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Appearance of Pirates in San Francisco Bay Leaves Boaters and Marinas On Edge

It's a headline you don't expect to see in North America, but pirates are now operating in San Francisco Bay.

Major news outlets including the San Francisco Chronicle, CBS News, and ABC have all reported the sudden appearance of thieves and marauders targeting marinas and boaters under the cover of darkness.

According to ABC, thieves are arriving at night aboard small watercraft and using bolt cutters and other break-in tools to gain access to unoccupied boats. Several sailboats have been stolen, as well as small watercraft, dinghies, tools, and outboard motors.

Boat owners are blaming nearby homeless encampments, while police have so far declined to issue a public statement. Boaters are also pointing the finger at 'anchor outs' -- people who keep boats, which are often stolen, and live rent-free by continually moving their anchor location to avoid police.

According to both boaters and coastal residents, crime has skyrocketed over the last six months. In March, Oakland City Council passed new ordinance to give police greater powers to seize boats anchored illegally in city harbours -- an initiative meant to give law enforcement the tools to target stolen boats.

Oakland marina resident Emmanuel Ievolella told CBS, "It's every week. Every week somebody's missing something. From their boats or either their dinghies or their outboard motors or from their cars."

Another resident, John Fordham, whose apartment overlooks Jack London Square Marina, also told CBS: "A couple weeks ago, I saw, for the first time, a high-speed chase on the water with police boats pulling over another boat that was speeding away."

Much of the problem appears to be centered around the Oakland Estuary in San Francisco Bay -- an 800-foot wide channel that separates Oakland and Alameda, CA.

Former Oakland Marina harbourmaster Brock DeLappe told NBC Bay Area, "Over the last couple of months it’s become extremely severe, boats are being stolen almost on a nightly basis. Residents in marinas are scared, they’re talking about forming groups, they’re arming themselves. Someone’s going to get hurt if this is not taken seriously by authorities.”

“Boats are being stolen from the Alameda Community Sailing Center, (they) had four boats stolen in the last week and a half, boats are being stolen from the Encinal Yacht Club impacting youth sailing there,” added DeLappe.

Smaller items are also being targeted, particularly outdoor motors from dinghies and other small craft. A small outboard motor can fetch $3000-5000 on the black market. It can also be parted out for scrap.

Other targeted items include gas cans, portable fuel tanks, housewares stored aboard larger cruisers and houseboats, tools, food, clothing, and marine equipment or parts that can be re-sold. In some cases, thieves have stolen entire vessels and repainted them in an attempt to pass them off as their own.

Now residents, harbour workers, and community advocates are calling for the Oakland Police Department to clamp down.

“They’re not allocating what’s necessary for police presence on the Estuary,” DeLappe told NBC.

The Oakland Police Department has only two full-time marine offers patrolling the Estuary. The Alameda County Sheriff's Office does have its own Marine Patrol Unit, but it's a part-time patrol and officers are also responsible for non-marine duties. The U.S. Coast Guard's 11th District is stationed in Alameda, although it's unknown to what extent they patrol and enforce property crime within San Francisco Bay. The Bay Area has a population of approximately 7.75 million residents.

According to some metrics, crime across Oakland has spiked enormously since the pandemic. Major crime categories like robbery, assault, and homicide are up significantly across the city since 2019.

Alameda’s Marina Village Yacht Harbor managing investor Steve Meckfessel told the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s almost the Wild West. It’s almost as if you were on a ship and there are pirates out there, and there’s no government, no one to protect you.”

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission recently held a hearing on the matter, although they have no law enforcement authority.

“I’ve heard the voices of fear and terror,” Commissioner Rebecca Eisen said at the hearing, according to the Chronicle.

“We are obviously not a law enforcement agency, but we understand what we’re hearing. We’re going to work with others to figure out if there’s anything we can do to be helpful," added Eisen.

Residents say the rise in homeless encampments throughout the city is the catalyst that's causing crime to spill over into the marine world. Until greater enforcement is added to the coastline, specifically an increase in patrol boats and marine officers, residents believe the problem will continue unabated.

Boat owners are being advised to secure their vessels as strongly as possible, to not leave any small items unattended or unlocked, and to dock their vessels at marinas and harbours with security measures and surveillance wherever possible.

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