HousingNewsSF Bay Area

What’s Happening on Richardson Bay

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When you cross that iconic rust-colored bridge and slide down Alexander Avenue into Sausalito, most people from the city would say that you are in an entirely different world. The Hilltop mansions, tucked between evergreens overlooking extravagant waterfront fine dining and enormous yachts, are a far cry from the colorfully textured communities of San Francisco’s urban landscape. The sleepy town has never been known for its sprawling tent cities, but it and the other municipalities touching the coast of Richardson Bay have quietly fought their own battles with homelessness for some time now. A short dinghy ride just beyond the harbor is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration( NOAA) recognized special anchorage, filled with scores of boats permanently or semi-permanently occupied, by live-aboards who have come to be known as the Anchor-Outs.

View of Richardson Bay from Sausalito Hills

To truly understand the situation we must travel back in time to World War II when Richardson Bay was ripe with ship building enterprise. It was a central hub for mariners of all kinds to come to port for repairs, services, and community. Being exceptionally calm, protected from the prevailing winds from the north under the shelter of Mount Tamalpais, it is also an ideal place to drop anchor and relax. Having little to no regulation at that time, it was pretty much a free-for-all for captains to come and go, or hang around as they pleased.

Anchored vessel in front of Mt. Tamalpais

After the war, during the beatnik era and the hippie movement, Richardson Bay attracted plenty of bohemians desirous of living that wild and free life out on the water, bringing all of the positives and negatives of that particular lifestyle. Needless to say, that kind of activity conflicted with the interests of the more conservative residents of the Sausalito hills. These new neighbors then began to clash with law enforcement in a series of violent maritime skirmishes which came to be known as the Houseboat Wars.

Today the houseboats have their own dock and have long since been accepted as a working class enclave on the Sausalito waterfront. They’re even a tourist attraction for those interested in catching a glimpse into that special time period of Bay Area history. Just like Haight Street in San Francisco however, more than half a century later, newly inspired folks can still be found there and more are showing up everyday.

Anchor-out with banner during protest march on Feb. 12th

Over time, much of that artistic bohemian sparkle has been lost and replaced with a largely unhoused population of less than water friendly folks just trying to get along. A fair estimate puts the majority of the over one hundred vessels currently anchored in the bay, to be derelict marine debris with only 10-20 percent seaworthy capable sailors. I spoke with one of the long time Anchor-outs named Lance Houghton and he said 20% were Mariners. Curtis Havel, the harbor patrolman for the RBRA said only 10% Mariners. All other boats are trash according to both.

This makes Richardson’s Bay a dangerous minefield for mariners coming to visit, rest and repair, or perhaps just seeking refuge from incoming storm events. Boats that cannot maneuver under their own power can come loose from a poorly set anchor and be set adrift to cause immeasurable damage and loss of life. Unfortunately drowning deaths are not uncommon, as many of the anchor-outs are elderly, impoverished, and in poor health.

One of the derelict boats

The last several years have seen an increase in tension between the Anchor Outs and the Richardson Bay Regional Agency (RBRA) which is a joint powers authority created in 1985 by Sausalito, Mill Valley, Marin, Tiburon, and Belvedere to maintain the navigable waterways. In 2017, Sausalito chose to withdraw from the RBRA because they felt that not enough was being done in regards to the Anchor-Out dilemma and began policing their own waters, which in turn added more pressure to the surrounding areas. On June 11, 2020 the remaining members of the RBRA adopted their new transition plan to attempt to deal with this problem.

Inoperable vessels with junk barge

The plan is to have the bay be a permitted but extendable 72 hour anchorage, with grandfathered in live-aboards, that can keep up with regulations to be deemed safe and seaworthy. The deadline to comply is October 15, 2021, however some vessels that are an immediate danger are being removed and impounded or destroyed. The former occupants of such impounded or destroyed vessels have now established a small encampment at Dunphy Park near Downtown Sausalito and are once again at odds with the town’s law enforcement.

Two live-aboard vessels tethered together

San Francisco’s Downtown Streets Team has assigned two dedicated social workers to assist the transition of Anchor-Outs to more stable housing on the hard, however increased animosity toward the harbor patrol boats has discouraged meetings. Alternate forms of transportation are now being explored for the social workers. This is an extremely nuanced situation and is yet just another example of the growing pains of a civilization in transition. The future of the waterfront is unclear, but the goal is to keep the bay clean, safe, and free for all to enjoy responsibly.

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Taylor Martinez

Taylor Martinez

Taylor is a self-described gentleman punk. He is a musician, writer, bicycle enthusiast, and collector of finely crafted artisanal experiences.

4 Comments

  1. Kevin Bean
    March 19, 2021 at 5:16 pm — Reply

    Life marches on in the 20’s. I suppose those occupying derelicts knew it wouldn’t be permanent. Then again, both sides probably attend the boat parties? 😃

  2. Anonymouse
    March 19, 2021 at 10:33 pm — Reply

    The boats would be cool like in the beatnik erra if it wasn’t for the rbra saying the boats need to be sea worthy and all that b.s. he would call any boats built like that marine debris and crush it!. If only they would allow people to be free there would be a TON more of that artistic vibe.. those boats are side tied because people are trying not to have there boats crushed and this helps keep the terrorist law breakers and home crushers away for a little while longer. The rbra have ruined almost everything and just make it harder for these people to live by taking away shore access and not helping out with getting equipment like they’re supposed to and let’s not forget making them homeless at any rate. according to the coast gaurd essential list most of the boats are good to go! All they really need is to have safety equipment a way to keep poop out of the bay. they really just need to be anchored well and not drag. curtis doesn’t know what kindve experience these boat dwellers have or if they are mariners because they all hate him! So he’s just assuming. Curtis has even been seen stealing emergency anchors before a storm! These people live on a boat out at sea.. not Curtis. Curtis is a stuck up snob harassing and terrorizing people and families while being VERY rude to these boat dwellers as he crushes homes during a pandemic and prior. If they’re in the hospital whatever he can do to get that money by crushing homes! He even crushed a boat that was there for only 24 hours not even knowing who’s it was. He pinned my friend to the front of his patrol boat and pushed him along damaging his dinghy as my friend was trying to save my other friends daily occupied home that he was stealing to crush during a pandemic. A veterans none the less! I hope they fire him and the rbra gets shut down for crushing homes without due process during a pandemic they are all sickos with no morals or respect. Legally they need to be providing the things “they want”. Or provide alternative housing! The rbra are lawbreakers and don’t even follow their own ordinances. Oh and don’t forget about the bcdc! Let’s mention how by crushing peoples homes during a pandemic and prior they release tons of cancerous debris to go directly into the bay because they don’t do it in a contained space the boats start getting destroyed while they are still in the water on the ramp for sometimes days at a time and they leak out and then the fiberglass dust goes everywhere and down the ramp with gravity! Hey! Theyre supposed to give those back! TALK ABOUT WASTE. Why don’t they stop terrorizing people and hurting the planet with cancerous chemicals as they destroy homes.. maybe they should focus on things like the sewage dump and the toxic cancerous dirt pile next to dunphy park that leaks directly into the bay. Please report them to the fbi because the police are working with them to break the law.

    • Anonymouse
      March 19, 2021 at 10:36 pm — Reply

      &this is a federal anchorage still in control by the coast gaurd

  3. Erin Fowler
    March 20, 2021 at 12:01 pm — Reply

    I find it odd that the boats in the picture are owned by the gentlemen that sets my anchor and I trust him and r no one else to make sure my boats stay put. This person is the most likely to be the one to save someone out here and is always helping ppl from r he water or from shore I would like to suggest that you take the time to get both sides of story before you take a side what the rbra is doing ty o people and there homes is criminal and inhumane and would make most Americans sick of people only knew the real truth

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