Chris Dicke and five of her girlfriends snuck away to Candy Cove on Prior Lake last month to discuss the juicy details of the book "50 Shades of Grey." Their pontoon was stocked with plenty of drinks, snacks and gossip, but no husbands.

Ladies-only outings -- including book clubs, wine tastings and networking lunches -- have become a familiar sight on local lakes as more women gain the confidence to drive a boat, a task that has often been left to the men in their lives. Many women have turned to area boat clubs, where members get access to boats and some training.

"I wouldn't be out here if I had to back this thing in on a trailer," said Dicke, a member of Minneapolis-based Your Boat Club. "I don't want to own a boat. I just want to enjoy the lakes."

Boat clubs took off when the boating industry was hit by the recession. About a half-dozen companies in the state now offer the use of a variety of watercraft for an annual fee ranging from about $1,000 to $5,300. The arrangement offers men and women a hassle-free way of getting on the water, but it's women who are driving the business.

"We completely cater to the ladies," said Tom Jacob, the owner of Excel Boat Club in Minnetonka, where women also are using boats for skiing and wake boarding. "They're the decisionmakers when it comes to joining the club."

Club concept

Nationally, about 32 percent of women went boating at least once in 2010, up from 23 percent in 2007, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Your Boat Club owner Luke Kujawa says the increase in his business from women has been "drastic." The company started with five boats on one lake in 2010 and has expanded to 70 boats on seven lakes this summer. An industry veteran and former president of the Crystal-Pierz boat dealerships, Kujawa said boating is no longer the stereotypical "guy's thing."

"Women drive boats great," he said. "Men and women, but especially women, just don't want to deal with the headaches of fixing the boat after it breaks or the maintenance and the storage."

After 30 years of owning boats, Pam Knutson and her husband recently gave it up and became members of Your Boat Club. All those years, Knutson never drove, but now she's at the helm 90 percent of the time.

"I didn't think I would ever drive a boat, but now that we're in the boat club, I don't have to worry about anything," Knutson said. That's because she doesn't have to back up the trailer to launch the boat or worry about breaking down in the middle of the lake.

Pam McCullough, who has been a member of Excel Boat Club for eight years, enjoys entertaining business clients on the boat with catered lunches. She also hosts her book club on the water and appreciates the independence of being able to take her young daughters on the lake by herself.

"This is something I want to pass on to them," she said. "I want them to feel just as comfortable handling a boat."

Instruction boosts confidence

Once women get the hang of boating as club members, many then invest in a boat of their own. That's helping turn the tide in recreational boating for the first time since 2006. Nationwide, 2011 retail sales of boats, accessories and marine services increased 6 percent over 2010 to an estimated $32 billion. Boat-related sales jumped the most in Minnesota for that time period, up 42 percent from 2010.

Boat retailers are marketing heavily to women because statistics show that they make 70 percent of the decisions on what the family will do for recreation, according to the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.

According to Minneapolis branding and research firm Ginger, women influence more than 85 percent of all product and service purchases in the United States, including tires, vehicles, home renovations, and stocks and bonds.

"The vast majority of household spending trickles through the hands of women, even in categories that seem unlikely," said the firm's co-owner Beth Perro-Jarvis. "We're seeing a lot more involvement from women in what used to be male-dominated decisions."

In addition to marketing to women, boat retailers are offering free ladies-only boating instruction classes. MarineMax, a boat dealer with four Minnesota locations, offers a Women on Water program.

That's encouraging news to Suzanne Giesemann, of Florida, who wrote the book, "It's Your Boat Too -- A Woman's Guide to Greater Enjoyment on the Water." The former Navy commanding officer said boating has traditionally been a couple's activity and, in our culture, men are more likely to take the wheel.

"If a man and a woman go somewhere in a car or even in a golf cart, nine out of 10 times the man will drive," Giesemann said. "That habit is transferred to the helm of a boat, and that's a shame, because driving the boat is so much fun."

Phyllis Hoffman is learning just how much fun taking the helm can be.

The Maple Grove mother of two took the Your Boat Club orientation class -- twice. By summer's end, she hopes to take her sons tubing by herself. Of course, she also wants to get her gal pals on the water.

"I want to get to a point where I can take my girlfriends out for a cruise to look at all the houses on Minnetonka," she said.

Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715