We spoke with Curtis Havel, harbormaster for the Richardson’s Bay Regional Agency (RBRA), who shared this report of another winter sinking of a poorly maintained vessel on Richardson Bay. The story of winter sinkings and groundings, requiring taxpayer funds and multiple agencies to clean up the resulting debris and environmental damage, has practically been an annual feature of Latitude 38 since it was founded in 1977. Like Brock de Lappe on the Oakland Estuary, Havel is doing his best to clean up the Bay and avoid the damage caused to people, property and the environment by boats foundering in winter storms, or at any time of the year.
Havel told how Richardson Bay narrowly avoided an environmental disaster when the 85-ft wooden boat Suisun was raised from the Bay floor after it sank during a gale-force windstorm in late January.
On Wednesday, February 9, the Richardson’s Bay Regional Agency and its partners at the US Army Corps of Engineers finished disposal efforts of the Suisun, which sank during the early hours of January 26. “It was the best outcome that could be expected for the vessel,” said Havel, who was concerned that the historic wooden boat would break apart on the Bay floor before salvage operators could raise and safely tow the boat away.
“If that had happened, there would have been thousands of pounds of debris scattered on the Bay floor, plus all the fuel, motor oil, and any hazardous chemicals that had been on board,” Havel said. “The impact of that amount of debris would be disastrous for the local environment. Plus, the wreck was a safety hazard. We owe it to the experts from Parker Diving Services who were able to float the vessel and tow it to the Army Corps dock for disposal.”
Protecting the environment in Richardson Bay is a key concern because of its importance for the fish, sea lions, dolphins, and tens of thousands of birds that rely on the Bay for food. Casey Arndt, director of the local Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary, part of the National Audubon Society, was especially heartened to hear of this outcome.
“Richardson Bay and its eelgrass beds are critically important for wildlife,” Arndt said. “Pacific herring, for example, is the last commercial fishery in San Francisco Bay and 90% of those fish spawn right here in Richardson Bay, especially during this time of year. Removing marine debris and stopping the discharge of oil into the Bay is a great way to protect these vital natural resources.”
It’s rare that the public gets to celebrate the avoidance of an environmental disaster, said Havel, but that’s why RBRA is working hard to remove unseaworthy boats from the Bay before they sink or run aground, causing damage to the environment and costing taxpayers thousands of dollars in salvage efforts.
The occupant of the Suisun, who had been living on the vessel in violation of the Bay’s 72-hour anchoring regulations, was rescued by the United States Coast Guard as the boat sank. He retrieved his belongings from the boat a few days later, and a caseworker from Marin County’s Downtown Streets Team successfully placed the individual in temporary, transitional housing while work continues to find a permanent housing solution.
“It is never our intention to render an individual homeless by seizing their vessel, even if they are in violation of rules against permanent anchoring in Richardson Bay,” Havel said. “This boat sank in a windstorm. It was underwater and no longer operable. At that point, we were lucky to get it out of the Bay in one piece.”
So far this year, at least 25 boats have gone adrift in Richardson Bay, many of them not operable and unseaworthy. One of the unoccupied vessels that went adrift hit an occupied vessel, causing it to sink. While the boat’s owner made it out alive, her dog drowned in the process. Since mid-January, at least three additional boats have sunk while at anchor here.
“This level of vessel catastrophe is highly atypical for an anchorage of this size,” Havel said. “The loss of life and damage to the environment has to stop. Our goal with removing marine debris and unseaworthy vessels from the Bay is to have a safe, well-managed, temporary anchorage where the environment is protected and the area’s rich maritime history thrives.”
Since we remain in the midst of winter with similar storms possible at any time in the months ahead, Havel and his team hope that all mariners in Richardson Bay tend closely to their boats. He said, “I encourage mariners to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves and their vessels.”
Nobody at Latitude 38, or, we suspect, any sailor, likes to see the loss of someone’s home or any boat that holds so many memories. However, the environmental damage and the endless possible alternative beneficial uses of the public funds, like housing the homeless, that are currently required to clean up these problem vessels are clear enough reasons to support the work of Curtis Havel and the RBRA.