Op-ed: Ottawa-area luxury boat rental service worth the investment

Le Boat
Editor's Note

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that drivers must have valid pleasure craft operator cards. 

Should Canadian taxpayers help pay for a luxury boat rental service that began operating recently on the Rideau Canal? I think so, and I wish the venture every success.

Le Boat is a European-based service that provides luxury self-hire cabin cruiser boats on inland waterways in nine countries, including Britain, France, the Netherlands and Italy. Smiths Falls will act as both its North American headquarters and as the starting point for customers near the midpoint of the canal.

The boats are not just for the rich. I doubt any self-respecting multimillionaire would want to spend more than a few nights in one of the boats’ rather small bedrooms. For another thing, the boat rental rates are within reach of a good percentage of the population, especially in this area of well-paid public servants.

The company says its clients tend to be groups and couples older than 55, as well as families. The renting “captain” must go through a training course with Le Boat.

The weekly boat rental rate for two people sharing a room with a bathroom is about what a couple would pay to stay for a week at the Chateau Laurier hotel. The smallest boats have two bedrooms and two bathrooms, so a couple would need to share the boat with two family members or another couple.

Le Boat’s rental rates vary like those of airlines, hotels and most businesses. But when I checked for a booking for four people for a week’s rental in June, the total cost was about $4,000, including taxes, mooring fees and fuel. That’s about $1,000 per person.

It’s undoubtedly an economic boost to eastern Ontario that this successful provider of upscale boat rentals chose the Rideau Canal for its first foray into North America. Think about it: Le Boat could have picked anywhere from Florida to California, or from the Maritimes to British Columbia. It chose the Rideau Canal.

Of course, the Rideau Canal has lots going for it. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its existence helps explain Canada’s existence, as it was built between 1826 and 1832 to help Canadian forces defend against a potential American invasion. In those days there was a very real threat that the United States would try to conquer Canada, as it had tried and failed to do previously.

The 202-kilometre waterway is a gorgeous mix of rivers, lakes, canals, locks and waterfalls, stretching from the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario.

Even in Ottawa, I suspect, many people are unaware of what the Rideau Canal offers besides free skating in winter. I love day trips to one or more points on the canal in summer months. My favourite spots are Chaffey’s Lock and Jones Falls. Many Ottawans I’ve spoken with have never heard of either.

You don’t need a cabin cruiser, or any kind of motor boat, or even a rowing boat or canoe, to appreciate and enjoy the tranquillity, novelty, natural beauty and technological marvels of the Rideau Canal.

Le Boat was lured to the Rideau waterway – and specifically to Smiths Falls, now base of operations for its fleet of cabin cruisers – partly by subsidies from the federal and Ontario governments. Smiths Falls is a town that fell on hard times after the closure of its Hershey’s chocolate factory but is now doing better thanks to Canopy Growth’s medical cannabis plant that took over the Hershey space.

Playground for everyone

The town is ideally located for a business offering boat rentals by the week, since a week gives sufficient time to explore the northern part of the canal up to Ottawa or the southern part down to Kingston on Lake Ontario. Renters can also spend much of the week moored on Big Rideau Lake, lazing on deck in the sun. In addition, a canal cruise would be a wonderful way to see our world-famous fall colours.

Some critics are unhappy that taxpayers were on the hook for $2 million to defray Le Boat’s costs. Media reports have said Le Boat would also benefit from more than $3 million in federal government spending on improvements to the canal.

It’s fair enough to oppose taxpayer subsidies for private business. But the Rideau Canal is a playground for everyone.

I believe governments should use taxpayers’ money to attract businesses to set up and invest in their communities. The question is whether taxpayers’ money was well spent in the case of attracting Le Boat to Smiths Falls. Time will tell, but I believe the answer is yes.

– With files from Craig Lord.

Michael Prentice is OBJ’s columnist on retail and consumer issues. He can be contacted at news@obj.ca.