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The Anchor-Outs 

In Sausalito's shadow, a community adrift

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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."

click to enlarge TO THE RACES Increased police focus on the anchor-outs is causing anxiety among boat dwellers over the America's Cup finals, held in the Bay next year. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • TO THE RACES Increased police focus on the anchor-outs is causing anxiety among boat dwellers over the America's Cup finals, held in the Bay next year.

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.  

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