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Another Close Call on Richardson Bay

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.

Suisun Rests on Richardson's Bay
Thanks to Curtis Havel and the RBRA, the Army Corps and Parker Diving, this is no longer damaging the Bay or posing a navigational hazard.
© 2021 Curtis Havel

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.”

Suisun at Army Corps
The Suisun made it to shore, barely, so she could be dismantled. Another sailboat is farther up on the bank.
© 2021 Curtis Havel

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.”

Suisun Demolition
The Suisun rested high and dry before demolition.
© 2021 Curtis Havel

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.”

Suisun
The Suisun is now ready for disposal.
© 2021 Curtis Havel

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.

9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    John James 2 months ago

    Sad but absolutely necessary. We had the same issues in my home Bay of San Diego (South Bay) and it took a major effort on part of authorities to clear out and reassign many of the vessels to a mooring field near our small bridge (as compared to the Golden Gate.) However, the issue seems to “come back” with older vessels moving in and out of the bay and anchoring over the weekend when this activity is allowed. The anchorage near Southwestern Yacht Club and Sand Diego Yacht Club has regular weekend visitors who can be counted on being in the anchorage from Friday to early Monday morning. Looking at their vessels, one can speculate that they are living on these older vessels. Where they go during week days I can only guess, but I believe they go out past the jetty and anchor near the strand or other shallow water. The problem with that is it is much more open to weather and sea conditions. Plus, their numbers seem to be growing over the last few years.

    I love our “Old Salts,” but they do not seem to have the revenue needed to maintain their vessels, and will eventually come to the same end as Suisun. It is all very sad.

  2. Avatar
    Martin Thomas 2 months ago

    These boats need to be registered, and inspected and passed by the Coast Guard as a start. If they get that far they then need to have insurance covering the removal of the vessel and damage it may cause if it sinks or damages another vessel. Otherwise it’s leave the anchorage or to the dumpster. We need to get real about this issue.

  3. Avatar
    Memo Gidley 2 months ago

    That’s too bad the classic Suisun sunk and a person lost their home. I was raised as an “anchor out” and NOW constantly here how much sewage, sunken vessels, etc., cost tax payers money. Really, how much in comparison to all the tens of thousands of homeless people and the tax money it costs to move, police, and clean after the homeless cities that are now everywhere and in so much of the Bay Area and California? Not to mention the $ spent on programs…like cell phone plans, and other programs, etc. As a kid raised anchored out I learned to accept people for their character and not their bank account or clothes or the car they drove. And most of the anchor outs I was raised around were very low(or minimal) income, veterans, hippies, a little(or a lot) crazy, but all looked after each other and most were quality people that you could trust. Living anchored out, gives these few hundred people some responsibility, (like not drowning in the Bay by falling in)…which I think is much better than what is required to live in a tent or under an overpass. Maybe, a little money to support the anchor outs to help them get back to living a more responsible life? Or do we just set up another tent city like the one I see now set up in Sausalito by Dumphey Park now?

  4. Avatar
    Roy Wilson 2 months ago

    Another sad loss for our Bay. I remember her in her prime in the 80’s while in the Sausalito Yacht Harbor. She was gorgeous, and obviously an owner’s pride. Over the last few years it pained me to see her anchored out, wasting away. A sad end for a Grand Dame. Here is an article about her restoration in the 80’s: https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=M19840515.2.2&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1

    • Avatar
      Tom Woodruff 2 months ago

      Thanks so much for the link. Truly an historic loss to grieve.

  5. Avatar
    John Foy 2 months ago

    I’m an old guy and this kind of thing has been going on for longer than I can remember. Years ago my thought was to “Grandfather” every vessel anchored in Richardson Bay allowing them to stay in place. At the same time place restrictions on any new vessels anchoring in the area so as to not perpetuate the problem. Over time the problem would go away but the authorities who could make this happen will never do it. Anybody who has anchored at various locations in San Diego knows that the time limits are strictly enforced to be benefit of everyone. Sadly, I’ll be dead and buried before any meaningful changes are ever made to the Richardson Bay anchorage.

    • Avatar
      only 2 months ago

      The RBRA is offering “deferred enforcement” to vessels that were anchored out before 8/2019.

  6. Avatar
    badornato 2 months ago

    Too bad the harbormaster of the Richardson Bay Regional Agency doesnt have the authority to inspect vessels BEFORE they chafe their rode, drag their anchor or sink to the detriment of all concerned. Doesnt the USCG inspect vessels underway? Isnt it time for preventative inspections rather than just waiting for disaster?

  7. John Arndt
    John Arndt 2 months ago

    While it’s a sad tale as we look at the Suisun today we mentioned in our story she probably holds a lot of memories for many. We heard from John ‘Woody’ Skoriak who passed along these memories:

    Among all the boat sinking these last few months, none sadder for me than the news about Suisun. I heard about that last week.

    I was involved in the original restoration of Suisun many years ago (mid-1980’s) and crewed for the caretaker/ restorer/ Paul Stevenson. Paul restored the boat and then we did a celebration and re-launch, and then did complimentary charters on it many weekends and special events, mostly with Sausalito YC members and VIPs, and events like America’s Cup practice trials, photoshoots, etc.

    Paul was a great boat operator but did not have a Coast Guard license. Surveyor Bruce Martens also operated the boat quite a bit but did not have a Coast Guard captain’s license either. So I would be on board for the license and to be ‘mate’ but mostly just to have a load of fun. We had great parties on the boat and great times.

    I was working at that time as a yacht broker at Edgewater Yachts, and Paul worked there with me for several years. He was trying to sell Suisun after the restoration, but we used it for years. It was a fun boat, and we had a whole team of ‘engineers’ who had to come every time we went out, and oil the Corliss 4 cyl gas engine that was as big as a car. Amazing engine.

    As you probably know, Suisun had been built for US Army Corps of Engineers as a Delta/Bay survey boat. But no expense was spared to build the boat, it was much more of a yacht than a working /commercial survey vessel. In fact, her original upholstery was Mohair, and we replaced it with the same after the restoration.

    Suisun later had a fire while hauled out at Stone’s Boatyard Alameda, and the insurance did not cover the cost or repair. The boat languished until Paul finally found a buyer. There were many unsuccessful attempts to restore it, including one very amateurish and ill-equipped attempt by a Bay Model employee, which ended up with the first sinking of the boat…. It seems it’s been downhill ever since…

    Paul and I were also involved with the 92 ft Blanchard built fantail motor yacht “Wanda” which was been shuffling between marinas and berths for the last few years, with attempts to restore it while chartering it. We sold Wanda several times (bank repo) at Edgewater, and Paul did years of restoration on it for an owner named Bill Kelly, who had an insurance company, and had the whole office on the boat. We also took that out almost every weekend during good weather for a few years.

    Both Suisun and Wanda were berthed downtown Sausalito Yacht Harbor.

    I worked with a lot of classic wooden yachts in those days, and at the same time, I was mate /relief skipper on Fair Sarae, which Bill Bodle bought, restored and re-named Eros. Fair Sarae was in main harbor Sausalito also but too big for inside, had to moor on the outside wall where the tugboats were. Fair Sarae was 103 ft., without the bowsprit that Bill Bodle added on Eros.

    We also found this story in our archives: https://www.latitude38.com/issues/october-1986/#149

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