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Comparing the World of West Coast Boating Infrastructure

A friend of Latitude Nation — a singlehanding bluewater sailor who has spent the last few years bouncing around SoCal, the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific Northwest, recently paid us a visit, and brought to the fore an existential conundrum about the state of boating infrastructure on the West Coast.

We first met Lee Johnson via email a few years ago, as he was wrapping up his career as a litigator in Arizona and transitioning to the cruising life aboard his Valiant 35 Morning Star. Lee sailed in the Singlehanded Transpacific Race in 2018, spent some time in the Hawaiian Islands, and recently (and quite accidentally) settled in Seattle, which he said is both a cruising mecca and a public-boating-infrastructure paradise. Comparing his experience in the Pacific Northwest vs. Hawaii, Johnson said the difference is stark.

Lee Johnson was in the Bay Area to meet with the crew of a future Pacific delivery he was preparing for, and stopped by Latitude’s satellite offices in San Quentin Village.
© 2022 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim Henry

How does a city or even an entire piece of coast end up with its particular idiosyncrasies in infrastructure? Why are there great facilities in Seattle and New England, and downright poor or nonexistent facilities here in the Bay Area?

Pier 40, on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, is one of the few public docks on the shores of an iconic West Coast sailing city. The once-active guest dock, seen here in 2018, has been removed. As we’ve said a gazillion times: It is  shocking to us that such a wealthy city such as San Francisco has such poor boating facilities. Why? Just, why?
© 2022 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

What has been your experience with marinas, facilities and bureaucracy within Latitude’s West Coast borders, from Seattle, to Mexico, to the Hawaiian Islands?

The question came up recently when discussing cruising in Northern California (this particular thread is in this month’s Letters): “A common issue I see in cruising California is the distinct lack of dinghy docks and shore access,” wrote Ryan Cheff. “If you’ve cruised the East Coast, Florida, the Chesapeake, Long Island, Rhode Island or New England, you’ll find multiple public docks. This access makes cruising much more interesting when you can easily get ashore to explore, eat and spend money.

“Where are our Dinghy Docks!?”

In the early days of the pandemic, Radio Bay, on the Big Island of Hawaii — seen here in April 2020 — became a flashpoint in a debate about safe havens for transient sailors. Our understanding is that Radio Bay is now permanently closed to cruisers.
© 2022 Anonymous

In the discussion of West Coast infrastructure, the state of Hawaii seems to represent an extreme. During a trip to the Big Island this spring, we were surprised that the waters weren’t inundated with sailboats.

Lee Johnson told us that his experience in Hawaii was characterized by a bureaucracy that was, at times implacable, all to have access to limited and relatively substandard facilities. For years, Latitude 38‘s founder has bemoaned the state of Ala Wai Yacht Harbor on Oahu.

This is the start of our reporting on this issue, and we will be talking with various sources and officials over the next few weeks. But we’re hoping that you can help us start to paint a picture of the West Coast’s infrastructure ecosystem, and relate what your experience has been as a cruiser.

Please comment below, or email us here.

6 Comments

  1. Steve Haas 6 months ago

    Why did they remove the dock at pier 40? Nothing has been put in its place. I used it many times to pick up SF friends for sailing, now the closest place is at South Beach marina.

    • John Arndt 6 months ago

      It is our understanding that the Pier 40 guest dock was not well designed/built to handle the sea state it was subjected to. It eventually broke up and, as the the article describes, the Bay Area, from our unscientific survey, ranks poorly when it comes to municipalities providing the budget for waterfront facilities for visiting vessels. Despite our renowned reputation as a sailing capital our public dinghy docks, guest docks and mooring fields are practically non-existent. Most boats sailing south in the Baja Ha-Ha or returning from cruising Mexico will spend a night at the police docks at the head of Shelter Island. San Diego, like Newport Beach harbor, also sports mooring fields which would help restore balance to Richardson Bay plus create other mooring opportunities for visiting cruisers. As waterfront reconstruction projects are undertaken they should be required to expand the services and facilities available to visiting and local cruising sailors.

  2. Tim Dick 6 months ago

    Clearly San Francisco is not prioritizing recreational boating / sailing. There is a public dock in Sausalito which can be booked for up to 3 days, but you cannot book in advance as the dockmaster found too many no-shows.

  3. Bob Wilson 6 months ago

    Have sailed and boated east from Rhode Island to the Chesapeake and west from Mexico to Vancouver. By far the Bay Area is the worst place for shore access. Many issues everywhere however, I would say the “Bay Area” is not water activity oriented. I think because there are so few options. Those who try to add infrastructure can spend decades wading through arcane expensive processes. Agencies event fight evorndentalists and educators who want the next generation to learn about and protect our estuary. (Remember the BCDC taking six years to approve sand replacement by the Marine Science Institute?) I applaud those who try and especially L38 for keeping a spotlight on the deficiencies. I wish I solution to suggest. Frustrating problem!

  4. Michael Maloney 6 months ago

    One might understand Hawaii’s reluctance if one considers the problems they’ve experienced with people arriving under sail in the past. Outriggers don’t require infrastructure. As far as the Bay Area is concerned, we’ve been witnessing the decline in its sailing infrastructure for decades now, despite the efforts of many people to reverse the trend. The myriad reasons for this have defied simple, cost-effective solutions. A quick look at Alameda paints the picture. The sailing community must rally around the remaining infrastructure and work to preserve what is left.

  5. Captain Curt Taras 6 months ago

    As a Former State Civil Engineer for the California Department of Boating and Waterways (Cal-Boating) from 2005 to 2009, I constructed the San Francisco Pier 52/54 Lauch Ramp, the Angel Island Mooring Ball Field, and the Fishermans Wharf Commerical Docks. When we advocated for using the boaters gas taxes to construct more boating Infrastructure we were transfered, and Cal-Boating was merged with CA State Parks. Please petition the State Government to restart Cal-Boating, the boating version of Cal-Trans. All California Infrastructure is neglected. My engineering firm http://www.InfrastructureImprovement.com is ready to Rebuild California.

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