ONE of the busiest times of the year at Arzal marina on the coast of western France is a wooden sailing-boat festival in early summer. Hundreds of enthusiasts join Breton dances on the quayside, but as usual most of the 1,000-or so yachts, catamarans, day-sailers and motor-cruisers remain tied to the pontoons.
Few boat-owners make regular use of their expensive assets. By one estimate, a French yacht slips its moorings on average for just ten days a year, and for America’s 12m recreational boats, typical annual usage is two weeks. Meanwhile, would-be sailors have had few options, beyond pricey short charters.
Marine versions of property-sharer Airbnb or ride-sharer BlaBlaCar are trying to match the two. In Europe a French firm founded in 2013 by Jeremy Bismuth and Edouard Gorioux sets the pace. Click&Boat has 70 staff crammed onto a barge, its headquarters, on the Seine in Paris. They manage bookings for a fleet of 22,000 private craft, mostly in Europe. Rental costs vary widely but can be remarkably cheap—one eight-berth yacht in Arzal is advertised for just €40 a day, for example. The firm takes a 15% commission and is profitable. Last year bookings were worth €15m.
America’s leader is six-year-old Boatsetter, based near Miami. Founded by a sailing enthusiast, Jackie Baumgarten, it has raised $17m of venture-capital funding and notched up over 26,000 rentals. Ms Baumgarten sees three broad categories of customer: aspirational types who want to pose on a luxury yacht; fishing enthusiasts who opt for less glitzy craft; and families.
The business is not all smooth sailing—regulation, for one thing, varies widely. French law allows boatsharing, but in Greece, a tempting market, private owners face more difficulties. Renters usually need a boating licence, or must hire skippers. Demand to get on the water is seasonal. Building up a big fleet of boats takes time. Owners tend to be middle-aged and are reachable mainly by word of mouth or at boat shows.
Undeterred, both firms are trying to scale up, partly by pursuing a flotilla of potential rivals. Click&Boat bought one, Sailsharing, in 2016, to access more craft. Boatsetter has gobbled up American startups including one last year, Boatbound, that Click&Boat also eyed. In April the American company added Smart Charter Ibiza, a conventional charter firm, in Spain, part of a move into the Mediterranean.
Boatsetter has also developed an insurance product, with a third party, for peer-to-peer rentals, and has partnered with Airbnb to offer experiences such as wakeboarding in Miami or eating paella on a boat near Barcelona. Click&Boat has started a separate site, Click&Yacht, for chartering luxury craft for thousands of euros a day in places like the Côte d’Azur, for which there is plenty of international demand. It is one thing to stay in someone else’s flat. It’s another to captain a superyacht—especially when it looks like you own it.