‘Liveaboards’ Say Port Is Scuttling a Free Life Style

Times Staff Writer

The dinghy drifted as Charles Williams shipped his oars a moment and pointed to a flotilla of barges, wood-shingled houseboats and graying yachts bobbing quietly on the bay.

“This happens to be my neighborhood,” he said.

Williams, a 37-year-old electrician, lives on a sailboat in the Commercial Anchorage Basin just north of Shelter Island.

Set aside decades ago as a free anchorage for visiting boats, the basin currently harbors 240 boats--most more or less permanently anchored here.


They are an odd fleet--a mix of powerboats, sailboats and debris-covered barges in various states of disrepair. About 40 of the boats are abandoned and some are under water. Others, still occupied, are crude vessels--little more than plywood boxes bobbing on the waves.

Still, many boats moored next to the derelicts are well-tended. There are sleek 35-foot sailboats and cozy houseboats. One 55-foot houseboat, a boat that Williams built, has cedar floors, a fireplace and a rooftop patio. Another has stained glass in every porthole and a pot of red geraniums by the door.

For the 150 “liveaboards"--teachers, retirees, a doctor and several artists who “didn’t like living in suburbia"--the anchorage is a dream come true.

Commercial Basin is close to downtown San Diego, but on a sunny day, when the wind rocks the boats, the distance could be light years. The only sounds are the lapping waves and the whir of the windmills. (On nearly every boat, metal blades are fixed to a mast to generate electricity.)

But like many a dream, this one is about to end--possibly in the next three weeks.

Fed up with unkempt boats, congested harbors and a growing number of “squatters” around the bay, the San Diego Unified Port District has decided to regulate this anchorage--and all moorings in San Diego Bay.

For the first time since 1915 when the federal government declared the bay’s 22 square miles free anchorage, boaters will have to pay to anchor here.

The Port’s new anchorage master plan specifies a $1 a day fee to start, with rent hikes possible in the future. The master plan also restricts long-term mooring to eight clearly specified anchorages; it limits the number of boats per anchorage, and it restricts anchorage leases to just one year. (Under the rules, however, overnight sailing including weekend “raft-ups” in the bay, is still permitted without a fee.)

And, in the most controversial aspect of the plan, the new rules require all boats in an anchorage to be seaworthy: i.e. capable of powering themselves, equipped with proper sewage disposal devices and carrying safety equipment. If they fail these conditions--and Port officials expect fully half of the 657 vessels currently anchored around the bay to do so--they can be denied a mooring. (The eight anchorages in the master plan ultimately will create 625 new mooring spaces.)

To the liveaboards, the rules seem unfair. “The California Coastal Act requires the Port to provide ports of refuge and to protect low- and moderate-income housing” on the bay, said Marjorie Cohn, the attorney the liveaboards hired to lobby first the Port, then the California Coastal Commission against the regulations.

The Port was violating the tradition of free access to the bay, she said, adding, “And I think they’re doing it for the money.” Though the $1-a-day rent seems minimal now, revenues could be substantially higher if the Port raises the fees.

Also, Cohn said, she believes some of her clients are being evicted because their life style--and their boats--are so different. “I think they (the Port) want a certain type of person to be docked in the bay in neat little rows,” she said.

But at an April 25 hearing, the California Coastal Commission didn’t agree. By a 7-0 vote, they approved the Port’s new rules. For four of the eight recently designated anchorages (at the Bay Bridge, the Naval Amphibious Base, Crown Cove and a South Bay anchorage called the Sweetwater Small Craft Anchorage), the regulations must still be approved by the Coast Guard which, until now, has held that portion of the bay under its jurisdiction.

But at the Port’s existing anchorages (Commercial Basin, Yacht Basin, Laurel Street and Glorietta Bay), the plan is already in effect.

Two weeks ago, Harbor Police evicted 50 liveaboards from the Laurel Street anchorage and impounded 10 abandoned vessels there. Then the Port’s contractor began hauling old boats, castoff washer-dryers and trash cans full of cement (once used as anchors) from the waters of the anchorage. Recently orange mooring buoys were installed and Port officials say they are about to begin inspecting boats to see which liveaboards may return.

The Commercial Basin is next. In the next three weeks, Port officials say they plan to clear out the anchorage, two rows of boats at a time. And when the liveaboards return, in six months or so, they’ll return to an anchorage with rules.

That doesn’t set well with Commercial Basin residents, Williams among them, who are worried that their boats won’t meet the new seaworthiness standard--particularly the requirement that vessels must propel themselves.

Williams points to one houseboat, a small box with a blue tarpaulin roof. “It’s a real small place but she (the owner) likes it,” he said. “And she doesn’t want to go anywhere. She’s here. Why shouldn’t she be permitted to live here?”

Port officials have an answer. By state law, they say, the Port is for boaters--not permanent dwellings or “arks.”

Ten years ago, there were about 150 vessels anchored at random in the bay compared to more than 650 today, Port Commission Chairman William Rick said Friday. If the Port is to maintain anchorage space for visiting yachtsman and keep the navigation channels clear, it has to impose some rules or succumb to “chaos,” Rick said.

The rules were reasonable--governing function, not aesthetics, he said. “Any vessel with a power system, which can get under way, would be allowed. And I don’t care if it looks like a house or looks like an airplane,” Rick said.

Still, aesthetics have played a role in many officials’ growing distaste for liveaboards in the bay.

Some Port officials recall with amazement one odd craft at the Laurel Street anchorage--a camper shell held up by oil drums. Meanwhile, the South Bay has increasingly becoming a graveyard for large, rusting ships and Greg Cox, mayor of Chula Vista, is less than pleased.

Off Gunpowder Point, “there’s an accumulation of barges one-eighth of a mile long,” Cox said. In that area this March, a liveaboard burned to death on his ship but the Harbor Patrol couldn’t get close enough to fight the fire because the water was so shallow, Cox said.

Cox, the Harbor Patrol and the Coast Guard are all worrying about another strange South Bay “vessel"--the Castle. As Cox and Port officials described it, the Castle is a two-story structure built on four barges and anchored 200 yards off Chula Vista. It has crenulated walls, a large room for dancing and two hot tubs on the second floor. Cox said the Castle is often rented out for parties for 200 people or more.

There are questions about the safety of the structure as well as whether it dumps raw sewage into the bay. During a party last summer, when the Castle became partially submerged, the Coast Guard confiscated it briefly.

“There were no life preservers, no running lights. There was total disregard for normal safety,” Cox said. And, he said, before the Coast Guard arrived, some of the 150 people still aboard began to panic. “People were tearing apart the salad bar (for wood), trying to float back to shore,” Cox said.

The Coast Guard has determined that the Castle is not a vessel, Cox said, so until the Port District is given legal jurisdiction over the area, by approval of the anchorage plan, no agency seems to have jurisdiction over it.

Other officials around the bay are anxious to see the entire master-plan take effect. Some object to one anchorage--they fear the new Sweetwater anchorage in the South Bay will block recreational boating. Still they favor regulating the liveaboards.

Ben McKesson, commodore of the San Diego Assn. of Yacht Clubs, representing 13 yacht clubs from Oceanside south to Coronado Cays, said he and other sailors have been “concerned for some time about (liveaboards) blocking the entry channel into Glorietta Bay.”

“And the stuff off of Shelter Island is full of the miserable, disreputable boats,” McKesson said. “The Commercial Basin is really kind of a jungle sometimes.”

In Coronado, Police Chief Gerald Boyd also likes the new Port rules. Still, he is worried about the Port’s apparent plan to clear out one anchorage at a time without creating new mooring spaces first.

When the Laurel Street anchorage was cleared, “about 20 vessels--all of which appeared to be derelict vessels, unseaworthy--relocated to Coronado,” Boyd said. There were demasted sailboats, trimarans afloat only because of the buoys lashed beneath them and vessels listing to one side. Ten boats were towed over, Boyd said.

And Boyd said he was worried about the next wave of liveaboards, because there were many more in Commercial Basin than in Laurel Street. It would have made more sense to create the new anchorages, inspect the vessels--and then allow them to move, he said.

Boyd stressed that his concern was safety--not aesthetics. Two years ago during the winter storms, some of the derelict boats “broke loose and came careening across the bay. It took an unbelievable effort to keep them from crashing into the docks and tearing up vessels.” Some were rescued, some destroyed, Boyd said. And some “we literally broke them up into firewood.”

The liveaboards of Commercial Bay say derelict boats are their concern, too. But they claim the issue could have been resolved without detailed regulations. “It’s like killing a fly with a sledgehammer,” Cohn, their attorney, argued. She said her clients have regularly asked the Harbor Patrol to remove abandoned and sinking boats, but usually there is no response.

Harbor Police Capt. Don Hadley said his patrolmen often can’t respond. Because of the helter-skelter moorings in Commercial Basin, “we don’t go through the middle (of the anchorage) because of the potential of getting lines in our screws.”

Harbor Police patrolled close to the anchorage last week--gathering registration numbers of abandoned boats, preparing for the liveaboards to move out.

Despite their protests about the Port’s new rules, boatman after boatman said he would leave when he was asked.

“If I could get everyone else to say ‘Hell, no, we won’t go,’ just like Vietnam, I might not do it. But I don’t want to be in county jail while they impound my boat,” said George Halliburton, 35.

House boat resident Alex Scandalios, a writer, sounded sad. “It’s the end of an era . . . . This house boat is a good example of what this anchorage could be like,” he said, referring to “The Ponderosa,” Williams’ well-kept houseboat with the patio on top. “But instead, it’s another piece of San Diego into the history books,” Scandalios said.

But some, like Chula Vista Mayor Cox thought it was time. Cox compared the liveaboards to homesteaders in the 1800s who would “rush out and stake their claim.

“People who choose to live on board vessels are pioneers in their own right,” he said. “But the bay is more congested. A lot of those boats don’t have holding tanks. We’ve reached a point in time in the San Diego Bay where we no longer can afford that free life style.”