S.F. marina ousts people illegally living on boats, including a longtime resident

His living quarters were tight, but Dan Spradlin's view from his bedroom in the Marina — an unobstructed look at the Golden Gate Bridge — was unbeatable. His backyard was San Francisco Bay itself, and his rent? $810 every three months.

Of course, such a situation was too good to be true — or in his case, too good to be legal.

For 15 years, Spradlin, 70, lived aboard a sailboat docked at the East Harbor of the city-owned San Francisco Marina, where he'd had a boat docked since the 1980s.

At first, he lived aboard his sailboat — the cabin fitted out with a television and radio as well as rudimentary kitchen facilities — to save money.

When his antique business on Bayshore Boulevard failed in the mid 2000s, he began driving a Google bus (the earlier-era, smaller-footprint Bauer shuttles), sleeping aboard the sailboat near the Fort Mason Center until a 2011 heart attack laid him low.

Then, while recuperating until he had enough strength to make the boat ready to sail to Seattle, he was on board most of the day and every night — until this summer.

On July 4, Spradlin received a visit at his boat from the harbormaster, who issued him an ultimatum. After 25 years, the lease on the slip — held in a friend's name — was revoked, for violating marina rules prohibiting people living on boats.

He had one week to leave.

Spradlin knew he was breaking the rules — rules that for years were largely ignored, he said in an interview with The San Francisco Examiner.

“There was a tacit understanding” between live-aboards and harbor management, he said: keep things quiet and stay subtle, and the benefits of live-aboards — who could tie up vessels that had lines broken in storms, and keep an eye out for mischief at night after harbormasters have gone home — were worth bending the rules.

Spradlin's quarters were reminiscent of a bygone era in San Francisco, when eccentric accommodations were more tolerated. But unlike the houseboats in once-gritty Mission Creek — a floating oddity of a community, surrounded now by new buildings with biotech firms — there's been no push to legalize nautical accommodations

A recent change to Marina rules has made live-aboards expressly forbidden, according to records — and has led to others like Spradlin being cleared out of their “homes.”

The revision coincides with renovations of the harbors in the Marina as well as a new harbormaster, John Moren, who boat renters say is a stickler for the rules. And under advice from a Florida-based attorney and expert on marinas, the Recreation and Park Department, which operates the marina, tweaked the rules in 2012 to expressly say that boat owners may sleep aboard no more than three straight nights or seven nights in a month, according to records.

A main reason why this practice is banned is sanitary. “Black water,” or human waste dumped overboard by people living on boats that don't move to the on-site pumping station, is a health concern, according to Rec and Park staff.

“The Marina was built and is maintained for recreational purposes,” Recreation and Park spokeswoman Sarah Ballard said in an email. “It does not have the infrastructure to support people living on their boats and, ah, taking care of their business — if you will.”

Earlier rules dating from 1991 also banned live-aboards, Ballard noted, though other boat owners contacted by The San Francisco Examiner say that the rules were ignored for years.

The policy “was largely ignored for many years,” agrees Dominic Maionchi, who docks a boat in West Harbor and believes that some live-aboards — “sacred cows” living in West Harbor — may remain.

Rec and Park could not say how many live-aboards have been removed since renovations began in 2010, but altogether 11 berthing licenses have been canceled for a violation of the rules, including living aboard, according to records.

Another boat owner, who docked his craft near Spradlin's for years, would not speak on the record for fear of retaliation from the harbormaster, said Spradlin's presence was a boon.

“Having Dan here was like having 24-hour security,” he said.

After leaving the boat, Spradlin spent a few weeks bouncing between friends' couches. Available spots in “fleabag motels” in San Francisco were in short supply: twice, he received a call advising of an opening in a single-room occupancy hotel on Sixth Street or the Tenderloin. Both times he arrived to sign up only as someone else was renting the room.

He's since found a place he can afford on his Social Security benefits in Vallejo. He acknowledges the marina was in the “right” to get rid of him — he just wonders at their methods.

“I have no disagreement with their right to do it,” he said. “But with a 70-year-old guy who's just had a heart attack, to give a week to move when he has nowhere else to go — there just had to be some kind of humanitarian way.”

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