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Bonita & Estero Magazine

Boat clubs make for a hassle-free day on the water

Feb 29, 2024 12:16PM ● By Andrea Stetson

With two toddlers, Kaitlin and James Walls say it is much easier to go boating without the worry of cleaning and maintaining a vessel. That’s why they joined Bay Water Boat Club. Photo by Andrea Stetson

Kaitlin and James Walls and their two young daughters hop on a deck boat for a day on the water. When they are done they simply get off and go home. They leave all the cleaning, maintenance, storage, and insurance to the Bay Water Boat Club in Bonita Springs.

“I grew up here and my parents always had a boat, and they had to clean it and take care of it—and this is so much easier with kids,” Kaitlin says.

That is why boat clubs are becoming more and more popular. Customers pay an initiation fee and then a monthly fee. They also pay for fuel. But they say that’s still a lot less than buying a vessel and then paying for docking, maintenance, and insurance.

“We have had boats most of our lives,” says Steve Jones, who joined Bay Water Boat Club with his wife, Paula, a few years ago. “We evaluated buying a boat and storing it and fixing it and docking it and cleaning it. We evaluated the club, and I really like it. It is so nice to get in the boat, and you go out and when you come back you just hand over the keys. We don’t regret it one bit. For us, it is exactly what we need.”

Steve and Paula Jones get ready to head out on the water in a Hurricane deck boat. The couple appreciates the convenience of being part of Bay Water Boat Club in Bonita Springs. Photo by Andrea Stetson

 Lisa Koscielniak and Victor Mendoza agree. “You don’t have to worry about insurance. You don’t have to worry about the slip. You just come here and get a boat and pay for the gas, and when you are done it is ‘see you next time’,” Mendoza says.

“The other thing is you get a variety of boats,” Koscielniak adds.

Lisa Koscielniak and Victor Mendoza load up the boat at Bay Water Boat Club as they get ready for a day on the water. Photo by Andrea Stetson

 Bill Nicoll has been a member for three years. “I was going to buy a boat,” he says. “Then we looked at different boat clubs, and we like the variety of boats here, so we joined.”

Once people decide to join a boat club, they must evaluate which type works best for them. Bay Water in Bonita Springs has a wide variety of vessels, from offshore fishing boats, to deck boats, to pontoons and two-story boats with a slide. It is family run by the Botana family—a father and his sons—who have lived in Bonita Springs for decades.

Nearby is Freedom Boat Club, founded in Sarasota in 1989 and now corporate owned with more than 400 locations world­wide. Members can take out a boat all over the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Freedom Boat Club has fewer boats at its Bonita location than Bay Water, but it does have a variety of vessels.

Derrick Botana, executive vice president/lifestyle consultant at Bay Water, says it is the service and the vessels that make this boat club the place to be. Its fleet of 60 boats range in size from 18 to 32 feet.

“Our most popular are the Hurricane deck boats and the pontoon boats,” Botana says. “The members love our pontoons because they have power poles on them. And a lot of our fishing boats have trawling motors on them. We are the only boat club that has that.”

Bay Water’s initiation fee ranges from $7,500 to $9,500 depending on when it is running specials. The monthly fee is $399 for a family membership for up to four people. New members take a free orientation class. All the boats leave the dock with a full tank of gas and a cooler filled with ice, and all have GPS trackers.

Members can make up to three reservations at a time or can just walk in and usually get a boat. While the vessels need to be back by 5 pm, boaters can stay later if they book the boat for the following day. Some customers book a boat for three con­secutive days and take extended trips.

Freedom Boat Club, which has 94,000 members worldwide, offers several membership types: for family, family and friends, weekday only, weekend only, and more. Jasper Nowell, director of operations, would not reveal the initiation fee, saying it varies and there are often specials. Monthly fees range from $300 to $500. All new members get a free training session and unlimited training for the first year as needed. Customers can reserve a boat for a morning, afternoon, or all day. They can book up to four days at a time, and with additional training, can reserve a boat overnight.

“It is convenience and cost,” Nowell says when asked why people should choose the boat club.

Locally Freedom Boat Club has nine boats at its location on the south side of Bonita Beach Road and 22 vessels across the street. It also has 63 boats in Naples, 30 in Marco Island, and another 22 at Fish-Tale Marina on Fort Myers Beach. Other area locations include Cape Coral, Fort Myers, and Pine Island.

Its fleet ranges from offshore fishing vessels to deck and pon­toon boats. Customers say the biggest benefit is being able to take out a boat all over the world. Snowbirds flock to Freedom so they can use vessels here in the winter and up north in the summer. They also enjoy being on the water when they travel.

“We are in the business of hospitality. Whatever we can do to go above and beyond to make the experience enjoyable, we will do that,” Nowell says.

Freedom Boat Club has one location on the north side of Bonita Beach Road and another location across the street on the south side. Photo by Andrea Stetson


Andy and Judy Lash have been members of Freedom Boat Club since 2020. “At that time Covid was raging and a boat was a great place to be,” Andy Lash explains. “I checked into the boat club, and compared to owning a boat, it was a great deal. New boats these days are so expensive. A typical pontoon boat, like what we take out, is $60,000, and that is a lot to invest in a toy. And if you are going to tow your boat, you need a vehicle capa­ble of towing; or if you are going to store your boat, the storage cost is almost as much as we pay for the boat club. The really great thing about Freedom Boat Club is they have about 400 locations, so instead of towing the boat all over the place we can just go to the locations.”

The Lashes have taken out boats all over Southwest Florida, as well as in St. Augustine and Cocoa Beach, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I have towed boats all over the U.S., and this is so much easier,” Lash says. “It is exciting to go to a new location. We study the maps before we go, and we just have a blast thinking about our next trip.”

 Andrea Stetson has been writing for magazines and newspapers in Southwest Florida since 1995. She and her family live in North Naples.