Boat Club Memberships: Why Should You Join?

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The benefits of getting a boat club membership

Boating can be one of the most pleasurable and memorable times in one’s life, but the cost of ownership is often a detractor. It usually leaves many on a dock gazing at a group out on a vessel laughing their socks off as if their lives were a serendipitous event.

Fortunately, there are boat clubs throughout the U.S. that offer opportunities for experienced as well as newcomers to enjoy the boating lifestyle. The boat club experience is not only geared toward individuals looking for a more accessible, affordable option, but also to former boat owners who are aware of the cumbersome responsibilities of ownership.

Companies such as Freedom Boat Club, Carefree Boat Club, Sovereign, and others offer boaters the opportunity to take watercraft out on their own for the day and head home afterward without worrying about maintaining it or the insurance costs. Another big advantage is that those who want to get into boating but have never owned or operated a boat will go through training by the boat club staff to ensure safety and confidence in taking the helm.

A Member Weighs in 

Andrew Novak of Lighthouse Point, Florida, is a former boat owner who wanted a departure from the constant upkeep and overhead of ownership. “I thought, ‘Let me give this boat club a try and see how active I can be with it,’” he says. “I don’t have to keep it trailered. I can give it back when I’m done.” 

Novak became a Freedom Boat Club premium member and pays just over $500 a month in addition to his $5,000 initiation fee. He explains that the premium membership at Freedom is 10 percent of the members at a particular location. “If there are 600 members, only 60 are allowed to belong to the premium membership,” he says. The main benefit to him is being able to commandeer a hearty vessel capable of knocking out waves on his way out to sea. “It gave me access to the twenty-five-foot and larger boats,” Novak says. “I take out a twenty-seven-foot Cobia center console regularly from Lighthouse Point Marina.” 

Novak likes to use his private membership to fish. He typically goes for dolphin and wahoo, which hide just underneath the mahi-mahi. “The boat isn’t super-set up for live baiting. I could slow troll because the twenty-seven-foot Cobia is equipped with outriggers, but it’s not my cup of tea,” Novak says.

Not all clubs will allow you to store a boat at your personal dock overnight, but Freedom Boat Club does for up to three nights in a row. “I love being able to take the boat home,” says Novak. “There’s something about me looking out of the back window of my home and seeing a boat that makes me happy.” 

Boat Club or Boat Rental?

Boatsetter.com is a peer-to-peer renting service that has a very large marketplace with more than 17,000 boats in more than 600 locations worldwide. The main benefit to Boatsetter is skipping the sizeable initiation fee of $5,000 that most boat clubs charge. However, avoiding the initial fee may cost you in the long run. One of the lowest rental prices is $44 per hour for a pontoon boat, which adds up to $352 for an eight-hour day. This is just above the average monthly cost at a lot of boat clubs ($300), once you fork over the mandatory $5,000, sometimes less, sometimes more. 

The question then becomes, “How much will I use the vessel in a month or year?” Novak says his premium membership at Freedom allows as many reservations as his schedule permits, which is a mainstay at most boat clubs.

Initial Fee vs a Down Payment

If you were to buy a boat, the typical down payment range is 10 to 20 percent of the total cost. For instance, to purchase a $30,000 boat, 10 percent down would be $3,000. The advantage to joining a club is that you can cancel your membership after a year (or less); whereas, buying a boat would leave you on the hook for four to five years or more. The initial fee for a boat club ($5,000-$7,000) is comparable, but then factor in no maintenance or upkeep and that cost lessens overall. The South Florida Boat Club has a trade-in option if you own a boat with less than 200 hours.

Similarities and Drawbacks

Boat clubs generally require a one-time initiation fee. South Florida has the lowest initial fee starting at just $1,200, but it only has locations in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. It allows a member and any of their guests to board a vessel, including your Labrador retriever. This may not seem like a big deal (to let any guest, furry or otherwise, on board), but Suntex Boat Club has restrictions that limit your guests if they are not immediate family members and breaks up the membership based on this sole factor. Suntex has other locations in various states, but only two in Florida and has pet-designated boats and a $5,000 deductible for non-negligent repairs. 

Most clubs above either offer or suggest ways to find boating education courses and, in some cases, it is a mandatory precursor to taking a boat out. In addition, most clubs require members to be 21 years or older to drive. Every club has an online reservation system and allows unlimited usage with the only requirement to return the boat fully fueled.

Carefree offers “spur of the moment” reservations by simply calling the dock to determine availability so a member can arrive and throttle out to sea. All clubs generally carry boats ranging from 18 feet to 27 feet. Boatsetter also has larger vessels available, but usually require a licensed captain.

Try it Out

A boat club is the perfect way to get your feet wet in operating a boat and knowing how boating can fit into your lifestyle. Joining a boat club allows you the chance to experience being out on the water and is a great way to figure out if owning a boat is right for you, including the chance to try out a variety of boat models to see which you like best before purchasing one.

Typical boat rentals give a similar opportunity, and chartering a boat is good when you want to go for a day of fishing, a sunset cruise, or a week-long vacation, but as Cecil Cohn, president of Freedom Boat Club, says, “Customers can plan their vacations around a club location. We want our members to have a lasting, great experience.” 

-by Jamion Dietrich Kries

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