In the Name of Eelgrass

To protect the eelgrass meadows in San Francisco’s Richardson Bay, the anchor-out era near Sausalito is coming to a close

Shane Gross

Several crabs (Cancer gracilis) walk along the bottom of an eelgrass bed.

This piece was produced by Bay Nature — a nonprofit, independent media organization that connects the people of the San Francisco Bay Area to the natural world — for its Wild Billions reporting project.

From a single blade of eelgrass, life overflows. Amphipods build tiny hollow tube-homes on it, while marine snails eat it, and nudibranchs travel its length in search of prey. Small eelgrass sea hares graze epiphytes attached to the blades and lay their yellow eggs inside transparent jelly-like blobs on the thick green of the grass. Amid the meadows, pipefish hide and graceful rock crabs scavenge, and in the fall and spring, giant schools of silvery Pacific herring enter the San Francisco Bay, the end point of their weeks-long annual migration. On the eelgrass, they deposit clumpy beads of yellow roe on the order of hundreds of millions, like underwater honey drops. Or the eggs must taste that way to the thousands of birds that join the melee of feasting. Cormorants and loons dive after flashes of fish. Gulls circle above. Rafts of scaups, buffleheads, and more stretch across the water feeding on roe. During a spawn event, which can last for a few hours or several days, herring milt turns Bay waters a lighter hue.

Even when the herring aren’t running, the eelgrass beds teem with food. Paige Fernandez remembers kayaking just off the shore of Sausalito. She was paddling over an eelgrass bed, likely brimming with slugs and tiny crustaceans—which were, from the surface, invisible to her. But she could see the harbor seals. And one in particular kept bobbing its head up over the waves, closer and closer. Now a program manager at Richardson Bay Audubon Center, Fernandez says it was “definitely one of the coolest encounters I’ve had in the Bay.” The surfacing seal’s forwardness surprised her, but in retrospect it made sense: she was above a bed of eelgrass. “That’s where they can find little snacks to munch on.” They go where the eelgrass goes—and so does a host of other marine life. 

To give shelter and food to the species that rely on it, eelgrass needs to thrive. And in Richardson Bay, which lies between Sausalito and Tiburon in Marin County, dozens of acres of eelgrass are tangled in with the anchor chains of dozens of boats that often float just five feet above the meadows. When tides shift, the ground tackle—that is, any equipment used to anchor the boat, usually a long and heavy chain—is yanked by the pull of the vessel. In circular, sweeping motions, the chain slices the eelgrass rhizomes, the lateral tubes from which the shoots and roots grow. The chains and ground tackle erode the sediment, creating a depression in the substrate. After years of scraping, a dead zone forms, cleared of eelgrass, where shoots don’t take root. From above, boats hover over what look like ghostly crop circles, some half an acre in size, called mooring scars. There are almost 80 acres of scarring in Richardson Bay.

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In the spring and early summer of 2024, researchers from San Francisco State University’s Estuary and Ocean Science Center, restoration workers with environmental consulting firm Merkel & Associates, and Audubon volunteers and staff—including Fernandez—began replanting eelgrass in the Richardson Bay mooring scars thanks to a $2.8 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s San Francisco Bay Water Quality Improvement Fund; the grant is part of an EPA program funded by the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Over the course of four years, the project aims to restore 15 acres of eelgrass, each acre allowing more life to bloom. But for workers to restore eelgrass in these scars, the anchors causing them must also be removed. “It is well demonstrated that eelgrass and anchoring are incompatible throughout the world,” says Rebecca Schwartz Lesberg, president of Coastal Policy Solutions and a contract project manager for the agency awarded the EPA grant. “Richardson Bay was really behind the times in terms of how to manage this natural resource conflict.”

Courtesy of Audubon California

Aerial imagery of eelgrass in Richardson Bay displaying anchor scour damage, taken in 2017.

In Richardson Bay, these long, heavy anchor chains are often attached to boats with people living on them—the so-called “anchor-outs,” people who have spent decades building their lives on the water, on their boats, and on the premise of free anchorage. Born of the ’60s counterculture, the community began with artists and young people who were drawn to the scrap left by World War II’s Marinship shipyard, material they salvaged for boats and homes. It quickly grew into an on-the-shoreline, and on the margins, way of life that has included famous artists, like Shel Silverstein and Allen Ginsberg, but mostly those who are unknown, like Lisa McCracken, once a silk-mache artist, and her friend Peter, who she says snaps daily portraits of the Bay fog and cloudscape. 

The lifestyle has been called many names: anchoring out, being a live-aboard, or, in  McCracken’s younger days, living “on hook.” It comes with a degree of precarity, where a single storm or a faulty anchor might sink a vessel. Many anchor-outs drown, or their boats come loose and crash into shore or other boats. McCracken says about her life on the Bay for 30-plus years, surrounded by water, marine creatures, and in community with artists, “It’s a privilege and a blessing.” And for many who took to the Bay’s waters, then and now, the alternative to life on their boats is homelessness. 

But after six decades, the anchor-out era is coming to an end, in part to protect eelgrass habitat from mooring scars. The number of anchor-out vessels in Richardson Bay has dropped from over 200 in 2018 to about 32 today. The authorities that regulate Richardson Bay and the entirety of the San Francisco Bay began in 2019 to focus on upholding ordinances that have long been on the books but were rarely enforced. As a result, anchor-outs have been evicted and left homeless and unoccupied boats crushed. The last of them have been ordered to leave the zone where eelgrass grows by this October and the water entirely by 2026. Authorities are offering housing to some as an incentive to meet the deadline.  

To McCracken, and other anchor-outs, eelgrass restoration is the latest excuse employed by authorities in their long-standing campaign to rid the water of her community. And her opinion is partly well-founded. There are examples and studies of eelgrass thriving when the mooring scar-causing chains are replaced with “conservation moorings.” These moorings, used around the world, are affixed to the seafloor, eliminating the dragging chain that creates mooring scars. Despite a 2019 feasibility study recommending eelgrass-friendly moorings in Richardson Bay, environmental groups, regulatory agencies, and cities pursued a more stringent option: remove all anchored-out vessels from Richardson Bay eelgrass beds, in perpetuity.

But during public meetings in the years following the feasibility study, local residents voiced concerns—they felt environmental restoration was clashing with the needs of the region’s most vulnerable. “This will have huge effects,” reads a public comment by “Elias” in 2020. “What about the young children who will learn of this and not feel comfortable working with nature organizations because of their relationship with poor people?” He equated it with “forced migration perpetuated by environmentalism.” David Schonbrunn, a Sausalito resident, commented in a 2021 meeting that opting to remove anchoring instead of choosing mooring systems that would let the anchor-out community and eelgrass coexist was “a question of policy, not science.” 

Restoring eelgrass

It’s a bright windy day in March, and Jordan Volker is steering a motorboat into Richardson Bay. He’s a field operations manager for Merkel & Associates, which has published articles and field reports on eelgrass for 30 years and run eelgrass surveys in the area for decades.

The company’s 2014 survey found a massive die-off in Bay eelgrass caused by a marine heat wave. To repair the loss, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funded a 75-acre eelgrass restoration project that’s ongoing and aligns with the Bay Area’s Subtidal Habitat Goals. The 2010 goals, in an ambitious 208-page document, lay out a vision to study, protect, and restore an array of subtidal habitats, including eelgrass and oyster reefs. The regional effort brought together the California State Coastal Conservancy, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), San Francisco Estuary Partnership, the California Ocean Protection Council, and NOAA, giving them a common framework to achieve a healthier Bay. 

Collectively, the agencies set a goal of restoring up to 8,000 acres of eelgrass by 2060—latest counts say there’s a maximum of 5,000 acres in the Bay. Any added acres would mean more habitat for herring and birds, at a time when waterbird data has grown grim. Scoters, for one, saw a 50 percent decline around the second half of the 20th century, according to a Sea Duck Joint Venture report. And that’s for their populations across the whole Pacific Flyway—local numbers are worse. Both greater and lesser scaup have declined by a similar amount, and horned grebes and buffleheads, two beloved Bay Area visitors, have also suffered. “It’s all part of one big food web,” says Casey Skinner, program director at Richardson Bay Audubon. “And if we lose eelgrass, we lose everything.” 

Shane Gross

A Bay pipefish (Syngnathus leptorhynchus) hiding in seagrass (Zostera marina) in Nanoose Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

Eelgrass’s benefits go beyond ecology. The beds act as sentinels of the Bay, trapping sediment, storing greenhouse gases, and protecting against wave action. Threats to eelgrass, too, are multifold. In 2005, for example, sediment that broke loose smothered nearby eelgrass beds, causing a die-off in subsequent years. Built-out marinas, ports, and wharves are potential stressors, too. They can shade out the eelgrass underneath, preventing meadows from growing. And, in addition to mooring scars, anchor-out vessels can damage the water quality if occupants mismanage waste—although 2018 reports show water quality has been improving overall in Richardson Bay. “Submerged habitats truly need ongoing championing because it is so easy to ignore. They’re out of sight out of mind,” says Marilyn Latta, a project manager at the California State Coastal Conservancy, who helped develop the goals for eelgrass restoration.

Keith Merkel, the principal consultant of Merkel & Associates, has been (often literally) knee-deep in eelgrass since restoration efforts began in the Bay Area, conducting Bay-wide surveys of eelgrass on three separate occasions. And the one thing he’s learned? Richardson Bay is vital for eelgrass. It contains the second-largest eelgrass bed in San Francisco Bay and is the single most important spawning area for Pacific herring in the estuary. “Richardson Bay is protected against many of the things that fluctuate quite a bit,” Merkel says. 

In the South Bay and Oakland, that factor is turbidity—too-dark waters, without enough sunlight. In the North Bay, too much fresh water discharges from the Delta. And around the Pacific Coast, the wind blows east, so eelgrass seeds fail to disperse. Yet Richardson Bay has “so much eelgrass that we never lose 100 percent of the eelgrass in [it],” he adds. The “core eelgrass bed”—areas that lie at the ideal depths for the plant to thrive and should support close to 100 percent eelgrass cover—include the mooring scars. If restored, Merkel says, this area will consistently flourish. It’s the kind of priority restoration area that the Subtidal Habitat Goals have highlighted.

It took research to prove restoration in the anchor scars was even possible. NOAA funded the first small-scale project to test the potential in 2021. Even this 2.5-acre effort, Merkel says, got off the ground only after many anchored-out vessels had been removed. NOAA won’t fund more restoration, he says, unless authorities can demonstrate there’s little risk of anchors being dropped again. 

Back inside the motorboat’s cabin, where Jordan Volker works, things are dark, and he has both hands on the wheel to navigate the churning, unruly water. On the monitors above, he shoots glances at two screens that give readings from the Bay underneath. The boat pumps a sonic signal into the waves below—and returns a spiky, pulsing graph. Because eelgrass blades store oxygen in their cells, they are less dense than the surrounding water, so they return a telltale “bump” to Volker’s machine, locating the meadows. 

Volker has been restoring eelgrass in Richardson Bay for Merkel for so long that he can recognize some of the beds he’s planted just from the dots on the graph. “It always brings a big smile on my face when I drive over and go, ‘Ho! Look at all that grass.’” Now he is dropping markers on a digital map, locating anchored-out boats and mooring scars, data that will inform where to plant next. 

Jacob Saffarian

Jordan Volker monitors Bay eelgrass.

Once they choose a spot, Volker and others plant during low tides—restoration crews up to their hips in Bay water, the boats of the anchor-outs looming behind. Volker says folks on the water and those from the land used to meet at some kind of a shore-y middle ground. An anchor-out near a cluster of volunteers might say hello from their deck and play music. “While we’re planting a mooring scar, people that are nearby say, ‘What radio station do you want to listen to?’ and [start] cranking their radio up,” he says. Often, they’d be smiling, waving, and curious about the restoration effort going on in their backyard waters. “Some of the anchor-outs understand, ‘oh yeah, eelgrass is an important thing. I don’t want to harm eelgrass. I just want to live,’” Volker says. 

But things are different now that people know their lifestyle is under threat. There are fewer friendly faces when he cruises the water. “Some of the anchor-outs, I think, see a survey vessel, or see a bunch of college kids coming in with grass in their hands, as a threat.” As if on cue, our tiny survey vehicle weaves in close to an anchored-out boat, with a gray-haired man on his deck. Outside, Scott Borsum, Volker’s assistant for the day, greets the stranger. He returns our “hi” with a “hello,” but, when asked for a picture, tosses his hands to the air, turns away, and shakes his head no.

Borsum’s new to restoration work—this project is his first field job since getting his PhD. Already, though, he feels like he’s watching a “microcosm” of the housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area unfold, wherein people are pushed out into alternate lifestyles by the cost of living or decades’ worth of other factors, then become the object of long and drawn-out political debate over who can use public spaces and for what. “It becomes a user-rights issue,” he says. “Who gets the right to the Bay?” 

Volker says he’s glad he’s not the one deciding. Unlike the “policy side of things,” he says, the eelgrass restoration is a peaceful, straightforward task. And the housing and what comes after is for other, more policy-savvy folks to decide. “It’s the side of the issue that I would not want to deal with,” Volker says. Borsum agrees: “Our job doesn’t constitute us solving that problem. It just constitutes us understanding the grass.”

Similar sentiments are echoed by project managers at Audubon, another of the EPA grant beneficiaries, who say their “area of expertise” is the eelgrass, though noting that they favor fair housing. The researchers at SFSU involved in the long-term monitoring of the grass also declined to comment on the anchor-outs. On the water, the restoration crew’s survey boat and the anchor-outs are two ships that, both metaphorically and practically, pass each other by—leaving an uneasy silence rippling in their wake. 

Living on the water

It’s an unusually calm day—no wind, great sun—when we set out in a kayak. We paddle across a boating channel, the thick on-the-water “highway” used by cargo vessels and traveling houseboats alike, to the waters where the last anchor-outs hold on.

We weave in between vessels, passing signs of life everywhere: on one boat, scuba gear hangs out to dry on a clothesline on deck; on another, smoke escapes a moka pot visible through a cabin window. Names like Irish Misty and Levity are hand-painted on the sides of boats big and small. Some are 15-foot sailboats with little to nothing in the way of rain shelter for their occupants. Others, like the mighty Evolution, a 50-foot powerboat, tower above our kayak.

But the captain on its deck is Lisa McCracken, who is anything but forbidding. Her sand-brown hair is turning white against the sun, and she wears mismatched work gloves and a friendly, if squinting, smile. She greets us, but is too busy to chat long—there are always chores to be done on the anchorage, whether it’s changing oil in a generator or fixing a solar panel. When we come back another day, it’s 4 p.m. and McCracken’s still working—her friends are visiting, their presence evident by the skiffs tied to the back of her own. They’re trying to get a motor up and running, when she welcomes us aboard.

Jacob Saffarian

Lisa McCracken poses for a photo on Evolution.

A flimsy white ladder is the only way up. And landing zones are scarce in between the piles of decommissioned engines, old anchors, empty diesel cans, dusty life vests, tubes and piping, et  cetera. McCracken, though, steps on and over them with ease—at times nimbly jumping up and sitting on railings to let us pass. “I tend to this place,” she says. Many of the objects aren’t hers—they’re things she’s rescued from the Bay. She points to an anchor, coiled up in its own chain, that sits in a corner. “That tends to disturb the bottom—these are anchors. These we have pulled up.”

McCracken, now 61, says she’d want to learn more about the eelgrass, if she could, and had a mind to send in samples to someone. “If you notice it, it’s getting gray,” she explains. “I want to understand the characteristics of it, the features.” She says she sees, studies, and notices things—like the pigeons and gulls that have made a nest on the boat’s roof. Or, occasionally, a dying bird adrift, which she’ll try to call in to local authorities. She doesn’t believe her boat does harm to eelgrass (and, given that it’s on a six-point mooring and not a block-and-chain anchor, it likely does less damage than others), or that the harm she does is greater than the waste generated by the city or the propellants of high-speed yachts and other boats that dock in Sausalito Yacht Harbor or any of the dozens of other harbors nearby. “To say that we are a problem, then every boat here is a problem.”

As we talk, the boat turns gently with the wind, a planet spinning, the sun hitting the inside from each angle in turn. Maybe, McCracken admits, she’s selfish for not wanting to give it up—a panoramic view of the Bay, who would? But more than the view, it’s the community she can’t bear to part with. It was fellow anchor-outs who taught her how to live on the water. She recalls, laughing, when her first boat lost footing and slammed into a barge, and how the owner taught her the ropes of being a mariner. By now, she’s more than returned the favor: jumping in to help friends pull someone who was having health problems out of a boat. Or standing by the hospital bed of Craig, a longtime friend who, in gratitude and in passing, gifted her and her friend Steve Evolution.

These days, she wakes up and takes off in her skiff—looking for others on the anchorage who might need a hand, or a battery, or something she can offer. “I’ve held fast to anchor. I can’t even imagine being condemned to a room,” she says. “I don’t know what I would make of my day.” Besides, she doesn’t qualify for the housing and cash deal offered by local authorities, since she doesn’t own Evolution. Steve owns it, and according to reporting by the Pacific Sun, the program provides one housing voucher per boat.

Jacob Saffarian

McCracken’s boat, Evolution.

“I don’t want the money,” she says, of the cash offer: $150 per foot of the boat. “I want to be left alone—you can build your paradise around me, okay?” Her voice rises as she speaks. “I’ll figure out some way to put a mirror up, so you don’t have to look at me if you don’t want to.”

In five months, however, she’ll have to leave the anchorage. Evolution doesn’t qualify for the Safe and Seaworthy program that would have allowed the boat to stay two years longer. McCracken says a caseworker is advocating for both her and Steve to be housed, but she isn’t sure where she’ll be five months from now, or if she’ll even want to go.

The policy fight

Before 1985, no single agency existed to guide the use and conservation of Richardson Bay’s waters, so cities on its shores created and adopted a “special area plan” that stated, among many things, that “all anchor-outs should be removed from Richardson Bay.” Even then, nearby authorities felt the number of boats anchored offshore was growing.

To execute the plan, the Richardson Bay Regional Agency (RBRA) was formed, via a Joint Powers Agreement among Marin County and the cities of Mill Valley, Tiburon, Belvedere—and, formerly, Sausalito. The agency quickly passed an ordinance allowing transient vessels, such as cruisers from outside the Bay, to drop their anchors in designated areas for less than 72 hours. One section hugged the Sausalito shoreline; the other spanned the anchor-out area. It also states that permanently “living aboard” any vessel in the water is illegal—permits could be granted for 30 days, and potentially longer, if the harbormaster “determined that no permanent residential use is intended.” 

But enforcement proved difficult. The harbormaster at the time, Bill Price, spent 24 years trying to manage the growing number of anchor-out boats, says Tim Henry, a longtime sailor and Sausalito local. “He had no budget. He had to use volunteers. He had to fill out all the grants. They just never wanted to spend the money to deal with it.” 

And then, in the wake of 2008’s Great Recession, things changed. The number of transient boats dropping anchor and largely staying put swelled to about 230 boats by 2015. In an interview with the Sausalito Historical Society, Price said he wondered if Richardson Bay’s free anchorage, which he loved, would have to shut down due to the sheer density of boats. Soon after, the City of Sausalito, fed up with the lack of enforcement, left the RBRA. 

Finally, in 2019, the State of California audited the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), and its  “failure to perform key responsibilities” was laid bare. Mooring scars in Richardson Bay were a central issue, according to the audit, which referenced details from an Audubon report. The state, concerned with how “violators,” like anchor-outs, were damaging the Bay, ordered BCDC to fix the problem. The audit discussed possible amnesty for those violators and ways to better enforce the law to prevent new damages.

BCDC, in turn, put pressure on RBRA, triggering a flurry of actions: the agency commissioned Merkel & Associates to conduct the mooring feasibility study; commissioned Coastal Policy Solutions, Rebecca Schwartz Lesberg’s restoration company, to draft an eelgrass protection plan; and started negotiating an agreement to satisfy the enforcement needs of the BCDC.

But the RBRA had already been pursuing stricter enforcement. Before the audit, it had hired a new harbormaster, Curtis Havel. He reduced the total number of boats to about 71 in just two months. “It was terrorist tactics to start with,” says Drew Warner, an ex-anchor-out of 23 years, about Havel. Authorities would find an unoccupied boat, board it, tug it, and deliver it to the shipyard to be crushed. The harbormaster or the sheriff’s department would wait patiently for anchor-outs to leave their homes, Warner says, so that going ashore on grocery runs or for medicine might mean the destruction of an anchor-out’s property. The anchor-outs fought back, sometimes by filing restraining orders, sometimes throwing eggs at officers who got too close. “I was notorious for doing that,” Warner says.

At the same time, a homeless encampment formed on the waterfront in Sausalito; called Camp Cormorant, it became a rallying point for the anchor-out community and their supporters. McCracken’s friends sought shelter on Evolution after their boats were seized, and the belongings of evicted anchor-outs, like generators and power tools, began to pile up on the vessel. 

Hostilities increased on the water. And while people’s boats were being seized and crushed at a nearby Army Corp yard—frequent spectacles that sometimes came down to clashes between police and anchor-outs—RBRA bimonthly meetings continued. In virtual Zoom rooms, amid a growing pandemic, RBRA board members, concerned citizens, and environmental activists deliberated over what to do next.

Initially, RBRA suggested removing anchor-outs over a span of 10 or 20 years, but Audubon California, Marin Audubon Society, and BCDC pushed back. They wanted the anchor-outs gone by a set deadline—Marin Audubon, in particular, argued for five years.

Merkel & Associates’ 2019 mooring feasibility study greenlit the idea that conservation moorings, in clusters called mooring fields, could coexist with eelgrass. Because they are drilled into the seafloor and have a buoy attached to a floating cord, thus reducing their damage to marine life, conservation moorings (sometimes called eco-moorings) have been deployed worldwide, in waters from Tasmania to Massachusetts, with the aim of protecting marine habitat. In Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, such moorings were installed in areas with scars just like Richardson Bay’s. Though it was in a smaller restoration project, eelgrass was successfully replanted on 0.2 acres. In Moreton Bay, Australia, 16 acres were restored. Merkel & Associates suggested several locations—away from thicker eelgrass beds and with shelter from storms—for conservation moorings, one boat per mooring.  

Jacob Saffarian

A cormorant floats atop Richardson Bay’s waters.

At public meetings, Marin Audubon Society opposed the idea, rejecting any mooring field, temporary or permanent, and regardless of the type of moorings. It also objected to any boat occupying space for too long. “It is obvious that anchor-outs are covering open water habitat,” reads a letter written by Barbara Salzman, then co-chair of the conservation committee of Marin Audubon. “Such use is considered fill by BCDC”—meaning boats confer an adverse impact on the public and wildlife by occupying space on the Bay, much the way development that extends the shoreline into the Bay is often considered fill. 

For Marin Audubon, the safety of diving birds was paramount. Birds would contend with boats while foraging, risking injury and losing access to food, Audubon said. The Merkel study pointed to anecdotal videos of herring runs, showing birds foraging successfully in between the boats. The study conceded, however, that bird behavior with regard to moorings and boats was complicated: it would all depend on the size of herring spawns, the species at hand, the wave patterns, wind conditions, and more. Still, the survey authors believed the effects on birds would be minimal—after all, the report noted, Audubon’s sanctuary waters, a section of Richardson Bay closed to all boats during migration season, were right next to the proposed moorings.  

It wasn’t enough. Marin Audubon solicited a study by Point Blue Conservation Science, an organization based in Marin, to survey the proposed mooring areas for birds, and wrote in a public letter presented at an April 2021 meeting that “the recommendation of Point Blue is that mooring not occur in any of the survey areas.” While Point Blue researchers documented 23 different species in the waters, the study did not investigate the potential impact of boats on the birds’ ability to forage. “We purposefully didn’t weigh in on the policy,” says Julian Wood, the lead researcher. “Supporting one policy or scenario over another was beyond the scope of that study.” Yet the study does make such a recommendation.

At the same time, Schwartz Lesberg was developing an eelgrass protection and management plan that eventually proposed a “protection zone” that would encompass 90 percent of all eelgrass beds and not allow moorings. This reduced the potential mooring space to just one-third of Richardson Bay’s historic anchorage acreage. 

Finally, in August 2021, the BCDC and RBRA arrived at an agreement: all anchor-outs would be removed from Richardson Bay by 2026, an ambitious, five-year goal. Those with “safe and seaworthy vessel” status—boats that were up to code—could stay until then, but others, like Evolution, would need to leave earlier, by October 2024. BCDC still wanted a mooring field, as long as it was temporary and for moving boats away from the eelgrass sooner. 

But when Sausalito residents concluded the hypothetical mooring field put boats too close to their businesses, they argued to nix the entire idea in the interest of public safety. “The attitude from the start was always just to kick the can down the road,” says Henry. No one wanted to deal with the problem, he says. It would require a lot of planning and willingness to embrace the anchor-out population. “My experience with cities is that they tend to be reactive instead of proactive.”

Henry’s also a longtime staff writer at Latitude 38, a Bay Area publication by and for sailors. The magazine’s founders dreamed of a 100-boat mooring field in Richardson Bay. “They looked at other places in California and they said, ‘Well, they have mooring fields. Why can’t we have one?’” The idea has circulated for the past 40 years, but never went anywhere. It was always difficult to answer the questions: who would fund it, who would oversee it, who would be liable.

Jacob Saffarian

Lisa McCracken leafs through decades-old documents, including an old plan for a mooring field.

After three years of discussion, on July 27, 2022, RBRA formally requested that BCDC drop the mooring field requirement—the cost, about $30,000 per mooring, was cited as a main reason, along with the claim that only a few of the anchor-outs’ boats had the required equipment to moor on such facilities in the first place. BCDC granted the request, and money meant for moorings went to pay anchor-outs to give up their vessels, among other goals. 

A bit before then, harbormaster Curtis Havel retired. In 2022, the City of Sausalito paid a $540,000 settlement to 30 homeless people in the anchor-outs’ waterfront camp—about $18,000 each—to get them to disperse. 

After the mooring plan was dropped, and years of boat seizures, RBRA introduced its housing voucher program for the several dozen remaining anchor-outs in 2023. To date they’ve housed 11 people, with several more in the pipeline.

The housing deal

The housing offer is generous. RBRA received $3 million in state funds, secured by state senator Mike McGuire, whose district includes Marin County. For anchor-outs who own and give up their vessels, RBRA will “buy back” their boats at $150 per foot and help them navigate a housing process that grants them one year of housing on land. Eventually, the goal is to transition them to Section 8, a federal housing voucher program.

But it’s hard to pin down who qualifies. A service agreement between RBRA and Marin County states that only anchor-outs who were counted during a June 2022 survey (and an April 2023 follow-up) will get housing. The Pacific Sun reported that only the owner of the boat gets a voucher, and co-occupants need to be married to receive joint housing, leaving some, like McCracken, to fall through the cracks. 

Brad Gross, the executive director of RBRA, sees the removal of anchor-outs as inevitable: it’s up to either him or BCDC. The anchor-outs who participate in the housing program now, he says, will “get out with some dignity”—but if the RBRA’s offered deal doesn’t clear the Bay, the state will likely step in to finish the job. “And the state’s got much bigger pockets, [a] much bigger group of attorneys,” Gross says. “And they’re up in Sacramento—they’re not going to have the same concerns and the same compassion and consideration.”

Drew Warner took Gross up on the deal, becoming one of the first anchor-outs to be housed. He remembers contacting the RBRA month after month and going through yearlong paperwork, finally deciding—“It’s time to get off the water, man,” Warner says. The anchor-out era, for him, was over. Winter storms were getting worse, and he wanted to be safe.

For Schwartz Lesberg, the combination of housing and restoration is a historic feat, especially for a small agency like RBRA. “This is a really thoughtful approach. And it looks like it’s working—people are getting housed and the environment is improving. And nobody else has done this.” The EPA grant application requests applicants provide matching funds. In RBRA’s application for eelgrass restoration money, the lion’s share of its match came from the state for housing and vessel removal.

Now, Warner lives in the Marin Headlands, in a loft-style one-bedroom apartment, with tons of natural light and in-unit washing and drying. “I sat on the stairwell for three days,” he says. “In just awe, with my cat.” When he tries to show me photos of his new place, though, his callused hands make swiping on the screen of the smartphone difficult. Thick white layers pile over his knuckles and fingertips, scars from the lifestyle he left behind—his hands remind me of McCracken’s. His convictions, though, differ: he believes he made the right choice. He’s even been encouraging his friends on the anchorage to take the deal.

Jacob Saffarian

A skiff, tied to an anchored-out boat, rocks on the choppy waters of Richardson Bay.

McCracken, who doesn’t qualify, mourns the slow loss of the anchor-outs. “We were a community,” she says. “And now I notice the stress of being forced to go somewhere else, to break those bonds.”

Sitting in front of the visitor center in Sausalito and staring out at the anchorage that used to be his home, even Warner feels bittersweet. Eelgrass is far from his mind. Instead, he’s focused on what’s above the water: a wooden marker poking its head above the waves. “I stayed just beyond that,” he says. “For 23 years.” There are two boats to either side—the unused space in the middle now looks like a picture of an empty lot where an old house used to be. Soon enough, blades of eelgrass and life—the kind we have allowed there—will blossom underneath.

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