Standing atop a Sea Ray in Lake St. Clair, Steve Dobreff dons a Freedom Boat Club hoodie to battle the light breeze. His sunglasses reflect the bright blue water as he recalls why buying a boat was the worst thing he ever did.

“My last boat was my headache,” Dobreff said. “Rarely used it, my kids were on travel sports and it broke down twice, both times $9,000 in repairs. And I’m done with it. I gave the boat to my neighbor next to.”

It’s not that Dobreff doesn’t like boating, owning a boat just wasn’t for him and his family.

So when he and his family moved from Harrison Township to Florida, his wife joined the Freedom Boat Club, a national monthly boat membership club.

“My sister and my wife actually joined the club despite my objections,” Dobreff said. “Because I didn’t understand, you know, because as a boat owner, when they told me the numbers, it doesn’t make sense. I thought I would never have a boat. And I didn’t understand the model. And then we joined and we were members for about four years and I fell in love with it.

And the rest is history – Dobreff now owns and operates four Freedom Boat Club locations on Lake St. Clair.

The yacht club, like the rest of the yachting industry, is experiencing massive growth.

“This is the first time in decades that we’ve seen so many new owners hit the market,” said Nicki Polan, executive director of the Michigan Boating Industries Association. “Boating is usually a heritage sport where it is passed down from family to family, but we have had an incredible number, 415,000 new boat owners in the country during the pandemic. And the reason for this increase is that people were looking for safety, outdoors, fun things to do with their families.And boating in Michigan is so easy because there is so much access to water.

How the club works

Freedom Boat Club members pay a one-time membership fee, plus a monthly fee of $369, or $269 if you just want to use boats on weekdays.

The Free Press is unable to publish entry fees due to club corporate policy, but you can contact your local club for more information on prices.

Once you’re a member, you reserve a boat and it’s yours from sunrise to sunset, Dobreff said. You can bring guests, water skis, tubes and whatever you want. For all intents and purposes, the boat is yours, he said.

Each membership comes with mandatory training by club captains, and each boat is fully stocked with life jackets. Yacht club employees clean the boats, moor them and repair them. Members can use the yacht club at every location internationally.

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The only additional cost members pay is fuel. At the Harrison Township location, there is a gas dock at the end of the river for boaters to fill their tanks. At other Lake St. Clair locations, the club tracks your usage, refills it for you, and charges your credit card. The yacht club uses regular gasoline, so the price varies as it may when filling a car’s tank. Things like cruising speed and boat type impact tank size

Members can rent boats as often or infrequently as they want, Dobreff said, and many potential members worry there won’t be enough boats for everyone.

“There are boats sitting in the dock all the time,” he said. “On a busy weekend, like the 4th of July, if you make the reservations a week in advance, you’ll still have a boat. That’s how I monitor the system, if I start to see that it’s getting a bit clogged, so we’re just going to buy another boat.”

Member Alan Heavner, 76, has wanted a boat all his life. He finds the Freedom Boat Club to be the best option for him, and he said it was definitely worth the price.

“The old people I talked to have their own boat, they said it was stupid,” Heavner said, referring to the manual labor involved. “Because with (Freedom Boat Club) you can go wherever you want, I don’t have to pull a trailer, I don’t have to do anything.”

Not for everybody

Freedom Boat Club markets itself as an affordable and accessible way to get out on the water.

“Many minorities who hadn’t gone into boating because of the expense, can afford it,” Dobreff said. “And members who are women, a third of our members are single women because they have nothing to maintain, they come here, they have all the staff here to take care of everything for them.”

Polan said the boat association frequently works with the Freedom Boat Club. She said the club works really well for certain populations, it depends on what each is looking for.

“(The club) gives people the opportunity to get their feet wet and see if this is something they want to get involved in, decades of boating activity,” Polan said. “It also gives them the opportunity to try out different types of boats…I can’t afford a 30ft Boston Whaler, but it might be available at a yacht club.”

Dobreff said he buys new boats for the club every year, so they tend to be more expensive. He reported boats at his dock in Harrison Township that cost around $120,000.

Polan said many yacht club members end up buying their own boats.

“They’ve finally decided what kind of boat they like, and they don’t want to share it with anyone else,” Polan said.

She said, especially when it comes to entry-level boats, they are more affordable than many families realize.

A thriving industry

When the first Freedom Boat Club opened on Lake St. Clair in 2016, there were only four boats in one location.

But, after a few very successful years, the boat club enters the 2022 season with four clubs and 48 boats.

At first, the boating industry feared that yacht clubs would hurt sales, but the exact opposite has happened, Polan said.

“Even with this unprecedented demand, yacht clubs are also growing,” she said. “So right now, because of the demand, everyone is doing really, really well.”

Michigan is, by all means, a boating state. Polan said the MBIA has estimated that more than 50% of Michigan’s population get out on the water each year. There are 835,000 registered boats in the state, and that only includes motorboats, she said.

“Whether you charter, join a club or buy your own boat, there’s something for everyone,” Polan said. “But it will all depend on your goals, your plans and where you want to sail.”

Contact Emma Stein: [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_emmastein.