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‘Anchor-out’ boat dwellers near Sausalito face eviction from Richardson Bay

A longtime community of unregistered, uninsured boats known as “anchor-outs” is being evicted from Richardson Bay for the benefit of eelgrass. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Chad Wycliffe was born on land but has lived on water for more than 25 years. He took up residence in a boat during the winter of 1997-98 to keep an eye on a friend amid a brutal El Niño season.

By 2014 or so, Wycliffe was a full-time “anchor-out,” part of a community of mariners permanently anchored on Richardson Bay, a particularly placid arm of San Francisco Bay ringed by the affluent communities of Sausalito, Mill Valley and Tiburon.

Today, Wycliffe lives on his 33-foot fishing boat, the Iron Maiden, with two 3-year-old Rottweiler-pit bull mixes, Wednesday and Cyrus. A security guard for a ship builder in Sausalito, Wycliffe is a man of few words. Of life on the water, he simply said, “I feel connected.”

That connection may not last much longer. Wycliffe’s boat is one of less than three dozen still moored on Richardson Bay—rent-free and unencumbered by permits or regulations—down from an estimated 200 only a few years ago. Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, local authorities have slowly worked to thin out their ranks in hopes of preserving an ecologically sensitive “Eelgrass Protection Zone.” 

Clinging to a crusty and increasingly anachronistic way of life, this small community that goes back to at least the 1970s now faces an existential question: Stay and fight, or move on. 

A man in a hat is stepping onto a sailboat, holding ropes, with blue sail covers and supplies around.
Arthur Bruce, one of dozens of people who live on boats in Richardson Bay, leaves his Cheoy Lee sailboat, Gamecock, on March 31. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard
a sea gull flies over boats anchored on San Francisco Bay with the skyline in the distance
Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, local authorities have slowly worked to evict boats in Richardson Bay in hopes of preserving an ecologically sensitive “Eelgrass Protection Zone.” | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

The Richardson Bay Regional Agency created the Eelgrass Protection Zone in cooperation with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission and is working to relocate Wycliffe and his neighbors in phases over the next 2½ years.

In 2021, the agency and commission worked out an agreement to offer each boat dweller a kind of buyout package: $150 per foot for the length of their vessel in exchange for moving ashore, along with assistance in securing permanent housing. (Wycliffe would qualify for a roughly $5,000 payment.) 

As of March, the last four of Richardson Bay’s quirky “floating homes”—a unique category of vessel that’s different from both proper houseboats tethered to a dock and sailboats anchored hundreds of yards offshore—were removed. Almost everyone else is expected to be off the water by this October, with a small number of vessels allowed until 2026. The anchorage will be available only to boaters staying 72 hours or less, under a permit issued by the harbor master. 

Including Wycliffe’s Iron Maiden, some 32 vessels are currently moored on Richardson Bay. Not all are inhabited, and seven arrived too recently to be covered by the 2021 agreement. Several appear to be in poor condition, with visible accumulations of garbage. At least one is half-submerged.

A man with a long beard holds a dog by the water, with children and boats in the background.
Longtime Richardson Bay anchor-out Peter Romanowsky, 75, holds his dog Toby-Wan Kenobi while sitting ashore. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard
An old boat heavily cluttered with items, floating on calm water under a clear blue sky.
If boats are loaded with items, personal belongings or garbage, it can be hard to know if they are inhabited or not. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

On a tranquil Wednesday, Wycliffe voiced an objection shared by many of the libertarian-leaning boat dwellers: They’re being unfairly booted from their homes for a scientifically dubious reason. 

Many anchor-outs say they’re victims of something resembling a terrorist campaign, claiming that their boats have been indiscriminately seized and junked.

For now, a mood of defiance prevails. Not far from the Iron Maiden, on the Gamecock, another fishing boat, Arthur Bruce is proud that he hasn’t had to lock his door in six years. He doesn’t want the agency’s “dirty money.” 

“They haven’t proven that they figured out a way to get rid of us yet,” his friend Keven Kiffer said. Kiffer has a contingency plan, though. “If I get kicked out, I’m going to the Mariana Islands. It’s a U.S. commonwealth.”

A shrinking flotilla

Richardson Bay Regional Agency Executive Director Brad Gross says that since he took over in January 2023, the number of vessels on the water has decreased considerably.

“When we started this agreement, there were over 200,” he said. “Now there are about 32 that have somebody attached to them, so we’ve made some substantial progress.” 

The goal is not merely a healthy habitat for marine life but also a well-maintained and navigable place for windsurfers, paddleboarders and cruising boaters who need a temporary place to anchor.

Anchor-outs often commute to shore using dinghies or skiffs that they attach to their primary vessels. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard
A person in a red life jacket rows a cluttered small boat among others on a sunny, calm water body.
Philip Crabtree, bottom, uses his dinghy to ferry supplies to his anchored-out vessel on Richardson Bay. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

“I don’t think having a flotilla of illegally anchored vessels with people living on them and storing their belongings with dinghies and skiffs floating behind makes for a safe feeling for a kid doing a sailboat race,” Gross said.

Many anchor-outs contend that the Army Corps of Engineers has crushed boats arbitrarily and without due process, though the evidence is spotty. 

Jim Malcolm, the Richardson Bay Regional Agency harbor master, confirmed that the agency has a land-use agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers to use its debris yard for operations, but insisted the corps isn’t going rogue in the way some anchor-outs claim.

“To my knowledge, the Army Corps has never taken anything off the anchorage,” Malcolm said. “To the point that vessels are being seized without respect to ownership status, that’s incorrect.” 

A wrinkled letter is held by a hand, addressed to Barbara Kaufman regarding concerns for the Richardson Bay anchor-out community.
“Addy the Admiral” reads a 2011 letter from then California State Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton supporting Richardson Bay anchor-outs. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

Instead, he’s begun issuing citations via the postal service to boat owners’ registered mailing addresses. (The California Harbors and Navigation Code governs marine debris and abandoned vessels, with procedures in place for informing owners of violations.) 

“You have to have a mailing address to register a vessel,” he said. “You can’t just register with DMV and say, ‘Here’s my latitude and longitude.’” 

The importance of eelgrass

What we think of as San Francisco Bay is actually a complex of tidal estuaries, the largest on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Since industrialization began in earnest in the mid-19th century, more than one-third of it has been filled in to make room for houses, salt ponds and airports. 

Richardson Bay is one of the region’s most pristine alcoves, with eelgrass thriving in its sandy shallows beneath the anchor-outs’ keels. Looking a bit like scallion tops, eelgrass is not something that humans eat or use to produce anything. And yet, the marine health of Richardson Bay largely depends on it to provide a spawning habitat for the herring that form the basis of the marine food chain.

Keith Merkel, a marine biologist with the consulting firm Merkel and Associates, says that the 250,000-acre San Francisco Bay contains some 3,000 acres of fragile eelgrass, the second-largest habitat in the state. Of Richardson Bay’s 400 acres of eelgrass, approximately 75 acres have been lost to moorings and chains that drag around the bay floor, creating depressions and kicking up sediment that clouds the water.

Over-under water view with seagrass below and a boat above the surface.
Eelgrass, seen here off Balboa Island in Newport Beach, is an ecologically sensitive seaweed that provides a spawning habitat for herring. | Source: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Aerial view of sailboats spread across a shallow blue sea with visible seabed textures.
Anchor-out boats have been criticized for damaging eelgrass beds in the area, creating “crop circles” or “mooring spots.” | Source: Courtesy the 111th Aerial Photography

In spite of what marine biologists say, the anchor-outs insist that their way of life doesn’t do much damage. To Bruce, the true environmental offender is unchecked sulfite runoff from agriculture and illegal dumping from fancy yachts. 

Merkel says the science is unambiguous. “The anchor-outs are doing damage to the eelgrass beds. There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We refer to it as ‘crop circles’ or ‘mooring spots.’”

Merkel contributed to the agency’s Restoration and Adaptive Management Plan, which shows damaged eelgrass beds in circular patterns surrounding anchor points. But, Merkel added, the purpose of his report was not to evict the mariners but to accommodate them. “That was the directive we had on our project: to find a way to coexist,” he said.

Sausalito, Wycliffe said, was a beautiful place. “And it still is. But the city and the people have changed. … Nobody owns this water, as much as they want to enforce rules upon it.”

Malcolm disputes this. “I’ve never encountered an ultra-rich person who thinks they’re unsightly,” he said.

In fact, most of these people don't pay attention to the boats at all.  “The anchored-out vessels are so far away you can’t actually make any determination of material condition,” Malcolm said. “They look like sailboats.”

A floating community in flux

A peaceful life on the bay may look idyllic from afar, but living on a damp, cramped seacraft that requires constant maintenance is anything but. And while a communitarian ethos has long prevailed on Richardson Bay, things sometimes go wrong. 

Abel Arrendondo, a boat cleaner and former anchor-out who currently lives on land, said that many boat dwellers lack insurance. Sometimes, when storms blow their vessels into a private dock in Tiburon, they often simply walk away, lacking either the means or the inclination to pay up. 

Anchored-out vessels float on Richardson Bay on March 31 in Sausalito. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard
Two people are standing by a marina with boats and clear skies in the background. They are casually dressed and smiling.
Boat cleaners Abel Arrendondo, left, and Aubrey Kessler stand onshore near Richardson Bay in Sausalito on March 13. They have noticed how the anchor-out community has changed over time. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

Three or four years ago, Arrendondo returned to his boat, the Whisper, after a period away to find a fellow anchor-out squatting there. He tried to reason with the guy, giving him time to vacate, but an argument ensued and the squatter struck Arrendondo with an oar.

“When I was able to get on my boat, it was completely trashed,” he said. “I mean, he broke the door. The hatch was broken. Everything was filled with trash.”

The Whisper had become unsuitable for habitation, but before Arredondo could get it shipshape, it was impounded and crushed by the Army Corps of Engineers, he said. He took it as a sign that life on the water was simply no longer feasible.

“Great community, people are really good,” Arrendondo said. “But then again, you got your really bad people out there. There's some people that are just crazy. It's no different than people living in their cars or RVs right on the street.” 

Joele Maddy, the manager of nearby Modern Sailing School & Rowing Club, said he’s gotten to know a few anchor-outs who pay to park their cars in his lot. They’re polite and often well-educated, he said, yet they live in fear of rowing ashore to go to work or visit family and coming back to find themselves without a boat in the water. To him, a solution would be a well-regulated mooring field where everyone is spaced out.

“And from an aerial view, it would be nice and tidy,” he said. 

The anchor-out way of life is one of apparent freedom marred by human tragedy. One sloop that was recently crushed, the Dora, had had a troubled history, including a murder and two suicides.

“At one time, it was a meth lab,” Maddy said. “That boat was pretty much derelict.”

A sunken anchored-out vessel is seen in Richardson Bay on March 31 in Sausalito. | Source: Noah Berger for The Standard

With barely six months until he’s officially no longer allowed to live on Richardson Bay, Wycliffe is uncertain about his future. He and his fiancee had been among those who had agreed to give up their boat and live on land. But she died unexpectedly in November, turning his life upside down.

If keeping his boat in the water means finding a slip for it in a marina somewhere—at a cost of least $400 per month and probably more—plus housing for himself and the dogs, there’s no way he could afford it. Plus, he’s tried to leave before.

“As much as I can fathom leaving, as I have in the past, I always come back,” said Wycliffe, who is 41. “Maybe my destiny is to die on this water as well.”