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In a pandemic pinch, Tampa Bay boat club changes how members get vessels

Freedom Boat Club of Tampa Bay says record demand for boats means adjusting what days members reserve them for those idyllic trips out on the water. Some are less on board than others.
Florida enjoys its boats, like these hanging out by a sandbar near the popular John's Pass.
Florida enjoys its boats, like these hanging out by a sandbar near the popular John's Pass. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jul. 14

Membership has its privileges. In the case of Freedom Boat Club of Tampa Bay, its salty, nautical, Gulf breezy privileges.

Paying a few thousand dollars to join and a few hundred more in monthly dues, club members can use pontoon, deck, ski and fishing boats to island-hop Tarpon Springs, scallop Crystal River and fish Tierra Verde. With reciprocal privileges at clubs across the country, it’s a sort of seafaring timeshare.

“They give me the keys, I take a boat out, I hand the keys back,” said Carmen DeFelice, an Apollo Beach retiree who can cruise the Hillsborough River or go for a nice dock-and-dine lunch with his wife.

Freedom Boat Club, with more than 30,000 members across the country, boasts a ratio of one boat for every ten members, according to its website. The Tampa Bay chapter has 7,000 memberships and nearly 700 vessels.

But with the coronavirus came complications, followed by business decisions that did not make all its local members happy.

In January, the National Marine Manufacturers Association reported that U.S. boat sales hit a 13-year high in 2020, with people wanting to get outside, socially distance and beat back pandemic stress. Historically high sales are expected to continue this year with manufacturers filling a backlog of orders, the report said.

Here at home, Freedom Boat Club of Tampa Bay determined that record demand plus delays in delivery — the club says it has more than 800 watercraft on order — called for changes in how members make reservations to get boats.

Under the old system, a member was allotted four boat reservations at a time up to six months in advance.

In the new version, members were divided onto two groups dubbed Port and Starboard — for nautical neophytes, a boat’s left and right sides. Port people could now make reservations for Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and Team Starboard for Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Members could still request a boat on the very day they wanted it — if one were available.

“As a result of the pandemic, our industry faced unprecedented demand which has caused extended delivery delays for boats and engines on order, similar to what many other industries have experienced,” Club CEO Lisa J. Reho wrote in an emailed response to the Tampa Bay Times. The Port/Starboard system was recently implemented “to help navigate the circumstances beyond our control,” she wrote.

While some were philosophical about the change, others were less so.

A post on a member Facebook page said the ratio of members to boats would now be 20 to 1, making it harder to get a vessel. Others questioned why the club kept seeking new members even with boat supply scarce.

“This whole thing is like New Coke ... a bad idea!” a member posted.

“This is a terrible deal,” wrote another. “I’m not interested in being a member of a 20:1 boat club.”

The local franchise started in 2012 and has 32 locations around the Tampa Bay region. Members told the Times they paid between $3,000 and $5,499 initially to join, depending on when they signed up, and $300 in monthly dues.

Reho noted that with the change, the club also reduced those monthly dues to $199. Port and Starboard members also get six reservations a year for days not included in their group. Members could also opt out of the new plan — though critics say that still means competing for boats.

Some members question why the club kept marketing for new recruits with a floating billboard on the water and other ads.

“I guess the way I look at it is, something had to be done” to deal with the high demand, said member Darrow Fontera. “But then why did you sell so many memberships?”

“When we first joined we could get a boat in two weeks,” said Cheryl Cowans. “Now it’s at least a month if not six weeks for a lot of the locations. If they stopped adding members...”

In a list of frequently-asked questions about the new plan, the club said that if they quit taking on new members, dues would skyrocket to cover operating expenses and new boats, and “it would no longer be very affordable to the vast majority.”

Reho told the Times they are “carefully managing the growth of the Club and restricting sales in some cases to ensure boat availability for our existing membership base.” Though some members said they were experiencing longer waits, Reho said that with the new plan, “boat availability has substantially improved compared to the levels we experienced during the height of the pandemic.”

She also said “a large majority” of members responded positively to the changes made in “these unprecedented times.”

Roy Hooker IV is one of them. “We have the flexibility in our schedule,” said the 54-year-old insurance agent, who prefers less-crowded weekdays anyway and notes that $100 was knocked off his monthly bill. “We’re in full support of this plan.”

“We feel like they’re trying to do something,” said Linda Humphers, a retired journalist who joined in May.

Steve Zagzebski, who works in software, said he’s experienced longer wait times for weekend reservations, but is not leaving.

“I’ll take a few of the punches they’ll give,” he said. “We enjoy it too much,”