June 16, 2024
In recent weeks, the Oakland Estuary has morphed from an innocuous playground for water sports into a semi-lawless stretch roamed by marauding thieves and patrolled by vigilantes, say members of the local boating community. 

In recent weeks, the Oakland Estuary has morphed from an innocuous playground for water sports into what the local boating community describes as a semi-lawless stretch roamed by marauding thieves and patrolled by vigilantes.

It’s a drama more suited for the high seas than the placid, 800-foot-wide channel separating Oakland and Alameda. Yet according to those who live and own boats in the area, the situation has escalated into a true crisis.

On August 16, half the boats at the Alameda Community Sailing Center, a sailing nonprofit for kids, were taken in the night. At the Marina Village Yacht Club, residents say they have been threatened by “pirates” scouting out the docks. The Encinal Yacht Club, Jack London Square Marina and the Outboard Motor Shop have all been victimized. In total, over a dozen small boats and dinghies have been stolen in the past three weeks.

“Piracy is the only way I can think to describe it,” local boat owner Jonathan Delong said during a public meeting of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission on Wednesday. “In some cases, it’s hand-to-hand combat.”

According to some, multiple boats are now being stolen every night, often stripped of their motors and then sunk in the estuary to avoid detection — although the exact number of stolen vessels or how many people are behind these thefts is not entirely clear. Members of the boating community have described the situation as “insanity,” “flabbergasting” and “the single greatest threat to the long-term health of the San Francisco Bay.”

In response, some boat owners have gone out and retrieved their stolen property. In their view, if they don’t, no one else will.

Brian Gorman, one of the owners of the Outboard Motor Shop in Oakland, said thieves tried to steal a $300,000 boat from its docks, and he’s now considering carrying a firearm. Wendell Stewart, a boater and homeowner in Alameda, had his boat stolen off the docks at Grand Marina just over a week ago. His friends were able to find the boat floating in the estuary and recovered it within a day. Wendell wasn’t there for the mission — luckily for the pirates.

“I’m 72, but I still remember the army teaching me to kill a person with my thumbs,” Stewart said.

Observers worry that it’s only a matter of time before a conflict escalates and someone gets hurt because strangely, the identity of the crime spree culprits doesn’t seem to be under debate — all point their finger to the “anchor-outs” living in the Oakland Estuary.

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Anchor-outs is a catch-all term for people living rent-free in public waterways across the Bay Area. Although not technically legal, anchor-out communities have been a fixture in the region for years — most notably Richardson Bay, which has a large houseboat community that authorities are working to remove. Anchor-outs don’t pay to dock at the marina and often live in old or failing boats.

According to Brock de Lappe, a former harbormaster and estuary advocate, anchor-out communities are made possible by boat owners abandoning end-of-life vessels at marinas, which then sell them for as little as $50.

Historically, the estuary has not hosted as many anchor-outs as Richardson Bay. Today, there are about 20 people living in boats in the estuary — typically in vessels that are in various states of disrepair.

Andrew Haid, an anchor-out who stays not far from Union Point Park, is currently living in a sailboat with a broken rudder and serious mechanical issues. Haid used to live on the street, but now he’s a man of the water. He’s lived in the estuary for over 10 years, watching the wildlife and happenings on Coast Guard island.

Andrew Haid holds a knife as he emerges from the cabin of a sailboat anchored in the estuary near Union Point Marina on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. Haid lives aboard the boat after claiming it from the shoreline. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Andrew Haid holds a knife as he moves through the cabin of a sailboat anchored in the estuary near Union Point Marina on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. Haid lives aboard the boat after claiming it from the shoreline. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

A box of items collected by Andrew Haid aboard a sailboat anchored in the estuary near Union Point Marina on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. Haid lives aboard the boat after claiming it from the shoreline. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Andrew Haid sits aboard the sailing vessel he lives on while anchored in the estuary near Union Point Marina on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Andrew Haid on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Alameda, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Andrew Haid pilots a small boat from the sailing vessel he lives aboard anchored in the estuary near Union Point Marina on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

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In Haid’s view, the estuary is like the Wild West. He’s stolen and been stolen from. In his sailboat, he keeps a small cigar case full of diamonds and jewels that he has collected over the years, like a true pirate. When asked if he felt any laws applied, he unearthed a machete from inside the cabin of his boat.

“This is the law around here,” Haid said.

Haid, who receives welfare and disability payments, said he has been trying to find a slip in a marina for years. Without that for protection, he’s forced to stay on his boat essentially 24/7. If he leaves, he’s not sure what will still be there when he comes back.

“If I could leave, I could try to find housing, try to get organized,” Haid said. “But I’ve been targeted so many times now.”

If the estuary has fallen into Wild West-style lawlessness, then Kaleo Albino, lead marine patrol officer for the Oakland Police Department, is the Lone Ranger.

Albino is the only officer in the Oakland Police Department tasked with enforcing the law on the estuary. In his estimation, the current crime spree can be blamed on just two people. Albino said they are relatively new to the waterway, have gotten away with one or two thefts, and became emboldened.

Albino said he would like to make an arrest, but it’s a challenging undertaking. A fully staffed port police force, he said, would have upwards of half a dozen officers. The Alameda Police Department has a marine unit, but its officers also have other full-time beats. The Coast Guard chips in, but its overall mission is national security. Although he understands why boat owners might go out on vigilante-style missions to retrieve their stolen vessels, it doesn’t always help.

Brock de Lappe, a member of the Alameda Yacht Club, talks about the abandoned boats near the US Coast Guard Island ramp in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. According to the Alameda yacht club community, a small group of anchor-outs are stealing boats and dinghies from yacht clubs and marinas in Alameda, stripping them for parts, and then sinking them in the Oakland Estuary. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

People anchor out in the Oakland Estuary next to Estuary Park in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

People anchor out in the Oakland Estuary next to Estuary Park in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Brock de Lappe, of Alameda Yacht Club, takes photos of abandoned boats at the Jack London Aquatic Center parking lot in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. The abandoned boats were pulled out of Oakland Estuary by the Oakland Police Department, de Lappe said. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

The mast is all that is visible of a sunken boat in the Oakland Estuary in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

A discarded boat along the estuary shoreline near Union Point Marina on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

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“The main reason I haven’t gotten these guys in custody is that the victims of these boat thefts are not necessarily coming forward,” Albino said. “They’re going to grab their boats on their own and then tell me afterwards. It doesn’t give me a clean case.”

But Albino and others recognize that the concerns posed by anchor-outs also won’t be resolved by a single arrest. Or even two. Beyond the thefts, critics of the anchor-outs say they dispose of their waste in the water, are often improperly anchored and become pinballs in the estuary during storms. When the boats sink, they become extremely expensive to remove, and they can pose a navigation hazard. In Albino’s view, the problem is worse than it has ever been.

Last year, the state conservation commission, tasked with the protection of the Bay, ordered the city of Oakland to remove anchor-outs and shoreline encampments by the end of February 2023. That deadline was not met.

In recent months, however, Oakland has passed new ordinances that address nuisance vessels and established an official 12-hour policy for anchoring in the estuary. Albino has applied for $200,000 in grant funding to dispose of derelict boats. There’s also a new process by which to settle disputes between the city and those who have their boats impounded. In 2019, the city of Oakland was sued after removing and crushing boats that people had been living on in the estuary. The lawsuit was ultimately settled for $280,000.

De Lappe, the former harbormaster, the city and many others in the boating community believe there is no room for anchor-outs on the estuary, period. If Albino’s grant funding comes through, people like Haid could wake up one morning with a 30-day removal notice.

In the meantime, the situation in the estuary is a microcosm of many problems the Bay Area faces more widely, including class issues, homelessness and crime. Although separated by only 800 feet, the chasm between these two different boating communities — yacht club members and people scraping out an existence on derelict vessels — could hardly be wider.

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