Ship Ahoy

Freedom Boat Club expands during pandemic and is charting continued growth in 2021.
A boat in the water at a marina
HIGH WATER MARK: Freedom Boat Club operates out of Markley Marine in Harrison Township, Sindbad’s in Detroit, and Jefferson Beach Marina in St. Clair Shores.

The boating business boomed last summer as the COVID-19 pandemic canceled most other activities. As a result, the Freedom Boat Club in Harrison Township grew to 200 members and more than doubled its fleet of pleasure craft.

Operated by attorney Steven Dobreff, who left the law business to make boating available to people without the investment of ownership, the Freedom Boat Club is a national boat-sharing franchise that came to metro Detroit in 2016.

Dobreff is a lifelong boater who practiced law in Commerce Township before moving to Tampa, Fla., in 2013, where he joined the local Freedom Boat Club. “The club had been looking for someone to open a location in metro Detroit because of the area’s monstrous boating population,” says Dobreff, who spends most of the summer in Michigan, overseeing the business.

Dobreff and a partner started the Michigan club with four boats at Hideaway Harbor in Harrison Township. He later bought out his partner and started last season with 10 boats and 83 members at two locations, including Sindbad’s Restaurant and Marina in Detroit. At the close of the 2020 boating season, the local Freedom Boat Club had a fleet of 22 boats and 200 members.

“As of May (2020), the only things people could do were go boating or play golf,” Dobreff says. “All of the family activities had come to a standstill. Sports were shut down and people weren’t vacationing. So many people were just looking for ways to spend time with their families outside of the house. In mid-June we saw a tremendous increase in membership.”

Although the pandemic is expected to subside somewhat by the coming boating season, Dobreff is expecting to add 150 to 200 new members. The club offers all of the benefits of boat ownership and very few of the negatives. Members can reserve a boat for a morning, an afternoon, a whole day, or just a few hours.

“The whole concept — pulling up to the dock and (knowing that) a brand-new, clean boat is waiting for you; (it’s) filled up with gas; (and) you can take it out for the day, come back, hand over the keys to a dockhand, and you’re done — is contrary to the whole boat ownership process,” Dobreff explains.

Prospective boaters can join for a one-time fee of up to $7,000, and monthly dues of $299 for a weekday membership or $369 for a standard membership with boat access seven days a week. By contrast, the cost of owning a new boat can run about $30,000 per year.