Head east across the Coronado Bay Bridge on a clear day, and there, to your right, in the shadow of a vast Navy shipyard, you'll catch a glimpse of one of the bay's most notorious neighborhoods-its Skid Row-lazily bobbing in the waves.
Comprising a motley assortment of sloops, trawlers, motor yachts, ketches and schooners, the area is littered with submerged wrecks and shoulders a reputation as a refuge for thieves, junkies and crazies. Known as a port of last resort for derelict people and vessels, it's often referred to as “the ghost fleet,” “the graveyard” or-in a nod to the notoriously awful 1995 post-apocalyptic nautical action film-“Waterworld.”
More officially, this 82-acre patch of open water that's sandwiched between the Silver Strand and National City coasts is called the A-8 Anchorage.
But for the dozens who live here aboard their vessels, it's simply home.
As the last place in the bay-and some say on the West Coast-where boaters are allowed to drop anchor for indefinite periods of time at no cost, the A-8 has, for nearly two decades, provided a haven for people and vessels who simply don't fit into the neatly defined niches offered by society and marinas.
That soon may change.
With new development pushing south along the bay, late last year the Unified Port of San Diego-the public-benefit corporation charged by the state with overseeing San Diego's bay and tidelands-began reevaluating the anchorage. Its harbor police department started stepping up enforcement efforts in the neighborhood, towing and impounding dozens of boats, leaving homeless many live-aboards who couldn't afford to pay fines.
In June, the port's Board of Commissioners voted to close the anchorage, citing, among other things, environmental and navigational concerns posed by sunken and neglected vessels, rampant crime and mounting costs of maintaining and policing the neighborhood.
The port's move to disband the A-8 has reignited a long-smoldering debate about the rights of boaters to make a home on the bay and has created concern among some residents that many more of their neighbors may end up on the street.
They have good reason to worry.
Although it's not the first time the freedom of live-aboards to anchor in A-8 or elsewhere in the bay has been threatened, many suspect that it may very well be the last.
Wiping Corona from his thick handlebar mustache, Scott “Doc” Barber says that as a retired Navy SEAL, he's well acquainted with the strategies of warfare. Surveying the neighborhood from the stern of the Tempest Fugit, his aging yet sturdy 55-foot Chris Craft motor yacht, the burly 49-year-old credits the Port District for conducting a textbook operation.
Like many residents here, Barber says he has little faith in government or law enforcement, but he doesn't disagree entirely with the port's decision to rethink the A-8. He acknowledges that the anchorage needed more policing and that many of the dilapidated boats towed away in recent months needed to go.
Barber also detests the wrecks that lie in the A-8's shallow waters. He's glad to see the port taking steps to remove them as they pose a constant threat to the Tempest Fugit and the Wolverine, the pirate ship-like 51-foot wooden ketch that he also keeps here. Although he lauds the port for those reforms, he thinks it's gone too far; he thinks the port's willing to use any tactic available to destroy a neighborhood that's worth preserving.
During the year that he's lived at the A-8, he says, the neighborhood has thinned from more than 100 to about 80 boats and some good people have been forced out along with many of the neighborhood's troublemakers. Moreover, his neighbors say they've experienced arbitrary enforcement of unwritten rules and police harassment.
Some have received multiple tickets for minor infractions, like improperly displaying identification numbers on their dinghies, while others have bought used vessels only to have them confiscated the same day for failing to register them. Despite several community outreach meetings and lip service to the contrary, Barber says he's sure the port has planned to eliminate the A-8 all along.
“They don't care about us,” he says. “There comes a point where you say, ‘You know what? They're blowing smoke up our asses.'”
In recent months, he says, the A-8 has changed dramatically. It still has its share of colorful characters, but these days it's mostly occupied by good, honest people-families, retirees and couples-who come here for a variety of reasons.
Barber nods toward the Audrey Jane, a 24-foot sloop that's home to Ron Kennedy, a soft-spoken 55-year-old San Diego native who's lived on the water for 13 years. A private aikido instructor, Kennedy hopes to someday open his own business teaching Christian kids to fight. In the meantime, he says, the slow pace of life on the water allows him to manage his type II diabetes without medication.
A little farther out lies the Onceaginn, a 55-foot schooner where Brett Jones, a tattooed biker and ex-con who's served time on drug charges, lives with his 14-year-old daughter, his girlfriend, a first mate and two dogs. With just a few teeth hiding behind a scraggly beard, Jones, 44, is used to being judged based on his appearance, but he's put his past behind him to focus on raising his daughter and fixing up the Onceaginn. In the coming months, he hopes to take his family and crew south toward the equator.
Barber points to a vacant patch of water where the Arima, a 36-foot Chinook sailboat, is missing from its usual spot in the anchorage. Undergoing repairs at the moment, it's home to Sat Gwin, 24, and Jim Benison, 36, a young couple who wanted to avoid paying exorbitant rent on land and thought living on a boat would be an adventure. The Arima's previous owner gave them the boat for free, and they've spent the last year fixing it up in hopes of chasing dreams of their own.
While many choose to live in the A-8, Barber says there are darker reasons why some people come here. Like a handful of his neighbors, Barber suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. He has issues with rage and says there are days when he “doesn't play well with others” but finds comfort in the tranquility that life in the middle of the bay affords.
Not everyone finds peace here, and Barber-who considers himself “the rich man on the hill” in the A-8-says the port has little compassion for some who aren't as lucky.
Many of his neighbors live on fixed incomes or are nearly destitute. Some are alcoholics and drug users who seek to feed their addictions in this remote locale. Others have more severe mental or emotional demons.
While there's darkness here, there's also a genuine community and climate of camaraderie. Most residents look out for each other, checking in on one another regularly, and lend a hand whenever a boat breaks free from its anchor, a motor conks out or someone falls overboard.
Living here comes with plenty of challenges. Maintaining supplies of water and fuel and disposing of garbage and sewage are constant chores. Just getting to shore requires a mile-long trip across open water in a rowboat or-for those who can afford one-a motorized dinghy. When the wind picks up, those trips can be downright harrowing.
The A-8's unprotected location in the middle of the bay makes it subject to the worst Mother Nature can dole out. Those who live here often say the open-water locale makes it the worst place to anchor a boat on the bay-even so, it's a place they say they don't want to leave. Yet, Barber is of two minds on the subject. At times, convinced that the port will simply win by attrition, he says he'll just pull anchor and sail off to New Zealand. But get him fired up and he'll start making plans to stay and fight.
“We've stopped them for seven years, and we'll stop them again,” he says. “The fight's not over. It's going to get a lot worse. We're going to the trenches. We're going into the courts.”
The anchorage is eerily quiet as the sleek gray harbor police patrol boat slowly weaves through the swaying vessels. A few A-8 residents cast sideways glances as the patrol boat creeps by, but most have disappeared below decks, presumably wary of confrontation.
They have good reason to be.
Dressed in a black suit and sporting slicked-back hair, Kirk Sanfilippo inspects the neighborhood with obvious disapproval. He's spent the last year trying to reform the A-8, and he isn't done yet. As the chief of the harbor police in a bay that's experienced unprecedented military, cruise-ship and commercial traffic in recent years while facing a host of post-9/11 security concerns, he says, “The only constant in the world is change.”
The A-8 experienced a change of its own in the early-morning hours of Sept. 14 , 2005, when an armada of 10 harbor police and private towboats descended on the anchorage. With the media watching, 22 boats were towed and impounded. Another 14 vessels managed to escape the anchorage before they could be towed, but several received citations for illegal anchoring, a misdemeanor that can draw a $1,000 fine.
In the months preceding the raid, Sanfilippo says, his officers attempted to educate A-8 boat owners about the need to comply with the port's permitting process. Frustrated with the apparent abandonment of vessels in the anchorage and boats breaking anchor to drift haphazardly about the bay, they posted notices on offending vessels and attempted to contact their owners. He says his plan was to create a culture of voluntary compliance and self-regulation.
“The police are the public, and the public are the police,” Sanfilippo says, quoting Sir Robert Peel, a 19th-century British prime minister credited with creating the modern concept of a police force. “We didn't get much cooperation with that.”
Still facing the same problems, Sanfilippo says he had little choice but to start enforcing the letter of the law. The September raid marked the start of that crackdown and the beginning of the end for many A-8 residents. In December, the port's Board of Commissioners met to discuss the A-8 in hopes of making it “a safe and orderly anchorage.” After stressing that their decision had little to do with the small group of residents who turned out to make their opinions heard or a desire to impose fees to generate revenue, the commissioners decided to begin the process of reevaluating the A-8.
Port Commissioner Robert “Rocky” Spane voiced his concern that there are two separate issues in the A-8: the enforcement of existing regulations, and a boat problem.
Because boats are often constructed of potentially toxic materials, it can cost thousands of dollars to properly demolish and dispose of them. Unwanted vessels that are still seaworthy are sometimes given to charities, which then sell them at low prices. Old boats in need of repair are often just given away or sold for next to nothing by local marinas and individuals. In either instance, the vessels often end up at the A-8 where they are left for the port to deal with.
In the end, the commissioners asked Sanfilippo to look into requiring boat owners to have insurance, curtailing the dumping of sewage and garbage and creating a visual-blight ordinance for boats on the bay. They also asked that he study adding mooring balls-buoys anchored to concrete slabs on the sea floor-to the A-8 or other existing mooring fields and step up enforcement in the anchorage in an effort to crack down on the abandonment of boats there.
The process began with port staff attempting to quantify their concerns with the A-8. Their analysis showed that, over the course of one year, about half of all crime reports, arrests and citations occurring in all of the anchorages and mooring fields on the bay were issued in the A-8. In addition, of the 137 vessels towed and impounded from all of the bay's anchorages and mooring fields during that year, more than two-thirds came from the A-8.
Totaling up the costs, the port's staff figured that the port had spent more than $700,000 to police the anchorage and tow, impound and demolish its derelict boats.
Finally, a sonar survey revealed that more than 20 sunken boats and 112 other pieces of debris larger than one meter litter the sea floor below the A-8.
“Taken altogether,” Sanfilippo said, “you've got a pretty overwhelming indication that something's not right in that A-8 anchorage.”
But for many A-8 proponents, the situation isn't that clear cut. Residents say the bulk of the crime in the area is related to gang members, prostitutes and drug dealers who congregate in Pepper Park, a small patch of green hidden amid an industrial neighborhood in National City, that's also home to the anchorage's dinghy dock. They asked for the opportunity to work with police to improve their community and suggested increasing enforcement of existing laws and establishing a neighborhood watch. The harbor police say they excluded crimes not related to the A-8 from their analysis.
As for the environmental impact of the anchorage, residents echoed Spane's comments and said they have nothing to do with the boats that are sometimes dropped off there in the middle of the night. Moreover, in an April memo to the commissioners, Sanfilippo noted that an increase in police presence in the A-8 at night had resulted in no boats being abandoned during the previous month.
Finally, even Sanfilippo acknowledges that the cost of policing the anchorage is inflated. He says the companies that hold the contracts to tow, store and destroy vessels charge the port sometimes two or three times more than what they charge the public for the same service. He attributes that expense to that fact that the companies were the lone bidders on contracts and says the port is glad to have their help tackling its derelict boat problem.
After airing all of these concerns in public, port staff determined that simply eliminating the anchorage would be the most effective solution but, according to documents obtained by CityBeat, changed their minds after privately considering the potential for “public outcry,” “negative media attention” and “negative political exposure for port commissioners,” among other things.
In June, Sanfilippo returned to the commissioners and received approval to begin making plans to install new mooring buoys in already-established mooring fields around the bay, a process requiring the consent of several state agencies that could take up to two years. The board also approved the elimination of the A-8 anchorage within that timeframe.
Larry Graf wasn't surprised by the port's decision. The 81-year-old, who has lived on San Diego Bay with his wife Joyce since 1972, has spent the last 20 years fighting the port for what he believes is his inalienable right to anchor in the bay.
As a pair of pet seagulls squawk and scratch on the roof of the Cream Puff, a modified 36-foot Navy river patrol boat that saw action in Vietnam, Larry carries a stack of three-ring binders into the pilothouse they converted into a sun porch and joins Joyce on the couch. Containing hundreds of pages of documents, correspondence with government officials and legal briefs that the Grafs have filed themselves over the years, the musty binders and Larry's red-rimmed eyes chronicle the history of the their struggle.
It's a battle to the death.
“I'm dedicated to seeing that the Port District is eliminated,” Larry says, pushing his thick round glasses up from the tip of his nose, where they soon return, and cracking open the first binder.
As far back as Larry or anyone else can remember, boaters have been allowed to drop anchor anywhere in the bay, a policy that was memorialized in the early 20th century when the Coast Guard established all of San Diego Bay as a federal anchorage ground, preventing state and local officials from imposing their own restrictions.
Although the port was eventually established in 1963, it wasn't until the 1980s, when recreational boating and traffic on the bay began to increase dramatically, that port officials decided they needed to take action.
In 1984, the port's commissioners, reacting to a laundry list of issues similar to those they face today, adopted a bay-wide small-craft mooring and anchorage plan, which created eight areas around the bay where boats could either anchor or tie on to a mooring ball. The plan also established standards-they have to be seaworthy, self-propelled and have proper safety and sanitation equipment-that boats would have to meet in order to use those facilities. Although the standards weren't immediately enforced, the port estimated that of the 657 vessels anchored on the bay, about a quarter of them wouldn't qualify.
In 1986, the Coast Guard, at the port's request, rescinded its prior declaration, allowing the port's plan to take effect and recognizing its authority to punish violators.
It didn't take long for the trouble to start.
The following year, the port's commissioners made it a misdemeanor to anchor in the southern portion of the bay, which didn't go over well with the Grafs or the 90 or so other people who were living in Emory Cove, a small inlet in the southwest corner of the bay.
Larry Graf filed a lawsuit asking a judge to prevent the port from rousting the Emory Cove residents. He lost and then appealed, arguing that the new law violated the state constitution because it denied boaters their right to access state waterways. His case was again rejected.
He and his wife and many of their neighbors were forced to relocate to the newly established A-8, but Graf, who says he was taught to do legal research by a vagabond lawyer practicing from a booth in an Imperial Beach McDonald's, was just getting warmed up.
Aided by Joyce, who once worked as a legal secretary, Graf says he's filed dozens of suits on behalf of himself and his neighbors against the port over the years. Although his supporting evidence has changed over time, his basic argument remains the same-that the federal government, not the state, has jurisdiction over the bay; therefore, the port, which derives its authority from the state, can't regulate the actions of boaters. It's an argument that has born little fruit, as the Coast Guard and federal and state courts have all ruled otherwise.
“Essentially we've lost all the cases,” Larry says, “but there are points within each one that we have won.”
While the Grafs were busy challenging the port's authority, they grew comfortable in the A-8, as did many others. Throughout the 1990s, the Grafs say there was little regulation in the anchorage. Before long, it became crowded with a mix of seaworthy, derelict, sunken and altogether unusual vessels.
Among the A-8's most infamous residents were the Floating Castle, a dance club resembling a medieval fort built atop several old Navy barges, and Neptune's Palace, a five-story party boat complete with hot tubs, mirrored ceilings, wet bars and a dance floor boasting views of the underwater surroundings.
Owned by James Morgan, a hedonist with a financial interest in a local strip club, the Floating Castle and Neptune's Palace were home to special events and raucous swingers parties during their heyday. However, the party pads became the subjects of protracted legal battles between Morgan and the port, and they wasted away in the A-8 for years.
In the end, the Floating Castle was towed away and destroyed by the port. Neptune's Palace escaped, eventually breaking free from its anchor and drifting into the shallows off of Chula Vista, where it remains stuck in the mud.
After a decade of anything goes in the A-8, the port started cleaning up the anchorage in the late 1990s, towing and destroying more than 45 abandoned vessels during a two-year period. By 2000, according to an Associated Press report, there were about 120 vessels in the anchorage-40 inhabited by live-aboards, 60 unoccupied and another 20 commercial tugs and barges.
In August 2000, the port's Board of Commissioners adopted an ordinance requiring vessels in the A-8 to undergo inspections, be able to move under their own power and be environmentally sound. Qualifying vessels would obtain a renewable six-month permit.
While the new standards created outcry among A-8 residents, many of whom wouldn't qualify, it also raised eyebrows at the Department of Boating and Waterways, the state agency charged with maintaining recreational boating safety standards and the public's access to state waterways.
In a Sept. 5, 2000, letter, David Johnson, supervisor of legislation, public information and regulations for the department, warned the port that its ordinance was flawed and recommended several changes. He opined that the law's provisions were too vague, allowing for “discretionary or selective enforcement,” and that others clashed with various state or federal laws and “may conflict with the public's constitutional right to use and anchor in navigable waters of the state.”
Contacted by CityBeat, Johnson said the matter fell through the cracks when the attorney handling the matter for the port took a new job. “Our file doesn't have anything after that letter,” he said. “I'm glad you brought it to our attention. We are working on it now and maybe there will be follow up on it.”
Johnson said the state Attorney General's office is typically asked to intervene if his department's concerns are ignored by local jurisdictions.
While the 2000 ordinance may violate the rights of boaters, it apparently served its intended purpose of bringing order to the A-8. In 2003, the same year Chief Sanfilippo was first hired as a harbor police captain, the port's Board of Commissioners passed new legislation imposing 72-hour time limits at Shelter Island's La Playa Cove and Coronado's Glorietta Bay, effectively closing a loophole that allowed live-aboards to anchor there for long stays and forcing them to move to the A-8.
When some of those displaced boaters complained about conditions in the anchorage, Ken Franke, a harbor police lieutenant, told the Union-Tribune that the problems of crime and derelict boats in the A-8 had largely been eliminated.
Despite all his research, Sanfilippo says he doesn't know what's changed at the A-8 during the three years since Franke announced the A-8 anchorage wasn't a problem. “I'm not saying that the same people who were responsible for creating some chaos, disorder and the perception of fear in the other anchorages ended up in the A-8 and that's why the A-8 is as bad as it is,” he said. “You can reach your own conclusions about that.”
The Grafs and other A-8 residents say it might have something to do with the fact that, for years, the harbor police regularly issued permits for the A-8 without ever setting foot on a boat-effectively dumping vessels in the anchorage.
But Sanfilippo bristles when asked if he thinks the port bears any responsibility for turning the A-8 into the problem it is today. “I would never say, nor am I saying now, that the port and the harbor police let the A-8 get to the point where it is today,” he said. “I think that every single person that's ever been in the A-8 has to take responsibility for what it's become and what's happened out there.”
Regardless, he says the port is now taking responsibility for cleaning up the anchorage and is in the process of ironing out the details of its decision to close the anchorage and expand mooring fields throughout the bay.
Under that plan, residents of the A-8 would get priority over the 275 boaters currently waiting to get a mooring ball, which rent for about $150 a month. The port is also exploring ways to subsidize the initial expense for displaced A-8 residents and has asked the county Health and Human Services Agency to assist boaters who need additional help.
Meanwhile, in another round of community-outreach meetings, many of the short-term details for the A-8 are still being debated. The port is looking into requiring insurance or a security deposit-something many residents are afraid they won't qualify for or be able to afford-adding dye tablets to marine toilets and only allowing one boat per owner in the A-8.
Sanfilippo says the port's old-boat problem remains unaddressed and that he expects to see an influx of derelict vessels on the bay as hundreds of boats bought in the 1980s fall into disrepair. “It's going to continue to be a very expensive proposition about how to deal with them,” he said.
A representative of the state Department of Boating and Waterways told CityBeat that the agency is monitoring the port's plans for the A-8 and expects to weigh in on the proposed changes in the coming months.
While it seems the port went through all the necessary motions during its reevaluation of the A-8, it's hard for many residents to accept that they ever had a fair chance of saving their neighborhood. Underlying all the talk of crime, environmental hazards and cost has always been the fact that the neighborhood itself is changing. A new marina and aquatic center are set open in National City in the coming months, and the waters of the anchorage will be in their front yard. By the start of next year, a nearby boat yard will have the capability to service super yachts and other vessels larger than 150 feet, attracting more traffic to the southern part of the bay. Finally, National City leaders have expressed interest in hosting the San Diego Chargers. There's talk of a bay-front stadium, which would undoubtedly bring new development directly adjacent to the A-8.
Sanfilippo said the port's had to consider the larger community value of the 82 acres of water and its potential to benefit more people.
“It's like a perfect storm,” he says. “Every indication is that this thing's not working.”
But the port's proposed solution may have a few flaws of its own. Earlier this month, the Coronado City Council, one of the port's member cities, unanimously passed a resolution against adding mooring buoys to the mooring field in Glorietta Bay, as the port's commissioners had proposed. Their message, that Coronado isn't interested in becoming the new home to the port's derelict people and vessels, was clear.
As for Barber, the former Navy SEAL, he's put the Tempest Fugit up for sale and says he'll likely sail the Wolverine to New Zealand after all. That doesn't mean he's standing down.
“If they ever come to take my boat, they had better bring their own body bags,” he says. “They're going to need them all.”