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Peer-to-peer boat rentals setting sail in the U.S.

Greg Keraghosian
August 30, 2013

If you’ve been looking to sail a boat around your nearest bay but can’t seem to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are needed to own one, some newer members of the sharing economy might have the solution for you: renting someone else’s boat online.

Much as Airbnb lets people rent out their apartments, or Lyft and RelayRides allow private owners to offer their cars, peer-to-peer boat sharing might already be available at a pier near you. You can indulge your inner Andy Samberg domestically with companies such as Boatbound, GetMyBoat, or Cruzin.

The main American markets being served so far include San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Miami and the Texas Gulf Coast.

Renting someone’s boat may not be a budget activity, but it does make boating more accessible to the non-1% crowd. An average 30-foot day rental might go for $500, which split a few ways, can make for a memorable story from your vacation.

I spent a day on San Francisco Bay with Boatbound, which launched this year and is the most established peer-to-peer service in the U.S. (others have more boats but also aggregate rental-company listings; Cruzin is taking a peer-to-peer approach but is behind Boatbound's inventory). I’ll offer my review in a moment.

But first, some economics: Are there enough boat owners willing to hand over the helm to a stranger, and enough renters interested in this pricy and risky hobby to make peer-to-peer boating as successful as Airbnb? The jury is out, but there is encouraging data out there.

There is demand: Almost 38% of American adults participated in recreational boating at least once last year, according to a June report from the National Marine Manufacturers Association. The group estimates annual spending on recreational boating to be $51.4 billion. Peer-to-peer start-ups are confident they will boost those numbers.

There also is supply: The average private boat spends over 90% of the year docked and collecting barnacles, costing its owner thousands of dollars in maintenance – money that could be regained with rentals.

“The opportunity really arose about a decade ago when the co-founders were out sailing in the Atlantic and said hey, there are all these boats sitting out here in the marina,” Bryan Petro, head of product for GetMyBoat, told Yahoo! Travel. “I know how much these cost and they’re just sitting here depreciating.”

The biggest question might not be demand, but trust between owner and renter about steering something as expensive as a house (or a mansion, as I briefly did this year). Only Alabama requires a boating license, whereas some other states require safety certifications, and boating insurance isn’t required by law.

That leaves it up to the boating start-ups to handle liability questions and foster trust, which they say they are doing.

“I grew up powerboating, and sailor-speak goes right over my head,” said Aaron Hall, co-founder of Boatbound. “You wouldn’t want to rent (a sailboat) to me, or you’d say ‘Listen, I will rent to you but I’d want to train you how to use a boat and come out five times.’

“Hopefully we get more owners doing that because the more they train people, the more recurring renters they’ll probably get.”

(Photo: theleestudio / Flickr)
(Photo: theleestudio / Flickr)

Boatbound invited me on such a training session with a complimentary powerboat rental in San Francisco. Typical of some higher-end boats such as this one, which rents for $800 a day, the owner of my boat insisted on going along with every renter, or sending his own skipper.

In addition, Boatbound takes a booking fee ($75 for my boat) to pay for their Lloyd’s of London insurance policy, which includes $2 million for hull damage and $1 million in liability.

Booking on the site had the search simplicity of Airbnb and included some features meant to enhance credibility, such as driver’s license verification and a background check. The search feature could use some beefing up – such as being able to specify boats that come with a skipper – and Hall said that will be coming.

Renters and owners can review each other and list their boating credentials. Owners have the last say on whom they allow aboard, so if for example you don’t meet someone’s requirement of having a certification in Florida, they don’t have to rent to you. After booking my boat, I made arrangements with the owner via the site's message board, which would send text messages to my phone.

While admittedly I got the VIP treatment, I enjoyed my experience on the water. The owner, Paul, went through a typical tour and safety check before departing the marina, and he patiently taught me some basic powerboat steering. I could see why a person would build enough comfort with a specific boat to keep going back to her.

Boatbound offers over 1,000 boats, mostly in the U.S. and almost all from private owners. Cruzin reportedly has several hundred boats available nationally, and they are likewise insured with screening protections for the owners. On-the-water towing services are provided if needed.

Working on a larger scale are GetMyBoat and Yachtico, whose inventories are more international and aggregated, and reach 10,000 boats or more.

Petro of GetMyBoat said 2,000 of their 10,000 boats are peer to peer and that it’s their fastest-growing segment.

Just last week, GetMyBoat released an iPhone app that allows users to browse, book and communicate with owners. The site also includes peer reviews and safety content. Unlike with Boatbound or Cruzin, insurance is up to the renter and owner, although their site does offer an insurance provider link.

Up to now, Berlin-based Yachtico has kept its stock overseas, with an estimated 15,000 boats. However, with a reported seven-figure infusion of cash, it plans to expand in the U.S. soon.

There are plenty of other startups looking to get a foothold here and abroad. Incrediblue is based in the Mediterranean and offers privately-owned boats that are insured under local law. Renters can book with or without a crew.