Chef presenters Adam Liaw and Poh Ling Yeow from SBS hit food show Great Australian Bites arrived in Canberra last month on a hunt to find Australia’s national dish.
It took them to the usual icons – Parliament House for the ultimate democracy sausage and Miss Van’s Vietnamese restaurant in Civic for ‘banh mi’. But there was another they couldn’t ignore – something that’s become part of the local furniture in just six years.
GoBoat Canberra launched at Kingston Foreshore in 2017 with a fleet of electric-powered picnic boats. It opened the way for anyone, boating licence or not, to soak in the views by sitting in the very jewel of our city’s crown – Lake Burley Griffin – rather than boringly looking at it from the edge.
Since then, the boats have featured in advertising campaigns for Tourism Australia, and the company was recognised for its “outstanding growth” in the 2023 Telstra Best of Business Awards and its “sustainability” in the Boating Industry Association’s 2023 awards.
In February this year, founder Nick Tyrrell opened another ‘port’ off Queen Elizabeth Terrace, next to the Parisian-style Margot Bar, which he also opened.
His grand expansion plans aren’t stopping there.
GoBoat was born when Nick returned from a holiday in Europe to not only wonder why Canberra was built around a lake “with nothing on it”, but also suspect “there are surely other people out there for whom the cost of entry to boating is too high”.
“We have this lake in the middle of Canberra, and we’re a very sustainability-focused city, so surely this would be the holy grail,” he says.
He quit his job at the Australian Automobile Association (AAA), sold his house, imported a fleet of eight boats from Scandinavia, and set up his first GoBoat port on the foreshore. Only to “lose a lot” first to the bushfire’s impact on tourism, then COVID’s.
“But it was a really good wake-up call that we should do two things: one, watch our pennies, and two, really focus on understanding what customers wanted,” he says.
“And the GoBoat was very much a product that people wanted.”
Shipping delays overseas prompted Nick to begin sourcing his boats from Australia so the business could ride the wave out of lockdown when people rushed outdoors again with family and friends. His foresight paid off.
The Canberra operation now includes 16 boats, two ‘ports’ – one at Kingston Foreshore and the other outside Queen Elizabeth Terrace, three full-time staff, and “probably about a dozen casuals and part-timers”. And that’s before we mention Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
“It’s turned into a decent-sized operation for a little rental business kind of thing.”
During walks around the lake with his newborn son, “pointing out his inheritance”, however, Nick realised the lake was still missing something.
“One of the frustrating things for me was that I found it very hard to get a good coffee on that walk,” he says.
Once the National Capital Authority (NCA) had approved and James Souter from The Boat House came on board as business partner, Nick then opened Margot Bar in February this year. It’s been “pretty much booked out” every weekend since.
“It’s modelled off a sort of Parisian café where you’re sitting on the sidewalk and just watching the world go while sipping wine,” he explains.
GoBoat attracts about 120,000 people annually across its six Australian locations (Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney and Geelong) and it will now turn its attention to “lateral growth”, including in Perth. But there are also plans afoot to get regular punters into faster, more powerful boats with ‘GoBoat Plus’.
“We found one of the most common questions customers ask is, ‘Where can I get a boat licence so I can drive a faster boat?'” Nick explains.
“So there are two things we’re doing: one is launching a product called ‘GoBoat Plus’, which is a faster boat you’ll need a licence for, and that’s where our next big play comes in – ‘GoBoat Academy’ – where you’ll be able to get your boat licence through GoBoat.”
The roll-out of both programs will start in Brisbane, but Nick looks forward to bringing it to Lake Burley Griffin once the NCA signs off on it.
“We’ve got a great relationship with the NCA and they’ve been really supportive,” he says.
“And look, in principle, if what we’re doing is about helping make boating safer for more people … then I can’t see there being too much opposition.”