Boating Clubs on the Chesapeake Bay

by T. F. Sayles
photo by Alan Schreitmueller

Used to be, back in the day, if you wanted to be a boater on the Chesapeake, you either bought yourself a boat (and rented a slip and bought insurance and arranged for maintenance and winter storage, etc.) or, if you were a sailor, you chartered sailboats as often as necessary to support your habit. Nowadays there is an in-between option: club boating, or, to use a term that's more immediately understandable, if slightly misleading, time-share boating.


It's not an entirely new idea, of course; in one form or another, boat clubs and fractional ownership arrangements have been around for decades. But in this particular decade, and on our beloved body of water, it's an idea that seems to have come into its own. Here we offer snapshots of two such Bay businesses--Carefree Boat Club, which has a variety of  "bases" around the Bay, as well as elsewhere, and the Chesapeake Boating Club, based in Annapolis. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted here thatChesapeake Bay Magazinemaintains a corporate membership in the latter club for its editorial staff--although most of them also have boats of their own.


Smallish Boats, Biggish Business
Carefreee Boat Club started quite small in 2002, with a single location on Virginia's Occoquan River, just off the Potomac below Washington, D.C. It started there, says founder Doug Zimmerman, because of the "local demographic" and, well,  because it's near where he lives. "It wasn't long before we started looking at the Bay proper," says Zimmerman, an accountant by training, "because right from the beginning people were saying, "Oh, if only you were on the Bay!' So we opened the Pasadena [Md.] club [at Pleasure Cove Marina] later that same year. And then we just kept building from there, one after the other."

Boating clubs on the chesapeakeThe following five years saw a veritable explosion of Carefree clubs, some owned by Zimmerman and some licensed to other owner/operators. Now there are 10 clubs on the Chesapeake: In addition to the first two, there are now clubs at Gangplank Marina in Washington D.C.; Oak Grove Marina in Edgewater, Md., on the South River below Annapolis; Salt Ponds Marina in Hampton, Va.; Long Bay Pointe Boating Resort in Virginia Beach; River's Rest Marina on the Chickahominy River, near Williamsburg; Hope Springs Marina on Aquia Creek, off the Potomac River; Baltimore Marine Center, near the Inner Harbor; and Maryland Marina on Frog Mortar Creek, off the Middle River. And there are another 10 Carefree clubs outside the Bay--six in Florida, three in the Carolinas and one on Galveston Bay in Texas. That's a big selling point, Zimmerman says, because joining one club gives you privileges at all of them.

"That's a big, big deal" he says. "People are always saying that's what really decided it for them, because if they go to Florida on vacation, they can go to the club at Key West or Fort Myers and take a boat out. I don't know how often people take advantage of it--I know some do--but it really makes a difference when they're deciding whether or not it's worth the investment."

Carefree is the more expensive of the two clubs examined here. Prices vary a little bit from club to club, but Carefree's 2009 rates (2010's rates hadn't been finalized as this issue went to press) at the Edgewater club serve well enough as an example. The biggest hurdle is the one-time initiation fee, which is $6,990 for a standard membership (boats up to 27 feet). Once you've paid that, and an annual $298 fee for the club's ResNet reservation system, dues for a standard membership, if you commit to a five-year deal, are $479 per month, or $5,460 per year. And the fee structure strongly encourages that five-year deal; a single-year membership is $7,460. A "yacht club" membership, which gets you privileges on the clubs' largest boats (28-foot plus) is significantly higher--a $10,900 initiation fee $11,900 per year for a five-year deal.

So it's not chump change, but the club members we spoke to agree that it's worth every penny, and can be--depending on the type of boat, frequency of use, location and other variables--a much more attractive financial picture than boat ownership.

"My wife and I crunched the numbers," says Duane Perry, a Vermont transplant and lifelong freshwater boater who moved to Virginia Beach in 2002. "And we figured that for the type of [bow rider] we wanted, it was going to cost us about half as much to join the club, instead of buying our own boat." Now going into his second year of a five-year contract, he has no regrets. "It has been incredible. I've been so happy that I don't have to work on the boat and maintain it," he says. "I don't have to trailer it; I don't have to winterize it. . . . And [since the Tidewater clubs stay open all winter] if there's a nice day in the winter, I can just grab a boat and go out for a couple of hours." During this year's late winter warm spell, Perry says, he'd already taken a boat out four times.

Christopher Friedman of Burke, Va., based at the Carefree club in Occoquan, is another true believer. "The main advantage of the club is that I don't have to deal with the hassle of trailering and cleanup. . . . All I do is grab the keys and go, and then toss back the keys when I'm done." Now in his fourth year of membership, Friedman estimates that he uses the boat 10 to 15 times a year--generally twice a month during the season. Mostly he makes day trips out of Occoquan, sometimes by himself and sometimes with friends or family. But he also likes to go out of Carefree's Washington and Annapolis clubs a couple of times per season. "Out of the D.C. marina, we'll go to a swimming hole near [Cabin John], or we'll head south to National Harbor or Old Town Alexandria."

All of the Carefree clubs offer a free classroom boater safety course and and half a day's worth of on-the-water training to new members who want or need it. Experienced boaters, on the other hand, need only demonstrate their proficiency on the largest boat they have access to.

Sea rayThe majority of boats in Carefree's Chesapeake fleet are Sea Ray dayboats--ski boats, bow riders, dual-consoles and deck boats in the 20- to 26-foot range, but most of the clubs also have a number of larger cruising boats, as well as center-consoles and walkarounds for fishing, small ski and sport boats, and even a handful of pontoon boats. The Edgewater club, for instance, has a total of 14 boats--three "yacht club" cruisers (a 36-foot Carver, a 290 Sea Ray Sundancer and a Rinker 300), three smaller overnighters (all Sea Rays), as well two 20-foot fishing boats, five Sea Ray runabouts and  one sailboat.

The Washington club has the same number of boats, and roughly the same assortment, making it and Edgewater's the largest single fleets, strictly speaking. But they are dwarfed by that of the Tidewater Virginia operation, which is really a single club in two locations, 'according to owner Kevin Bonnema, who is also a partner with Zimmerman in the overall Carefree licensing business.

The dual-location club, Bonnema says, has a combined 30 boats--not counting the handful of  "reserve boats" they have on hand to fill in when boats go in for maintenance or repairs. "The last thing you want," he says, "is to tell a club member when he shows up on Saturday morning that you don't have a boat for him because the one he reserved is in the shop. The "yacht club" members have five twin-engine cruisers available to them, and the general membership can choose from four smaller stern-drive cruisers, five fishing boats, two cruising sailboats, five 20-foot-plus deck boats, two pontoon boats and two ski boats.

Zimmerman and Bonnema are now looking to expand northward, into Rhode Island and Connecticut in particular, where they anticipate launching another 10 to 15 clubs there in the next few years.


Of J/Boats and Albins
If Carefree is the hothouse orchid of Bay boating clubs, then Annapolis's homegrown Chesapeake Boating Club is the heirloom variety. It was founded--or perhaps we should say grown from seed--in 1992 by Paul Mikulski (cousin of Maryland's U.S. Senator, Barbara Mikulski) as a key part of J/Port Annapolis on the Back Creek side of the city's Eastport neighborhood. Hanging it all on the highly regarded J/Boat brand, Mikulski created a three-pronged operation where you could buy a J/Boat, learn to sail on one (it's one of the five locations of the nationally renowned J/World Sailing School) or just cruise or race on one when the spirit moved you. That latter aspect began as a simple a la carte chartering business, but it quickly morphed into the Chesapeake Boating Club.

At first, it was all sail all the time, says Kevin Ryman, who came onboard in 1994 and now runs the boating club, while Mikulski focuses on sales. "We [started with] two J/80s and one J/105, and we limited it to 10 members per boat. So everytime we filled up we'd add more boats." The club has 15 sailboats now--six J/80s and three smaller Harbor 20s for the racing and daysailing crowd, plus three J/32s and three J/105s for the cruising set--and, since 2002, a handful of powerboats. The bread-and-butter powerboat is the Albin 28, an open-cockpit semi-displacement mini-trawler that straddles the line between picnic boat and overnighter (with V-berth and double quarterberth). The club has three of the 28s, plus a larger Albin, a 36-foot bona fide trawler that's available to members for an extra daily fee, and, as of last season, a 19-foot Twin Vee center-console.

"The powerboat development was kind of interesting," says Ryman. "We had quite a few members who were starting families, and they still wanted to get on the water but didn't want to take little ones out on the sailboats, so they started asking if we'd consider adding powerboats. And that's how it started. . . . A lot of those people have gone back to sailing now, but [the 'powerboats] have their own following now. So it worked out well."

Ron Vandervort of Bowie, Md., a longtime sailor, has been a member of the club for two years now, with a "level one" sailing membership that gives him access to the J/80s and Harbor 20s. He says it's the smartest move he's ever made as a boater. Indeed, he's a walking advertisement for the club. "For literally the same price as a yearly slip fee in the Annapolis area, I not only get to sail out of a prime location in Annapolis, but I don't have to purchase a boat," he says. "It's like renting a slip and getting the boat free!" Having owned four daysailers and a couple of powerboats over the years, Vandervort says he thought he might miss the upsides of owning, but he doesn't. "Not having to maintain, haul out in the winter, worry about storms, et cetera, more than makes up for that," he says. "It's a no brainer."

With J/World on the premises, sailors can get all the training they could possibly want, though it's not part of the boating club package. The club itself requires only that members, whether power or sail, demonstrate proficiency in running and docking each of the boats they intend to use.

In addition to its one-time initiation fee of $1,000, the Chesapeake Boating Club charges $2,665 for the "level-one" sailing membership that Vandervort maintains, which limits him to the daysailer/racers. It's even less--$2,090--for a midweek-only version of that. For full sailing privileges, including the cruisers ,the initiation fee is the same but the annual fee jumps to $5,840. For power-boat members, it works essentially the same way--the one-time fee plus $2,665 for a level-one membership (the center-console only), or the fee plus $5,840 for access to the center-console and the three Albin 28s.

It's the latter that appealed to Dan Clements, an attorney who lives in Annapolis and works in Baltimore. He joined the club in 2006, he says, and has found it to be the perfect entree into boating for him--a nonboater married to a native Annapolitan and living in a city where boat chat is all but a social imperative. "It's been just ideal for me," he says. "We'll take the [Albin 28] out on a Sunday morning, say, and take our breakfast with us and go up the Severn to Clements Creek. And we'll tie up there and sit there on a quiet morning and read the Sunday papers and just enjoy being outside. . . . Or sometimes we'll run across the Bay for lunch, get crabs at Kentmoor or somewhere else on Kent Island. It's hard to beat."


For more information on the Chesapeake Boating Club, call 410-280-8692 or visit their website at chesapeakeboatingclub.com, where you can set up a demo member account and see how the club's reservation system works. For more information on Carefree Boating Club, call 866-262-8322 (upper Bay) or 866-851-2205 (lower Bay), or visit www.carefreeboats.com