Pirates of the Bay

As the Bay Area’s affordability crisis continues to squeeze the working class, the ‘Houseboat Wars’ of Richardson Bay are raging once again.

Sometime in early April, life got a lot more stressful for the jaunty community of boat dwellers living on and around Richardson Bay. That’s when Paul Smith went into “combat mode.”

Friends of the 53-year-old Smith say he’d been away for about a week when he returned to the Sausalito Waterfront on March 17 to discover the Richardson Bay Harbormaster and his team were removing and preparing to destroy Warlock — the sailboat Smith had called home for the past several months.

“I know Paul,” says Tim Logan, a friend of Smith’s and one of many self-identified “anchor-outs” who until recently were floating through life in a legal gray area on this body of water between Belvedere, Tiburon, Sausalito, and Mill Valley in Marin County. According to Logan and others who know him, Smith is a veteran.

“He has a kind spirit and just tries to keep to himself,”  Logan says. “But yeah, he most definitely has PTSD.”

Smith was not the first anchor-out to lose his floating home to the Richardson’s Bay Regional Agency (RBRA), the body of policymakers and law enforcement governing this seaside north east of the Golden Gate Bridge. However he was the first to allegedly discharge a firearm in response to such an eviction.

The way Logan tells it, Smith fired his flare gun in the air for the same reason any sailor would. It was a distress call, meant to signal that Smith — who does not own a cell phone — needed help. According to the official police report, however, Smith aimed the flare at Harbormaster Curtis Havel, who was in the process of towing Warlock to the nearby Army Corps of Engineers’ dock in Sausalito, where it was to be crushed. Smith followed the harbormaster on his small skiff, arriving at the Army Corps to demand Warlock back to no avail.

Tensions escalated throughout the week, as deputies continuously tried to make contact with Smith, who had gone into hiding on his friend Michael Ortega’s boat, Projectile.

According to a Marin County Sheriff’s report, Smith battened down the hatches of Projectile, installed explosive booby traps on its chamber doors, and holed up in the cabin of the anchored-out boat with his pit bull puppy, Runt Girl. On April 2, sheriff’s deputies tried to inform Smith they had a warrant for his arrest, but he refused to surrender and alerted the officers he was wearing a bulletproof vest.

The Sheriff’s Special Response Team surrounded Smith, circling round the boat in what some anchor-outs described as an army of “floating tanks.” The police report states deputies deployed many of the same weapons demonstrators encountered at last summer’s George Floyd protests. They fired tear gas, flash grenades, and pepper spray onto the boat, and shot five bean bag rounds at Smith — hitting him with three of them.

Witnesses say Smith retreated below deck, and law enforcement officers boarded the boat, using chainsaws to gain access to the cabin.

Anchor-out Alice Nevin paints landscapes of Richardson Bay from the water. Photo by Miranda de Moraes

The police report states Smith defended his position by attempting to stab deputies with a tool that had two metal spikes affixed to a pole. Ultimately, Projectile was towed to Clipper Yacht Harbor, where Smith was subdued with a stun gun and removed from the boat, which quickly caught on fire and sank. 

Runt Girl went down with the ship.

The incident infuriated and traumatized many of the Richardson Bay anchor-outs — who insist they are doing their best to scrape by in a region with some of the highest housing costs in the nation, where a few missed paychecks can be the difference between holding onto a cheap apartment and living rough. 

Peter Romanowsky, a 72-year-old anchor-out who witnessed Smith’s capture, remembers a fireboat circling Projectile, spraying what he described as a “dinky garden hose” at the burning vessel. The juxtaposition of the law enforcement flotilla and the feeble attempt at extinguishing the subsequent blaze makes Romanowsky suspicious of the authorities’ priorities. 

It’s been over a month since Smith’s dramatic capture and he remains in jail, unable to pay $305,000 in bail or secure a bond. He stands accused of four charges — cruelty to an animal, obstructing officers, assault with a deadly weapon on officers, and assault with a firearm. Some of the aforementioned details have since been removed from publicly accessible official reports and five more charges against Smith have been added to the sheriff’s report in the past few weeks.

Blue Bloods to Outlaws

Back in 2019, local NPR affiliate KQED took a deep dive into the history of Richardson Bay, revealing that the region’s liveaboard culture dates back to 1880, when San Francisco aristocrats first planted houseboats on the shores of Belvedere and Tiburon. Initially used as weekend retreats, many blue blooded San Franciscans found themselves living full-time on these floating estates in the aftermath of the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Over the course of the first half of the 20th century, the rich rebuilt and repopulated San Francisco, and a former train yard near the Sausalito waterfront was converted into a ship-building factory. Marinship, as the former factory is now known, churned out nearly 100 vessels to serve in the U.S. Navy and aid the allies during World War II. After the Allies claimed victory, a former Marinship worker named Don Arques took possession of most of the Marinship land and began offering leftover scrap materials to returning soldiers and untethered artists in need of housing. 

In the decades to follow, Richardson Bay would evolve into a mecca of creative expression, pulling in a litter of starving writers, artists, rockstars, and hippies. Shel Silverstein, Allen Ginsberg, and members of the Grateful Dead lived along this shoreline — shuttling their radical ideas to and from San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge, and laying the foundation for a mushpot of flower power and debauchery, which eventually drew the ire of local law enforcement.

Richardson Bay rests next to four cities in Marin and contains an entire ecosystem in itself. Legislating and policing the area is complicated for this reason alone. Throw in the fact that as a harbor, the waters also fall under federal jurisdiction and things get even more convoluted. The multiple layers of federal, state, county, and city authority have often led to confusion as to who may live on Richardson Bay — and for how long. That confusion, which has historically been a headache for law enforcement, has been a boon for those living in anchorage here for the past 100 years.

Many of the houseboats now permanently docked in Sausalito have a colorful history dating back to the Bay Area’s countercultural movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. Photo by Miranda de Moraes

That’s not to say police have been afraid of flexing their muscles in the past. In 1971, matters on Richardson Bay got particularly tense when Marin County Sheriff’s deputies drew a gun on a resident who wouldn’t give up his boat. This marked the start of the so-called “Houseboat Wars,” which pulsed for 10 years until the various concerned parties reached a settlement allowing for the establishment of five permanent marinas for floating homes to permanently and safely dock.

While plenty were happy to abide by these new rules, the agreement also created a class of peace-loving outlaws — the anchor-outs — who were unable or unwilling to meet the marina’s strict requirements for boat maintenance and pay for a liveaboard slip, where they could legally tie their boat to a dock. 

Rather than acquiesce, many took to the open water, where a murkier set of laws and lax enforcement insulated their lifestyle at sea.

A Rising Tide

Since the ’70s, the demographics of southern Marin County, and the communities surrounding Richardson Bay, have shifted. What was once a haven for granola-munching back-to-the-landers seeking a reprieve from hectic city life has become an enclave of white collar workers seeking a quiet community with easy access to the amenities and high salaries of San Francisco. And the houseboats that once served as weekend getaways and emergency shelters for wealthy city dwellers now command million-dollar price tags and are once again beyond the reach of the working class.

Over the past 10 years, the value of homes in Marin County has doubled, from an average of $700,000 to almost $1.4 million, according to the Zillow Home Value Index. In 2017, the National Low Income Housing Coalition determined that tenants living in Marin would need to make $61 an hour to affordably rent a two-bedroom home at around $3,000 per month. It’s safe to assume rents have only climbed in the years since — especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw tech workers fleeing San Francisco for nearby communities where they could stretch their legs and breathe fresh air while telecommuting.

“I used to be able to rent here, in Sausalito,” says Shell Snyder. “We had houses, apartments all over. It was great. And now you can’t. It’s $3,000 to $4,000 just for, like, a one-room shack. And so what do they expect? I’m supposed to just leave to the desert because I can’t afford to live up here?” Rather than decamp to Joshua Tree, Snyder chose to stay put and make her own rules. She has lived as a Richardson Bay anchor-out for decades.

“People assume it’s substance-use disorder or mental health, when the No. 1 cause of people falling into homelessness is job loss,” says Karen Strolia, senior director of the North Bay’s Downtown Streets Team, a Silicon Valley-based homelessness outreach organization. According to Strolia, her outreach team expected the number of unhoused individuals to increase in the wake of the pandemic — and that’s exactly what they saw, though many anchor-outs would bristle at the term “homeless.”

“I wasn’t and still am not homeless — I live on my boat,” says Arthur Bruce, a landscaper who tends to lavish estates across Marin County. “I lost my apartment on land just after COVID hit. I couldn’t afford daycare and car maintenance and rent, so I went full time on my boat.”

New Boss in Town

With nearly every harbor in the Bay Area at capacity for liveaboard slips — and some with years-long waitlists — living on a cheap boat in Richardson Bay has been one of the only options for low-income folks to remain in Marin. But after decades of unregulated on-the-water living, a new harbormaster is in town and the anchor-outs are fighting a riptide of sweeping changes.

Curtis Havel — a Southern California-born surfer and sailor — was sworn into the position of harbormaster in July 2019. He has a well-meaning aura, the type of guy who eats quinoa and meatless sausage for dinner, as he tells me he did the night before our first interview.

“I want to dispel this notion that the [RBRA] is some huge agency. It’s not. It’s pretty much as mom-and-pop as you can get,” he says, clarifying that the RBRA comprises himself, the harbormaster, his assistant, and four elected officials. “I was hired on for a temporary six-month basis and that’s how it all started.”

The authorities charged with keeping order in Richardson Bay will say that safety is at the heart of their current campaign against anchor-outs like Smith. An unmoored boat — unattached to a dock that is itself secured to the bay floor — is a danger to its inhabitants and other vessels, as well. Even if such a boat is well anchored, a strong storm could dash it against the shoreline or cause it to capsize. Boats in poor repair may leak oil, fuel, or waste products into the water.

For this reason, vessels are only allowed to drop anchor for 72 hours, according to a law codified in 1987 by the Richardson’s Bay Regional Agency. After that, they are supposed to leave for at least a week before returning to drop anchor again.

Problem is, that law wasn’t really enforced in the quarter of a century that former Harbormaster Bill Price patrolled Richardson Bay.

After Price retired in July 2019, the RBRA hired Havel to finally implement the anchorage’s 72-hour time limit and to ensure that every vessel in the harbor is seaworthy — a contentious term among seamen, especially those living, working, or recreating on Richardson Bay.

Daniel Eggink is one of many now camping on the Sausalito shoreline. Photo by Miranda de Moraes

An intact hull, up-to-code wiring, safely stored fuel containers, and the ability to properly dispose of wastewater are all listed in the RBRA’s guidelines for determining a vessle’s seaworthiness. Boats that do not meet these requirements — and others — may be extracted from the anchorage and destroyed according to the rules. 

Generally speaking, these guidelines are meant to determine whether a vessel is “a risk to life, limb, or property” and/or poses “an environmental hazard.” While these rules are ostensibly in place to protect humans, wildlife, and the broader ecosystem, the anchor-outs of Richardson Bay say the RBRA is unfairly targeting those living on their boats while ignoring other abandoned, derelict, and drifting vessels. This accusation recalls critiques of other so-called “poverty taxes” — regulations that may pose something of an inconvenience to individuals with means but threaten the very livelihoods of the poor.

Havel doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m not coming at this from the perspective of, ‘Oh, your yacht is not up to scale.’ I look at some of these boats and I genuinely worry that I’m going to get a call that, ‘Hey, this boat went down and we can’t find so-and-so’,” Havel says in contemplation of the RBRA’s seaworthiness criteria.

When a vessel is deemed unseaworthy, the harbormaster will physically tag it and mail a notice to the vessel’s registration address. After 10 days, if the tagged vessel hasn’t been moved and its owner hasn’t spoken up, the RBRA will typically tow the boat into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Sausalito harbor, where they dispose of hazardous materials, recycle the metals on the boat, and crush its shell using an excavator. Unclaimed personal items are thrown out.

“I’m feeling chest pains right now just thinking about all of the things that they’ve destroyed,” says Alice Nevin, an anchor-out who wears a tricorn hat and paints landscapes of Richardson Bay from the water. “They busted out the antique port windows of this one boat, which to me was extreme sacrilege because all of the pieces of wood and ropes and rigging could have been recycled.”

Havel says he has removed roughly 100 vessels from the anchorage in his nearly two years as harbormaster, while 93 boats remain. He worries about the threat these lasting vessels pose to their occupants and the living things around them, noting how “right now, their vessels are death traps.”

“When you’re in the marine environment and mother nature starts dishing it out, she doesn’t care if your engine doesn’t work,” he says. Havel hopes to one day transition the anchor-outs onto land, given that every winter vessels go adrift and either crash into homes in Belvedere or crash into marinas in Sausalito.

The harbormaster closed our first interview warning me to take all stories the anchor-outs tell about him with a grain of salt.

“There’s a host of false narratives on the anchorage that I steal boats, that I’m a pirate, that I’m a thief, that I’m a rapist, that I’m a murderer.”

Then he gave me Peter Romanowsky’s number.

Burning Man by the Sea

The only thing I knew about Romanowsky before calling him on April 8 was that he was a Richardson Bay anchor-out and that he might be willing to talk to me. I prepared myself to hear all sorts of vile things about Havel as I punched in the number.

Romanowsky picked up immediately.

“They’re waiting for me to die,” said Romanowsky, who has been living on a boat in Richardson Bay since running away from home as a teenager in 1964. “And the minute I die, within days, they’re gonna try to grab my boat. They just did that, one of our senior citizens just died, and within 48 hours, her houseboat was taken to be destroyed.”

I strained to hear him over the choppy connection for 45 minutes before stopping him mid-sentence, asking for his coordinates, and racing out to meet him in person. This was clearly not a story I’d be able to fully grasp without seeing it with my own eyes. 

My directions brought me to a dirt clearing on the Sausalito waterfront called Sanctuary City, a safe haven for former anchor-outs who lost their homes at sea — either to rough weather or RBRA intervention. A federal judge has blocked Sausalito from forcing relocation of the camp residents during the pandemic, which has spurred many others, who still have a boat or two, to pitch tents and spend some nights on land.

The musk of marijuana wafted through a bonfire-stained blue sky. Old guys in colorful hats welcomed me to Sanctuary City with warm handshakes and probiotic smoothies, probably donated. There were babies running around, dogs, screamers — as some would call the folks who’d scream sporadically — and a few octogenarians with the brightest smiles I had ever seen. We sat in a circle under a big easy-up; it was like Burning Man, only by the sea.

The microphone I held was like bread for an assembly of seagulls: The residents of Sanctuary City were hungry to be heard, and one voice shouted over the next.

“I had to help a friend who was nine months pregnant get to the store, but in the process she said, ‘I think I’m going into labor.’ She still wanted to take the groceries to her boat… she didn’t wanna leave her boat,” said Tim Logan, friend of Paul Smith.

Another boat-dweller named Robert Powelson, who is also an advocate for the unhoused, emailed me a press release. It read, in part, “The community is grief stricken by the loss of a beloved and long-time live-aboard mariner.” Vessel importer Bruce Adams, whose brother Mark’s boat was taken by the RBRA, took to side-tying his boats to “defend against them being taken and destroyed by Harbormaster Havel.” Powelson says Bruce fell between two of the side-tied boats and drowned on April 15. 

Full Steam Ahead

For its part, the RBRA acknowledges that it is pulling boats out of the water at a rapid clip. The agency’s 2020 Transition Plan aggressively amplified the responsibilities of the harbormaster to enforce the 72-hour anchorage time limit and eliminate all unseaworthy vessels from Richardson Bay. Still, Havel says he is committed to ensuring that only unoccupied vessels are destroyed.

“I have not ripped somebody from their home and made them homeless, physically displaced them from their primary vessel, dumped them on the street and made them watch as I crushed it there,” he says, adding “It’s not our drive to make someone homeless.”

Havel considers a vessel to be occupied if it’s “someone’s primary place to sleep,” and says he determines this through his own observation. He travels around the harbor at dawn and dusk, and if he consistently notices a boat is unattended in those hours, he will tag it with a warning of its imminent removal. The anchor-outs, on the other hand, say they live in perpetual fear of losing their homes.

“There was times I didn’t even want to come and walk my dog on shore because if he sees a boat with a person not there, he’ll take it. It’s put me under so much duress,” anchor-out Alice Nevin says.

Many of the anchor-outs living in Richardson Bay say they are the rightful owners of their boats. As such, they argue, RBRA’s actions amount to theft. Others, like Havel, might counter that plenty of the anchor-outs regularly bounce from boat to boat, collecting abandoned vessels and cluttering the water.

One elderly sailor who goes by Einstein doesn’t exactly deny this charge. “I change boats like I change my underwear,” he laughs.

While Eisenstein jokes about his strategies for remaining in Richardson Bay, one young woman who is legally renting a slip in Sausalito and did not want to be identified, says she isn’t amused by the anchor-out community.

“I have been verbally sexually harassed consistently by one of the homeless individuals living at the encampment,” she said, adding that while she understands the needs of the anchor-out community are real, she feels that they are being given too much deference, while others in the working class do their best to play by the rules.

“I support affordable housing for working people,” the woman said. “Working people can’t even afford to live in Sausalito because it’s so expensive. The first step is to provide affordable housing to working people.”

Local businesses and environmental groups are also lobbying for the removal of anchor-outs.

Seatrek Kayak & SUP Rentals is concerned with maintaining a safe and inviting waterfront for its customers.

The Marin Audubon Society, an eco-conservation committee of the Tiburon Waterfront, has accused anchor-outs of ravaging eel grass populations in Richardson Bay. They say this keystone species provides habitat for seafloor creatures, is a core food source for water birds, and protects against coastal erosion. Other environmentalists worry that the anchor-outs fail to properly dispose of their waste and sewage, or that some of their boats are coated in lead paint, which contaminates the water and harms wildlife as it sluffs off.

And then there is the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) — a major player on the Richardson Bay waterfront. As a cheerleader for both bayshore conservation and responsible development, the BCDC is interested in making the shoreline of the bay a “recreational treasure.” After criticism from the state for insufficient enforcement of the rules on the water, the BCDC went into overdrive pushing the RBRA to oust anchor-outs.

People vs. Process

In response to the recent increase in harbor enforcement, boat-dwellers in the anchorage have responded by spending extended hours on their vessels out of fear that leaving their boats for any period of time could mean the difference between having a space of their own on the water or being forced to carve out a new home on dry land. The hysteria that has plagued the anchor-out community in the past few months is arguably just as toxic as the harm they’re causing to the stakeholders and coastal community of Richardson Bay.

“It is very impacting on your emotional health, your state of mind, when you can’t even leave your boat for fear that it’s going to be taken and crushed,” Shell Snyder said.

It seems easy to blame Harbormaster Havel for the chaos on the waterfront when perhaps the attention should be directed internally at the RBRA, considering they created a transition plan that is favorable to nearly all of its stakeholders — Seatrek, Bay Conservation and Development Commission, Marin County Sheriff, Marin Audubon Society, City of Sausalito, and so on — but not to those who will be most affected by it, the anchor-outs.

Charles Dresow, a criminal defense lawyer in Marin, is in the process of building a case for one of the anchor-outs, drawing attention to the murkiness of legislating a body of water under multiple jurisdictions — and insisting that the anchor-outs have been deprived of their constitutional right to due process.

“These joint power agencies just can’t steamroll over people,” he says, noting that he hopes that a compromise can be reached, just as deals have been struck in the past. One idea is that the county build more slips for anchor-outs to safely tie-up their boats.

In the past few weeks, an initiative to increase the capacity of liveaboard slips in Marin’s marinas for the folks living on the anchorage has caught wind. Project Homekey was a plan launched by the state in July 2020 to assist local communities in the rapid rehousing of people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic, which is now targeting the unhoused population of Richardson Bay.

The plan would provide each participant with $19,000 to cover monthly slip fees, minor boat repairs, and supportive services for 18 months — an opportunity available for only six people, which leaves dozens of anchor-outs behind. Participant vessels must meet the seaworthiness criteria of these marinas, which the harbormaster imagines is unlikely since most of the vessels anchored-out are quite weathered and would require thousands of dollars to fix up.

The unnamed Sausalito resident isn’t entirely on board with Project Homekey.

“I think anchor-outs or homeless people deserve an opportunity for housing, but I don’t necessarily think it should be right on the waterfront or exactly where they want it,” she said. “Everyone wants to live on the water, I am certain many working people would love the opportunity too. Affordable housing should be wherever the county deems appropriate, safe, sustainable, and low cost. Building and maintaining another marina to house the homeless rent free would be entirely unsustainable, and not climate resilient and not the best use of public funds.” 

While it remains to be seen what will happen to anchor-outs like Smith, Romanowski, and Eisenstein, it certainly seems like the decades-long “Houseboat Wars” of Richardson Bay may be entering their final chapter.

As the RBRA maintains its schedule of enforcement, and the remaining 92 anchor-out vessels are tagged and perhaps removed, no effective compromise is in sight.

Looking out across the waters, one may wonder how all of this got started. Some local historians might highlight the event that gave Richardson Bay its name: In 1822, a 27-year-old British sailor named William Richardson was arrested by Mexican authorities after he dragged his skiff on shore here. He pitched a tent above Yerba Buena Cove with his wife, a 19-year-old woman of Indigenous and Mexican descent, named Maria Antonia.

Since he transported loads of lumber in Mill Valley and Corte Madera and helped develop Sausalito into a port for fishing, Richardson, as one of eight English-speaking foreigners in California, left his name on this Marin landmark — and it stuck.

Daniel Eggink, an 83-year-old anchor-out who has recently been spending his nights in a tent on shore, just as Richardson did all those years ago, thinks about a time before the Briton made his way halfway around the world and laid claim to something that wasn’t his.

“I’m sitting on Native American land,” Eggink muses. “This place should never have been called Richardson Bay in the first place.”

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