Call it the pandemic purchase that keeps on giving.
As life shut down for Henrico County resident Kevin Russo and his family last year, they started looking for ways to have a good time safely.
They’d always been drawn to the water and for a brief moment, Russo recalled earlier this week, they considered buying a boat — a novel idea until they realized that while sailing and tubing were fun, the maintenance, storage, seasonal upkeep, slip fees and insurance that comes from owning a boat were not.
In his boat ownership research, he happened upon the Freedom Boat Club — a membership boat organization that provides access to boats and the waterways without members actually buying a boat.
Russo has sailed all around Virginia’s waterways, but also in Maryland, North Carolina and even sunny Florida.
The Freedom Boat Club is now in Richmond, at Rocketts Landing. The company, which operates through franchises, has 285 locations throughout North America and, most recently, Europe.
The Richmond club, led by president Brent Parker, opened over Memorial Day weekend and is part of a group that also includes locations in Woodbridge, Stafford and Lake Anna.
Four Freedom boats are docked at Rocketts Landing — two 22-foot Sea Ray Bowriders, a 22-foot pontoon boat and a 21-foot Key West fishing boat.
Separately, there are two other Freedom Boat Club locations in Virginia — Portsmouth and Norfolk — but those are operated by another franchise owner.
Here’s how the club works: Buy a membership, then enjoy boating as often as possible without the burden of maintenance, slip fees, repairs, winterization and other costs associated with boat ownership.
In short, “we own a bunch of boats, and we sell memberships so you can enjoy boating at a fixed monthly rate without having to deal with any of the headaches or hassles” of maintaining a boat, Parker said. “We take care of everything for our members. ... They just show up and go have fun with their guests.”
There are three membership levels. One-time membership fees are $3,500 to $5,500, then monthly dues are $265 to $395, depending on which membership tier customers choose.
Parker said the vast majority of members seek the top membership tiers, which offer unlimited access to their “home” clubs. For Richmond, the home club also includes Woodbridge, Stafford and Lake Anna.
Additionally, he said, Freedom offers a “generous” reciprocity program, where members can take advantage of any club nationwide if they happen to travel somewhere that Freedom operates.
A reservation program allows members to secure boats when they need them. Members can access the boats April through November, and there’s a 25-mile limit on how far boaters can go, which is dictated by insurance, Parker said. The boats are winterized between December and March.
Members must earn a boating certificate — a state requirement — before they can operate the boat. Once they have that, they also take a two- to three-hour on-the-water training course, provided by the boat club, with a Coast Guard-licensed captain. Once they pass, they’re free to be on the water on their own.
That training element, Russo said, is a valuable piece of membership.
“For someone who’s a novice boat enthusiast, that was probably the best part of it — it was really simple,” Russo said about getting licensed and certified in boat and water safety.
He said he and his family planned to keep the membership only through the pandemic, but now have no plans to end it.
“When the pandemic hit, it canceled out everything you would have normally done for fun,” he said, and buying a boat “wasn’t financially feasible.”
They now go boating about once a week, and especially love the reciprocal program that allows them to utilize clubs all over the country, which they’ve already done in three other states, as well as in Virginia Beach, he said.
Parker, a Florida native who grew up boating, said he opened the Woodbridge club in 2017, the first one in Virginia.
It started with five boats and now includes a fleet of 27. As memberships grow, and as long as there’s slip space, Freedom will add boats as needed, he said. Within his four locations, there are more than 400 members.
The club can be seen as a way to ease people into the boating world, Parker said, as the majority of members — roughly 60% to 70% — are new to boating. About 18% of members consider buying boats while they’re in the club, and of those who leave the club, roughly 20% to 25% indicate their intentions to buy their own boats.
Like with the Russo family, the pandemic spurred business — Parker’s clubs gained nearly half of their members just last year — because boating “was viewed as a safe, socially distanced activity that you could do with your family while everything else was shutting down,” Parker said.
“We can all value more people getting out and enjoying nature and enjoying the waterways,” he added. “We were blessed and honored to be able to help people see a different side of Virginia.”