In Maryland, turning away from boat ownership — and toward boat clubs

Purchasing a boat can be a lot like owning a second car.

After the down payment, there are the boat's insurance payments. Upkeep can be difficult, with owners having to buy new equipment, deal with maintenance and keep up with the overall care of the boat.

Then there's the question of storage. A slip in Maryland costs around $3,000, according to Dan Somerville, manager of Freedom Boat Club in Annapolis. Owners might need to buy a trailer, or even a truck, to be able to haul their boat to public waterways.

To get around those costs, some Maryland residents are turning away from boat ownership and toward boat clubs such as Somerville's.

Boat clubs require a one-time registration fee, then either a monthly or a yearly fee to use its boats, which are generally 20-plus-foot motorboats.

Somerville and Ray Dobe, owner of Carefree Boat Club in Baltimore, maintain all of their fleets' boats at no extra cost to club members.

Both clubs also offer training and classes to new boaters, who get unlimited boat use and reservations throughout the year once they complete training. Uses of the boats, Dobe said, range from fishing to casual cruises to nearby harbors and marinas. Families also use the boats to go tubing and water skiing.

While Carefree has been around for 12 years and has roughly 30 franchises, Freedom, which started in Florida, came to the state only in May. Somerville and Dobe said they expect more people to get involved in boat clubs to avoid the high cost of boat ownership.

“The concept is out there, but the market hasn't been penetrated very deeply,” Somerville said. “There's a pent-up desire to go out [on the water] without buying.

“In Florida, everyone has heard of it, but it's new in the Mid-Atlantic.”

Dobe said he predicts his fleet of six boats will grow over the next five years.

“The average person gets six hours a week of free time,” he said. “To maintain a boat and use it with six hours a week is nearly impossible.”

Dobe and Somerville said their customer bases consist mainly of retirees who don't want to spend money on a boat and young couples who don't have the time to maintain one.

Paul Lambdin of Annapolis, a retiree and member of Freedom, said he and his wife had owned a boat until a few months ago, when they decided to sell it and instead join a boat club.

Lambdin estimated the cost of joining Freedom Boat Club to be about 10 percent of the annual cost of boat ownership and maintenance.

“All I have to do is call Dan and say that we're going to be down tomorrow afternoon to take one out. We'll show up at 2, take five minutes to go through the paperwork, and we're out on the boat,” Lambdin said.

“When we come back, I just have to fill it up” with gas.

Lambdin owns a second house in Hilton Head, S.C., and said that while boat clubs are far more established in the South, he sees their popularity in Maryland continuing to increase.

“What I'm finding is the boat club thing in the Chesapeake is a relatively new phenomenon,” he said.

“When I look at the popularity of this thing [in the South], it's booming. We have 100 members in Hilton Head and 14 boats. The Chesapeake will move in that direction.”

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