Tensions Rise in Richardson Bay

Moorings at Richardson Bay, Marin Magazine

The idea of conservation is complex, and the word may be used in the context of both wildlife and human rights. Much of our recent Marin County history is a story of the push and pull of two aspirations — to protect flora and fauna on one hand, and to preserve quality of life for people on the other — and the beryl-blue water of Richardson Bay is currently a host to this natural tension.

Boat in Richardson Bay
A man rows back to the anchor-outs.

Whether in the Sausalito and Tiburon marinas or out on the open water, humanity strives to peaceably and symbiotically coexist with one of the most important and ecologically rich waterways in the hemisphere. The ongoing struggle to find a humane and environmentally successful balance on the bay has been unfolding for decades. Over the past few years, discussions about the “anchor-outs,” a group of people who live on illegally anchored and moored boats, have been especially acrimonious and polarizing, pitting those who live on the water and their supporters against shoreline dwellers and regulatory and environmental organizations such as the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and Audubon California.

On April 5, after months of study and community input, the Richardson Bay Regional Agency (RBRA), an entity charged with management of Mill Valley, Tiburon, Belvedere and Marin County waters, announced long-awaited updated policy recommendations for the management of Richardson Bay. Over the course of the past year, RBRA and the City of Sausalito, which broke from the agency last spring to monitor its own jurisdictional waters, have grappled in public and private with the issue of how to better manage the long-standing community of boaters.

The nonprofit Audubon California believes the presence of this community is an unequivocal environmental disaster, especially with regard to eelgrass, a not-so-glamorous but nonetheless elemental puzzle piece in the bay’s complex ecology. Additionally, a number of shoreline residents have expressed frustration with anchor-outs, claiming the community’s wayward boats damage property and that their trash and sewage pollute the bay. The anchor-out community and its supporters, including on-shore residents who see the existence of this community as emblematic of the creative and diverse character that has made Marin County unique, say that contrary to popular perception, anchor-outs are generally responsible citizens whose environmental impact — including wildlife displacement, toxic runoff and carbon footprint — is minuscule relative to that of the average land dweller.

Anchor-out community Richardson Bay
Anchor-out dinghies and rafts at Galilee Harbor.

The story of the anchor-outs of Richardson Bay dates back to World War II, when a flotilla of retired barges, ferries, schooners and fireboats was repurposed by folks who hoped to live inexpensively just offshore. “In Sausalito people live on anything that floats,” reads a caption for an August 1951 photo essay in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Some live there because it’s cheap, others because it’s ‘arty’ and some because they like the water and the way it rocks them to sleep.” By 1959, the first big push to control the vessel and houseboat dwellers came from Sausalito City Attorney John Ehlen, but the offshore community resisted and only grew, establishing itself in the ’60s as a colorful part of the Sausalito shoreline. In June 1971, a well-documented battle — what would become known as “The Houseboat Wars” — erupted when the Coast Guard and the Marin County sheriff attempted to clear out several houseboats. They were met with an armada of waterborne resistance.

“I think there were always some issues between the ‘hill people’ on land and the ‘anchor-outs’ on the bay,” says Memo Gidley, a professional race car driver who grew up as an anchor-out on his parents’ 54-foot cutter. Gidley’s father, Cass, was a seaman who came to Sausalito in the 1920s, owned a sailing school and a commercial fishery, and was known to many as the “godfather of the anchor-outs.” Memo and his mother, Mary Gidley, remember life on the bay in the 1970s as challenging and beautiful. In Mary’s words, “It was a lifestyle for hardy people, but also a romantic lifestyle, quiet and peaceful on the water, the sky full of stars.”

Anchor-out folks, Memo and Mary Gidley
Memo and Mary Gidley.

The Gidleys describe their neighbors as individuals who loved the water and the sense of freedom found offshore. “The community was full of diversity,” Memo says. “Mostly low-income, and not only hardworking but also a community full of role models.” One aspect of the lifestyle he particularly admires is cooperation of the sort you do not easily find on land. “If anyone ever needs help at any time, even if they knock on your boat at 4 a.m., you go help.”

Anchor-out Chad Carvey is a charity auctioneer who was a Marin County school principal for 29 years. Nine years ago he and his wife, Carolyn, moved aboard their 43-foot sailboat to save money for a 10-year circumnavigation of the globe. Carvey, who considers himself an environmentalist and regularly posts videos on Facebook of the bird and sea life surrounding his boat, has become a vocal advocate for the anchor-out community. “At a time when the gentrification and sterilization of our communities is happening everywhere, these waters have always been a sanctuary city for poets, artists, musicians, maritime workers, retirees, homeless folks and seagoing voyagers,” he wrote in a May 2017 opinion piece for the community newspaper Marinscope titled “Anchor-Out Community Good for the Environment, Good for the People.”

Chad Carvey, Anchor-out member
Chad Carvey heads to shore.

Carvey argues that “most anchor-outs use solar and wind power, so our ecological footprint is approximately 10 percent of [that of] land-based neighbors.” He adds that the alleged sewage problem is not truly a problem because of the free pump-out (waste removal) service provided by the RBRA, and says monthly water quality testing has shown no contamination. “Meanwhile, Sausalito and Mill Valley have had millions of gallons of accidental sewage spill into the bay over the past 30 years,” he adds, referring to a recent Marin County Grand Jury Report. Carvey praises Audubon California for its environmental work across the region, but he takes issue with its claim that anchor-outs lead to the demise of eelgrass; he cites a 2010 S.F. Bay Subtidal Habitat Goals Report that shows an increase in eelgrass in Richardson Bay, from 13 acres in 1987 to 670 acres in 2009.

Richardson Bay
Rebecca Schwartz Lesberg

Audubon S.F. Bay Program Director Rebecca Schwartz Lesberg strongly disputes Carvey’s arguments. Audubon monitors the health of the eelgrass through aerial geographic information system (GIS) photography, and it estimates that eelgrass damage is on average one-half acre per boat.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Making Waves.” 

Kirsten Jones Neff

Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.