“It’s the first time I’ve owned a boat, because I was told you don’t own these things, you charter them,” Mr. Pierce said. “I had multiple problems with chartering. There was a general lack of availability but also a lack of choice.”
Mr. Pierce, who divides his time between Puerto Rico and Florida, said he justified the purchase because he lives next to the water. But in his first few months of ownership, he has been paying what he called “a never-ending stream of expenses you don’t expect.”
“It consumes a great deal of capital,” he said. “Yesterday, I got a bill for some woodwork, and it was $150,000.”
One alternative between outright ownership and chartering is the country club model. Barton & Gray and Freedom Boat Club are two of the big clubs. Their members have access to a wide range of boats but have to reserve them and may not always be able to use the boat they want when they want it — on Father’s Day, for instance, or the Fourth of July, when lots of members want to be on the water.
The goal of the Freedom Boat Club, which is owned by the large boat maker Brunswick, is to get people out in smaller vessels that they can captain themselves. The club charges an initiation fee of $5,000 to $7,000 and then monthly dues of $350 to $450, depending on the market. Its 40,000 members have access to about 3,200 boats, all under 24 feet long.
Freedom Boat Club has added nearly 10,000 members since the pandemic began, said Brenna Preisser, president of the business acceleration division at Brunswick. “Boating is one of those great social-distancing activities,” she said, adding that the club has one boat for every eight to 10 members.
Barton & Gray operates more like a full-service country club, charging a $20,000 initiation fee and annual dues. Those dues vary from $39,000 to use the smallest boats, at 36 feet, to $114,500 to use any boat in the fleet and to be first in line for reservations a season in advance. (In the summer, the boats are up North, but they go to Florida and the Carolinas for the winter.) Most members pay $54,000, which gives them access to all the boats but limits them to booking four charters at a time.