On tour of Richardson Bay anchorage, bohemian lifestyle hard to find

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Aug. 17, 2016, edition of The Ark. It earned first place for Best Writing in the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s 2016 Better Newspapers Contest.


Holly Wild doesn’t know much about boats, but she’s trying to learn. Five weeks ago, this 53-year-old sold her truck and pulled up stakes at the homeless encampment behind Mi Pueblo supermarket in San Rafael where she’d been living and moved onto a demasted sailboat in Richardson Bay with her two dogs, Deuces and Blue.

When Wild bought the boat for $600 from a guy named Ray, he didn’t ask if she knew how to sail or maintain it. She’s been told she really should get a better anchor to keep the boat from dragging, but Wild lives on $387 in benefits a month and $187 in food stamps, she says.

“I can’t afford a new anchor,” she says. “I can’t afford anything.”

While this particular day on the bay was sunny and calm, in a few months, when the winter storms arrive, her boat may drag its anchor and be blown toward Belvedere and Tiburon. Maybe someone will help her secure it. If not, it may end up slamming into the dock of one of the multimillion-dollar homes on West Shore Road, one of many runaway boats that have bedeviled West Shore residents over the years.

There are some 250 vessels anchored out on Richardson Bay, in waters owned by the county and Sausalito. A few of them are sleek yachts or fine sailing sloops made of teak. But most seem to be slowly dissolving into the bay: chopped up sailboats without masts, cutters piled with boat parts and old refrigerators and chain, an old iron boat coated with rust. Ancient lines drip with seaweed, mooring as many as five boats at a time to lightweight anchors. Some boats sink and leak toxins into the fragile ecosystem.

And while hundreds of thousands of tax dollars have been spent by the Richardson Bay Regional Agency to abate the worst of them, more arrive every day.

‘Run as a junk yard’

Even those who live on the water are fed up by the way the anchorage is managed.

“This anchorage is run as a junk yard,” says Doug Storms, a diver and marina resident. “The mission has changed, and government bureaucracy can’t adapt to it.”

From a distance, it’s true that Richardson Bay’s anchorage looks like a junk yard, but every boat moored there has a story, as do the people who live on them.

There are about 150 people living long-term on vessels on the bay, all illegally under agency ordinances. Some of them live in one boat and use others for storage. Some, like Wild, were previously homeless. Many have drug and alcohol problems. Some just like the life off shore.

On a recent summer day, Storms and The Ark set out in a battered motorboat for a tour of the bay. Storms has lived and worked on the water in Richardson Bay for 30 years and now lives on a houseboat at Waldo Point Marina. He has the lean, grizzled face of a man who has spent most of his life on the water. A graduate of Air Force training and the Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, he now bills himself as Diver Doug, setting moorings for incoming vessels.

He’s set more than 50 moorings for incoming vessels on the bay over the years — not legally, true, but no one’s enforcing it, he points out — charging $20 an hour to do so. His moorings seldom fail, he says. In fact, Storms’ moorings were the impetus of a petition filed earlier this year by another live-aboard, who wants the courts to compel the agency to enforce its own laws requiring permits for moored and anchored boats.

Storms’ first stop is to visit another anchorage veteran, Craig Wilson. Wilson, 62, has been living on the bay for 36 years. He’s fixing an outboard motor on a powerboat chained to the sailboat he lives on. Bending over it, he keeps his eyes lowered while he speaks.

For many years he was a tugboat captain, he says, towing vessels up and down the coast. He was licensed as a master of towing and a master for vessels up to 1,600 tons, he says. Then he suffered a stroke and quit.

“It took my confidence,” he says. “I can’t trust myself to be responsible for other people.”

Now Wilson supports himself by going to other marinas, buying boats at auction and bringing them to Richardson Bay to refit and sell or demolish.

“I make a pretty good living at it,” he says.

He owns four boats himself besides the sailboat he lives on with his wife, Harvey, who works in the city. Some of the boats he uses to raise sunken vessels; others are used to transport boat parts. He’s says he’s currently in negotiation with the owner of a 37-foot Chris-Craft that he raised off the bay floor and is fixing to sell in San Rafael.

Wilson, as one of the old timers on the bay, is kind of a block leader in his neighborhood, hosting other anchor-outs for dinner on his boat several times a week, though it appears there’s no real place to sit: The boat deck is packed with coolers, an old refrigerator and even a set of golf clubs rescued from another vessel.

Wilson also comes to the rescue of anchor outs that routinely have mishaps of one kind or another, including one woman whose boat caught fire and needed emergency medical care.

Life on the anchorage is anything but easy, Wilson says, and his worn face is a testament to that.

“They say it’s a free life out here,” he says. “There is nothin’ free about it.”

Dumping ground for boats

But Wilson’s story explains one of the most vexing problems on Richardson Bay: the steady increase in the number of substandard boats on the anchorage. That number has more than doubled in the past six years.

Richardson Bay is the last open anchorage in San Francisco Bay and has become a dumping ground for boats whose owners can no longer afford them or their slip fees. Some owners take the boats to Richardson Bay to dispose of them.

The bay agency offers a vessel turn-in program, in which owners are allowed to bring in boats for free for safe disposal. Sometimes harbormaster Bill Price brings the boats into the harbor himself or pays anchor-outs a couple of hundred dollars to do so, he says. The idea, he says, is that otherwise the boats will be dumped and end up on the bottom of the bay.

But anchor-outs like Wilson are also running their own salvage operations independent of the bay agency. A handful of anchor-outs seek out vessels at marine lien sales, bring them in and either refit them, dismantle them for parts or sell them as is, usually to struggling people, newly released from jail or previously homeless, Price says.

“These lien sale are the bane of our existence,” Price says. “They’re basically selling junk boats. They’re not really restorable. (The buyers) can’t get them to the point where they can sell them for anything.”

Storms himself recently found a 26-foot sloop for Jeff Jacobs, a sailor, who said he’d been living in the woods behind Best Buy in Marin City. Storms was coy about where he got the boat, simply responding, “boat heaven.”

“We take in boats that nobody else loves,” he says.

Other boats are brought in with the idea of restoring them some day. Storms points to a large ocean-going tugboat his friend and longtime mariner Scott Diamond brought into the bay six months ago. When Diamond finishes overhauling it, it will make a great salvage vessel, Storms says, able to raise and tow sunken vessels on the anchorage.

Tough to enforce

This situation goes unregulated for a complex web of reasons. Price notes that there currently aren’t any regulations governing how many boats a single owner can anchor. But under bay agency ordinances, living aboard a vessel anchored or moored offshore for more than 30 days is prohibited, and any vessel anchored for longer than 72 hours must obtain a permit.

The city of Sausalito has its own municipal code stating that vessels can only be anchored for 10 hours in its waters without written permission from the police. But in fact, these laws have not been enforced for more 30 years, with the half dozen government agencies and landholders with jurisdiction in the bay fighting over what should be done and who should pay for it.

Belvedere is now seeking its own 10-hour rule, though enforcement there, too, would be a challenge: The city doesn’t have its own patrol vessel or officers trained for duty on the water.

Meanwhile, plans for a mooring field that might have helped regulate the anchorage have been shelved by the bay agency after Sausalito, one of five member agencies, refused to fund its share — meaning the rest of the members, including Tiburon and Belvedere, wouldn’t agree to put in the money either.

While there has been a push for greater enforcement, Price says he’s not a trained enforcement professional and, as such, is not qualified to enforce regulations on the anchorage.

“When the sheriff goes out, they have two officers in the boat,” he says. “When I go out, it’s just me, and I’ve been in some wonderfully threatening situations.

“I don’t want a gun and a badge.”

The Marin County Sheriff’s Office, Sausalito Police Department and the U.S. Coast Guard did conduct a sweep of the anchorage recently, making arrests for drugs and parole violations, but it has hardly made a dent in the unseaworthy boats on the anchorage.

At bay agency meetings, a vocal group of anchor-outs, many of whom own multiple boats and moorings on the bay, stand to insist that their nautical, bohemian way of life must be protected. Sausalito city officials, worried about marches in the streets and lawsuits, have gone along.

It’s hard, but it’s a community

But while there surely are artists and free spirits living on Richardson Bay, on the day Storms set out, such a bohemian lifestyle was hard to find.

Rather, anchor-outs are often individuals struggling with addiction and mental illness, according to police and social services sources. Some are elderly and disabled. When the wind blows strong, many can’t get to shore for food and supplies, Storms says. Some get drunk, fall off their dinghies and drown, police say, or they suffocate in their cabins trying to cook on faulty propane stoves. They also commit suicide.

“Life on the anchorage is hard,” says Pastor Paul Mowry of Sausalito Presbyterian Church, where anchor-outs can get a hot lunch every Wednesday.

“But it’s a community,” he adds, “and it has the strengths and weaknesses of any community. There are great people and people you wouldn’t want to know.”

Many will use the anchorage only as a temporary refuge in hard times, Storms says. They may move back and forth between the anchorage and the mainland many times. It is a place, he says, where people can “catch their breath” and recover.

“I’ve known people who had a business, a house and a family, and their boat was just a plaything,” Storms says. “Then the economy goes bad and they lose their business and their house, now they have to anchor out.”

Next, he visits a group of three handsome Monterey Clipper fishing boats, bobbing in the bay, tied together. All three are on one 50-pound anchor.

“I’ve told (Price) about this. There’s going to be trouble,” Storms says.

One of the boats’ owners heads out from the wheelhouse to accept a ride into shore. Mitchell Denny says he’s from Alaska but came down to the Bay Area 13 years ago to fish. In the past year, he’s fallen on hard times. The crab season failed due to domoic acid poisoning, he couldn’t afford a salmon license and then he couldn’t pay his slip fees in San Francisco and got kicked out. He also broke his shoulder, so he brought his boat and two others to Richardson Bay where he can anchor for free. He hopes this year’s crab season will be better.

Storms says he has compiled a database of all the boats on the anchorage, their owners — if he can find them — their registration status, ground-tackle condition and holding tank facilities.

He says he has plans to share it selectively with Price, but probably not with the Marin County sheriff.

Storms insists that Price is usually not on hand for either patrolling or in emergency situations, so working with a group of anchor-outs called the Richardson Bay Special Anchorage Association, Storms wants to be a kind of shadow harbormaster, patrolling the anchorage and identifying each incoming vessel and rescuing boats that go adrift. He’s hoping the bay agency will hire him as a subcontractor to do so. His goal is to have every vessel properly registered and seaworthy.

“There will come a time when this will be well-run anchorage,” he says. “People will be welcome to stay if they follow the guidelines.”

The question is, how will people like Holly Wild follow the guidelines? On the way back to shore, Wild hitches a ride because her tiny dinghy has only one kayak paddle and it’s hard for her to row. She wears a pretty sundress and brings her purse and her dogs. She asks to stop by the boat of a friend who happens to have a key to the bathroom at Le Garage, a waterside restaurant in Sausalito where she can bathe. Wild says she spends her days panhandling and her nights Dumpster diving for food.

It’s not easy, but its an improvement from the homeless encampment behind Mi Pueblo.

“I needed to get away from those people,” she confesses. “They were lying and stealing. They were so wrapped up in their dope lifestyle.

“I was raised kosher,” she adds. “I know how to make a clean home.”

She says she’s happy she moved to the anchorage.

“This is the way to go,” she says. “It’s just so peaceful. I watched the full moon rise over there two nights ago, and the line of fog along the hills —

“It’s just so beautiful.”

Contributing writer Gretchen Lang of Belvedere covers the environment. She spent 15 years abroad writing for newspapers including the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune.

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