When Franchesca Lorio’s sister turned 50 last fall, the family celebrated by chartering a 47-foot sailboat for a sunset cruise around Lake Pontchartrain, complete with cocktails to sip and a captain to do all the work. They had so much fun, Lorio decided to do it again earlier this month for a belated Father’s Day celebration with her dad, her husband and their 10-year-old daughter.

“It’s amazing. That’s why we’re back,” she said recently, shortly before taking off for her cruise aboard the Roux Stir, a Beneteau Oceanis 473 operated by New Orleans Yacht Experience. “It’s lovely to be out on the water and it feels kinda special. But it’s close to home and easy to do.”

NO.charterboats.009.jpg

The Roux Stir sails past the New Canal Lighthouse in New Orleans, La., Wednesday, July 3, 2024. (Photo by Sophia Germer, The Times-Picayune)

In a city surrounded by water, including the ninth-largest lake in the U.S., you might think there would be more people like the Lorios taking advantage of the outdoors in a way that mixes in family, friends and fun. Actually, though, Lake Pontchartrain has never been a huge market for commercial boating ventures for reasons that boil down to simple economics.

That may be starting to change. In part because of the pandemic, which fueled demand for safe outdoor experiences, and in part because of the popularity of bachelorette parties and other group celebrations, a cottage industry has developed on the lake and sailboats, motorboats and pontoon party barges are all now available to charter. And demand appears to be growing.

“It’s kind of crazy. I haven’t spent any money on marketing yet and it is kind of just snowballing,” said Bradley Cookus, whose Big Easy Yacht Charters operates a 55-foot motorboat called Serenity out of Southshore Harbor. “My first request for a booking was on Endymion Saturday this year. It has just picked up from there.”

'Dialed into bachelorettes'

Cookus got into the charter business because his grandparents, who owned the Serenity, were unable to sell it after a couple of years of trying. He decided to help them cover their costs while they figure out what to do next.

His customers include a mix of locals and tourists who have booked the vessel, a Sea Ray Sundancer, to celebrate special occasions or just to enjoy wine and hors d’oeuvres before dinner.

“People just want to be on the lake and enjoy the setting,” said Cookus, who charges $225 for a two-hour minimum cruise for up to six passengers and $325 for seven to 12 passengers.

“Captain Doug” White and his wife, Rena White, who sail the Roux Stir from a private dock at West End, also see an even mix of tourists and locals on their cruises, which cost $399 for a two-person weekend or sunset cruise plus $89 per person for up to four extra passengers.

“A lot of our passengers are interested in sailing and learning what the whole thing is about,” said Rena White.

NO.charterboats.001.jpg

Boat captain?Stefan Lebell poses on the Destin Private Tiki boat at JB's Fuel Dock in the West End neighborhood of New Orleans, La., Wednesday, July 3, 2024. (Photo by Sophia Germer, The Times-Picayune)

On the other end of the spectrum are party barges, which are flat-bottomed pontoon boats designed to fit 12 or 18 passengers looking for a booze cruise. Several companies have been offering these boats for charter on local bayous. Now, several are available on Lake Pontchartrain, including a 28-foot, custom-made tiki hut boat with a fiberglass hull and long bar down the center.

“We are super dialed into bachelorettes,” said Matt Condon, a New Orleans native, who operates Tiki International out of Destin and has 11 tiki-themed party barges in 10 cities. “Bachelorettes love to get out on a boat where they can truly relax... with their friends on the water at sunset.”

NO.charterboats.003.jpg

Destin Private Tiki boat docks at JB's Fuel Dock in the West End neighborhood of New Orleans, La., Wednesday, July 3, 2024. (Photo by Sophia Germer, The Times-Picayune)

Condon believes there is a lot of pent-up demand for what his vessel offers. During the first half of this year, his tiki party barge in Destin has done 190 bachelorette parties, or about one a day.

“It’s definitely a popular thing and I think we will do well in New Orleans,” said Condon, whose tiki hut pontoon sails from JB’s Fuel Dock at West End and charges a minimum of $500 for a two-hour booze cruise. “But people come to this city to eat and drink and go on ghost tours. They don’t think of Lake Pontchartrain, so it will take a while to grow.”

Worth it?

Part of the reason there haven’t been more charter boat businesses on the lake over the years is because it's hard to make the numbers work. It’s expensive to operate a boat and even more expensive to take people out on it for hire, given the costs of insurance and, if necessary, a captain, which Condon does with his pontoon.

Strict Coast Guard regulations limit the number of passengers a vessel with a captain can take out on the water to six, which makes it hard to recoup costs if you’re trying to offer a reasonably affordable experience.

Bare boat charters, which are operated by the person renting the vessel, allow for a slightly larger number of passengers, but a lot of boat owners don’t want to risk turning over their vessel to a stranger for a three-hour booze cruise, no matter how many waivers they sign.

Then there’s the fact that commercial ventures are not allowed to operate from public marinas like West End or the Municipal Yacht Harbor, which means vessel operators have to lease dock space or own their own.

Jeff and David Montz and their cousin, Aaron Abadie, offer a pontoon boat for charter from their busy Sea Brook Harbor and Marine, which is one of the largest marinas on the Gulf Coast and is located on France Road near Lake Pontchartrain. But the party barge is a tiny side hustle in what is a much more lucrative business storing high-end power boats and yachts and repairing vessels that come from all over the country.

“We thought about offering more than one party barge because the demand is there,” David Montz said. “But you gotta know where to put your time and effort and money, and it’s just not worth it.”

Prized asset

Still, interest is high. At Sea Brook, a call comes in just about every day from a customer looking to charter a party barge, Montz said.

Others believe the demand will pick up as more businesses test the proverbial waters. A development that could help feed the phenomenon is the new Community Sailing Center, which is under construction at the Municipal Yacht Harbor at West End. It’s a nonprofit organization designed to make sailing more accessible and is expected to expose a more diverse population to what is available on the water.

Vessel operators hope it will help more people, both locals and visitors, take better advantage of one of New Orleans’ prized assets.

“We have this massive beautiful lake that is so underutilized,” Cookus said. “Half the time, I feel like I’m the only one out there.”? ? ? ?

Email Stephanie Riegel at stephanie.riegel@theadvocate.com.

Tags