Boating Without Owning?

By Charles Fort

For those who want the experience of boating without, the hassle of ownership, there are more ways than ever to get it.

Photo of a family enjoying their powerboatPhoto: Four Winns

Many people invoke such words such as "freedom," "relaxation," and "escape" to describe why they love boating. There are other folks, though, who for sure wouldn't use those words to describe owning a boat. While lots of people enjoy repairing, upgrading, or maintaining their vessels, others don't have the time, inclination, or ability to do the hands-on jobs that boats require. And there are those who simply can't afford to buy a boat and pay for its upkeep. But today, these people have options that a previous generation didn't. It's no longer necessary to make a sizeable investment to sail, fish, wakeboard, or escape to a secluded place to spend a weekend. If you consider a boat as an experience to have whenever you want it, rather than an asset you can use any time, you may want to take advantage of programs that allow you to get on the water at lower costs. Each has its pros and cons. Here are some things to consider.

Chartering

It's said that yacht chartering began in earnest in Antigua just after World War II, when several wealthy people on the island wanted to visit other islands in the Lesser Antilles chain and found a 70-foot schooner they could pay to use. Since then, chartering — of both sailboats and powerboats — has exploded, and it's now possible to vacation aboard a boat you don't own in hundreds of interesting and exotic places — around the world, and in our own country. The idea is simple: You rent a boat for a week or two (or more) and use it to see places you'd not likely to get to aboard your own boat. The chartering business is well-established, with several reputable companies that have been in business for decades. Chartering options include handling and provisioning the boat yourself (called bareboating), hiring crew, and having the boat come with provisions already on board; charter boats are usually paid for by the week. Charter companies typically want to review a résumé with relevant experience before they allow you to take out a boat.

The Good News:

  • Boats come in all sizes and price points, including those large enough to be a good value for a group in which all contribute to lower the cost per person.
  • Boats are usually fully equipped with safety gear, towels, cruising guides, and the like. They'll even provision the boat for you in advance; or, if you wish, you can do it yourself.
  • You can hire a professional skipper from the charter company for a day or two at the beginning of your charter, to teach you about the systems on the boat, and give guidance on where to go and fun things to do.
  • Charter boats come turnkey, which means that all maintenance is done by the charter company.
  • It's a great way to try a boat for a week that you may want to purchase.

Keep In Mind:

  • Insurance may not be included, and starts at $50 per day.
  • A several-hundred dollar (returnable) deposit is usually required, and your deductible may be higher than with the insurance policy on your own boat.
  • If a group pools money for a charter, and elects someone in the party to be "skipper," that person may take on the legal responsibilities and obligations of a paid captain.

Boat Clubs

Boat clubs have been around for about 25 years and were born out of the realization that most boats spend the vast majority of their time sitting unused at a dock. With a boat club, you buy a membership into the club (paying somewhere between $1,000 to $5,000) and pay monthly fees of $150 to $500 to buy "unlimited" use in blocks of time for several kinds of boats, such as pontoon, fishing boats, or runabouts. The blocks are usually for four or eight hours at a time and can sometimes be combined in multiples of two, but overnights are often restricted. The fees cover nearly everything: the purchase of the boat, slip fees, insurance, repairs, maintenance. Members simply pay for gas and any deductible that applies if the boat is damaged. Most clubs have a ratio of 10 to 12 members per boat, and in theory, you can use the boats all you want, subject to prior reservations.

The Good News:

  • Boats are replaced with new ones regularly.
  • Insurance and towing coverage is usually included.
  • Some clubs have multiple locations where boats can be reserved across the country.
  • Some clubs allow you to book an available boat on the same day, and not count it toward your contracted number of uses in that period.

Keep In Mind:

  • Reservations often have to be made weeks in advance and may not be available for popular weekends.
  • Boats may not be allowed out in potentially foul weather and after sundown.
  • Four-hour time-block reservations may be restrictive and are usually limited to four reservations at a time. Ask about the company's flexibility on this.
  • Memberships are usually not transferable, and deposits may not be refundable.
  • Some clubs are franchises, so there can be complications with existing contracts if the club is sold to a new owner.

Fractional Ownership

Fractional ownership is more like boating without owning the whole boat. The idea has been around ever since some friends at a dinner table decided it would be easier to have a nice boat if they all bought it together. Two or more people purchase a boat, split such costs as maintenance, moorage, and insurance, then schedule its use between the parties. Often, a limited-liability corporation is set up, and each person owns a fraction (say, for example, a quarter) of the boat. Owners may agree that they can sell their shares if they want out. Some companies will, for a fee, buy, manage, and maintain the boat and schedule its use for the owners. There are some hybrid programs, too, that work like a combination of fractional ownership and a boat club. Members enter into a yearly contract and pay only a monthly fee (around $900 for a new 38-foot sailboat) and get several days per month of use, though they have no equity in the boat. In these programs, all expenses, sometimes even fuel, are covered.

The Good News:

  • Because there are typically only four or five owners, scheduling is flexible, and owners are more likely to get the share of days they want each season.
  • Each individual has equity in the boat (except under the hybrid plans), which can be sold if a person no longer wants to participate.
  • Major repair costs, such as a new engine, are split among the owners.

Keep In Mind:

  • In places where the boating season is short, there may not be enough days to go around.
  • Make sure your partners understand how much annual boat maintenance and repairs can cost, and that they're financially able to handle that.
  • A limited-liability company should be set up by an attorney with experience in fractional ownership.

Photo of relaxing on deckThe newest entry in the field of alternative boat ownership is the concept of renting other people's boats. (Photo: Four Winns)

Peer To Peer

The newest entry in the field is renting other people's boats. P2P companies such as Airbnb, which allow people to rent out unused rooms on a daily basis, have been around for a few years, and the concept has now migrated to boats. Companies, like BoatBound.co and Cruzin.com, have websites that allow prospective boat renters to connect with boat owners across the country. Potential renters browse boats of all types and sizes, and once they find something they want to rent, the website handles the transaction from start to finish. Reviews on both owners and renters let potential customers see comments from previous renters and give owners a sense of how well their boat will be cared for.

The Good News:

  • P2P offers a wide selection of powerboats and sailboats in many cities.
  • Because you're dealing directly with the boat's owner, you'll likely get complete information on the boat's operation and characteristics.
  • Insurance and towing coverage is usually included, but check to make sure.
  • If you're an inexperienced boater or want to try a boat that's larger than what you're used to, you can often organize a rental with a captain.

Keep In Mind:

  • You'll have to plan around the owner's schedule.
  • These types of rentals aren't designed for beginners who want to go out without a captain; you'll need to be able to demonstrate at least a couple of years of experience.
  • Damage disputes may arise, jeopardizing your deposit.
  • Take before-and-after pictures of the boat's condition as a precaution.
  • Make sure the owner has equipped the boat with all required safety gear — as the operator, you're responsible if you get boarded by authorities.

Today, there are more alternatives than ever to boat ownership, and while we all love boats, now it's OK to love someone else's boat, too. 

— Published: December 2015


So What's Missing?

BoatUS members who have tried these types of programs say that while it's a great way to get to use a boat, in comparison with boat ownership, there are a few things you lose:

  • It's harder to be spontaneous if you don't have your own boat available any time.
  • You can't leave your personal possessions aboard.
  • You lose the pride of ownership.
  • The ability to suddenly change plans and stay an extra day or two is usually not possible.
  • The freedom to take a long summer cruise or go offshore is lacking.
  • Some members say that owning a boat and using one of the programs occasionally is the best of both worlds.

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