Anchors: The bohemian residents of San Francisco boats are fighting for their way of life

For decades, the group, known as the “anchors,” enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence in a corner of San Francisco Bay. Sailors have created an affordable, bohemian community on the water, in a county where the average price of housing has recently reached $ 1.8 million.

But their refuge may be coming to an end – and with it a rapidly disappearing way of life.

Anchored live on half-abandoned boats located in Sausalito, a prestigious enclave north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, where the mansions boast floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the water. Tourists on weekends come from the city by ferry and stroll along the promenade of restaurants, wine bars, art galleries and boutiques.

  • Above: Anchoring boats are sitting in Richardson Bay in Sausalito, California last month. Below: Jeff Jacob Chase looks out the window of a friend’s boat.

The agency that oversees the local waterway, known as Richardson Bay, has launched a fierce oppression of boat residents in recent months, who are said to be illegal here and endanger safety and the marine environment. Determined to purify the waters, the port commander even began confiscating and destroying boats that were not welcome enough.

The rebels, meanwhile, are resisting, organizing protests and clashing with authorities they say are actually working without a roof over their heads.

On a recent afternoon, the wind carried the sounds of a tractor’s hydraulic arm smashing a fiberglass sailboat. Noise lingered over the homeless camp that had grown near the coast. The “cormorant camp,” as the boats called it, became the political base of the anchor protest movement.

For about 50 people camping in tidy rows of tents, the frequent whistling, creaking, and cracking of a shredder represents their way of life torn to pieces. Many say they were forced to flee here after their vessels were destroyed.

“They want to take our homes and close the anchorage,” says Jeff Jacob Chase, a 20-year-old anchor with a pirate-branding brand, a long beard with salt and pepper, goggles and a hat. “They basically want to eradicate culture.”

The houseboat community in Sausalito in the late 1960s. Photo: Underwood Archives / Getty Images

In the water-dominated region, boats have been used as a cheap source of housing since the gold rush when miners lived aboard vessels. In the 1950s, a community of bohemians and artists grew along the Sausalito coast, and residents built wild creative floating structures that offered shelter and inspiration this Beat writers and artists such as Allen Ginsberg and Shel Silverstein. In the 1960s, it transformed into a hippie music scene, but in the mid-1970s, the occupants of these houseboats were largely displaced in a series of local enforcement measures known as “warship houseboats”.

Despite its beatnik origins, Richardson Bay today hosts a unique system of coastal classes.

At the top are authorized marinas for houseboats, where they can sell floating, luxury houses with shingles, plumbing and electricity. for more than $ 1 million. Other boaters, known as living on board, can pay a monthly fee to stay on their sailboats and cabin cruisers in the marina, but the number of places is strictly controlled and authorities say the waiting list is long. Finally, there are the anchors, which some see as the last of the dying kind of free spirits to avoid the world of rents, credit checks and bills.

Anchorages make a living with minimal resources, draw their water, and produce energy from tiny solar collectors. They are brave because of the glorious winds in the bay to travel to and from the coast in rowing boats or motor dinghies.

Proponents of housing say the battle for their way of life is only the final chapter in a crisis in which life chances for low-income residents have almost disappeared.

Chase still has his own sailboat, a ship called the Jubilee, but he also spends time at Camp Cormorant and organizes his fellow boatmen to protest the evictions as an official of the local chapter of the California Homeless Association.

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“What they’re doing is criminalizing the whole community,” Chase said.

Coast patrols and wrecked boats

Curtis Havel, the port commander, would be the first to call himself the villain of this story.

It is windy on Wednesday morning and Havel is patrolling the waters. He stands on the bow of his aluminum patrol boat and points to the spectacular landscape around him.

“People have long treated Richardson Bay as this kind of bohemian situation live and let it live, and the number of vessels has continued to increase,” he says. “Now is the time to enforce our rules.”

The San Francisco Bay State Agency has been putting pressure on local authorities to take action, and Havel says cleaning up the port of illegal anchoring was a major task assigned to it when it was hired two years ago.

Referring to a long-unestablished rule that says boats can be anchored for up to 72 hours, Havel confiscated the boats, towed them to the shipyard and smashed them to pieces. Of the 190 boats here when he took the lead, Havel says he got rid of all but 86 vessels – of which about 70 are now occupied by permanent residents.

Havel argues that boats and their passengers can cause a list of problems and environmental concerns. Their anchors drag on the bottom and destroy the eel, an important habitat for marine life. Boats are torn from anchorages during storms, threatening those on board and others along the coast. Residents are dumping sewage and leaving abandoned boats and parts that pollute the bay. There were also complaints about drug use and crime.

Havel says he has become unpopular because of his assertion, but is willing to take a few punches to get his job done.

His patrol boat rises alongside a rusty vessel with a metal hull, loaded with plywood and corrugated metal, which appears to have become home to a flock of seagulls. Havel has already pasted a message on the side of the boat warning that it will be removed if it is not removed within 10 days.

“I hate to even call it a boat; at the moment, it’s just a shell, ”he says, adding that he has not seen passengers on board the vessel for several months. “It’s a dead boat you’re watching.”

Havel recently announced he would leave his role at the end of the month, and while his agency doesn’t seem confused about its mission, he says they are trying to find long-term solutions. The state has agreed to extend the deadline to clean up the bay by a few years, and for those still living on board, the county intends to send help finding other housing, Havel says.

But there are many signs of resistance around the anchorage. Some boats fly inverted American flags, a naval distress signal. Passengers of the boat named Evolution taped a large, hand-shaped “R” to the adhesive tape and renamed it “REvolution”.

When Havel patrols, he brings a metal dinghy behind him. The driver, a resident of the boat with a white megaphone, starts shouting at Havel and making fun of himself with swear words. “Tell them how you demolished people’s homes, sir,” the man shouts. Havel, however, looks carefree.

“It was always politically charged; it only increases because we are doing something. “

“I’m not homeless, I’m homeless”

Authorities say they only seized abandoned and abandoned boats, but near Camp Cormorant, many residents claim they lost their homes because of the shredder.

Michael Adams and his wife lived in the anchorage for decades and raised two children. The couple recently feared leaving their ship, the historic 1928 Marlin cruiser, for fear of destroying it.

“I left one morning and he crushed it,” Adams says as he paints a fresco on a plywood terrace he built in front of a tent he and his wife now call home.

Robyn Kelly, a former skin care technician, moved to the anchorage after leaving the apartment and job to care for her ailing mother, and at the end of the decade lived on a 28-foot motorboat. She says it was a great home until one day in 2019, she found out it had been confiscated by the port commander.

“I left in 24 hours and I came back and she was gone,” said Kelly, who has since filed a lawsuit against authorities for destroying her boat and property.

Kelly and her two cubs, Hank and Nacho, are currently staying on a friend’s boat; she would like to move back to the coast, but her small income is not enough to pay the deposit for the apartment and her arthritis is starting to cause her problems. “I can’t afford an apartment right now,” she said. “I’d like one.”

Kelly’s friend, Billy McClean, is the fourth generation resident of Marin County. He can look across the water from where his Dutch cruiser is anchored, and see the magnificent houses built almost a century ago by his grandfather, a local builder.

He remembers growing up when he saw people living freely on the water. “When I was a teenager, I used to come here on boats and buy a pot from the ones I called‘ hippies, ’” he says. “I live here now.”

McClean says people like him have been pushed out of the region by an influx of tech workers receiving six-figure salaries. McClean couldn’t afford a decent apartment in his previous job when he worked at a fencing company – so he bought a cheap motorboat and moved to an anchorage in 2009.

His boat has a TV, DVD player and a small refrigerator, all powered by a generator. It doesn’t have much space inside, but from its white decks it can see green waters and California slopes all around it.

“It’s nice here – but then it’s not,” he said. “It’s a lot of work – but in winter it can be downright deadly.”

  • Above: Brian Doris, left, homelessness coordinator Robbie Powelson, center, and Jeff Jacob Chase, right, talk in Doris’ boat. Below: Doris on her boat.

A short skiff ride across the anchorage from McClean, Brian Doris repairs an old pleasure yacht named Marlia, which he bought for $ 1 after it was abandoned. The exterior of his boat is still crammed with tool boxes and boat repair accessories, but he has redesigned the interior with luxurious Turkish rugs and plants.

“I’m not homeless, I’m homeless,” says Doris, who says she can no longer sleep on land because she misses the rocking of the waves.

Like many anchorage residents, Doris scoffs at the idea of ​​installing her in a shelter. “This is my home,” he says, adding that if they want to take his boat, they should “bring a body bag”.

The last of a dying breed

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco-based Homeless Coalition, says boat life was one of the many “very low-income housing options” that once existed in California in addition to residential hotels and workspaces in warehouses. . But these types of fringe housing have disappeared.

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“When gentrification came, those opportunities disappeared and that put pressure on homelessness,” Friedenbach says.

Timothy Logan, the owner of the boat, who hails from three generations of California travelers, bought his house cruiser SS Patio nine years ago to serve as his main residence. But since then he has been expelled from one port after another.

He started as a resident of a marina in Sacramento, living along the river waters that eventually flow into San Francisco Bay. This marina closed due to development, so he moved his boat to other ports, including those in Antioch and Oakland, to expel the boats from those places as well.

“Suddenly, the entire state of California was like,‘ You can’t live on water, ’” he says.

While the SS Patio is still anchored in Richardson Bay, Logan fears his ship will eventually be wrecked like many of his friends.

Havel, the port commander and authorities who manage both Richardson Bay and the state of California, say they are determined that the last anchor will disappear in five years. For their part, the anchorages do not intend to go quietly.

“We are a community; we try to stick together, ”Logan says.

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