Four local entrepreneurs have set sail on their next venture, this time running a boat club out of a marina on the James River.
Jeff Palumbo, Pat Hull, Mike Broggie and Nick Bawa recently purchased the Carefree Boat Club, which offers membership for access to boats off the docks at Rocketts Landing.
They bought the business from Bryan Courtney, who purchased it for $1 in August 2013 and who continues to operate another branch under the same brand out of Williamsburg. The club originally was launched as the Mariner’s Club in 2009 by then-owner Tory Wiles, who joined under the Carefree name in summer 2012, before handing off the keys to Courtney a year later.
The new ownership group declined to release the exact price paid for the boat club in this latest sale, but said it was nothing like Courtney’s previous deal.
“I can tell you we did not pay a dollar,” said Broggie, who, along with being an equal part-investor in the club, manages the fleet of six boats and is purchasing more to expand to a planned 10 boats for next year.
“It’s kind of misleading,” Hull said about the previous $1 acquisition of the club. “Usually when someone pays $1, they take on a load of debt.”
“I can tell you that when (Courtney) bought the club, it was in complete disarray and shambles,” Palumbo said. “We worked out an equitable acquisition price and plan. It was fair to everyone.”
Palumbo, Hull, Broggie and Bawa know each other and have worked together as mentors at Lighthouse Labs, a local startup incubator. They also have worked with each other in other two person business partnerships, such as a recently launched nonprofit incubator from Hull and Palumbo.
Carefree Boat Club operates 77 clubs worldwide, all of which are independently licensed and operated. It operates as a network whereby any member at any club can reserve boats from any other club up to five times a year while receiving unlimited reservations to boats from their home club wherever they choose to sign up. It has clubs in the U.S, parts of Canada and one in the British Virgin Islands. Its other nearby locations include Virginia Beach and Hampton.
The new ownership group at Rocketts Landing comes in with plans to purchase more boats and to add more perks to membership, such as classes, new equipment and partnerships with local businesses.
The club has six boats and 30 members, Palumbo said. Each boat that is not in for repairs offers both morning and afternoon four-hour blocks — giving a total of 12 availabilities a day. Members can also keep the boat a full day if no one else has a reservation.
Classes offered by the club under new ownership will include boating safety courses with trained captains that can get people their boater safety certification, and wakeboarding, skiing and tubing classes.
The club also now will offer direct transportation to the docks by golf cart and dockhands to load and unload the boats for members, as well as gift certificates to dock at adjacent restaurants such as Conch Republic and The Boathouse.
Palumbo said he’d been looking at getting into the Carefree Boat Club for some time after doing some consulting for Carefree’s corporate office and the Rocketts Landing location was suggested. Since then, he said he and his three partners also have been approved to operate clubs in Deltaville and along Lake Anna at the Lake Anna Yacht Club, where they are currently bringing in boats.
“All Jeff did was call us and ask if we wanted to be a part of this, and we all agreed,” Hull said. “It took less than 24 hours and he had his team.”
Members of any of the clubs owned by the four will have unlimited access to boats in their other locations as well as a club in Stafford, Virginia, which the Rocketts group may look to take control of in the future.
Membership costs $399 a month after a current promotional $2,500 up-front fee, which will go up to $5,000 at the end of the month.
That cost, the group said, is cheaper than boat ownership.
“If I were to give (away a) boat for zero dollars right now, it would cost more than the cost of the club membership just to own and maintain it,” Palumbo said. He added that they also offer boat trade-ins in exchange for membership for those boat owners who decide it’s not worth the trouble.
Along with maintenance, slip spaces at the marina are leased annually from anywhere between $1,800 and $4,500 depending on the size of the boat.
“Owning a boat in general is pretty low-value, except when you’re actually boating; that’s the high-value time,” Hull said. “When you think about boat ownership, you have to think about maintaining it and cleaning it constantly, preparing for outings and everything else.
“With this club you can show up, the boat is ready to go, already cleaned. Then you go out, come back, pull up and you’re on your way home.”