Boat Clubs have become an extremely popular alternative to boat ownership in recent years.  So much so that industry giant, Brunswick, acquired Freedom Boat Club – the oldest and largest boat club back in 2019.   In this article, I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of boat clubs and who they are best suited for based on feedback received from hundreds of club members and boat owners in a recent study that I conducted on behalf of the marine industry.

What is a Boat Club?

A boat club is a membership program where you pay a one-time initiation fee plus a monthly membership fee and then have access to a fleet of boats at one or more marina locations.  Each club has its own reservation system allowing you to reserve a boat in advance for either a half day or a full day.  And, most have a “spontaneous” option allowing members to take out a boat the same day if it is not already reserved by another member.  There is no towing, cleaning or maintenance involved by club members making it an excellent option for those who do not have a way to trailer or store a boat or simply don’t want to deal with the maintenance.  Just show up at the appointed time and enjoy your time on the water.  At the end of the day, members are required to refill the boat with gas just like you would a rental car.  Some locations even use a fuel flow meter so that you can skip refilling and simply be charged for the amount of gas consumed.

How Much Do Boat Clubs Cost

Boat Club prices vary by location because of differences in the cost of real estate (marina locations) and the variety of boats offered (which also differs by waterway).  For example, the Freedom Boat Club cost at present ranges from around $3,000 to $11,000 for the one-time membership fee plus $200 to $400 per month.  This might sound like a lot but is actually much less than the cost of boat ownership in most cases as will be discussed below.

To get a general idea of the costs by state, check out this handy break-down by Town & Tourist.

Advantages of Boat Clubs

The two main advantages of boat clubs vs. owning a boat are the cost and convenience.

  • Cost: According to members, the cost of being in a boating club is much more economical than owning a boat.  And, the data supports this conclusion.  For example, a 20% down payment on a $75,000 boat would be $15,000 which is higher than the typical initiation fee mentioned earlier.  Plus, your ongoing boat payment would be approximately $650 per month, assuming a 10-year loan and 5.5% interest rate.  Again, this is much lower than the ongoing membership fees.  On top of this, boat owners still have to pay for insurance, maintenance and repairs and perhaps storage/mooring fees if unable to store the boat at home.

Of course, if you decide to sell your boat, you might get some of your down payment back, depending on how long you own the boat and how quickly it depreciates.

The example above is for a typical, fiberglass pleasure boat or center console in the 21′ range.  Obviously, if you are contemplating getting a small aluminum fishing boat, the actual costs would be considerably less.

  • Convenience: As a boat club member, you are not responsible for things like washing and waxing the boat or performing periodic maintenance and repairs.  Also, the valet-like service is also a major convenience.  Just jump in the boat and go and return the keys when you are finished.  No need to clean and cover the boat or trailer it.

Another advantage is that club members have access to a variety of boats and that the boats are generally newer and kept in good condition.  Often, clubs will replace their boats after a few years.

Finally, if you are new to boating, boat clubs are an excellent way to learn “the ropes”.  Most offer training course to teach you how to properly and safely operate a boat.   Plus, if you are contemplating owning your own boat someday, having access to a variety of boats is a great way to figure out which type is right for you.

Disadvantages of Boat Clubs

Of course, being in a club vs. owning your own boat does have some drawbacks.  According to club members, the biggest negatives have to do with flexibility and availability.

  • Flexibility: Because boat clubs have to cater to other members, you cannot go whenever you want or for as long as you want.  Most have a set schedule in either the morning or the afternoon although you can often reserve a boat for both time intervals.  Plus, you typically cannot go out before business hours (before staff is on hand) and you have to return the boat before the close of business.  However, some clubs will allow you to pick up the keys the night before if you want an early morning start.

Related to this is the fact that you simply cannot decide to go boating at the spur of the moment.  You have to make a reservation in advance.  So, if it is a nice day and the family has some free time, you might not be able to enjoy the day on the water.  However, many clubs have a “spontaneity” provision that enables you to contact the marina and take out a boat the same day if one is available.

  • Availability: All boat clubs have some sort of reservation system and will limit how many reservations you can make in advance.   For example, Freedom Boat Club will allow you to hold four reservations up to 6 months in advance.  Because of this, many club members that I surveyed said that it felt like they were competing with other club members for the best boats and time slots.  You can imagine the competition for boats over the Memorial Day and 4th of July weekends.

To help lessen the availability concerns, many clubs have stated policies to manage the ratio of boats to members.  For example, some will be sure to have no more than 10 members per boat.  As more members are recruited, they will add to their fleet.

Another disadvantage of club membership is that you cannot take the boat to a different body of water.  However, many clubs with multiple locations will allow you to make a reservation at a different destination which is a nice feature if you are planning a vacation.

Finally, you have to remove all of your gear each time you use the boat and you are not permitted to customize it.  This is primarily an issue with anglers who like to set up their electronic equipment for their preference and style of fishing.

Who a Boat Club Is (and Isn’t) Best Suited For

Considering the pros and cons of boat clubs, here are my thoughts regarding whom a boat club is best suited for.  A boat club is especially attractive if…

  • You don’t have the time or inclination to maintain a boat
  • You don’t have a tow vehicle or a place to store a boat (marina slips fees alone are usually higher than the monthly club membership fees)
  • You are a pleasure boater or watersports enthusiast (the more limited hours of operation is less of a factor vs. anglers)
  • You want to “try” boating to see if it is right for you
  • You live in an urban area or major city with a boat club nearby

Conversely, joining a boat club is likely less appealing if…

  • You live on a lake and already have access to the water
  • You want to go boating often or have the ability to go in the spur of the moment
  • You want the ability to explore other bodies of water
  • You are a serious angler and often like to go out before sunrise or stay out after sunset
  • You live in a smaller community or rural area with no boat clubs nearby

Where Can I find a Boat Club?

At this point, if you are thinking that a boat club might be right for you, the next question is where to find one.  Boat clubs are generally located around coastal areas or major waterways in more densely population areas.  Below is a list of some of the larger boat clubs in the US.

This is the world’s oldest and largest membership boat club that was founded in 1989.  Freedom Boat Club was acquired by Brunswick in 2019 and has doubled in size since then.  They currently have 370+ locations throughout the US and parts of Europe and even Australia.

Another major player is Carefree Boat Club with 120+ locations.  Most are located along the East Coast and the Great Lakes region but they do have a few locations in California, Oregon and Texas.  They maintain a ratio of no more than 10 members per boat.

Founded in 2010, Your Boat Club currently has 35+ locations that are mostly located in Minnesota.  However, they do have a few additional locations in Wisconsin and parts of Florida.  They offer two types of memberships: The Explorer Membership enables you to boat any day of the week and on holidays, and the Executive Membership is limited to Monday through Thursday only and excludes holidays.

With 19+ locations mostly in Tennessee and Texas, Nautical Boat Club boasts “guaranteed reservations” and that over 97% of requests are fulfilled.  Plus, water toys such as skis, tubes and wakeboards are complimentary.

Suntex is one of the largest marina operators in the US that now offers a boat club in at least 19 locations.  Most are in Texas or Florida but they do have locations in Iowa and Georgia and a few other states.  They offer five different membership levels to appeal to a variety of needs and budgets.

In addition to the above, there are dozens of smaller boat clubs throughout the US.  Just do an online search to see if there is one available on a waterway near you.

Other Options

If you are not ready to commit to boat ownership and a boat club is more than you need, you might also have the option of renting a boat for one-time usage.  Many local waterways offer boat rentals and there are even “peer-to-peer” services available to let you rent a boat from an individual boat owner.  Below are a couple of the larger peer-to-peer boat rental services:

Just click on the links above to see if there is a boat to rent near you.   Alternatively, if you already own a boat and would like to earn some extra money (and are not afraid to let someone else use it), you can sign up to rent your boat through these platforms.

Concluding Thoughts

Joining a boat club is not inherently better or worse than being a boat owner.  Each has distinct advantages that appeal to different types of boaters.  It is my hope that this article has helped you decide which approach is best for you and your family.

Jerry Mona - BoaterInput

About the author

Jerry Mona is an avid boater and angler and long-time boating industry insider. With over three decades of experience, he is often considered to be the leading research expert with boaters and has helped numerous manufacturers and trade associations to understand the needs, wants, attitudes and behaviors of boaters. He now shares many of his insights about boats and boaters for free on his BoaterInput.com website.

2 Comments
  1. Luis S February 27, 2024 at 9:48 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for such detailed, unbiased, explanation. It sure made us make up our minds.

    • Jerry Mona March 21, 2024 at 7:21 pm - Reply

      Thank you Luis for the kind words. I am glad the information was helpful to you.

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