A new program launched this month offers subsidized housing on land for people currently living aboard boats anchored off the shores of Sausalito.
Most of the scrappy sailors, known as “anchor-outs,” don’t want to leave the free anchorage and their nautical lifestyle to become landlubbers.
But the promise of long-term housing seems to be softening the blow, at least for some. They are resigned to giving up their boats on Richardson Bay, beaten down by the years of battling local officials hell-bent on dismantling the anchor-out community.
Others vow to stay until the bitter end, saying the only way they’ll leave is in handcuffs or a body bag.
“If [getting] housing entails getting rid of my boat, I’m not going to capitulate in any way shape or form,” said Aaron Kelly, 43, who has lived on the anchorage for 13 years.
Part of the problem boils down to mistrust of the Richardson Bay Regional Agency (RBRA). While the RBRA is overseeing the new housing program, it’s also the local authority tasked by the state to remove the boats by Oct. 15, 2026.
One hand giveth, and the other taketh. And the taking process has been particularly harsh.
The anchor-outs’ dwindling population bears testament to the RBRA’s resolve in its mission to protect “environmentally sensitive waters.” In 2019, 200 vessels were anchored out on Richardson Bay.
Till then, the agency had largely ignored a regulation limiting boats in Richardson Bay to a 72-hour stay. Then, four years ago, under pressure from the state, the RBRA began enforcing the rule.
The harbormaster stepped up the agency’s boat seizure and crushing operation, often leaving people homeless. Today, only about 50 boats and 60 people remain on the water, according to the RBRA.
The anchor-outs and their supporters maintain their boats aren’t polluting the estuary. Instead, they point to sewage spills from treatment plants, pesticides running downhill into the water and the Chevron plant located in the East Bay. During the last 25 years, the oil company has been repeatedly fined by the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to comply with federal environmental laws at its Richmond facilities.
“It’s a smear campaign,” said Arthur Bruce, who has lived on Richardson Bay for seven years. “The RBRA wants to destroy a culture under the guise of environmentalism—all at the behest of wealthy landowners who don’t want to look at anchor-outs because they think we’re bad for real estate investments. This is a war on the poor.”
The RBRA claims the anchor-outs destroy the indigenous eelgrass, subaquatic vegetation, which certain animals rely on for food and habitat. Small fish hide in it, while others lay eggs in it. Fishing birds looking for food also depend on the eelgrass.
Whatever the real reason, if all goes as the RBRA plans, the anchor-outs will soon be banished from living on Richardson Bay. However, this group of mariners, unlike their former unfortunate neighbors whose boats were destroyed, will have access to housing on land, courtesy of the State of California.
State Senator Mike McGuire secured $3 million in funding for the RBRA’s three-year subsidized housing program, which will be administered by the Marin Housing Authority (MHA). The county also kicked in $344,680 to provide short-term case management for the anchor-outs.
Successfully housing the mariners relies on a multi-pronged approach and partnerships with other agencies, according to Brad Gross, the RBRA’s executive director. The goal is to move about 17 households a year from their boats into housing at scattered sites across the county.
“The program is designed to last for 12 months,” Gross said. “During that period, the Marin Housing Authority will be seeking federal vouchers for these people. As they transition out and into an actual Section 8 voucher, we’ll bring another person into the program.”
Additionally, social workers contracted by the county will work with the mariners to help them adjust to life on land and provide other wrap-around services as needed.
Some anchor-outs, especially those who have lived on the water for years, are dealing with issues that make housing on land somewhat appealing. Aging, declining health and deteriorating boats make life on the anchorage more difficult.
However, a chief concern among the boat dwellers is what will happen after the program terminates. Some say they’ve long been on the county’s waiting list for Section 8 vouchers. They’re scared to leave their boats, only to end up homeless after a year in the RBRA’s temporary housing.
Gross is adamant that the mariners will stay housed.
“I have assurance—the MHA says they never put somebody out on the street,” Gross said.
Marin County Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters, who is also president of the RBRA board of directors, concurs.
“The program is intended to be a long-term solution,” Moulton-Peters told the Pacific Sun.
One can hardly blame the mariners for their skepticism. The RBRA doesn’t always act in their best interests. Stories abound about the agency intimidating them and violating their civil rights, especially the female anchor-outs.
A young woman is facing criminal charges for pepper spraying the harbormaster, who unannounced pulled up alongside her boat in the isolated open waters. She says his presence terrified her.
Then there’s Robyn Kelly, an anchor-out who went ashore to spend Thanksgiving with her family. While she was gone, the harbormaster seized and destroyed her boat. That was in 2019, and Kelly is still unhoused today, taking refuge in a San Rafael homeless shelter.
Kelly’s experience isn’t uncommon. The RBRA crushed Sunny Yow’s boat, and she now lives in her vehicle. A handful of other anchor-outs remain unhoused since their vessels were seized and destroyed by the agency.
Yet, both Gross and Moulton-Peters said only people currently living on the water are eligible for the RBRA’s housing program, provided they meet certain criteria.
Shel Snyder recently received notice that she does qualify for housing, and she’s considering it. Her mother is sick, and she feels the timing is right for her to live in a stable home on land.
To give Snyder a bit more incentive to accept, the harbormaster just placed a notice on her boat stating that it’s marine debris. If she doesn’t remove the vessel from the anchorage within 10 days, the RBRA will do it for her.
Long-time anchor-out Peter Glazer plans on hanging tough, telling the Pacific Sun he won’t be leaving Richardson Bay anytime soon. The sailor has lived on a boat, on and off, since 1992, and has witnessed a lot of conflict.
“The RBRA is the master of sabotage,” Glazer said. “They’ve been fighting us for years. We don’t want them breaking up our community.”