Richardson Bay is dotted with boats anchored offshore. Viewed from a distance–say while looking down from Mount Tamalpais or the Marin headlands–all the anchored boats make for a picturesque postcard.

But up close, it’s a very different situation. The anchored boats come in all shapes and sizes. There are small runabouts no larger that 17 feet that would be more at home pulling waterskiers on Lake Sonoma than running around San Francisco Bay. There are sailboats–very small and very large–some with their masts and rigging still intact, others that are just floating hulls. There are large motoryachts, some that look like they might still be able to move under their own power, and others that look as though they haven’t moved in years. There are few ex-commercial fishing boats too–their huge steel hulls looming ominously over the nearby pleasure boats. There’s even one large barge piled high with old dredging equipment.

This old barge is piled high with miscellaneous junk. It wasn't clear if it was also someone's home.

But most of these boats have one thing in common: They are all in various states of disrepair. Look at it this way: the owners of these boats couldn’t afford a slip to keep them at, so instead they’ve been anchored offshore. And if a yacht owner can’t afford $300 a month for a slip, then they definately can’t afford the upkeep required to keep the boat spic and span.

Many of the anchored out vessels also serve as a home for their owners. Afterall, being anchored in the bay is free, but it’s free for a reason. There’s no electricity, water, or sewer system. Fuel for generators and drinking water all has to be brought over from shore by a dingy.

Oar or outboard powered dinghies are the only link to shore for the anchor outs.

While there are certainly a handful of seaworthy yachts simply anchored in the bay as they tranist their way up or down the West Coast, it’s obvious that for most live aboards anchored out, thier owners are one step from being homeless. Some boats are piled high with gear and junk, others are covered with makeshift shelters made out of blue plastic tarps.

Junk covers what was once the aft deck and cockpit of this double-ended ketch.

The anchor-outs are sometime seen as part of Sausalito’s appeal–as a throwback to the 1960s when Sausalito was more artsy counter-culture than yuppy–Marin Nostalgia has all sorts of interesting history on about Marin County and the anchor outs. But despite this, dilapidated boats riding at anchor also present a number of hazards.

It may be small, but the solar panels on this sloop give it away as a live aboard.

With no “honey barge” pump-out option in Sausalito, many live-aboards at anchor dump their sewage directly into the bay, polluting the water. But it is the anchors and anchor lines themselves that actually do the most environmental damage.

That’s because each anchored boat needs to have at least 50 feet of anchor line out, even in Richardson Bay’s relatively shallow water. (In order to hold, the anchor line needs to be at least 3 or 4 times the depth of the water.) So every time the tide changes or the wind shifts, the boats swing around, and some of the anchor line drags across the bottom. As it does so, it kills any seagrass, mussels, or other organisms that usually help keep the water clear. The dragging line also stirs up silt, clouding the bay. (Editor’s note: I read a great op-ed piece about this, but now I can’t find it, if someone remembers where it is please let me know!)

There is another danger as well. During winter storms, boats sometimes break away from their anchors and are left drifting. The boats are typically blown toward Tiburon, and smash into the docks and homes of residents there–often causing thousands of dollars of damage to the home, not to mention the cost of removing the boat. An excellent article in the Marin Independent Journal provides a typical example of what happens during a storm.

While I've seen this boat securely anchored for over a year now, if such a large boat were to break free in a storm, the damage could be consierable.

There have been proposals in the past to clear the boats out, or to at least provide mooring balls, but for now, it seem like this charming-yet-problematic part of Sausalito will remain.

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