After a harrowing summer of what was dubbed a “pirate crime spree” on its shores — and after several years of lax enforcement by police — grant money has poured into the Oakland Estuary, marine units are back on patrol, and at least 25 derelict vessels have been removed. “Eighteen were taken from the waterway and crushed,” said former harbormaster Brock de Lappe. “Seven left on their own accord to other parts of the Bay; two anchor-outs have been eluding enforcement by moving back and forth across the Estuary from Oakland to Alameda.”
As we reported on Monday, a sailboat apparently broke loose and slammed into a breakwater in Alameda, where it eventually sank. It’s not clear if this boat was one of the roaming anchor-outs described, but regardless, de Lappe said that the City of Alameda will be contracting a salvager to remove the wreck.
While there’s been a long-running debate over anchor-outs in the Bay Area, the problems here are by no means unique. “You’ll have vagrants squatting on the boat [and] it falling apart; there have been several instances where the boats have come loose and ran into docks,” said a sheriff in Martin County, Florida, just north of West Palm Beach. In an attempt to target boats in the Miami area, a Florida state bill proposes to ban overnight anchoring for all vessels in parts of Biscayne Bay. Cruising advocates are up in arms over the bill, but the pressures of homelessness continue to collide with boating interests, infrastructure, and boats themselves. Once a vessel has fallen into disrepair or reached the end of its useful life, it’s worth nothing on the market, but has a huge price tag for disposal and removal — especially if it’s wrecked in the water. Such a vessel, however, is invaluable to an unhoused person seeking shelter.
In last month’s Sightings, we noted the strange sense of déjà vu on the Estuary: There was a $7 million cleanup of derelict vessels in 2013, where some 50 boats — including as many as 25 liveaboards — were removed. Up until 2019, the lone Oakland Police marine unit was still patrolling the Estuary and tagging boats. After a lawsuit against the Oakland PD in 2019, there was virtually no enforcement until late last year. The number of anchor-outs boomed in the interim. Brock de Lappe has long maintained that as long as there’s rigorous enforcement, anchor-outs can’t take root again.
Only time will tell how the cities of Oakland and Alameda manage and patrol the Estuary. Oakland marine officer Kaleo Albino “made the plea that temporarily assigned OPD personnel become permanently assigned to the marine unit so that he can maintain regular on-the-water patrols to protect the Estuary from the problem recurring,” de Lappe said.
“For the record, the Estuary is now the cleanest it has been in years,” he added.
Though theft appears to have subsided, a work/tow boat was stolen from Alameda Marina a few weeks ago. “It was found along the Oakland side of the Estuary at an encampment near Coast Guard Island,” Eileen Zedd, the harbormaster at Alameda Marina, said in an email. “We retrieved the vessel along with other stolen property. We made a report with [Alameda Police Department]. Of course, they said for the other items on the other side we would need to contact Oakland PD.”
While the anchor-outs themselves might be diminishing, the societal issues that attract them remain: Homelessness in the US has increased by 12% over the past year, and vessels will age, deteriorate and exist in crowded urban areas with limited housing and rising costs. Officer Albino told the BCDC that the Oakland marinas have as many as 33 abandoned vessels.
There are hundreds of thousands of boats registered in California — the fourth-most in the nation — according to the Mercury News. “The state’s $10 billion recreational boating community supports tens of thousands of jobs. But the state has few comprehensive plans for disposing of aging or abandoned boats. In order to gain ownership of the abandoned boat, allowing them to access funds that will help them remove it, marinas must undertake a months-long lien process. They may have to pay hundreds or even thousands in back taxes to the county. Meanwhile, the boat takes up a slip, no longer making any money for the business. To avoid that outcome, some marina operators have long sold abandoned boats to interested buyers for as little as one dollar,” thus proliferating the fleet of derelict vessels/homeless shelters.
“There’s this cycle that repeats itself,” Alameda harbormaster Eileen Zedd told the Mercury News. “It’s hard for marina operators to deal with these situations. There’s just not much help out there.”
While the Oakland Estuary has long been a recreational hub for sailors, paddlers, swimmers, etc., it’s not necessarily a cruising destination — certainly not like Biscayne Bay.
“These anchorage grounds are often used by responsible cruising boaters for re-provisioning and waiting for a safe weather window as a jumping-off point for the Bahamas and Caribbean,” Cruising World wrote. With two bills set to go into effect on July 1 that would ban overnight anchoring within 200 yards of seven islands in Biscayne Bay, the state of Florida is “struggling to balance the rights of responsible boat owners against the owners of poorly maintained, derelict vessels,” Cruising World said, echoing identical concerns seen here in the Bay. “These vessels, which have little to no value, wash up ashore and are frequently abandoned after storms, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for removal.”
“It can be anywhere from $6,000 and upwards,” the Martin County sheriff said of salvage operations. “Astronomical amounts of money.”
Boating advocates in Florida are urging people to write lawmakers in protest of the proposed bill. BoatUS described the proposed anchor ban as an ineffective, whack-a-mole approach. “The reality is these bills will do nothing to decrease the number of derelict and at-risk vessels in Biscayne Bay; these boats will simply move to other areas. Using state law to prohibit anchoring takes away public access to a shared resource for the benefit of only a few waterfront property owners.”
“We’ve seen a tremendous increase, actually, throughout the county,” said the Martin County sheriff of derelict vessels. Fox News added, “Authorities [in Florida] cite cost of living issues for the increase of squatters and homeless people moving onto the boats.”