Michigan boating goes 'from doom to boom'

Sam Jones
The Detroit News

Demand is booming for boating in the Great Lakes state — and not just for those able to drop $35,000 or more on a new rig.

Industry experts say demand for boats is rising due to the coronavirus crisis, and that's fueling interest in vessel ownerships and boat-sharing memberships.

Dock hand Nick Addy, of Clinton Township, power washes this club boat, a 23-foot Cobia 237 fishing boat, before members arrive.

Freedom Boat Club, an international boat-sharing agency owned by Brunswick Corp., maker of Bayliner boats and Mercury outboard motors, has seen a sharp increase in memberships in Metro Detroit because of COVID-19 restrictions and a yearning to be outside, physically distanced — a trend that has bolstered outdoor industries from paddlesports to cycling.

"It seems like people had one of two options for fun during lockdown — either golfing or boating," said Steven Dobreff, owner of a local Freedom Boat Club franchise. "We get a lot of new members, but we also get a lot of returning boaters. I trained an 80-year-old couple just the other day. They just returned to boating after four years."

Dobreff says the boat club business in Michigan has never been better. The number of members for Freedom's Detroit locations has jumped to 135, an increase of 60, in this season alone.

As club memberships surge, private boat sales do, too. The National Marine Manufacturers Association reports a 60% gain in boat sales in April and May compared to 2019, most of which are new boat owners. June and July were expected to post sales gains as well. 

From left to right; Grandson Eric Miller, 6, of South Lyon, his grandparents, John and Elaine Miller, both of Apollo Beach, Florida, and his great-aunt, Anita Hartlep, also of South Lyon, (John's sister) prepare to board this club boat, a 25-foot Rinker Q5 Bowrider, as club dock hand Nick Addy, of Clinton Township, helps.

In a July 7 report, the Marine Retailer Association of America also found almost 90% of dealers reported growth in boat sales in June. Similarly, 83% of retailers consider their inventory to be "too low."

"A lot of people are buying boats right now," said Ellen Bradley, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

"Since corona, the boating lifestyle has just become very attractive to new buyers. Sales growth has been completely unprecedented in the last few months. We've never seen data like this before."

Most interested buyers are looking for smaller boats, capable of providing a getaway for a day. 

"We're having a huge uptick in boat sales, undoubtedly, and every boat we have in stock gets three to five interested buyers," said Kevin LeClair, a salesman at McMachen Boating Center in Harrison Township. "We have families come in all the time and say how they can't go to a baseball game, or to the movies. But they've always been interested in trying boating, so they buy a boat."

Boats at McMachen can cost as much as $400,000. But a standard, 27-foot boat would run around $35,000, LeClair said, with most sales under $50,000. 

The Miller family takes the 25-foot Rinker Q5 Bowrider club boat for a ride.

For those looking to make a large down payment, buying a boat looks to be a good option. But Freedom dominates the market of those who are wanting to not commit to full-fledged boat ownership. 

"At first, we weren't sure how the virus was going to affect our business," said John Giglio, president of Freedom Boat Club. "But it quickly went from doom to boom, as we say. We were really surprised that we did so well during the pandemic." 

Some club locations have gone as far as capping their membership rates because there aren't enough boats to satisfy the needs of existing members.

Freedom Boat Club has operated on Lake St. Clair, in Harrison Township since 2016. The bulk of the fleet can be found at Markley Marina, where Dobreff has 10 boats anchored. It also started operating last year out of a location in Detroit, Sinbad's Restaurant and Marina, where seven boats are docked. Sinbad's is located on the Detroit River. 

"There's definitely still a lot of people who buy boats, and there are a lot who rent them," Giglio said. "But our boat club offers something more in the middle, something that was missing in the market. This isn't just a transaction of paying money and getting a boat for a day, like rentals. We pride ourselves in the services we provide."

It offers two membership packages. The first entitles members to a boat seven days of the week for $349 a month, following a $4,000 entry fee. The alternate plan allows weekday usage of boats for $299 a month with a $3,500 entry fee. Then members can reserve a time slot to use their desired boat. Rates are year-round, with access to boats at any Freedom location worldwide. 

Dock hand Nick Addy, of Clinton Township, power washes this club boat, a 23-foot Cobia 237 fishing boat, before members arrive.

This year alone, the Detroit franchise has purchased five new boats for member usage, a 30% expansion, with more on the way. Dobreff is mulling options for a third location, likely at St. Clair Shores, next year. 

Worldwide, the number of boats bought by the entire Freedom organization makes it the largest private buyer in the industry, Dobreff added, with the club amassing more than 5,000 boats globally to accommodate thousands of members. 

Boats offered by Freedom range anywhere from 21 to 26 feet, with bowriders and tritoons being the most popular models. Dobreff described these boats as the "do everything boats," where families can use them for tubing, skiing or lounging. 

"All of our boats are brand new," Dobreff said. "The oldest in our fleet is two-and-a-half years old, and it will be retired at the end of this season. Most of our vessels are 2021 models."

Between uses, Freedom has ramped up the cleaning process of boats to ensure maximum safety for members at all times, Dobreff said: "We make sure that each boat is cleaned, top to bottom, before each use. It's something we take seriously."

Its boat club model differs from a typical rental agency, where an interested renter simply has to show their ID for a day on the lake. At Freedom, Dobreff added, each member must complete a training session before operating a boat.

"I got into boating a few years ago, just going out on my buddy's boat," said Nick Ellis, a three-year member of Freedom Boat Club at Lake St. Clair.

"But I'm not really a boat guy. I like going out, but I didn't want to deal with all the maintenance and cleaning and towing and all that. This was a great alternative for me." 

From left to right; dock hand Nick Addy, left, of Clinton Township, greets member John Miller and his wife, Elaine, both of Apollo Beach, Florida, their grandson, Eric Miller, 6, and John's sister, Anita Hartlep, both of South Lyon, as they prepare to take out a cruising boat. John, who grew up in the Redford area, takes advantage of their reciprocal membership.