The End of the Anchor-Out Era on Richardson Bay: Part 2
As demand for action on long-term anchor-outs has trickled down from state to local authorities, resentment by a small but vocal group in the anchor-out community toward law enforcement, and specifically toward former harbormaster Curtis Havel and the RBRA, took root.
There have been accusations of “trespassing, grand theft, creating Bay fill, and destruction of property” against the RBRA stemming from the confiscation and destruction of boats. Last year, a supervisor with the Army Corps of Engineers was charged with battery when an activist tried to block a houseboat from being crushed. “There’s been a level of violence on the water,” said one commenter during an RBRA public meeting in October 2021, shortly before Havel’s departure. “You have left some people with absolutely nothing. You can’t be OK with that.”
At the same October 2021 public meeting, many people spoke in support of Havel. “We appreciate the professionalism you’ve brought to this role, and a very even-handed approach to a very challenging situation,” said one commenter. The RBRA’s board of directors passed a “resolution of appreciation” for Havel’s service. The Marin Independent Journal wrote an editorial in praise of Havel, saying he was always “between a rock and a hard place. Havel’s job was to ‘get tough’ during a time when compassion was required. Despite threats and ultimatums, he threaded the needle, did the job and deserves the credit heaped on him by peers, bosses and elected officials.”
“Ultimately, somebody has got to make the call and be the bad guy,” Havel told us. “Maybe it’s the BCDC or the State Auditor. Or it was me, because I was the personification of all that policy. But somebody has to draw and hold the line.” Havel said he believes that the RBRA is now at a critical juncture. “We all understand the rules and regulations. [The question now is], will the RBRA enforce them? If we’re going to do this thing, we need to be consistent so that everyone understands what we’re doing.”
We asked Havel if he was surprised at how contentious his role as harbormaster had been. “I expected resistance and controversy. What was surprising were the false narratives, misinformation and outright lies.”
Some anchor-outs and activists have accused the RBRA of making people homeless through the confiscation of boats. “During my tenure as harbormaster, the RBRA did not make anyone homeless,” Havel told us. “In several instances, people lost the vessel they were occupying due to a combination of inclement weather and poor, or lack of, vessel maintenance. Mother Nature made them homeless.” RBRA interim executive director Steve McGrath told us that “vessels that were confirmed as occupied were never removed.”
Moving forward to the 2026 deadline for all anchor-outs, McGrath said, “It’s important to recognize that no one should fear that, if they legitimately live on their boat and go to shore, we will swoop in and take that vessel while they are not there.”
We’d like to say here that by no means does Latitude 38 have its “finger on the pulse” of Richardson Bay, nor have we spent much time on the water there, other than transiting through. We’ve never witnessed a boat being confiscated. The best we can do is to present what each side has told us, and we admit the limitations of this kind of reporting.
An anchor-out sent us a video of now-acting harbormaster Jim Malcolm — who was formerly Havel’s assistant — cutting the anchor line from a vessel, which led to an accusation of absconding with a boat and creating Bay fill. “What has happened over the last year,” Havel said, “is that when we remove an abandoned vessel from the anchorage, if we’re not efficient and timely, people will stage some kind of physical protest. I’m not sworn law enforcement, and I’m not looking for a confrontation. We simply didn’t have time to pull the anchor, because if we did, we ran the risk of being in a physical altercation.”
Havel told us that to him, the situation on the water is crystal-clear. “It’s a 72-hour anchorage, and we’ve been telling people to leave. But some people want to be obtuse and argumentative. A small group of people have co-opted this commons to make it their residence.”
It is the concept of making one’s residence on the water and outside a marina that remains contentious, even though the idea has been long debated at the state and local level, and in the pages of Latitude. A small handful of people have told us that they believe the RBRA is a “fundamentally unconstitutional government entity that has no jurisdiction.” It is alarming to see even a small group reject an entire government agency, though in the current political climate, it is not unprecedented. A functioning government requires some degree of faith. Latitude has a long history of raising a middle finger to anything we deemed to be an onerous bureaucracy, but at what point does skepticism veer from healthy to conspiratorial?
Comprising the County of Marin and the cities of Mill Valley, Tiburon and Belvedere, the RBRA is represented by an elected official from each city, with the executive director and harbormaster rounding out the staff. There is skepticism around the RBRA’s “hybrid” nature, which is officially known as a Joint Powers Agency. The BCDC said that the RBRA was “formed to implement the Richardson Bay Special Area Plan [which was created in 1984, when regulations around anchor-outs began] cooperatively with BCDC.”
Bill Price, former RBRA harbormaster of 24 years, told us that when he came on the job, there were over 20 sunken boats on Richardson Bay. Price said at the time, the RBRA was a “bare-bones operation with a life-support budget.” Price said he had to apply for grants to remove derelict vessels, and had an unpaid, volunteer crew to help him remove and destroy derelict vessels. Price also said that patrolling such a large portion of the Marin coastline requires at least two full-time sworn deputies, and the budget to properly finance operations.
In 1988, the lawsuit “The Mariners of Richardson Bay vs. the RBRA” challenged the constitutionality of the 72-hour anchoring law, officially known as Regional Ordinance No. 87-1. The plaintiffs also sought protection under the Endangered Species Act, which makes it unlawful to take or harass any species covered under the act. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, and the dismissal was upheld on appeal. “The legitimacy argument is just that — an unfounded argument,” Steve McGrath told us.
The most common refrain from anchor-outs skeptical of the RBRA’s jurisdiction is that the US Coast Guard is the one and only authority on Richardson Bay. Designated by the federal government as a “Special Anchorage” in 1969, Richardson Bay is defined as an “area where vessels 65-ft or less are not required to make sound signals while anchored, or display anchor lights as would otherwise be required under the navigation rules.” The official code section, 33 CFR 110.126a, has a “note” attached, which reads, “Mariners anchoring in the special anchorage area should consult applicable ordinances of the Richardson Bay Regional Agency and the County of Marin. These ordinances establish requirements on use of anchored and moored vessels within the special anchorage area.”
At the October 2021 meeting, RBRA board member Steve Block, the Belvedere representative, asked a Coast Guard officer: “Is there any law — that comes within your jurisdiction, or that has been promulgated by Congress — that would preclude the RBRA from, for example, enforcing the 72-hour limit on Richardson Bay?”
“I’m not aware of any such conflict,” the officer answered.
“You’re very comfortable that the RBRA does have the authority, provided that it’s a duly organized organ of the State of California, to enforce the 72-hour limit on Richardson Bay?” “Yes sir,” the officer answered, referencing the note specifying the RBRA and Marin County’s ability to make local regulations within the federal anchorage.
Though we often hear assertions that the Coast Guard is the only authority on Richardson Bay, we never hear a discussion of what might happen if they were in charge. Would a militarized agency, which writes tickets for expired registration, flares and insufficient lifejackets, tolerate a group of boats permanently occupying federal waters? In this hypothetical, does anyone really believe that the Coast Guard would offer a haven for anchor-outs?
There are currently two $1-million-dollar lawsuits against Curtis Havel and the RBRA; one suit alleges that Havel “illegally seized and destroyed a 25-foot power boat, engine and skiff in November 2019, and that Havel illegally boarded the vessel to post a 10-day notice of marine debris instead of placing it on the hull.” (We reached out several times to the lawyer representing the plaintiff to ask about the details of the case, but did not hear back.) About the case in question, Havel said, “The RBRA has not removed or disposed of the vessel that [the plaintiff] claims was [their] primary domicile.”
Steve McGrath said he is “not concerned” about any precedent that might be set based on the outcome of the lawsuit against the RBRA.
In July 2021, the City of Oakland paid out a $280,000 settlement to two plaintiffs who said that the Oakland Police Department had violated their rights by seizing and destroying their vessels. “Without admitting liability and to avoid further litigation, [the settlement] is in the best interest of the city,” an Oakland attorney said in a statement.
“Now that such a settlement has been made, there is absolutely no incentive for anchor-outs to leave,” said Brock de Lappe, a longtime Estuary harbormaster. After a major cleanup in 2013, there are now as many as a dozen boats on the Estuary, with the core flotilla moored behind Coast Guard Island in Alameda.
We reached out to the Oakland Police department and the mayor’s office dozens of times to ask if the 2021 settlement had changed their enforcement strategy, or led to the recent proliferation in boats; they did not respond to our requests. In 2019, OPD marine patrol officer Kaleo Albino told us, “[Taking boats] is not a part of the job I enjoy — taking away someone’s property is a bittersweet part of cleaning up the Estuary. That’s where I go with my due diligence with marking and tagging boats, especially if it’s my integrity in question. I like to say I do things with a decent manner.”
De Lappe was involved in a $7-million, multi-agency Estuary cleanup in 2013; he said there were as many 50 anchored-out boats, more than half of which were occupied. “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 on Richardson Bay.”
Regarding the Richardson Bay issue and anchor-outs in general: From my point of view, there are only two legitimate reasons to regulate or prohibit anchor-outs: pollution or navigation hazards.
If a boat is dumping its sewage into the Bay or Estuary instead of pumping it out on a dock, it should be removed. Same if it’s in danger of sinking because it’s not properly maintained, because the fuel, plastics, and other synthetic things on the boat will pollute the water when it sinks, and because a sunk boat in shallow water will be a navigation hazard. I haven’t spent a lot of time at Richardson Bay, but I’ve sailed out of there several times, and some of the anchor-outs looked like they were going to sink any minute. Do these anchor-outs pump out their sewage at docks, or just dump it into the water? If they don’t have dock privileges, how can they pump out their sewage? Likewise, if a boat is anchored in a manner or place where it’s a hazard to navigation, it should be removed. The housing problem is not a legitimate reason to allow pollution or navigation hazards to exist.
On the other hand, if there is no pollution or navigation hazard issue, I see no reason that people can’t anchor out wherever they want. Blanket laws prohibiting anchoring out where the problems of pollution or navigation hazards don’t exist is government and/or bureaucratic overreach.
These issues required someone who can balance the right of a boater or liveaboard to anchor out if they’re not causing any harm on one hand, with preventing pollution and keeping navigation safe on the other. They also require someone tough enough to do the right thing, even when it will anger someone. I hope that the people in positions of authority regarding these matters fit that bill, and I’m really glad it’s not my job.
Jeff — We’ll get into some of these issues in the final installment tomorrow.
Jeff, at one time, the RBRA offered a honey-wagon pump-out service to the anchor-outs. One can also hire a private service to come alongside and pump out one’s boat without upping anchor. Whether this is still happening in Richardson Bay, I do not know.