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Are rumors of a pirate crime spree on the San Francisco Bay exaggerated?

Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

In mid-August, four of the Alameda Community Sailing Center’s inflatable dinghies—worth roughly $100,000—were stolen. Their lines were cut, and the lot was towed away by thieves—termed as "pirates" by many—said the center’s Kame Richards. With the aid of a friend, Richards scoured the waters around the island of Alameda in search of the dinghies.  

Eventually, all of them were found. 

But during the duo’s search, they discovered that another dinghy was stolen from the nearby Encinal Yacht Club. The boat had been whitewashed but for a club insignia and tied up to a sailboat illegally anchored in public waters close to Oakland’s shoreline. 

When Richards confronted a man on the boat, he was told the dinghy had been found adrift. 

Andrew Haid stands up through a hatch aboard the sailboat where he lives in Oakland on Sept. 26, 2023. He is anchored near Coast Guard Island’s bridge at Union Point. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

“We said that’s not your boat, and we’re gonna take it away,” Richards said.  

Richards’ story is just one in a series of recent reports of so-called pirates burglarizing or stealing boats on the San Francisco Bay that emerged late this summer. Most of the incidents have involved stealth burglaries of vessels docked in and around the Oakland Estuary and thefts along Alameda’s shore. Now, the Coast Guard is building a case against two suspects whom law enforcement believes are responsible for the majority of recent crimes in the area.

While the data shows that the number of calls for service on the Alameda waterfront is not higher than last year—in fact, it’s down 5%, year to date—many residents of the area’s marinas insist there has been a definitive uptick in crime. They say that reporting those incidents seems futile because of the lack of police response and presence, which is why the numbers don’t reflect a surge. Some residents have even armed themselves to protect their property.

“It’s gotten to the point where I am sleeping with a weapon next to me,” said Marcus Powell, who lives on a boat in one of Alameda’s marinas. 

“It’s definitely worse than it’s ever been,” said former Oakland harbor master Brock de Lappe, who says he heard people are arming themselves. “That’s heading toward a disaster. Someone’s going to get hurt.”

On Sept. 26, 2023, Dru, who declined to give a last name, fishes off a float behind the 34-foot powerboat, Saxy Lady, in Oakland, where he lives with his wife, Amanda, left. The boat is docked illegally at the Jack London Aquatic Center dock. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Scene of the Crimes

The estuary that separates Oakland from Alameda stretches from the Port of Oakland all the way east to San Leandro Bay. Numerous marinas lie on both shorelines, as do maritime industries such as dry docks and boatyards. Coast Guard Island, almost directly in the middle of the body of water, is where the force docks two of its massive coastal patrol ships. 

Along with rowers, sailors and motorboaters, the busy estuary is home to live-aboards, who have permanent berths in its marinas. But it has also been home, off and on, to anchor-outs, who illegally park their vessels, some of which wind up wrecked on the shore or sunken after winter storms.

A screenshot from Google Maps depicts the Oakland Estuary.

Many of the recently reported crime victims have been live-aboards and those in the sailing community, who—while protected by locked gates blocking entry to the marinas from land—have had their idyllic and wide-open waterfront vistas turn into an unprotected liability. Many have said the "pirates" are anchor-out types.

“The issue of the anchor-outs in the boats is a very, very large part of this issue. It’s probably about 50% of this problem,” Tracy Reigelman, Oakland Yacht Club’s rear commodore and a live-aboard docked at the Marina Village Yacht Harbor, told a recent gathering of bay regulators at a meeting on the issue. He described the situation as a “lawless and Wild West environment.”

A longtime anchor-out, Andrew Haid, who lives on a small sailboat near Coast Guard Island, rejected the idea that all the crime can be laid in the lap of his free-floating neighbors but acknowledged that crime on the water has become more brazen. He said he recently had a pistol pulled on him after a dispute with a fellow anchor-out neighbor.  

Another pair of anchor-outs, Amanda and Dru, who declined to share their last names, said they live aboard their 34-foot power boat Saxy Lady off of Oakland’s Aquatic Park and have been crime victims themselves. 

“Everyone is judging us because we anchor out,” Amanda said, adding that, aside from their anchor-out status, “we abide by the law.” 

Crimes by the Numbers

Despite the general consensus on the waterfront, Alameda police say reports of crimes are down slightly in the 13 marinas along the city’s shoreline. In 2023, the department said there were 322 calls for service through the end of August, representing a 5% decrease over the same period last year. Of those calls, only 8%—26 calls—resulted in a police report. 

Oakland Police Officer Kaleo Albino patrols the Oakland Estuary aboard his department’s 37-foot jet-powered boat on Sept. 26, 2023. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Oakland police did not respond to requests for crime statistics along that city’s shoreline, but the department’s maritime officer, Kaleo Albino, said that in August, a 40-foot power boat was stolen near Jack London Square and two dinghies were reported stolen. All were recovered. The power boat had three guns aboard when it was taken, he added. None of them were recovered. 

Albino said usually only one or two boats are reported stolen in Oakland each year, compared with the three in August. 

“It was a lot of crime in a short period of time,” Albino said.

According to crime victims on the waters of Alameda interviewed by The Standard, seven boats were stolen, among other criminal incidents, over the summer.  

“There is a criminal element that has become brazen because they’ve been able to get away with it with impunity,” said de Lappe.“It’s a complete dereliction of duty to everyone who has any responsibility.” 

How Residents Are Coping

Live-aboards, said Richards of the Alameda Community Sailing Center, are especially vexed by the problem and have taken to keeping an ear cocked for the sound of dinghy motors at night, which could signal thieves casing the harbor. 

A photo of two male suspected thieves on a dinghy is posted near the entrance gate to an Alameda marina and reads: “Heads up. Seen trolling around … thiefs.” | Source: Jonah Owen Lamb/The Standard

Anita Welch, a live-aboard resident of an Alameda marina on the estuary who requested that her specific marina not be named, said that she and her neighbors feel under attack from thieves both on the land and water. 

“It’s been awful,” she said of the last six months. “Everybody’s on alert,” she added. 

Her neighborhood in the marina runs a Facebook group that has documented car thefts and illegal entry into the locked marina gate, as well as suspected boat thieves. 

By the entrance gate to one marina, a picture of two male suspected thieves in a dinghy has been posted. It reads: “Heads up. Seen trolling around … thiefs.” 

The state body responsible for overseeing development along the bay’s shoreline has been made aware of the increasing fears around crime. 

“We’ve had a lot of complaints,” said Marie Gilmore, a San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission member, at a monthly meeting last week about safety on the estuary. The meeting is regularly attended by representatives of the Coast Guard and the San Francisco, Sausalito, Oakland and Alameda police departments, among other entities.

“Clearly, the problem has vastly outstripped your resources,” she told law enforcement officials who attended the meeting on Sept. 27.  

What Officials Are Doing

Last week, Albino of the Oakland police put the department’s 38-foot patrol boat, Moose, into neutral as he floated about 25 feet from the city’s Jack London Aquatic Center. 

Oakland Police Officer Kaleo Albino boards his boat before patrolling the Oakland Estuary on the 37-foot jet-powered boat on Sept. 26, 2023. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Around him spread a small flotilla of boats, all of them anchor-outs residing illegally in the estuary. Nearby, a handful of other vessels were tied up to a dock illegally. Albino said he has tagged some of the boats already—meaning he has notified them that they must move or be destroyed—and recognized the others as having been in the estuary illegally. 

“Most of these folks know me by first and last name,” he said of the anchor-outs he deals with and says he has compassion for. “I’m understanding of everyone’s situation.” 

For the past five years, Albino has headed up what exists of law enforcement in the waterway. But because of other duties, he is only on the water about 20 hours a week, and he is required to patrol the port during much of that time.  

Albino has seen everything on the water, from domestic disputes and arguments to people firing warning flares in the air. At one point, he witnessed a man holding a shield and sword in a fight. 

As for the recent reported spate of crimes, Albino is certain he knows who is responsible.

“I think there are two people doing all the crime,” he said. “It’s not the majority of the anchor-outs.” 

Albino said one arrest for possession of two outboard motors has been made (the suspect is awaiting trial) and that there is a Coast Guard investigation into two other people officials believe are the main culprits of the crime spree, according to Coast Guard Petty Officer Hunter Schnabel, who would not further elaborate on the agency’s activity. The Coast Guard is also stepping up boat and air patrols in the waters, according to Schnabel. 

Alameda police have said their auxiliary marine unit has been out of service for months but was back out on the water on Sunday. However, the department said the boat that patrols the estuary can only be crewed three days a month due to budget constraints and low staffing. 

Oakland has also received grant funds to aid in the removal of illegal boats—Albino has counted more than 20 on the water—which law enforcement says is a key tool in fighting crime. The city plans to have all illegal boats notified of the removal plan by Thanksgiving and to complete the removal by December. 

As for the county sheriff’s office, it disbanded its marine unit, Albino said. Its patrol boat sits unused on a dock in Alameda. 

A Repeat Performance

For those living on the water, this has all happened before. 

In 2020, Oakland stopped removing illegal vessels after a boat owner whose vessel the city destroyed sued. Oakland paid a settlement and paused such operations. But in March 2023, the city council passed the Nuisance Vessel Ordinance, which will allow for the removal of illegal or abandoned boats. The city had to wait until October to start the removal process because the funds were not yet available. 

Illegally docked and sunken vessels surround a public pier at the Oakland Estuary’s Jack London Aquatic Center on Sept. 26, 2023. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Official efforts to remove anchor-outs and other illegal boating communities go back decades in the Bay Area. Ex-Oakland harbor master de Lappe says he’s seen authorities take action before and then fail to follow up.  

Back in 2012, he helped get the millions required to pay for the clearance of 40 to 50 anchor-outs from the estuary, he said. But unless authorities are diligent, the boats will always return and with them, the crime, he said.

Without a holistic approach to the issue, the problem will just temporarily shift to another part of the bay and then eventually return to the estuary, said Brad Gross, the former executive director of the Richardson Bay Regional Agency in San Rafael.

“I haven’t heard anything such as housing programs working side by side addressing these illegal anchor-outs,” he said at last week’s meeting on the issue. 

An Oakland police boat and helicopter search a channel off San Leandro Bay for the weapon used in a shooting that killed seven at Oikos University in Oakland on April 3, 2012. | Source: Sarah Rice/Getty Images

Role of the Bay Area’s Homelessness Crisis

Homeless encampments have been growing along the waterfront in Oakland and Alameda since the pandemic, despite repeated efforts to clear them. 

Oakland leaders told the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission at its recent meeting that the city is overwhelmed by more than 5,000 people on the streets and encampments that move every time the city attempts to clear them. Until that issue is solved, the issue of anchor-outs will probably persist.

Albino explained that small, cheap boats are relatively easy to buy, leading to people with little to no knowledge of boating and no place to live ending up on the water. While natural elements provide a certain degree of danger—storms and tides, for example—it’s often considered more comfortable than a homeless encampment. 

“It’s secure," Albino said. "It’s way nicer. It’s beautiful to be out on the water."

While law enforcement is confident that clearing anchor-outs will dramatically reduce lawlessness on the water, residents and those within the community are skeptical.

Anchor-out Andrew Haid says that he’s managed to dodge authorities trying to get him out of the estuary for the past 15 years, and he plans to continue to evade them. 

“They’ll chase me around,” he said. “I’ll wait a couple days, and I’ll come right back.”

A composite image shows a sunken vessel surrounded by illegally docked boats, left, at a public pier at Jack London Aquatic Center and a GPS screen showing the location of Oakland Police Officer Kaleo Albino’s vessel, right, while patrolling the Oakland Estuary on Sept. 26, 2023. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at