The summer-evening Severn River is smooth as glass, although the sky is its precise opposite, layered and looming with moisture-laden, tropical clouds. In the distance over the Chesapeake Bay, rain is sheeting down, but it’s no matter for the guests aboard the Hinckley Talaria 44 Miss B Haven. They fly upriver past the U.S. Naval Academy, then back down into Annapolis Harbor for a star turn through “Ego Alley.”
Ensconced in the cockpit, drinks in hand and worries elsewhere, they are enjoying the lively stories of Marianna “M” Belz, who brings them refills as needed. The surroundings are plush, and they are comfortable in the knowledge that David Strange, the boat’s captain, has everything well in hand. Rain, thunder or sopping wet cushions are someone else’s problem. They’re in an eye-catching yacht, cruising in one of the country’s most enviable locations with little more to do than savor the moment.
That carefree experience, says Doug Gray, co-founder of Barton & Gray Mariners Club, is a key ingredient in the special sauce that has helped this business grow in 14 years from a few members using one Hinckley Picnic Boat in Nantucket Harbor to many members accessing a fleet of some 33 Picnic Boats and Talaria 40s and 44s in 26 ports from Chicago and New York City to Sag Harbor, New York, and Naples, Florida.
The Annapolis event was held to kick off the club’s newest mid-Atlantic port and invite potential members to get a taste of the benefits: concierge service on an impeccably maintained and turned-out Hinckley (a brand that is also a key ingredient) supplied with all they might need from beach towels to peanuts, with a captain whose local knowledge includes the best restaurants, gunkholes, secret beaches and even fireworks displays.
“It’s very high-touch,” Gray says. “I always say our competition is heli-skiing and Pebble Beach and that sort of thing—that’s what our members are doing when they’re not with us or working. A lot of them are working their tails off, and the most valuable thing they want is time.”
It wasn’t a slam-dunk when Gray and his longtime friend Tim Barton came up with the idea for a white-glove, luxury yacht-sharing concept. Gray, who had started an interactive branding agency, and Barton, who was on the business development side of a software firm, both knew boats well. Gray grew up surrounded by the boating world; his mother was CEO of Saltwater Sportsman, his father owned a hunting and fishing journal called Gray’s Sporting Journal, one uncle worked for Schaefer Marine in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and the other uncle ran a boatyard in Maine. Barton wasn’t as deeply connected to the business, though he grew up in Harpswell, Maine, immersed in boats and sailing.
When they started really digging into their idea, they asked themselves, what are the best days? Usually, they decided, those days are spent on a motorboat so you know how long it’s going to take to get from point A to point B. And if it can be a beautiful boat, all the better. And if you can be in a beautiful place, that’s fantastic.
While the concept of boat sharing wasn’t new, the luxury aspect of it was. Also not new were the business models in the fledgling sharing economy, like Zipcar, which enabled members to use cars where and when they needed them, and NetJets, a fractional aircraft ownership company. But Barton and Gray were also looking at Netflix, which at the time was still a DVD rental-by-mail business where the consumer did much of the work in terms of choosing, ordering and returning the product.
Even though the iPhone and apps were still a few years away in 2005, the men knew technology would be their game-changer. It would get customers to do their own scheduling and administration. With that in mind, initially, they based their concept on NetJets and other fractional ownership models.
“To no one’s surprise, our first customers were fractional jet owners who did understand the value of it, and very quickly we realized we were not appealing to people who are considering or dreaming of buying a boat,” Gray says. “We were appealing to people who, because they never grew up boating had no deep interest in owning a boat. And yet all of a sudden there was a way for these people to have this experience.
“And, our captains and our knowledge of the local waters is where we were giving these guys experiences that they could not find elsewhere,” Gray adds. “We quickly realized we were going upmarket, and we were attracting people who were not in the boat-purchasing period of their life.” This realization prompted them to shift their business model from ownership to membership, which they use today. After a $15,000 initiation fee, members can opt for annual dues from $29,500 to $99,500 for levels of access to boats, locations and times.
Boats are available on two “watches” per day, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. There’s no limit to how many times members can go out in a calendar year, but the membership level helps dictate the number of “holds” a member can have at any given time. An app lets members schedule dates and times, and a captain will call 24 hours in advance to discuss plans. No matter where the trip, the boats and the service will be identical, and many members get to know the captains and look forward to working with them. They will plan their vacations around the boats, and they’ll use them to cruise from one port to another, staying for a couple of days and then boating back.
“We have leaned on the Hinckley product and the incredible harbors that we’re in, these two things are immeasurably special,” Gray says. “But once you’re a member for a couple of trips, you quickly realize the best thing about this service is the captain, for lots of different reasons.”
Frank Belz, vice president of crew and logistics, manages the captains—42 as of this past summer, a majority of them full-time—many of whom travel south with the boats for the winter. The entire fleet is trucked to Florida ports (nine of them) for the winter and then back north in the spring.
Barton & Gray now employs more than 80 people and maintains a 25,000-square-foot service facility in Stonington, Connecticut, where woodworkers, canvas workers, and fiberglass and gelcoat wizards keep the boats immaculate. A rapid-response service team can be on a plane or in a van in a moment. Gray estimates that less than 10 percent of the club’s members have owned a boat, and that the majority of members are women and families. A separate corporate product caters to those who want to use the membership to schmooze clients.
“We don’t take people away from boating,” Gray says. “We find people who weren’t boating and we put them on the water, and we’re immensely proud of that because these folks can afford anything and do anything, and they choose to be with us.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue.