Skip to main content

Harold Aune with his company's rowing skiffs.Whitehall Spirit Rowing Club

On a crisp November morning along Victoria's Inner Harbour, Harold Aune ambles down the dock, cautiously avoiding a slick coating of frost on the wooden planks beneath his feet.

Stopping next to a half-dozen gleaming white rowing skiffs, he dials up his company's website on an iPhone and makes a one-hour reservation.

Seconds later, the automated system replies with a four-digit code providing access to a key in a lockbox. Mr. Aune unlocks our vessel, slides the two-person skiff into the water and within minutes we are paddling across the glassy Gorge Waterway.

The Whitehall Spirit Rowing Club, as the operation is called, is the first of many franchises Mr. Aune and his long-time partner Marie Hutchinson hope to launch across North America in the next three years.

After a quarter century of handcrafting high-end rowboats, the couple hit upon the rowing club idea two years ago. In part, it was a hedge against the worldwide economic slump. They were also capitalizing on improvements in plastic technology that enabled them to build a low-maintenance, high-durability product.

"The thermo-formed co-polymer plastic we're using now has a UV resistant surface. It's so strong you can hit it with a hammer, and you never have to paint it," said Mr. Aune, who is co-owner of Whitehall Rowing and Sailing. "It's ideal for rental or club use. That's how we got the idea – we finally had a product that will handle the abuse."

Whitehall's second franchise, slated for Marina del Rey in Los Angeles, is expected to open early in the new year.

"The idea of rowing clubs embraces the concept of collaborative consumption," said Mr. Aune, a wiry but robust 62-year-old. "It's like a timeshare or a car share, and it's aided by the Internet, so it embraces new technology as well."

Before the economic collapse, Whitehall enjoyed steady growth – between 10 per cent and 30 per cent a year. Between 1987 and 2010, the company built and sold about 3,000 rowboats to customers in the U.S., Europe and Canada.

Combining the efficiency of a racing shell with the stability of a classic rowboat, the traditional models range in price from $10,000 for the nine-foot Minto to $50,000 for the 17-foot Whitehall Spirit, which is equipped with sliding seats, brass hardware, solid teak detailing and a mast, boom and centerboard for instant sailboat conversion.

But faced with declining sales, the company decided to start making plastic models that retail for $8,000 to $13,000. These one-piece, seamless hulls are thermo-formed by a company in Maple Ridge, B.C., and shipped to Victoria for assembly.

"The plastic costs about four times as much as fibreglass, but we use one-sixth of the labour," said Mr. Aune.

In the last five years, 87 per cent of boat builders in North America have disappeared. Most were makers of mid- to large-size sailboats and powerboats. Mr. Aune says his company has survived because of its market niche and nod to nautical history.

The company's rowboats take their name and design from the famous wooden skiffs once manufactured on New York City's Whitehall Street in the early 1800s. Designed to ferry sailors and cargo to and from larger vessels moored in the harbour, Whitehalls were also a popular recreational boat in the early 20th century.

Franchising emerged as a way to introduce customers to Whitehall's products and create a business beyond manufacturing. Franchisees can buy "the complete package – the boat, the docks and the software to run it. We'll even install it," Mr. Aune said.

Franchises range in price from $175,000 to $250,000, depending on the number of boats, price of marina space and the scope of moorage improvements that may need to be made.

Before customers can access the iPhone reservation software, they first have to join the rowing club. Then customers "we teach you to row, and there's a membership fee where you basically buy a time bank spread over a month or three months or a year," he said.

Raised on a farm in Sechelt, B.C., Mr. Aune learned the craft of boat-building from his father and worked as a shipwright at various West Coast shipyards. He sailed the South Pacific for a year in the mid-1970s, then returned to Victoria, and soon after met Ms. Hutchinson at a concert in a downtown club.

For almost a decade, the couple built custom yachts. Then, "around 1985, a friend of mine brought a rowboat into the shop and we thought it looked like it would be a lot simpler than building custom yachts," Mr. Aune recalled.

Twenty-five years later, he's hoping that rowing for pleasure and exercise is an eco-friendly pursuit that's poised to make a comeback.

"Rowing is beyond green," he says. "Not only do people get to experience something that doesn't leave an oily footprint, it also gets them healthy and it's a major stress reliever."