat-sharing club. The boating and social club Waves on Siesta Key ($4,900 join-up fee, with monthly fees varying depending on the length of commitment) and the national boating club Suntex, located at Marina Jack (a 12-month membership that includes holidays and weekends is a $3,000 one-time fee, then $375 a month), both offer half- and full-day boat rentals in various locations.
Like Freedom, these clubs offer a variety of boats to choose from, allowing you to select the perfect ride, depending on the day.
Ward attributes Freedom’s growth to the Covid-19 pandemic. Families and friends who have quarantined together can enjoy the sunshine and the water without having to dodge crowds or wear masks. They can also bring their own food and drinks, which lets them avoid indoor settings. The club has taken extra measures to sanitize boats after every trip, including introducing contactless processes to keep members and staff safe.
Boat-sharing is particularly attractive to people who enjoy boating but who don’t want to deal with the hassle of storing and maintaining a vessel. Multiple family packages are available, and separate parties can share the cost of a single membership. Members also receive unlimited complimentary lessons from licensed captains, during which they are taken through classroom and on-the-water training, to make sure they feel confident operating a boat.
According to Ward, the most popular boats at Freedom in Sarasota this year have been pleasure-cruising boats like pontoon and deck boats. Farther south and on the east coast of Florida, offshore center console fishing boats have been requested more frequently.
Ward says that whatever type of adventure you’re seeking, you can expect smooth sailing. “You can be sure to arrive to a clean boat with a full tank of fuel each time,” says Ward. “Whether you are going on a fishing trip with the boys or spending a day tubing and relaxing with the family, a boat will be ready for you.”