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Owning a Boat with Friends

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These days, there’s renewed interest in going boating on a budget — something I’ve been doing for 40 years. One way is through what the boating press calls “fractional ownership,” where you share a high-end, pricey boat with others like a condo timeshare. Another cost-cutter is to go in with another boater in a less formal fashion on a used boat, as a friend of mine just did last season with a 28-foot Sea Ray.

Twelve years ago, I bought a boat with two other people. The partnership sailed for two summers. During that time, our 32-foot “friend ship” morphed into a love boat. Two of the owners fell in love, got married and paid off the odd man, who then bought his own boat.

I learned quite a lot from that boat co-op. I learned that organization, scheduling and leadership do not come naturally to some of us. And control freaks do not enjoy multiple ownership setups. Joint ownership is not simple, nor easy, compared to solo going.

Yet seven years later, I agreed to try it again with another boat. Perhaps I’ve mellowed a bit after a decade of marriage. I’ve also aged. I appreciate the shared enjoyment and workload of a co-op boat more than I used to. So we tried it again, setting up a second partnership in 2006 to operate and maintain a large, elderly wooden boat.

Our first effort, like that of my friend with the Sea Ray partnership, was only slightly more organized that the typical college-roommates-sharing-a-house endeavor. We did try to establish some ground rules, with the help of a six-pack in the cockpit shortly after the purchase, but nothing ever got into writing.

Boat co-ops can work, providing the owners use some common sense, keep communicating, and exercise as much tolerance and flexibility as possible. But you need ground rules. My friend with the Sea Ray, after just one season, is already complaining about being stuck with all the maintenance.

Tips for First Timers
Boat partners should put down on paper the partnership structure and rules of operation. The contract need not be long and complex, but it must be mutually understood by all parties. (There are boilerplate examples online to use as guides.) It should consider things such as: Will the boat be in one name only, or will all partners be listed as owners? If only one person is listed as owner, is he or she financially sound and responsible? This could be hard on the rest of the boat owners and their bank accounts. And don’t forget to check on insurance implications if the boat is in one name only.

You should also consider what your group will do if one partner wishes to sell out or is forced to drop out. Will you then have to sell the boat? Can the other partners pay off the departing member? And can you afford to operate the boat without that partner for a full season while you seek another or market the boat? I’ve seen several co-ops that broke up with painful results to the partners’ pocketbooks. And friendships. One way to keep the pressure down is to buy a cheap enough boat so that, in an unexpected financial crunch, you can still manage payments, maintenance and dock fees with one less partner.

A common source of friction in boat partnerships is scheduling. Some groups schedule weekly blocks, others use shorter intervals. In our first co-op, we set up a web page with everyone’s schedule on it. If one person wanted to use the boat on another person’s day, he could check to see whose day it was and then call them to determine the yacht’s availability. This worked pretty well for about a month. The second year, the scheduling process broke down totally.

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