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Boat club members cast off their cares

(ran W edition)

Ron Chamberlain has experienced what some say are the two happiest days in a boater's life _ the day he bought the boat and the day he sold it.

Now, when he wants to go scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing or just riding in a boat on a nice day, he chooses from among 11 boats at the VIP Boat Club and lets someone else worry about cleanup, maintenance and insurance.

"It's a great club," said Chamberlain, a 53-year-old lawyer from Tarpon Springs.

The club, based at Marker I Marina on the Dunedin Causeway, opened in December 1990 and has 70 members, said Frank Reinke. He and his wife, Helen, own the business.

The club has spawned three franchises, in St. Petersburg Beach, Punta Gorda and Venice, which have a total of 80 members, Reinke said.

Chamberlain and other members say they like the way the club works. For a fee of $169 a month for one year or $149 a month for two years, members can use any of the club's 11 boats as often as they want.

The only additional cost to members, other than the sales tax on the membership fee, is the gas they use, Reinke said. There are no annual dues, no fees to join and no per-use fees.

Payment for the first and last two months is due in advance. People who drop out before their time is up lose the money they paid for the last two months, he said.

"You don't have to sign your life away," Reinke said. "We're selling fun. I don't think they should be locked down like they're buying a house to have fun."

Reinke said 80 percent of the Dunedin club's members are like Chamberlain: former boat owners who got tired of the cost and hassle of owning boats. They like knowing they can return the boat to the dock and leave without having to spend an hour cleaning saltwater off it.

Members use the boats any way they like, such as taking guests out for parties or a church youth group to a camping trip.

They can choose from 11 power boats that range from 18 to 26 feet long _ cabin, deck, runabouts or open fishing boats _ whatever type fits their needs on a particular day.

Weekends in the summer are the only times when all the boats are booked, Reinke said.

Chamberlain and other members of the Dunedin club said they have had no trouble getting boats.

"One of my great worries was I'd have problems getting a boat," said Chamberlain, who goes boating mostly on weekends. "I have never called for a boat even at the last minute and not gotten one."

Members also can use boats at VIP clubs besides their home-base club. One visit to each out-of-town club each six months is free. Subsequent visits to the same out-of-town club in the same six months cost $40 each, Reinke said.

The company offers lower rates for people who want only to use the boats on weekdays and, it has a program for seasonal visitors.

The weekday membership is appealing to retirees who aren't limited by work schedules to boating on the weekends.

Each boat has a radio, and any club member who has a problem, such as an engine that won't start or a boat getting stuck on a sandbar, can call the club's headquarters for help. Any time boats are out, a company employee monitors a certain radio channel.

That safety net and the free boating and navigation instructions the club offers have drawn more people into boating, said VIP franchise owner Tony Rampey of Venice. "They've heard horror stories about boats breaking down and sea tow bills."

Boats can be checked out during daylight, but Reinke said most members take boats for five or six hours in the morning or afternoon.

The clubs add more boats as they get more members, Reinke said. The St. Petersburg Beach club, which started in November 1991, has five boats; the other two franchises each have six.

The Dunedin club's fleet includes a 26-foot cruiser that can sleep four adults and can be taken overnight to Caladesi Island, where boaters can dock for $8. That's an exception to the daylight-only rule.

Franchises sell for $25,000, plus $65,000 needed to buy boats and set up an office, Reinke said. The franchise owners pay the parent company a 5 percent royalty on memberships, he said. In return, the franchises get the VIP name, help setting up and managing their businesses, and a group rate for insurance, boat purchases and some maintenance items.

The concept has gone over well with folks like Chamberlain, who said owning a boat wasn't worth the cost and trouble. "You never use it as much as you think you're going to. All the time you're not using it, it costs you money."

FIND OUT MORE: For more information about VIP Boat Clubs, call Frank or Helen Reinke at 734-5969.