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Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
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New business model may be something that floats your boat

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Not everybody in Tampa Bay has a boat, and that’s a shame because this part of the world is rich with water. Rivers and lakes beckon, along with estuaries, ponds and bays. There’s the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico.

The vessel-less are left on the shore, watching like hungry waifs as people on watercraft of all sort pass by, hair tousled by the breeze, skin splashed by the sun and spray.

Now, though, there’s another option for those who can’t afford to buy a boat. A new business model, similar to home-sharing businesses like Airbnb, has arrived in West Central Florida, allowing vessel owners to lease their boats to the boat-less for a day or two, or longer.

The watercraft available through companies such as Boatbound and Cruzin range from sparse kayaks to sprawling yachts. The cost is commensurate with size and comfort.

In Tampa, the most expensive boat listed is a Cruiser 40-foot yacht with a VIP stateroom, a couple of flat-screen television sets and three air conditioners. It can accommodate 16 people. The cost: $1,250 a day.

Jim Hopes of Tampa owns High Hopes, the 40-foot cabin cruiser, and rented it out for the day this summer. He admitted he was apprehensive about handing over the keys to his vessel, worth about $180,000, to someone he didn’t know.

“It was a little nerve-racking,” he said.

The renter was vetted by Boatbound, which looked for a criminal record or other warning signs. “They made sure I was dealing with somebody who was pretty legitimate,” Hopes said.

Hopes himself reviewed the renter’s resume and boating experience.

“The call is up to the owner of the boat,” he said. “In my case, I have a pretty big and complex boat. I can’t be renting to just anybody.”

His renter “had extensive boating experience with boats that size and that complexity,” Hopes said, “so he knew what he was doing. And he was experienced with the waters of Tampa Bay. He knew where he was going, and that’s important.”

The two took High Hopes out on a test voyage to make sure the renter was a capable captain, Hopes said. Then he turned over the command. “He brought it back in good shape,” Hopes said.

Bill Coletti recently used the boat-renting service and liked how it worked. Coletti owns a business in Tampa and grew up here but now lives in Austin, Texas. He came here in July and wanted to sail on Tampa Bay, like when he was a kid. He found Boatbound through a trade journal, then started looking for boats he could rent.

“I looked at it, looked at what I wanted to do and saw the Hunter (sailboat),” he said. “The information on the website was crystal clear.”

He said he ended up talking to the owner of a 30-foot sloop, worth about $39,000, and the two clicked.

“He was very responsive,” Coletti said. “It was very personal.”

Coletti and the owner became friends. “We’re going to hang out together,” Coletti said. “It was more than a transaction. We have common interests.”

He sailed the vessel for a day, he said, from St. Petersburg to the Skyway bridge and back. The rental fee: $450.

“It was a nice day sailing,” he said. “I’ll do it again. And I’ll do it in cities across the United States.”

He has a sailboat back in Austin, which he, too, plans to put in the Boatbound listings for rent.

Boatbound was created just two years ago after founder Aaron Hall, himself a boating enthusiast, and his family went to a lake north of Dallas and tried to rent a boat. The rental company had run out, he said.

“I looked around the marina, and there were hundreds of boats going unused,” he said.

Over the past two years his idea has blossomed, with boat owners in cities across the nation agreeing to lease their vessels when they are not using them. Next year, he said, Boatbound is expected to go international.

Hall said one key to success is that Boatbound, through Lloyd’s of London, insures the vessels while they are being rented, and potential renters are well vetted. All this eases the concerns of boat owners, who naturally are reluctant to turn the helm over to a perfect stranger, he said.

The owner also can meet the boat renter and find out about their boating experience. It’s up to the boat owners to give up the keys, Hall said, “only when they’re 100 percent comfortable with the arrangement.”

“We’ve had issues, some boats get nicks here and there,” he said, “and our insurance covers it. People did worry about that in the beginning, but not now.”

Between 50 and 150 boats are rented each day from a stable of about 8,000 across the nation, Hall said.

Picking appropriate markets is crucial to Boatbound’s success, Hall said from his San Francisco office. Miami was a must market, and this fall Boatbound will officially launch Florida’s Gulf Coast initiative, although vessels are available on the company’s website.

“We had a hell of a summer,” he said. “It’s exciting to see the demand. We had focused on building the supply, but the demand has grown organically. Over the Fourth of July, we had more bookings than all of last year.”

Most boats rented aren’t the big yachts, he said. Nor are they the kayaks and paddleboards.

“Our sweet spot in Tampa is the boat between 17 and 25 feet,” he said. They are affordable, between $300 and $500 a day, and they can take a family or two out for some time on the water, perhaps for a casual boating trip or maybe fishing.

“The big fancy boat, there isn’t much of a demand for,” Hall said, pointing to a 122-foot super yacht in Miami that goes for $18,000 a day but still is waiting for its first customer.

Cruzin, a South Florida boat-sharing company, lists about 1,000 boats on its website, including a few in the Tampa region. The company was launched in the spring of 2013, said Jaclyn Baumgarten, co-founder and CEO.

Although Hall’s idea came from not being able to rent a boat, Baumgarten’s idea came from her two brothers, who were too busy to use their boats.

“I suggested they could rent their boats to other boaters,” she said. “My thinking was that they could generate income from their boats when they couldn’t use them and at the same time could share their love for the water with others. I looked around and saw that my brothers were not the only ones with boats they loved but were not using enough.”

She said boat owners who rent their vessels one or two days a month can offset most of their maintenance and marina slip fees.

Cruzin has a presence in 28 states and seven countries, including nations around the Mediterranean and as far away as Croatia, she said. Boats range from kayaks for $15 a day to 80-foot yachts renting for $5,000 a day, she said.

“Families who were exposed to boating but didn’t own a boat could have a means to rent well-maintained, personally owned boats in a safe and secure environment,” she said.

“For some families, this may be the stepping stone into boat ownership, as we’ve seen this happen already with Cruzin renters who eventually buy their own boats.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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