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Belvedere resident Andrew Grant would have normally been at the tail end of a busy summer right now. His family would have done some traveling and his teenage kids would have had multiple summer activities. But back in April, faced with an uncertain summer ahead, Grant knew he had to come up with something creative to do this summer — something that would be COVID-19 safe and hopefully something that would give them the feeling of getting out of town.
He decided to buy a boat. He got his boating license and was planning to drive down to Santa Barbara to pick up the one he liked. But then he talked to a few friends with boats, who emphasized how much work it was. He was having second thoughts.
While weighing his options, Grant found out a Freedom Boat Club (FBC) was opening nearby in Sausalito, a club where members pay to share access to a boat fleet. Without boat maintenance, dock fees, insurance, depreciation, trailers, storage or clean up, this seemed like the answer.
“I’ve always been interested in boats but it was nothing we had really thought about pursuing before,” Grant said. “We had never even heard of a boating club or a membership before. It was totally foreign to us.”
Grant’s not the only person that had this idea during the pandemic. FBC, which has four locations in the Bay Area, had a 57% growth in membership from May-July when compared with the same months in 2019. They’ve had an overall 250% increase in new membership inquiries and had a 75% increase in boat trips in July 2020 vs. July 2019.
“Early on we realized we weren’t going to be traveling this year, but getting out onto the water and exploring the bay was the perfect social-distancing activity as a family,” Grant said.
GetMyBoat, the Airbnb for boating, has seen similar growth, citing 300% growth in Bay Area rentals in terms of the number of bookings this summer when comparing to the same time period in 2019.
While many of the rentals are family outings, GetMyBoat Marketing Manager Val Streif said, the rentals have also been popular for small parties and gatherings for celebrations. It’s easier to maintain social distance on the boats, she said, and many of the typical venues for small events, like restaurants, are closed. While large weddings, bachelorette parties and corporate events have been canceled or rescheduled, small graduation parties, elopements, birthday parties and even photoshoots are getting out on the water often.
“Boating is one of the only things you can do these days,” Streif said. “People aren’t going to festivals or fairs or traveling, so it’s a way to enjoy the city in another way. This year more than ever we’ve seen the repeat customer. We’re seeing so many people who are renting multiple times.”
SailTime, a fractional sailboat membership with two locations around the Bay Area, even offers the ability for owners to take their boats for a week at a time, sleeping aboard.
Local owner Captain Lisa Chapin said she had just taken a boat for four days with her husband, dropping anchor at different spots around the bay like Angel Island and Jack London Square.
“It’s that perfect answer for being able to vacation but not go far,” Chapin said. “It’s a great way to be out in the world with no mask on. There’s not a lot of places you can do that anymore and the water is one of them.”
Chapin said SailTime has been so busy she’s had to hire two new staff members, something she said she feels fortunate to be able to do when other boating business owners are struggling.
Marina O’Neill, an owner of SF Bay Adventures, typically hosted a lot of big public events, weddings and corporate events, especially aboard their large yachts. The company was totally shut down from March 17 to mid-June due to the pandemic and while they’re finally open again, those large ships can only have a maximum of 12 passengers aboard, down from the normal capacity of 49.
“You wake up as a business that’s been around for a while and you’re in a totally different world. You have to rethink everything,” O’Neill said. “These small businesses like mine are borrowing to stay in business right now. We hope to see the other side of it.”
SF Bay Adventures received a PPP loan as well as an Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the SBA. O’Neill said if they hadn’t gotten those, they’d be out of business. They also have a GoFundMe. She said while she understands why restaurants have been in the news so much because of their struggles right now, she thinks people are often overlooking all types of businesses facing unique challenges right now.
“There’s no takeout for charter boats,” she said.
Tessa McLean is a digital editor with SFGATE. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @mcleantessa.