Ever think about what it would be like to cruise Lake Michigan on a private boat, music and the sunlit skyline in the background?
Then reality sets in: The high costs of boat ownership — the upfront hefty price tags and the ongoing maintenance — keep most people planted on firm ground.
Enter the sharing economy, which has reached the shores of Lake Michigan, and makes it easier than ever to take to Chicago’s waterways without ever having to own a boat. Thanks to a host of companies riding this peer-to-peer boating wave, Chicagoans can access thousands of boats — from basic sunfish sailboats to luxury yachts with a crew. On the flip side, boat owners who have already paid the upfront costs and continue to shell out for maintenance can recoup some of that in the peer-to-peer boat economy.
“Chicago has our highest average trip value in the country, which is why our top owners make tens of thousands of dollars in a single season,” says Justin Parker, chief marketing officer at Boatbound, a peer-to-peer boating company that started in Seattle and has rapidly expanded to other cities. “Boats sell out quickly on the weekends; and for popular events, such as the Chicago Air and Water Show, boats will get booked months in advance.”
There are some 12.2 million boats registered in the U.S., yet the average boat gets used just 26 days a year, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, a boating industry group that is banking on peer-to-peer boating to expose a new demographic to the pastime, potentially bolstering what is already a $121.5 billion dollar industry. The number of days of use in Chicago is likely much lower, due to our short boating season.
“It’s a good way to introduce people to boating without a commitment,” says Ted Widen, the owner of Boat Share Direct, a peer-to-peer boat sharing company. On any given day in Chicago, Boatbound, which launched in 2013 and arrived in Chicago’s harbors in 2014, shows an available fleet of between 50 and 100 boats, and they expect those numbers to climb as boat-sharing catches on. One such boat available is a Bayliner Marine Corp 2655 DX Sunbridge for $650 per day. The 27-foot yacht sleeps six, but can accommodate as many as eight passengers.
Like peer-to-peer sharing for vacation homes, boat owners and renters can vet one another through online reviews. However, unlike home rentals, there is a skill required to captain a boat, so novices have the option on many peer-to-peer boat sites of renting a boat with a licensed captain. And many of the sites insure the rentals. Furthermore, Boatbound, and other outfits, such as Boatsetter, have a qualification process for potential renters. Like all peer-to-peer business models, ultimately, the owner has the final say as to whom he or she will rent.
For those who do get hooked on navigating the seas and covet the boating lifestyle without the commitment of boat ownership, joining a boat club could be a good fit. As opposed to peer-to-peer boating, a boat club is operated similarly to Zipcar or even a country club. For an annual fee and monthly dues — the typical business model for a boat club — a for-profit company provides a diverse fleet of boats for its members. Part of the appeal of a boat club is the concierge-like services of boat training, docking the boat and, of course, taking care of all the hassles that come along with maintaining and storing boats.
Freedom Boat Club, which operates in 21 states, is one such outfit. Melissa and Mike Ginter have owned and operated the Chicago franchise for four years and are bullish on the business model for novice boaters and seasoned captains alike. One of their first customers was Katie Frick, a Downers Grove resident who never imagined she would be able to afford summers spent boating on Lake Michigan. She also enjoys the reciprocity of the Freedom Boat Club, and has taken advantage of boating on other waterways around the country.
“This is so much more affordable than owning a boat, especially being in Chicago where it’s really a very short season,” Frick says. “The other thing that’s so nice is that at the end of it all you don’t have to spend time cleaning up. You’re tired, or hungry, and you get to get off and leave the cleanup to someone else (the company).”
Most boat clubs have a range of membership options, depending on how often clients plan to use the fleet, whether or not they want captains and if they plan to boat on high-demand holidays.
“What this does is it enables family time together without all of the cost and work that normally would come along with owning a boat,” Melissa Ginter says. “Why not offload the hassle factors to a different entity that takes care of everything? Folks that have experience with boating understand the value of this concept.”
For those still angling for a boat to call your own, boat dealers and brokers in Chicago and in nearby Wisconsin and Michigan resort towns have new and used inventory to meet every boater’s dreams.
1 Liechty Drive
Williams Bay, Wisconsin
5167 State Highway 50
Harbor Country Marine Service, Inc.
819 W. Buffalo St.
New Buffalo, Michigan
Jerry’s Majestic Marine
453 Madison St.
Karma Yacht Sales
3434 E. 95th St.
Lake Geneva Marine
454 Lake Ave.
Sailboat Sales Co.
3434 E. 95th St.