A New Boat Rental Option: Direct from Owners

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Looking for a boat to rent on San Francisco Bay?

There’s a new service, Boatbound, that promises to significantly expand your range of choices.

Following in the footsteps of the highly successful airbnb, which has revolutionized the vacation rental market, Boatbound connects boat owners with interested renters, without a rental company in the middle. Boatbound enables renters to find and book boats, provides insurance and screening, and acts as a financial intermediary, but it is up to the owner to deal with the renter directly and to make the final decision on to whom to rent.

Boatbound charges a 5% service fee to both owner and renter, and takes a 30% commission on the rental fees collected to cover insurance and support costs. (On-the-water towing is included.)

This 20-foot bass boat, based in Oakley (in the delta), is offered through Boatbound for $200/day

The peer-to-peer rental approach is more challenging for boats than for spare rooms, since boats require more skill to use and are far more easily damaged. Furthermore, typical boat-owner insurance policies don’t cover the boat if you rent it out.

If you can get past these issues, however, there’s a lot of appeal for both owners and renters. The vast majority of boats are used only a tiny percentage of the time, and they’re expensive to maintain. Generating income from all the idle time therefore makes a lot of sense.

You can’t legally charge people to go out on your boat with you at the helm unless you have a captain’s license, but you can rent your boat to someone else.

Qualifying Renters and Protecting Owners

Boatbound has addressed the insurance issue by providing a $1M insurance policy as part of every rental. Of course, there’s still a fair amount of risk, in time and cost, that the boat owner must accept. And for the renter, in case of an accident, there’s a deductible of $500 for the liability insurance, and 2% of the insured hull amount (with a $500 minimum) in case of serious damage. On a higher-end boat, that’s a significant potential liability.

An Alameda-based Olson 30 for $345/day

Prospective renters fill out a boating resume when inquiring about renting a boat. The company has also partnered with BoaterExam.com to provide a free boating-safety course and certification.

Ultimately, it is up to the boat owner to evaluate the renter’s trustworthiness and skill. The owner needs to assess the renter’s capability and show them around the boat. Until the owner is comfortable that the renter is competent to handle their boat, they aren’t committed to renting it.

From the renter’s perspective, this is a little worrisome. Unless you can meet with the owner well before your planned trip, you can’t entirely count on the rental going through until the last minute, on the boat.

In time, reviews on the site will provide a much richer picture of each boat, and renters will develop reputations as well. Today, however, the service is too new for there to be any useful history.

Wide Range of Boats

There’s some promise that renting boats directly from an owner will be less expensive than renting from a company. But as a renter, what excites me most about peer-to-peer rentals is the wide range of boats that will be available.

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Boatbound is just getting started, with about 170 boats available (as of late July 2013) across the U.S. More boats are being added every day. Assuming that the company continues to see success getting owners to list their boats, the boat inventory could explode, and the range of options would become very broad.

So far, the 26 boats currently listed on Boatbound in the San Francisco area range from a 20-foot, open-bow runabout on a trailer for $200/day to a 47-foot Nordhavn trawler for $1,800/day. Neither of these boats is likely to be otherwise available for rent on the bay.

The 47-foot Nordhavn, a very substantial rental boat, rents for $1,800/day

The Nordhavn is a high-end, long-distance cruiser, designed more for a cruise to Mexico than for a spin around the bay. Normally, you couldn’t rent one on the bay.

Adam Block has owned the Nordhavn for three years, and cruised her from Mexico to Polynesia and Australia. Adam commented, “This is a boat that we have lived on, crossed an ocean on, and spent years maintaining in ‘Bristol’ condition. So there’s going to be a twinge of concern when someone else takes the helm. That said, our first renter Steven was clearly a careful and considerate boater with years of experience operating a boat similar in size to Eden, and he was ready and willing to talk through a safe ‘float plan’ that would minimize stress on all parties. So that gave us a lot of confidence.”

Adam noted that “Renters should have experience in a powerboat of similar size to Eden, preferably a single-screw trawler. Trawlers have quite different operating characteristics than the more common twin-engine cabin cruisers, so it’s important that one have a feel for how to safely maneuver a boat like Eden in close quarters and windy conditions (which are virtually guaranteed here in the summer). Because not everyone has the relevant experience, we’re working on an option to offer a crewed rental with a captain who will operate the boat in place of the renter.

Steve Humphreys rented the Nordhavn for the 4th of July — a day that is always a test of boat-handling skills. Steve commented, “It was a great experience all the way around. It is a safe, solid boat (we had kids and teens on board) that looked like it was very well maintained, and it was!”

A most unusual rental boat: a 55-foot custom military-style motoryacht, only $800/day

With boats of this size and complexity, most people are going to want a professional captain, but it’s great that the option to rent the bare boat, if you have the relevant experience, is there. Boatbound plans to offer crewed charters, as well as bareboats, for people who lack the skills and experience to captain the boat they want to rent.

On San Francisco Bay, it seems that the sweet spot for this service will be sail and power boats in the 20-to-30 foot range, for which there’s a lot more people with the requisite skills. There’s lots of other options on the bay to rent a sailboat, but powerboat rentals are less common.

Part of a Trend

Boatbound is not the only company to have recognized the opportunity to connect boat renters and boat owners using the web. In the higher-end crewed charter market, making these connections is what the agencies do; they have web sites, of course, but personal communications are a big part of the experience. It’s more like a travel agent, while peer-to-peer rentals, like Boatbound, bypass the agent and are more like booking through airbnb.

Other companies pursuing this market include Cruzin, just getting started with only 5 boats in San Francisco (2 kayaks and 3 sailboats), and Incrediblue, a European-focused operation which has about 430 boats worldwide, many of them fully crewed, but only one boat so far in San Francisco.

Boatbound has the early lead in San Francisco, and the website seems quite polished for being in its early stages. It will be exciting to see how the boat inventory grows.

There’s plenty of challenges in making this model successful for boat rentals, and it will take some time to mature. For many boat renters, going with one of the established boat rental companies or chartering one of the crewed charter boats is likely to be more appealing. Dealing with an individual boat owner is not for everyone, especially if a professionally managed boat of the type you want is available and affordable. But peer-to-peer rentals are a great new addition to the range of options for renters, and a new way for owners to help pay for their habit.

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