I have to go back down to the lake, to the mooring that I had to buy
And all I ask of a boat that’s losing money is to help me remember: why?
—Apologies to John Masefield
The sky was grayish pink, with the late afternoon sun speckling the clouds. Malletts Bay was flat and silvery, a fast lane. “How about some drug smuggler gear?” I urged Tricia Scott, co-owner of the Champlain Fleet Club, who raced the Regal 2300 Bowrider. She obliged by opening the throttle, and the boat leapt out of the water like a salmon battling upstream. The wind threw the tedders.
And then the red US Coast Guard boat stopped us.
Coasties docked, checked boat documents, life jackets, fire extinguishers and safety equipment – all in good shape. The Champlain Fleet Club is well known on the lake, and our random safety stop was largely due to the lack of boats during the first week of May. After a few friendly banter, we left – but not, as Scott wisely chose, like a ship out of hell.
A few years ago, Phil and Tricia Scott – he a corporate marketing manager, she with a background in accounting – devised a plan to serve boaters who didn’t want to own the ships: a kind of floating Zipcar.
“We knew the concept,” said Phil, having belonged to such a club when they lived in Florida. The Vermonters were playing outdoors, they reasoned, but a relatively short season of warm weather calls the idea of buying a boat into question. “So we took the leap,” he said.
As the Champlain Fleet Club enters its fourth season, the couple’s deep dive seems to have paid off.
A “subscription” model appeals to potential boaters who want to be on the water, not underwater, weighed down by ownership costs. As summer approaches, many Vermonters shift their recreational focus from the Green Mountains to the blue-black Lake Champlain. The Sixth Great Lake, as it was briefly referred to during the Clinton administration, is a magnet for ships.
More than a quarter of the state’s 645,000 residents live in the Champlain Valley. There are 836 recreational boats registered with owners in Vermont, according to a recent census by the BoatInfoWorld website, and many more from neighboring states and Canada that ply the 435 square miles of the lake.
The Scotts launched CFC in 2019 with four boats and 18 members and saw business boom that year and into 2020 — not despite the pandemic, but because of it.
“Borders closed, Vermonters took staycations and loved being able to get out on the lake with their families and be safe and socially distant,” Tricia said.
Now 160 members have access to 23 boats, ranging from pontoon boats to bowriders, spread across three locations: Ferry Dock Marina in Burlington, Bay Harbor Marina in Colchester and Apple Island Marina in South Hero.
Members pay a one-time initiation fee of $3,900 — about the top of what a slip costs per year, Phil explained — and then $250 to $355 per month, depending on the number of bookings. CFC insures, cleans and maintains boats, and provides safety equipment, toys, buoys, water skis, wakeboards and tow lines.
Members undergo approximately four hours of training. Then “they just turn the key and go,” Phil said.
The real key, however, is availability. To ensure that supply meets demand, the Scotts try to maintain a ratio of about eight members per boat. If the number of members exceeds this ratio, Phil said, “we buy another boat.” They also licensed reservation software from a Western New York club that creates a standby system in case of cancellations or no-shows.
The subscription system has flourished in many places. The Starbucks of this concept is the Freedom Boat Club, a national chain with 71 corporate locations and 270 franchisees. Founded in 1989 in Sarasota, Florida, Freedom has grown by targeting boating-rich environments—Southwest Florida alone has more than 20 clubs—and exploding traditional demographics. One-third of its members are new to boating and 35% are women, Scott Ward, vice president of corporate territories, said in an interview with Seven days.
The first rule of Fleet Club is to know your market. Vermonters who live on or near the water, or who have the financial resources to sustain a boating habit, are likely not club members.
John O’Neill, who spends his summers at his lakeside cottage in North Hero and is not a member of the club, said: “I love the idea of being able to get out to my dock and get the pontoon boat out when I want.” O’Neill, who runs a video production company, said he owned four boats and admitted “they can break your heart – and your bank account”.
Chris Norris doesn’t live near water, nor does he have a slip or mooring. For five years, he and his family towed their boat from their Huntington home to Charlotte, a 30-minute ride on a good day.
“There’s a lot of prep work when you have your own boat,” Norris said. “If the weather changes, all that preparation may be wasted. We’d be lucky to get out a dozen times in a good year.”
In 2019, faced with costly maintenance issues, Norris and his wife, Alice, began looking for alternatives, which led them to CFC when it was just getting started. Once they were sure that getting a boat at peak times was not a problem, they signed up. Says Norris: “We went out 30 times last year.”
First-time boaters have praised the training they received and the availability of help when things go wrong. “If the motor makes a weird noise or something like that, [the Scotts] are just a phone call away,” said Burlington spa owner Cynthea Hausman.
South Burlington residents Elaine Keane and her husband, Barry Clogan, were divers before their children arrived, but they had never been on a boat. They decided that a membership club was a good way to test the appeal of boating for them.
“It’s not cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than having to buy a boat, run it and manage it all,” Keane said with his native Irish rhythm. “So I feel like that makes it accessible to so many people who wouldn’t have that opportunity.”
Nick Kyratzis was 30, single, living in Essex Junction, looking for something new and admittedly naive about boating in 2019. “I was just thinking of going on Craigslist and buying a boat,” Kyratzis said , who works for Vermont Information Processing in Colchester. He discovered that being a landlord was difficult, so he explored the rental option and that led him to CFC. After carrying out a careful cost comparison, the CFC delivered the most profitable boat.
“It was really a no-brainer,” said Kyratzis, who has been the club’s top boatman for the past two years, coming out 60 times a season.
“We call it ‘You again Nick’,” Tricia said. “We like the guy.”
She deftly drove us back to the dock, the best sailor of the couple, by Phil’s own admission. Like any club member, we got out of the boat and off we went, with no boat chores to do and eager to turn the key again.
Ironically, the pleasure and satisfaction with the loan arrangement has caused some members to wonder: What if?
“I didn’t expect to like it as much as I do,” Keane said with a laugh. “And that’s a problem – because I would really like to buy a boat!”