Sausalito's Anchor-Outs

Living for decades on boats, Sausalito's anchor-outs face daily perils, ongoing health challenges and stepped-up police scrutiny.

Late last January, Phil McGovern's cell phone rang around 4am, that most ominous of hours. It was the U.S. Coast Guard on the other end, calling to inform McGovern that the anchored boat he called home was spouting flames, its hull inching lower into the dark depths of Richardson's Bay with each passing minute.

The fire, fueled by a deck full of hoarded clutter, quickly consumed the vessel, and with it, McGovern's beloved onboard library. As an unemployed carpenter, McGovern had spent the past year rebuilding the boat, whose charred remains would soon come to rest on the shallow bay's muddy floor. The fire's cause remains a mystery.

Tales of near-disaster and worse abound in a long-established but controversial floating community in the usually calm waters of southern Marin's Richardson Bay. Some 50 people live year-round aboard a motley collection of vessels in varying states of disrepair within view of the affluent hillside homes and mansions of Sausalito and Tiburon, but police say up to 130 call the bay home in warmer months.

While "anchor-outs," as they're locally known, have lived on the small bay for as long as anyone can remember, there's a fresh focus on the group now as Sausalito's newest police chief has simultaneously stepped up marine patrols and health initiatives. While police say they're just doing their best to ensure public safety along the waterfront, ask most anchor-outs and they'll attribute the heightened scrutiny to the run-up to the highly anticipated 2013 America's Cup Finals, which will take place in the main waters of San Francisco Bay and likely bring a flurry of visitors and media attention to nearby bayside communities such as Sausalito.

At a glance, the Richardson Bay anchorage presents a postcard maritime scene. Indeed, the vistas are so prized that a Belvedere couple recently made national headlines after buying a $4.2 million house next door so they could tear it down to better their view. But for those who call the bay's waters home, it's often a life less than idyllic, one full of daily challenges and perils. Beyond harrowing winter storms and the practical difficulties of daily life afloat, chronic unemployment, substance abuse, mental health problems and poverty afflict many of the bay's residents.

While some vessels are kept seaworthy, others are little more than floating barges, precariously piled with debris. Fires and sunken vessels are common, and during periods of high winds and stormy seas, boats routinely drag their anchors, colliding with neighboring vessels or crashing into the Tiburon shoreline. At the U.S. Army Corps work yard along the Sausalito waterfront, a steady influx of maimed and sunken vessels add to a mountainous pile of flotsam plucked from the bay.

And yet the bay's protected waters have long served as a refuge for people who might otherwise be homeless. "This anchorage is a safety valve for people who've lost their homes, who're divorced, foreclosure, whatever," says Peter Romanowsky, 62, who moved onto an anchored vessel after a difficult divorce nearly three decades ago.

Romanowsky is widely known for his annual bids for local political office (he self-identifies as Republican) and for playing the guitar before tourists arriving off the ferry, his sunglasses-wearing dog under one arm. But these days he says he's looking for a home off the water, citing a growing number of friends lost in recent years to drowning and other causes. "People come out there to get a fresh start, or to die," he says. "A lot of people are just dead."

Chief among the daily hazards anchor-outs face is getting to shore and back from their vessels, which are sprinkled along more than a mile of Sausalito waterfront. Many of the anchor-outs come ashore in skiffs for almost daily free lunches at local churches and to hang out at Dunphy Park, where they play bocce ball and socialize. A few commute to jobs onshore.

Those who live here readily attest to the beauty and freedom of life on the bay's open waters. It's a community that's historically been known for attitudes of self-reliance and non-conformism. "I tell you, these are resourceful people," says Southern Marin fire captain Matt Bouchard, whose department will typically respond to several emergency calls a week on the bay. "When the rest of us guys are used to our hot water and fluorescent lighting, and the whole world comes to an end, those guys are going to make it. They know how to survive with nothing."

Suzi Olson, who varnishes and paints boats for a living, is notable both for being regularly employed and for being a woman in the mostly male anchorage. She's lived on a succession of boats on the bay for more than two decades. Last August, however, she finally opted for a slip at Clipper Yacht Harbor that, for a hefty monthly fee, allows her to live aboard her boat. Fear of falling into cold bay waters prompted her to leave the open waters for the ease and security of the harbor. "One night I almost ended up in the water," Olson recounts.

While exact counts are hard to come by, Olson can remember a number of anchor-out drownings over the years. "They don't fight. They're drunk, they're taking a leak, they fall in the water, hit their head, whatever," she says. "They find them with their zippers down most of the time, believe it or not."

According to Sausalito police chief Jennifer Tejada, a "significant percentage" of anchor-out residents struggle with alcoholism. "Some of them don't make it back to their boat," she says. "Some of them do, and then they fall over, and they drown," she says. "The first week I was here, we had a drowning of one of them who had fallen over drunk. You can't last very long in those frigid waters."

There are other concerns as well. Sewage stemming from vessels anchored in the bay has long been a topic of debate in Sausalito. While the Richardson Bay Regional Agency has offered free holding tanks and contracted with the company M.T. Head to offer free waste-removal services for anchor-outs, participation is low. Rick Mortimer, owner of M.T. Head, says only 15 of an estimated 50 boats were using the monthly service. The others, he believes, are "just dumping it out there in the bay."

For two days last November, the Sausalito Police Department teamed up with Marin County's Department of Aging and Adult Services and several nursing students in a public health outreach effort. Contacted on land and water, anchor-outs were offered flu and tetanus shots, eye exams, fire extinguishers and blankets, first aid supplies, brown bag lunches and information on basic services such as county healthcare, veterans benefits and dental care.

"As you get older, you can only deal with the elements so much," says Sean Stephens, veterans service officer for the county of Marin, who spearheaded the outreach events. "You have to come to the realization that 'I need healthcare,' 'I need a warm bed,' warm clothes, stuff like that."

Stephens says so far he's identified about 10 veterans living on the water. "Believe it or not, there are some people who don't realize they're veterans," he says. One initially wary anchor-out discovered he was eligible for VA health benefits and transitional housing. "He was about in tears," Stephens recalls.

While Stephens and his colleagues consider the outreach events a success, they're well aware of the community's deep-rooted suspicion of outsiders offering assistance. At the first on-the-water outreach on Nov. 1, some anchor-outs fled when word got out that county officials would be coming by with police to visit their boats, Stephens says.

Indeed, Sausalito's anchor-outs tend to be particularly wary if not outright resentful of local law enforcement. Tales abound in the community of unwarranted police searches, harassment, punitive fines or abuse. A common refrain among the anchor-outs interviewed for this article is that the outreach events are little more than political cover for a law enforcement crackdown.

"I can't tell you how many people thought that it was, myself included, an ulterior motive to get onto the people's boats," Olson says.  

Stephens and his county colleagues say they're just trying to offer assistance to those that want help. "Nobody's trying to get these people off the water," he says. "Nobody wants to disrupt their way of life. We just want them to know that if you want to come off the water, if you need help, if you need benefits, let us know."

But with the 2013 America's Cup looming on the horizon, many anchor-outs are convinced local authorities want to "clean up" Richardson Bay before the Cup arrives. "There's always been pressure to get rid of the anchor-outs or thin them out," says Romanowsky. "It comes in waves. Every 10 years or so, there's a new movement."

Jennifer Tejada, responsible for increasing law enforcement on the water since she was named police chief last year, flatly denies any such allegation. "I have no intention of cleaning it up for America's Cup," she says. "My intention is to protect and serve this community."

The chief says she's well aware the anchor-out community is a politically sensitive topic in a town with a strong maritime identity. "The anchor-outs are historically the sacred symbol of bohemian Sausalito," she says. "Unless you really go out there and you meet and greet the anchor-outs, or you look at the statistics, or you're in this business, you don't see beyond that."

She insists the police's renewed focus on the bay is not about driving out the anchor-outs but about reducing the waterfront's comparatively high crime rate. Sgt. Bill Fraass, who leads the department's marine patrol unit, says 27 anchor-outs were arrested during the first six months of 2011 (the most recent period for which numbers are available), largely for crimes such as public drunkenness, methamphetamine use and possession of stolen property. In addition, Fraass says about 45 people who live on the water or frequent the waterfront area have criminal histories and are still active in crime.

"There's a pretty big percentage that are part of this revolving door of this quality of life crime trend, and so we want to address those," he says.

But ask most on the water and they'll say the anchor-outs have suffered a long history of persecution and harassment that predates even the houseboat wars of the 1970s and '80s. In the late 1980s, anchor-outs successfully fought the Bay Conservation and Development Commission's efforts to curtail long-term mooring in Richardson Bay. (In a move especially offensive to the anchor-outs, the agency had begun classifying many of the anchored vessels as "bay fill.")

Diane Linn, executive director of the Ritter Center, a nonprofit that works with homeless throughout Marin, isn't surprised the anchor-outs tend to have a strained relationship with local police. "Either by their own choices or by their own existence in a culture of poverty, the relationship with police officers tends to be traumatic for the most part," Linn says. "When you're poor, you really have those experiences. People should not be too surprised when there's not an openness or willingness."

Dominique McDowell is among a handful of social workers trying to overcome the residents' wariness. As a case manager for the Ritter Center, McDowell attends the weekly free lunch held at Sausalito Presbyterian Church, where he offers residents help obtaining IDs, bus tickets, clean showers, county medical services, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and other services.

"It's a population that has learned how to survive with basic necessities and basic skills," McDowell says. "And that causes a lot of conditions. That causes depression, poverty, hunger, lack of showers . . . no funds."

McDowell, who says he struggled with drug addiction himself and spent time in prison earlier in life, voices wonder that the town doesn't do more for its maritime residents, such as provide public showers. "I know how it feels to be thrown away, to feel uncared for, to feel like your life has no purpose, to feel like nobody cares," he says. "When all the time you live on survival skills —that's how these people live— they just want to survive another day. It's a lonely place."

Those hoping the anchor-outs will eventually go away are kidding themselves, he says. "These people been here 30, 40, 50 years. Where are they going? They're not going nowhere. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em—work with them."

McGovern, a Mill Valley native who was left temporarily homeless when his boat burned last January, says he has twice been turned down for SSI benefits. Blind in one eye from a firewood-chopping accident and diagnosed with emphysema three years ago, he struggles to navigate the medical system. "I can't believe the paperwork and tonnage of hoops I have to go through to see the doctor," he says. "I need an advocate is what I need."

Lack of accessible public showers in Sausalito is a particularly sore point for anchor-outs like McGovern and Romanowsky, who say they usually go without. Others depend on the kindness of friends or have managed to gain access to private harbor facilities. "I'm stuck out here, and they've closed every shower," McGovern says. "It makes a person like me become real angry."

Romanowsky says he'll easily go a year without a hot shower. "This town is so stingy that they won't provide any public showers," he says. "I have a big long bread knife. I just scrape my skin with a bread knife. I call it a knife bath."

Though some anchor-outs are just struggling to survive, others have managed to settle into a comfortable existence on the water. No one has been living at anchor here longer than Ale Eckstrom, a 76-year-old musician and poet who, after logging more than five continuous decades afloat on Richardson's Bay, can rightfully be called grandfather of the anchor-outs. With his spry, compact figure and lyric-laden speech, Eckstrom looks a bit like a seafaring leprechaun, the likeness accented by his knee-high socks and breeches, brown vest, Celtic brooch, scraggly orange beard, ruddy visage and tweed cap.

A Colorado native, Eckstrom first walked into Sausalito in 1957 after serving in the Navy. He made a living as a concertina player in coffeehouses and cabarets along the coast, and his entertainer's impulse is still audible in the limericks and sea shanties that pepper his conversation.

Most days he can be found aboard his 63-foot World War II–era aviation rescue boat Yesterday (after the Beatles' song), with its onboard workshop, claw-foot tub and eclectically decorated den of found objects, books, and large windows giving out on an ever-shifting panorama of water, shoreline and mountains. He reluctantly comes ashore every few days for supplies ("I like fresh milk," he says) in his motorized scow, but he's happiest at home on the water. Most days, he says, are spent "dancing around and playing with boats" and keeping company with his two feline shipmates, Siammy and Calicoco.

While he spent two decades brewing his own black stout aboard his vessel and many more years nursing a drinking habit, Eckstrom says he’s been sober since 2001. “If I didn’t quit drinking, I was on the verge of having a nasty accident,” he says, citing the inherently perilous journey to and from shore in a small skiff. “Alcoholism is an entertainer’s hazard,” he says, adding that a particularly tumultuous relationship finally “drove him to sobriety.” These days, he steams the alcohol out of his Sierra Nevada stout and drinks from a small jar in his pocket as he runs errands ashore on a rusty old small-wheel bicycle.

Even for a seasoned and sober seaman, threat of disaster is a constant companion. "There are times out here when if you make a misstep, it may very well be the last step you ever make," he says. During a fierce storm one night last February, Eckstrom nearly lost his boat when the wind and waves severed both chains anchoring the vessel to the bay floor, suddenly setting him adrift. He was able to set his spare anchor before his vessel crashed upon the Tiburon shoreline downwind. “Every time the boat needs saving," he recounts, "you have to save it again or all the other times don’t count.”

But for Eckstrom, life at anchor is infinitely preferable to what he views as the landlubber's indentured plight of rents or mortgages. "The real estate mentality just refuses to think of anyone having an alternative to leasing and renting property," he says. "If all you own is a boat, no matter how nice it is or expensive it might be, you're shit in most people's eyes." Mere mention of landlords makes him visibly shudder. "I'd live in a tree before I'd pay a landlord," he says.

It's a common sentiment among anchor-outs. Jan Zaslav, a public health nurse for Marin County who has worked with anchor-outs, says, "What's interesting is you go out there in the boat and you see all these mansions—Belvedere, Tiburon and Sausalito—and their point is, 'The people living in the mansions are the slaves. We're the free ones.' "

Or as Eckstrom, donning his poet's cap, puts it, "I rise and fall on every tide that flows, turn to face every wind that blows."

This article was produced as a project for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. To view a slideshow of photos of the anchor-outs, click here.

Remote video URL