'The best of the both worlds': Why boat clubs are becoming more common in the suburbs
Barrington resident Jim Sincox always wanted a boat to take out on area waterways, but his wife, Liz, was wary of the costs and time commitment of a vessel's upkeep and winter storage.
When they joined the Barrington Boat Club a few years ago, however, they received what Jim Sincox called "the best of both worlds."
The boat club business model, which rapidly expanded into McHenry County as interest in boating surged amid the COVID-19 pandemic, offers members the chance to take out one of a fleet of boats whenever they would like, while the club staff handles the maintenance, cleaning, repair and storage of the vehicles.
"I don't know what we would have done last year without the boat club. It really saved our summer," Liz Sincox said.
Sales by local boat dealers rose dramatically during the pandemic since outdoor recreation industries like boating were boosted as the public health crisis limited indoor entertainment. But so too have new memberships and launch locations of local boat clubs.
Barrington Boat Club offers members the chance to take off on the Fox River from McHenry or Port Barrington, while also keeping boats available at Bangs Lake in Wauconda. It has seen membership climb steadily since it was started, co-owner Michelle Streit said.
But once the outbreak took hold of Illinois, Streit said, existing members also started upping their usage, booking boats more frequently than before.
"People use it for a number of different things, which is great. They use it for family days, date night, adult friend social time or work meetings or outings. Or to just go sit on the boat or beach on their computer, working," Streit said. "They call it that blue state of mind. Getting people out on the water gives them the same effect as a mini-vacation."
This is Barrington Boat Club's fourth season in business and its first in McHenry, where Streit and her husband and co-owner, Dillon, also offer daytime rentals of vintage boats, some of them vividly colored.
The club has partnered with Barrington-based culinary business One Life Kitchen, which can prepare charcuterie plates for a boat set to be taken out that its members and guests can enjoy on a ride, plus No Wake Bar and Grill is at its Port Barrington launch location.
Freedom Boat Club, which calls itself the world's largest boat club with locations throughout the country as well as some in Europe, also is seeing membership rise, and decided to add fleets to Fox Lake, McHenry and Milwaukee marinas for the first time this year, a regional expansion from its existing Chicago spots.
"We have four wonderful locations in Chicago. There are a lot of members that drove in from McHenry and Fox Lake to use the club. We wanted to deliver a more localized approach for some of them. We really want to give people access to those waters, those wonderful areas and restaurants and sandbars," said Scott Ward, Freedom's vice president and general manager of corporate territories, referring to the Fox River and Chain O' Lakes.
Freedom -- memberships in which have also soared in the last year -- is starting with boats in six slips in its McHenry location on Waukegan Road, although the company normally starts with three or four at new locations, reflecting the high demand for boat club services in the Northwest suburbs.
Ward said some people have joined Freedom while they are waiting on their purchase of a new boat to be fulfilled -- some dealers are seeing such high demand for certain models and the supply is so short that orders of some vessels made early this year won't be complete until the fall, they told the Northwest Herald.
Plus, Freedom and Barrington boat clubs offer members multiple types of boats to choose from for each trip. Each club's members can use a boat from all locations within their respective club.
"Some people will host guests on a pontoon boat. The next day we'll see them come back and do some skiing with a different boat. That's really the beauty of the club. We have pontoons with slides on them, so you can take a ride down the slide with the kids, grandkids or even yourself," Ward said.