What’s Happening on Richardson Bay
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.