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California and the West

Facing a Sea Change

Housing: Under a port crackdown, people living on boats at San Diego's last free anchorage must upgrade their rickety vessels or move on.


SAN DIEGO — From their maritime sanctuary at the south end of San Diego Bay, the residents of A-8 await the inevitable end to their days of free rent and fine views.

"The port's attitude is: 'Too bad; your free lunch is over,' " said Mike Koon, 52, who lives with his dog, Sandy, aboard their battered trimaran called Free Spirit. "They don't understand that A-8 people are family and now they're breaking the family up."

The "family" is an eclectic community of kindred souls who have huddled together in the last long-term free anchorage in San Diego Bay, an 82-acre area set aside by the Unified Port District of San Diego under the designation A-8.

Since 1987, A-8 has been available for the hard-core live-aboards who could not afford to rent a mooring or could not abide the idea of paying for something they believe is akin to a birthright.

As the port has sought to gentrify the bay, areas that for decades provided free space for tightfisted boat dwellers were declared off limits. Boaters were told either to sign up for an official mooring spot and start paying rent or to move.

The Port District has four anchorages with 437 moorings that rent for a daily rate of $3.40. Private marinas are much pricier.

The party at A-8 is coming to an end too, because of concern among port officials about water pollution and hazards to navigation posed by some vessels that are little more than floating wrecks.

A Friday deadline has been set for A-8 boats to conform with a new set of rules that will force some owners to move and others to upgrade their boats to make them seaworthy, environmentally sound and eligible for licensing.'

The boats here are a world away from the glossy yachts found in the marinas that ring the bay.

Among the weather-beaten craft are a converted minesweeper called Paradise, numerous barnacle-encrusted motor boats, several barges (including one outfitted like a medieval castle), and a five-level flat-bottomed boat called Neptune's Palace, outfitted with dance floors, hot tubs and ceiling mirrors for swinger parties.

"It's easy to find girlfriends when you've got a boat like this," said Neptune owner James Morgan Sr., 72, a former World War II submariner, retired trucker and onetime candidate for mayor.

While some of the A-8 residents work ashore and make daily dinghy trips to land, most are subsisting on retirement incomes, pensions or disability payments.

Many are willing to share their life stories, but others hide below decks when the occasional visitor arrives unbidden.

"Many of these people come out here because they can't adjust anywhere else, because they've got something that keeps them from fitting in on land," said Morgan, who has lived free on the bay since 1960. "Me, I'm here because I love the water and I love women."

From their patch of water between National City and Coronado's Silver Strand, just north of the mouth of the Sweetwater River, A-8 live-aboards enjoy a view of the ships moored at the 32nd Street Navy Base, the powder-blue, curvilinear Coronado Bay Bridge and the glistening skyline of San Diego.

The sound of Navy helicopters overhead is a distraction but there are no gas-driven leaf blowers, noisy car mufflers or other pollutants of landlubber living. Cellular telephones, power generators, great television reception and propane stoves obviate the need for much contact with land.

Many of the A-8 boats once were in tonier areas, like Glorietta Bay off Coronado and Emery Cove off the Coronado Cays. But as the port imposed regulations on those once-free anchorages, boat owners were pushed southward.

Only a handful of the A-8 vessels are expected to meet the new requirements. At last count, there are 40 live-aboard boats, 60 unoccupied vessels and 20 commercial fishing and hauling boats. Of the noncommercial boats, few if any can move under their own power.

To the residents, the move is a power grab by an agency that cares more about collecting rent than about protecting a treasured lifestyle.

"This is the last piece of freedom on the bay," said carpenter Speed Powrie, who is boat-sitting for a retired Air Force colonel who owns an 83-foot converted Coast Guard cutter named La Osa. "I guess they couldn't stand the idea of people being beyond their control."

Last year the Harbor Police impounded 30 abandoned vessels from A-8 and pulled them ashore for destruction. An additional 16 have been impounded this year.

The Port District did some snooping to support its views that the boats make a mess of the environment, sending divers to survey the silty bottom beneath A-8. The divers found 165 objects, mostly tires, pilings, barrels and car parts.

The Coast Guard checked the "pump-a-head" facility at National City and found it the least-used on the bay, leading to the conclusion that A-8 residents are flushing sewage into the bay.

Former Port Commissioner Mike McDade said that while he admires the community as a "reaffirmation of the free spirit of the frontier days," disputes over the free anchorages have been among the most difficult faced by the port in the past decade.

"People who live in free anchorages tend to resist the idea of any government interference in their lives," McDade said. "They just don't like to be regulated. What irritated me was that they were claiming an entitlement that is not available to people on land: the right to use public resources for free and without any regulation."

Among those who will be forced to leave A-8 when the new rules take effect is Shelby Britt, 42, who lives aboard an 85-foot barge with his wife, Jodie, 39, and their dog Muffin. The rules prohibit boats more than 65 feet long.

"For most of us, there is no place for us to go," said Britt, who came to A-8 five years ago from Phoenix. "They've pushed us here and now they're taking away our neighborhood."

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