PORTSMOUTH, Va. – For people cooped up inside their homes, boating is offering many of them an escape.
Andy Sutter and David Gibb own Freedom Boat Club in Portsmouth and Norfolk. Sutter, who is the managing owner, said the leisurely hobby has become a welcomed retreat from the COVID-19 crisis as people take refuge on the water.
“They just enjoy being on the water with their families,” Sutter said. “It’s calming.”
As a retired U.S. Navy senior chief, the business became full circle for Sutter.
“Now, my business sits here,” Sutter said as he pointed toward the port near the Elizabeth River. “I look over, and I see exactly where I joined the U.S. Navy in 1988.”
When the pandemic hit a year ago, he feared, like many others, his small business would sink.
“I thought I was going to go bankrupt,” Sutter said. “I said, 'We’re going to go bankrupt. We will sell the boats, and we’ll just be a statistic.'"
Instead, a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and a small business loan kept doors open during the pandemic and profits soared.
“I laid down next to my desk, where we were just at, and was like, 'Oh my gosh, we may make it,'” said Sutter.
The boating industry is booming with many people looking for safe alternatives to travel and a way to stay within their social bubble.
Since last May, memberships at Freedom Boat Club have more than doubled.
“We were up 157% over the year before last year because people love the recreation,” he said.
This year, Sutter said the club is already exceeding its goals.
“People are now flocking to Freedom Boat Club,” he said. “What we do is we take the hassle out of boating. We teach you how to do the maintenance on the boat if you want to; we teach you how to drive it.”
Sutter took News 3 for a ride down the Elizabeth River on one of its several speedboats.
“We have 23 boats,” he said. “We have bowriders. We have double decker pontoon boats and fun decks.”
Before hitting the water, Freedom Boat Club members are likely greeted by a pair of lively dock staff – Sutter’s two Labradoodles.
“They’re named Bouy and Sailor,” said Sutter.
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