PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — When the pandemic hit Virginia last year, the owner of the local Freedom Boat Club, was battening down the hatches and preparing for bankruptcy for the two-year-old business.
But thanks to a sea change, it’s been nothing but smooth sailing for the Portsmouth-based franchisee with nine boats in Portsmouth and nine in the East Beach section of Norfolk.
“We thought we were going to go out of business in March  about to file for bankruptcy and then May happened. In May of last year when the governor — thank you, governor — opened up the golf courses and boating, we blew up. We sold 27 memberships in the month of May alone,” said Captain Andy Sutter.
In calm waters on the Elizabeth River, Sutter explained the Freedom Boat Club business model.
“We are a franchise based out of Sarasota Florida. What we do is we buy new boats and what [the member] you do is you buy a membership to the boat club. And you can take out a boat any time you want in your local territory as long as the boat is available,” he said.
With the help of loans and a Portsmouth Economic Development grant, Sutter says his business has experienced fair winds and following seas as a Portsmouth-based franchisee. With an initial fee and monthly fees, members get to use one of his 18 boats. Members buy the gas but don’t have to cover expenses such as maintenance, repairs, and slip fees. The membership also includes liability insurance and driver’s education.
“You will sit for one hour in the classroom and four hours with a licensed U.S. captain, so I have my 200-ton captain license. If you can drive a car you can drive a boat,” said Sutter, a former U.S. Navy training specialist.
With furry mates Bouy and Sailor on watch, WAVY-TV 10’s Regina Mobley took the helm while Sutter offered instructions in the Elizabeth River.
“Just keep driving. Give it a little gas — yep, forward a little bit — feel that engine? Just counter steer a little bit to track the way that you want to go now. Just sit and wait for the boat to respond. Keep turning a little bit — perfect,” said Sutter.
The 2020 wave for Freedom Boat Club continued into 2021. The franchisee has plans to open a third location in Hampton next year and other future locations could include Gloucester and Williamsburg.
“It’s really a great way to relax; the people who have been joining Freedom Boat Club over the last two years tell us ‘what an amazing way to relax,'” said Sutter.