Trying it before buying it
The new sharing economy comes to sailing would-be sailors into owners through boat-sharing clubs
For many sailors, the dream of boat ownership is always present. But making it a reality means overcoming the big fear: the terrifying possibility that you could plunk down a fair amount of money on a boat only to find out that sailing isn’t the sport for you or your family.
Thanks to the rise in boat-sharing clubs, taking that gamble is no longer necessary. It’s now possible to sail the same boat for an entire season while dividing the onboard time among a relatively small and finite number of club members. By repeatedly sailing the same boat, sailors learn what they like or dislike about it, which can lead to a more educated purchase decision.
That’s exactly the experience that Charles “Eric” Teale and his wife Laurie of Bedford, New Hampshire, had. The Teales were looking to hone their skills at a sailing school and en route became members of SailTime, an international boat-sharing club.
The Teales met SailTime Boston franchise owner Doug Giuliana, who put them aboard a midsized Hunter sloop and introduced them to instructors from Black Rock Sailing, a Boston-based American Sailing Association school.
“My wife and I had sailed lots of small boats—Sunfish and Hobie Cats—so buying a larger boat was sort of automatic for us,” Teale said. “But we met other SailTime members who would go out with their families only to find that sailing wasn’t for everyone. We also met guys who didn’t want to buy a boat. They were happy just being members year after year.”
Such scenarios highlight the value of fractional-ownership boating clubs and sailing clubs that offer access to their fleet for an annual fee.
“Initially we knew we wanted to sail on a bigger boat so we looked around at sailing schools and different shared-ownership programs,” Teale said, noting they considered programs offered by Catalina Yachts, the Freedom Boat Club, SailTime and others.
The Teales took lessons from ASA instructor Brenton Lochridge, owner of Black Rock Sailing, to earn several ASA certifications and expand their skills, and then bought a Hunter 38 from Giuliana’s affiliated dealership. The couple opted to put the boat into charter with SailTime.
“We decided that rather than just become SailTime members and buy a season aboard a boat, we’d purchase the boat and put it into the program,” Teale said. “We would own the boat, but SailTime
would handle the maintenance and basically take care of it.”
After three years, the Teales removed their boat from the SailTime fleet and sailed it to New Castle, New Hampshire, closer to their home, and eventually decided it was time to upgrade. The Teales bought a Hunter 45CC named Refuge from a dealer in Long Island, New York, which they keep in New Hampshire for personal use. They also continued their ASA education, obtaining advanced certifications at Black Rock Sailing.
SailTime CEO Todd Hess said the Teales’ experience is exactly what was imagined when SailTime was founded in 2001 as a midpoint between traditional charter companies and full-on ownership.
“Instead of one boat and 40 clients, we have one boat and five or six clients who charter it for an entire sailing season. We see that as an important step between learning to sail and ownership,” he said. “We’re giving people access to late-model boats and ownership experience. People join SailTime to see if ownership is right for them. We lose one member every two years because they decide to go out and buy a boat after finding out what kind of boat they want,” Hess said.
For members who find sailing is for them, SailTime provides what Hess described as “the right amount of time sailing for the amount of time they have available.” He echoed what those in the charter or boat-share business generally agree upon: The average sailor is tied down by work obligations and tends to sail on weekends in four-to-five hour outings.
“We like to say it’s the convenience without the cost. We give people the opportunity to try and then buy,” he said. SailTime has partnerships with Hunter and Beneteau.
“SailTime works with these dealers so the people who learn to sail these boats become brand loyal,” Hess explained. “People used to go out and buy, but that has changed. These days, we’re more like Airbnb and Uber in that we fit that sharing economy mindset. People don’t want to own right away. It’s the same buying behavior when it comes to homes. Not everyone wants or needs to own a house. But many people like the idea of ownership.”
In the Baltimore and Philadelphia markets, one in five SailTime members said they planned to purchase a boat within two years, Hess said.
SailTime members don’t have to worry about many of the typical chores of boat ownership, such as insurance, maintenance and dockage.
As a result, sailors looking to advance their skill level or sail a boat while considering its purchase tend to compare the cost of SailTime membership to boat ownership.
“If you bought a boat, the payments would stay the same whether you sail a four-month season or 12-month season,” Hess said. “At SailTime, we charge a fixed fee for the season. In Boston, you might pay $8,500 for a five-month season, depending on the size of the boat. In the Chesapeake, you would pay the same amount for an eight-month season, and in Miami for a 12-month season.”
According to Hess, the fee for a 33-foot sloop averages $7,500 per member per season with eight members assigned to the boat. The fee for a 35-foot boat would be about $8,500. The fee can be paid in monthly installments.
At SailTime Boston, Giuliana said a Classic Membership for a 33-foot sloop is $6,900 for the season but other lighter-usage memberships are also available.
For an additional fee, members can use the boats and facilities at other SailTime locations. However, that option requires more planning and depends upon the availability of boats at the targeted base. SailTime has more than 35 bases worldwide.
The cost of any necessary sailing lessons is in addition to the membership fees. Applicants must fill out a sailing resume and are allowed to test out of ASA courses. Members must also complete 10 hours of onboard training directly with SailTime staff after completion of the ASA education component.
“For members who don’t have ASA 104 certification, we require a three-day training that we provide for a fee. After that, the instructor and the member will go through an assessment process. We try to set the level to where their skills are. In other words, we might set it at no night sailing and no winds over 15 knots until you get more training,” Hess said.
Freedom Boat Club, the nation’s oldest and largest boat-sharing program, provides boaters with the opportunity to try out a variety of powerboats and sailboats.
FBC owns all of its approximately 1,000 boats that are spread over 100 locations, and 10% of those clubs have sailboats in their fleets. The FBC requires a one-time initiation fee ranging from $3,500 to $6,000, depending on fleet composition, access and other amenities. Members then pay $199 to $399 per month and remain in the club until they decide to stop making the payments, perhaps because they’ve purchased a boat. The club has an online reservation system and boats can be booked up to six months in advance.
“Members also have unlimited access to the boats on short notice,” Giglio said. “If you wake up and decide to go sailing on the spur of the moment, you can do that if the boats are available.”
Stanton Murray, who owns Murray Yacht Sales on Florida’s Gulf Coast and New Orleans, as well as the SailTime Tampa Bay and SailTime New Orleans franchises, compared membership commitment to a cell phone contract.
“It’s like renting a home rather than buying it. If you need the feeling of owning your own house so that you can barbecue privately in your backyard and fix the roof, that’s fine, but renting a condo might be cheaper,” he said. “It’s a shared economy and it’s about the experience you have. You are buying the experience.”
According to Murray, the net cost of ownership or membership is essentially the same, only with SailTime you’re sailing a new $250,000 sailboat versus the older $25,000 model that you purchased.
Learning to sail
Every SailTime location is affiliated with an ASA sailing school and members must complete the SailTime training and pass a skipper competency test. Often this path toward becoming a qualified skipper begins with private instruction, at least for three days aboard the boat to which they are assigned.
At SailTime Boston, Giuliana steers inexperienced members to Black Rock Sailing. “After they finish with Black Rock and the ASA certifications in Basic Keelboat and Coastal Cruising, they get 10 hours of additional instruction on the boat,” he said.
Giuliana highlighted that all instructors are ASA-certified and their daily rate is about $200 for eight hours.
ASA Executive Director Charlie Nobles said the education initiative at SailTime dates back more than 10 years.
“The founders of SailTime decided they were not interested in getting into the education business,” Nobles said. “Each time they formed a new SailTime base, they opened an ASA school in conjunction with it. The instructors are often those who have been singled out as Outstanding Instructor of the Year, which is a designation based on student feedback and the number of courses taught.”
The lessons at SailTime are based on ASA curriculum and use ASA educational materials, which results in the certifications. Costs can vary with single courses more expensive than a course package.
“The members of SailTime do not intend to make an immediate purchase,” Nobles said. “It could very well be they get a taste and want to go to a larger boat, or buy one and put it into the SailTime program. Clearly this is for somebody at the next level, somebody who’s ready to make time to do this on a regular basis.”
Murray emphasized SailTime attracts fledgling, wannabe sailors as well as those who have been sailing for years but not necessarily with any skill.
“We sometimes get the guy who has owned a boat for 10 years but really doesn’t know what he’s doing out there. He has picked up some bad habits that he has to unlearn before he can get ASA certification,” Murray said.
As a secondary goal, SailTime wants to train people to own a boat in the future, said Murray, adding, “If you just join a club, you don’t get the kind of experience you’ll need to later go out and buy a boat, feeling confident and competent. We marry those two qualities at SailTime to create better boaters.”
FBC members undergo a four-hour training in the classroom and aboard the boat with a USCG-licensed captain before they’re allowed to take the helm.
Online reservation system
The days of making reservations by telephone and email are vanishing as boat-sharing clubs adopt online reservation systems.
FBC members can go online to request boating dates up to six months in advance or to simply see if boats are available on short notice at their local fleet base.
At SailTime, the online scheduler is programmed to make the date selection fair for all members. There are regular days, weekend days and holidays, but the software won’t let any one sailor gobble up all the favored dates. Each member is given an allotted number of sailing days spread over the three categories.
“It’s done fairly and evenly, “ said Teale. “During the week, most people are working so the boats don’t get used as much. If you request a boat that nobody has signed up for, it doesn’t count against your allotment. I never felt one member was getting the upper hand over another. You can see the online calendar for the season and who has got what dates.”
Giuliana said the reservation system imposes a limit of eight members per boat. “This year, we have 35 members split over five boats. Rules built into the scheduler make sure it’s equitable for everybody. It balances two opposing forces: make the boats available to members as much as possible, but make sure it’s fair to everyone,” he said.
At SailTime, members are guaranteed seven sail times per month, divided over midweek and weekends. “We know that with eight members, there will be at least eight weekend days per month,” he said.
Most SailTime members don’t use all of their allotted times each month. The sailing times can be rolled over into the following month. Generally, a “sailing time” is an eight-hour slot, either 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., or 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. If a sailor were to book both of these sailing times to create an overnight adventure, two sailing times would be subtracted from his allotment.
“It’s self-regulating,” said Murray. “If every two weeks you want to go for an overnighter, you will use up your allotments and not have to worry whether somebody else is booking sail times in the future. The biggest problem is not that, it’s getting people to use all of their sail times, of which you get seven per month, keeping in mind there are only so many prime (weekend) and non-prime (weekday) sail times per month.”
Murray offered this scenario to clarify his point. “If you leave the dock Friday night, sail all Saturday and stay out Saturday night, then bring the boat back before 6 p.m. on Sunday, you’ll have used four weekend sail times,” he said.
Murray, who has been a Beneteau dealer for 25 years, owns SailTime franchises between New Orleans and Apalachicola along the Florida Panhandle. When he opens SailTime New Orleans this spring, he hopes to experiment with a “migrating boat” that will move from base-to-base rather than stay put at a specific location.
“It would open up the travel options, presuming all members of that boat agree to have it migrate back and forth along the coast,” he said. “It would give the members a different experience.”
A die-hard SailTime fan, Murray said the program makes good financial sense. “For literally the cost of insurance and slip rental, a sailor with an older boat can sell it and sail a new Beneteau 35,” he said. “There are young couples out there who are looking for something like this. We need to create customers so we can train them to become sailors, not golfers.”