Given the economic upheaval of late, it's hard to look at any new wrinkle in the commercial fabric without wondering if it's a paradigm shift, or at least the beginning of one. That's certainly where my mind goes when it comes to club boating, a phenomenon we examine in detail in this issue ["Join the Club," page 24]. And I don't mean yacht club boating, with the fleet commodores and the bull roasts and the weekend raft ups; I mean collective ownership club boating, where, instead of bringing your own boat to the party, you cough up several thousand dollars to join a club that owns many boats. And you may use any of those boats whenever you like, as long as another club member doesn't have the same idea about the same boat at the same time.
There are those--namely club boaters and potential club boaters--who think this is a splendid idea. And there are those--namely, boat dealers and manufacturers--who think it's just awful, that it diverts potential boat buyers from the showroom at a time when the industry can least afford it. And there are those in the middle who say that it all probably balances out, that for every potential boat buyer pulled off the showroom floor, there's probably a clubber who eventually buys his or her own boat, and might not have come to that if it hadn't been for the boat club. Damn those centrists. They're so bloody . . .reasonable!
When we first looked into the club phenomenon some six years ago, we were of course intrigued, but at the time there wasn't much substance to it. There were some active clubs in Florida, to no one's surprise, and one small business in Annapolis, the Chesapeake Boating Club, but not much else on the Chesapeake with anything resembling a track record. So we decided to just keep that sticky note on the planning board and see if anything came of it.
Something came of it. Chesapeake Boating Club is still going strong with its fleet of 15 sailboats and five powerboats. (As I have mentioned before in this space--and mention again here, and in the feature story, in the interest of scrupulously full disclosure--weCBMeditors are now paying members of that club). But there's also Carefree Boating Club, which didn't even come up on our radar in 2004 but now seems to have a solid toehold on the Bay, from Baltimore to Virginia Beach and lots in between. Ten Chesapeake clubs altogether, with a combined fleet of nearly 100 boats and, by our estimate, some 800 members. A third company, SailTime, with a truly international footprint, has a few bases on the Bay, each with a small fleet of shiny new Hunter cruisers.
So, back to the original question: Is this what boating will look like in the future? Will individual boat ownership go the way of, say, those funny looking bicycles with the huge front wheel? Is this indeed the beginning of a paradigm shift? . . . Pffft! No, of course not. I only say that because I like the sound of "paradigm shift." It makes me seem smarter than I actually am.
No, I think it is not a new economic model; I think it's just a new kind of ticket to our enviable party. And I think some clubbers will come and go as they please, but that many more of them will come and stay. And to them I say welcome to the party.