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Oakland Estuary Struggle Between Anchor Outs And Local Authorities

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  • Oakland Estuary Struggle Between Anchor Outs And Local Authorities

    Union Point Anchorage.
    Photos and story by Tim Henry

    SF GATE Article

    When the "bomb cyclone" ripped through the Bay Area with 60 mph gusts in October, Han and Amanda Nguyen's flotilla of boats began to drift. The couple had been anchored-out — a term for living aboard their boat — between Coast Guard Island and Union Point Marina, in the southern end of the Oakland Estuary, for a few months at that point. They had a roving collection of boats, most of which are nonoperable.

    Han said that during the storm, he used several anchors to control the drag of the flotilla, and eventually settled near shore in the south end of Union Point Park. (Another couple lives on a small sailboat in the flotilla, and Han sometimes offers people a bed on the third boat.) Since the storm, Han built a makeshift dock from shore to the three boats. There are a number of old inflatable dinghies stacked on shore, and other maritime odds and ends.

    While anchor-outs on the estuary — and now through most of the Bay Area — are officially prohibited, they have been grudgingly tolerated after a series of lawsuits filed by former boat owners. Since the Nguyen's flotilla came ashore, it caught the attention of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. "We are looking at ways to remove anchored-out boats under port authority codes," the sheriff's office said in an email to SFGATE. "We have people building their own docks [and] tying to shore. It is a hazard to navigation. There are also environmental concerns."

    The sheriff's office said that they respectfully asked the occupants to make plans to leave.

    Han, 44, said he was told that his boats would be towed and destroyed as soon as this week. "They can crush all of my s—t," Nguyen said. "It's just that there's no place to go. They tell you to go to one place, and then you go there, and then they say that you can't be there. But I don't want to get on anyone's bad side.”

    There are currently about 15 boats anchored-out on the relatively placid waters between Oakland and Alameda. A flotilla of about 10 old boats is moored off Coast Guard Island. Roughly half those vessels — mostly old, nonmobile sailboats in various stages of repair — have full-time occupants living aboard. A few small boats sit half-sunk in the mud near shore. The abundant old boats in the Bay Area have little value, are often free and can float for years, making them de facto shelters for many unhoused people. (Boats are often crushed to remove them from the "rotation," and because dock space is limited and expensive.)

    Han said that he and his wife used to live in a tent, and then an RV. He calls himself a carpenter and "backyard electrician" and he and Amanda work for the city of Oakland. He said that as part of his job, he cleans up graffiti in Oakland's Chinatown. They have a small apartment, which they've been using for storage. "The apartment is so f—king small," Han said, describing it as about a third the size of his boat.

    As a child, Nguyen was a refugee from Vietnam. "We were at sea for months on a small boat. Half of the people made it, half didn't. That's another thing that drew me to living on the water. I had a prior relationship with it," he said. "The water has soothed me. I'm calm, I can breathe. We bought this boat in the hopes of getting into a marina, but the boat has a bad reputation, and they won't allow us in. All I want is a place on a dock away from people."

    Becoming a legal "liveaboard" at a marina is typically a lengthy process. There are long waitlists throughout the Bay Area, and the number of liveaboards is tightly controlled.

    At the Union Point anchorage, Justin Keller, 39, paddled a half-deflated, barnacle-covered dinghy to and from shore. "Being on the water is awesome — it's peaceful," he said. "I've been on the streets since I was 16. I'm basically homeless."

    Han said the water is full of all kinds of people looking for a different way to live. “Everyone out here has their own character. Him [pointing toward Keller], he's always looking for buried treasure. Him [pointing toward another anchor-out], he's looking for drugs. Me, I'm looking for peace."

    "We're not crackheads," Keller said of the anchorage.

    But while Han said he tries to clean the nearby beach of trash and debris, he finds all manner of detritus. Along shore, people frequently toss guns and knives into the water. "One day, I saw something shining in the water, half sunk. It was a case, and inside was an antique gun. I've found everything," he said. "I've found blow-up sex dolls."

    Theft is also one of the primary concerns on the anchorage. "We have to deal with pirates and wannabe pirates," Han said. “... People like me go to work in the morning and come home at night."

    Anchor-outs are not a new phenomenon on the bay. By the early-2010s, there were as many as 50 anchored-out boats on the Oakland Estuary alone, more than half of which were occupied. Brock de Lappe has been a harbormaster on the estuary for more than a decade and was involved in a multiagency coalition that raised more than $7 million in 2013 to clean up the estuary. "At the end of that 2013 project, there wasn't a single anchor-out on the Oakland Estuary," de Lappe said. "The agencies involved at that time — such as the EPA, State Lands Commission and Coast Guard — made it clear that this was a one-time operation, and that the future of the estuary was dependent on rigorous and consistent enforcement. The longer this current group of anchor-outs grows, the more expensive it will be to deal with it. We've seen what's happened over on Richardson Bay."

    Richardson Bay — a protected body of water with Sausalito, Tiburon and Belvedere as its borders — has been the historic, cultural and political nucleus of Bay Area anchor-outs and also saw a glut of boats in the 2010s. The surge in anchor-outs led to a crackdown, which has in turn led to lawsuits. Hundreds of boats around the bay, many of which were classified as unoccupied or considered "marine debris," have been removed and demolished. As recently as July 2021, the city of Oakland paid a $280,000 settlement to two people who said their boats had been illegally seized and crushed by the police in 2018.

    There are currently two $1 million suits in process against the Richardson Bay Regional Authority over claims that boats were illegally confiscated and destroyed.

    Exactly who has jurisdiction over anchor-outs has been a historically contentious question. Pressure to take action on Richardson Bay came from a 2019 audit of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. The California State Auditor said that the agency had "neglected its mission to protect San Francisco Bay," and used the Richardson Bay anchor-outs as a specific example. The commission then threatened to sue the Richardson Bay Regional Authority if the latter agency did not enforce anchoring restrictions that had been law for decades. Regarding the estuary, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission said in an email that they "look forward to working with Oakland, Alameda, and Alameda County to ensure that the Oakland Estuary doesn’t turn into Richardson Bay." (The Bay Conservation and Development Commission also controls the number of liveaboards in marinas, which was capped at 10%. Some Bay Area cities, such as Sausalito, have lobbied the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to raise the limit, without success.)

    Most people assume that the Coast Guard is the pre-eminent on-the-water authority. "There's a misconception that if it falls on the water, it's the Coast Guard's responsibility," a Coast Guard official told SFGATE. "Our responsibility is for the health of the marine transportation system."

    Regarding the Union Point flotilla behind their Alameda base, a Coast Guard official said, "Those vessels are not anchored legally in that specific area, but we don't have the authority or the jurisdiction to remove those vessels, unless there's a pollution nexus, or unless there is an anchored vessel obstructing navigation in a channel. We are very limited in what we can spend our money on."

    The Coast Guard also said that they too often act as liaisons, informing harbormasters and other agencies about what resources are available to them. "From a federal standpoint, our main role is getting people to the table, discussing some of the struggles, and using community resources as a group," the spokesperson said. "... Essentially, the problem is too big for any one agency. This is not a problem local to just Oakland or Alameda. Everyone knows there's a housing crisis and that people need help getting the services that are available."

    Marjorie Setchko, a rowing coach on the estuary, said that the anchor-outs — especially the Union Point flotilla — pose a navigational hazard to rowers. "They're spread out, and they don't have any lights on them. In the winter, it's dark when we go out, and it becomes a huge safety risk," she said. "I have kids who are usually pretty good at seeing a hull, but the anchor lines are virtually invisible in the dark. I've had boat flips and kids go in the water."

    On the other side of the estuary, the Alameda Police Department said they haven't had the personnel to get their marine unit on the water. "It's been difficult to get the boat out there with our current staffing, and to enforce anchor-outs and no-wake zones. We do the best we can to remove them from the waterways so they're not a navigation or environmental hazard,” said Lt. Erik Klaus.

    Klaus said that APD focuses on preventing anchor-outs in the first place. "Sometimes the individuals are less fortunate, and [a boat] is their only place to live. We identify who they are and try to get them to work with us."

    "I would ask that people not judge us," Han said.
    " I just found out my nest egg has salmonella" Photo Gallery

  • #2
    By the early-2010s, there were as many as 50 anchored-out boats on the Oakland Estuary alone
    That seems like a HUGE exaggeration, actually I'll say fabricated. More like 10-15 max until I left the estuary in 2019.