A financial analysis on Port Harbor's website provides some context for the cost savings offered by the boat club model. A typical 18-foot, entry-level boat might run around $20,000, but the added cost of a down payment, insurance, tax, slip rental, monthly payments and maintenance can mean shelling out upwards $15,000 in the first year and as much as $10,000 for each additional year.
For a higher-end boat priced around $60,000, expect to pay $36,000 for the first year, and around $22,000 each year thereafter. These figures include the depreciation value for a boat, which can run as high as 20% in the first year -- some $12,000 on a $60,000 vessel.
As the president of Port Harbor Marine, Rob Soucy often found himself fielding requests from employees wanting to make use of the marina's bounty of watercraft. "In the summer we have over 100 employees. They've got family, they want to fish or water-ski and they are surrounded by all these boats, so they would ask 'Why can't I use one?'," he says.
But Soucy was reluctant to set a precedent on employee boat use until he got some advice from some fellow marina owners. "They had put together a program for employees based on seniority and standing and I said, 'That's what we need to do'," Soucy says.
The model required employees to take a boating course and was offered on a first-come, first-serve basis, granting employees access to one of four boats designated for shared use.
Port Harbor Marine, with six locations across the state, rolled out the lifestyle boating program to employees five years ago, and its success convinced Port Harbor to launch a similar boat club program for a fee to the general public.
Boat clubs have become a growing trend in recent years, designed to lure everyone from first-time boaters to summer residents.
Port Harbor started its boat club program with a small fleet four years ago at its South Portland and Raymond locations, giving club members the choice of making waves either on Casco Bay or Sebago Lake.
"Boat clubs have been around for a while, but there haven't been many in New England," says Soucy, who is aware of only one other similar operation in Maine at Kennebunkport Marina, where Soucy and Port Harbor staff helped advise the fledgling club in its first season last summer.
Four years in, membership in the Port Harbor boat club has grown from 10 to 30, requiring Port Harbor to add more boats to the program. Its South Portland location currently stocks five boats for club use, with another three available on Sebago Lake.
When the program was first introduced, Port Harbor Marine's annual rate for family membership was $3,500, although it's since been lowered to $3,000. After the initial fee, members pay only for gas used on an outing.
A more expensive business membership is also available, but has yet to draw any interest, according to Soucy. "The business [membership] has not really taken off. There are some drawbacks; it's only available during the week, but we thought that it would be attractive to some people who wanted to do what we were doing and make it an employee benefit," he says.
Available May 1 to October 1, the boat club uses the same first-come, first-serve registration as the original employee model, and requires training and the designation of one "captain" per membership who must be present for every outing. For those interested in joining after the May 1 start date, pro-rated memberships are available, according to Soucy.
"The typical boat club member probably goes out 10 to 15 times a year," says Soucy, who notes that while there are no limits on the frequency of boat use, the queue of available boats can fill up quickly during the summer, which helps drive sales of the core business. Soucy says the marina converted two boat club members into full-fledged boat owners in the last week.
"If boats were always available to boat club members, no one would ever buy a boat," he says.
The club allows members to test-drive models in advance of making a purchase. "We've seen a lot of people who say, 'I want to get into this, but I'm just not sure what style I want: a lake boat, a pontoon boat or a fishing boat,'" he says.
Soucy says other boat dealers have been wary of the effect boat clubs could have on actual boat sales, but Soucy says anything that increases accessibility to the boating lifestyle is good for the whole business. "It's a great sales tool. We think it adds to [boat] sales and gets people into the lifestyle who might not have thought of it," he says.
The program is also a good fit for those getting back into boating, a trend that has manifested in recent years as the economic downturn forced many to part with such luxury goods, according to Soucy.
"Your financial situation might have changed, but you still have the desire to go boating," says Soucy. "If you've ever owned a boat before, you know that feeling never goes away."
Port Harbor Marine was ranked sixth in Boating Industry magazine's Top 100 list in 2011, a accolade that recognizes the nation's top marine dealers.
Kennebunkport Marina has seen slower growth in its boat club program, which is only in its second year. The marina has three designated boats and five boat club members, according to manager Cathy Norton.
Kennebunkport Marina is not a boat dealer, but Norton echoes Soucy's assessment of boat clubs as a great sales tool, having seen at least one former member purchase a vessel at the end of the season. The marina refers interested buyers to Yarmouth Boat Yard.
"I think people are just intrigued by the concept, and it has brought people into the marina to just sort of enjoy the atmosphere of the business," Norton says.