Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Many of the vessels are heaped with stuff, barrels, tarps, pieces of plastic, water buckets, nets, bits and pieces of other boats and usually, on top, a bicycle.
Bay view of downtown San Diego. "The Port Authority took away all the good anchorages and they put us out here because they knew we wouldn’t last."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
From a distance, it looked like the home of a prince or minor lord — the castle’s four turrets and dark crenellated walls. But as I got closer, I saw that what seemed to be bricks were in fact roofing shingles, that the white around the windows badly needed repainting, that other wood was rotting, and that on the white-plank door was a sign — No Trespassing, Keep Out.
The place was empty. In fact, no one had ever lived there. The roughly 70- by 30-foot Floating Castle was a party boat. Still, the idea of this castle ruling its watery domain stayed with me — its mixture of nobility and seediness, pretension and failure, its very eccentricity came to typify what I found in this particular anchorage, technically known as the A-8 but called by one of its oldest residents the Devil’s Triangle.
I first approached the A-8 with my friend James Spring on his 40-foot trawler-style motor yacht, the Tequila Sunrise, on a gray afternoon at the very end of April. Spring works for a small advertising company, is a fiction writer, and also does charters. He has lived on his boat for two and a half years in a marina on Harbor Island and was curious about people who lived on the hook; that is, live-aboards who forgo the marinas, forgo mooring balls, and get by on anchors alone. Spring was born in San Diego, is blond, in his 30s, and has a great affability.
The A-8 — the last remaining long-term, free anchorage in San Diego Bay — is situated in South Bay more or less between the Coronado Cays and the Sweetwater River coming out of Chula Vista. Drawing near the A-8, it at first looked like a floating junkyard. There were several derelict cargo boats and barges and three hulking tugs drawn up side by side. Then I began noticing the sailboats, catamarans, and motor yachts, most of them small, and then the barges and houseboats. Many of the vessels were heaped with stuff, barrels, tarps, pieces of plastic, water buckets, nets, bits and pieces of other boats and usually, on top, a bicycle. One 45-foot sailboat looked as if it had been through a fire. Several catamarans had broken pontoons like snapped-off teeth. One barge with a house on it had a pile of storm windows and doors, unidentifiable rusted machinery, all the chunks and assortments and oddities that could be categorized under the subject heading: Things that might turn out to be useful someday. No gelcoat salesman had been through the A-8 for a long time. If the A-8 were a college and had a school color, that color would be rust. But there were exceptions — two sailboats, each about 65 feet, that people were working on, gorgeous boats that their owners bought for a song. And a few motor yachts were in pretty good shape, a few smaller sailboats. But looking over the 60 or so vessels in the A-8, my sense was that desolation and decay were the winners here. And all the vessels were scattered — there weren’t the neat rows as when boats are tied up to mooring balls. You know how it is when someone takes a handful of pebbles, coins, and buttons and gives them a little toss? It was like that.
Among the tugs and abandoned commercial vessels, the sailboats, motorboats, barges, and houseboats, were also the party boats. The three smaller ones were called the Party Kings. One consisted of two dismasted sailboats with beams set between them and a rusty house trailer from about the 1960s set upon the beams. The other two were the same idea but used open Navy personnel carriers with big plywood cabins built on top and house trailers between them. Again there was a lot of rust, though I was told these were new acquisitions. Next to the name — Party King — was a phone number. I called and a mechanical voice informed me the number was not in service.
Finally, there was one last party boat, larger and just as distinctive as the Floating Castle. This was Neptune’s Palace — the longtime home of Jim Morgan, whom some people call “the Daddy of A-8.” Morgan’s nephew owned the party boats, and his son opened Les Girls, the strip club near the Sports Arena, back in the late ’60s. Jim Morgan had also been connected with Les Girls and the party boats, as well as with dozens of other enterprises in San Diego. He also ran for mayor in 1959. But now personal tragedy and financial setbacks had led him to a more or less quiet life on Neptune’s Palace where, at 72, he is preparing to write his memoirs. On the roof of Les Girls is a great chipped and rusty billboard advertising the Floating Castle — “Fabulous Parties, Banquets, Dances, Weddings.” The phone number is the same as the one painted on the Party Kings.
Neptune’s Palace looked like a seaside restaurant with a little penthouse — the aerie where Morgan had his bedroom. The front half of the Palace was all windows. In the back was the kitchen and storerooms. Upstairs was an office and other rooms. Down the center of the restaurant ran a raised gangway with a golden rug and stools set around it where strippers could strut the stuff they had to strut. There were colored spotlights and balls with mirrors on the ceiling.
“We’ve had dancers from Les Girls out here, sure,” Morgan told me one day. “They’ve had wonderful parties. In fact, I don’t ever know of a party that just really wasn’t a wonderful party.”
And a young fellow named Tom told me that he had once attended a Halloween party on the Castle with about 200 people. I asked him to describe it. “Wild,” he said. I asked him to be more precise and he thought about it. “Absolutely wild,” he said.
For the past several years, however, there had been hardly any parties, which was why the phone had been disconnected. But I’ll get back to that.
As for the people of A-8, about 30 lived out there — more on the weekends. Most lived on their own boats, some on borrowed boats, others were squatters. None were rich, most were dirt poor without the dirt.
“Where else can you live in San Diego for $5 a year?” asked a man named Barry.
“Living here is like camping in the middle of a wet desert,” said a woman named Terry Aman.
“This place is a haven for people with all sorts of social problems,” said a man named Freddie. “I mean, they have an inability to handle society in the way it’s set up and they get nothing but trauma from the people whose job it is to help. There’s quite a few decorated vets out here, a few drug addicts and alcoholics, but there’re no dealers, no scam, no drug lifestyle. And with no transportation back and forth, it’s like a prison cell but it’s more beautiful than a prison cell. And I should know because I’ve spent half my damn life in jail.”
“I had a driver’s license and I had motor homes,” said a man named Mike, “but they were taking them away faster than I could get them. So I decided to get a boat. We’re the last of our breed, we’re the water hippies. We’ve got heroin addicts, crystal addicts, alcoholics. They’re just regular people, nice people. You got all types here, we’re all survivors.”
Freddie and Mike were the first two men I met in the A-8 on the day I went out with James Spring in the Tequila Sunrise. James had motored through the A-8 several times so we could look around, but he was nervous because there were stories of sunken boats and he was afraid of catching his hull on something nasty so after ten minutes he dropped anchor. The plan was to visit a few of the boats by kayak, and James dumped two sea kayaks off the stern. I had never been on one of these — more like an oversized surfboard with a dent in the middle than the comfortable body-condom kayaks I had used in rivers back East, but the bay was fairly calm, and after a few rolls and swerves I made my way toward a banged-up catamaran, the Free Spirit, which was flying the American flag. When I paddled up, James was already sitting comfortably on deck and introduced me to Mike, Freddie, Gary, and Sandy. The last was a Labrador mutt that Mike had gotten from the pound in Coronado. “He’s the only one I care about now,” Mike told me. Every time someone caught a fish, the dog went crazy with pleasure.
Freddie sat down across from me. A tall, thin man with a beard, long red hair, bleary eyes, a sweet expression, and raggedy clothes, he looked about 50. He told me his name was Frederick Sherman III. He’d been living on a 22-foot motorboat, the Desert Diver, for the past two years, working for Jim Morgan as a caretaker and diesel mechanic of the three Party Kings. He would get some more money from ssi at the first of the month, and he could hardly wait. “The man who came out here with a case of beer would be king,” he said.
Mike chimed in from the other side of the boat, “You come out here with a case of beer, you’re the most popular guy in the world.”
Before moving to the A-8, Freddie had been homeless in San Diego for 16 years.
“I came out here with healing in my heart, to fix myself,” said Freddie. “Those humans on land are nuts. But out in the A-8 you survive on true grit. Most of the people living in these boats get checks on the first of the month — either you’re physical or mental. For me, what I like best is there’re no bushes surrounding my camp. Nobody can sneak up on me. And officer after officer, badge after badge doesn’t come up shift after shift, saying, Hey, you got any drugs, any booze, any guns, any bombs? I’m safe here, I’m not bothered. But I like the fishing, and the bay people are a lot like mountain people, which is where I come from. Here people look out for each other.
“I’ve a passion for fishing, and I even have my fishing license. It’s my permission to be out here. I’m always up-to-date on that. And I love eating fish, but I have some Filipino friends on shore and I take fish over there and trade them for other stuff. I love fish, but I take my time on it.”
Freddie had several fishing poles over the stern of the boat, and he went off to check his lines. The dog Sandy started barking, eager for the fast life that a fish flopping on deck could provide.
Mike came over to tell me about his boat, which he’d had for ten years. He was a youthful 52, thin, clear-eyed, with a beard and long brown hair with a little gray at the temples. He was in Vietnam in 1967–’68. He talked about taking the Free Spirit down to Brazil and back, going through the Panama Canal. “Man, it flies. It’s all teak.”
Now he was trying to fix it up again — a pontoon was busted and the hull needed work, the sails were iffy. The deck was crowded with odds and ends, water buckets, a charcoal grill, tarps, a bicycle.
Mike had been out here several years. He talked about the viciousness of the winter storms and of El Niño in 1997, when a number of boats went down. “Man, the dinghies were just flying through the air.” He, too, had been homeless. He told me that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from Vietnam and that up into the 1980s he had a wife and family, a nice house and good job. Perhaps I looked doubtful because he went down into the cabin and returned with a beat-up envelope with clippings of real estate columns that he had once written for the San Diego Union. There was his name.
Up until this point Mike had been a little jokey, good-natured. Now it changed. “Then something happened and now I’m out here. Look, I had a wife, kids, jobs. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was all the drugs and alcohol. My dad died. They say it was Vietnam. I’ve been to the Veterans’ Hospital, but I still haven’t gotten any money. I’m still trying. I’ve eaten out of Dumpsters. What choice have I had? And there’s a bakery over on C Street that throws out day-old bread. I get that. And a butcher shop in Chula Vista gets rid of its old meat. And we fish.” He shrugged and gave a grin.
Mike had been given the job, he said, of cleaning up a small and derelict Chevron tanker anchored nearby. By small I mean it was about 150 feet long. Mike looked at it doubtfully. It was such a mess it would have been as easy to pick it up as clean it up.
For supplies the residents of the A-8 mostly rowed their dinghies into the Sweetwater River and docked at Pepper Park. The trouble was the park’s isolation: no buses, no stores, no houses, no buildings for miles. The closest transportation was the trolley — two miles away. This was the reason for all the bicycles. Another problem with the park was the lack of security.
“People steal stuff off your dinghy, the oars and oarlocks, or they smash it up,” Mike told me.
This was a complaint I heard again and again, that the park was a gang area, that the gangs smashed the dinghies and stole what was to be stolen. Those who had motors on their dinghies could go into Crown Cove on the strand, where they could catch a bus, or even motor into Glorietta Bay. But most didn’t have motors, and so Pepper Park was their only alternative.
I asked about other difficulties about living in A-8.
“We’ve only got one whorehouse,” said Mike, laughing, “and the whores have only one tooth between them.” Then he added, only slightly more seriously, “There’re not many women out here, that’s the bummer.”
“One of the hard things,” said Freddie, “is the Harbor Police and the tugs will go tearing by here at any time of night and send all the boats tossing. There’s supposed to be a five-knot limit, but they don’t pay any attention to it. I’ve been thrown right out of my bunk. I bet they do it just to harass us.”
I asked Mike about drugs. He said, “My comment is that there’re no pushers out here. Beyond that, I don’t want to comment. I just don’t want to comment on that.”
But a little later when I asked Freddie if there were drugs, he said, “Oh, they’re available. They’re available, all right.”
Mike asked him what he was talking about and Freddie told him. Mike laughed. “That’s right. They’re available, all right.”
Both men were eager to talk about the beauty of the place, the peace and serenity, the lights of San Diego at night. “I’ve seen sea tortoises,” said Freddie, “actual sea tortoises. I love seeing them.”
The specifics of what they found beautiful were difficult to articulate. They even thought the question rather foolish. Mike waved his hand, taking in the bay. “All this,” he said. “Look at it.”
The third man, Gary, had been sitting on the other side of the mast talking to James Spring. Gary was in his 50s, chunky and dark-haired with about half a dozen teeth. He had recently sold his boat and moved back to land because he had a herniated disk and needed physical therapy. Although Freddie and Mike had mentioned Jim Morgan as the person who lived on the Palace and had the parties, Gary said more about him.
“I was coming back one night from Pepper Park in my dinghy with supplies. It can get real choppy because of how the wind blows across the strand, and that night it had started to blow hard. Anyway, my boat got swamped. I was wearing a bright yellow slicker and I tried to swim, but I was being dragged down and I started going under and I was shouting. Jim Morgan came out of his aerie, and he saw my yellow slicker and threw me a rope. I would have died except for him.”
He talked some more about this, his gratitude and what he owed Morgan, then he switched to what he didn’t like about the A-8. “The Harbor Police come out and harass us about all kinds of stuff because they see us living out here for free. They don’t like it because they’re living in a little house they’ll never own and they got a car and all these bills and all this stuff and they look at us and, well, it doesn’t sit right with them.”
This was another sort of remark I often heard — that by living on the hook these people had given up being solid citizens and that people on shore responded to them with a mixture of envy and distrust, as if somehow people living on boats weren’t playing by the rules and so they had lost the rights that went with respectability and a so-called normal life.
But this response wasn’t limited to the people of the A-8. James Spring told me that live-aboards docked in marinas ran into the same suspicion and that a few marinas didn’t want them, while the marinas that allowed live-aboards made them pay an extra $125 for their slips. The general attitude seemed to be that live-aboards lacked stable lives — no house mortgage or property or the usual bills — and as a consequence were socially undesirable no matter how much money they had.
“I lived in Mexico for four and a half years in an expatriate community,” said James. “These people who live on boats, it’s the same thing — an expatriate community. Actually, you’d think the marinas would want them — they provide extra security. And you always know where they are at night because they’re blowing blue screens.” James noticed my confused expression. “You know, TV.”
I had also talked to another live-aboard couple in a Harbor Island marina, Don and Carla Rodocker, who had sold their 4400-square-foot house in Bellevue, Washington, in 1994 to buy a 46-foot Nordhavn — a very Rolls-Royce of a powerboat, the Perseverance, half a million dollars of teak, black leather, hi-tech electronics, and engines so shiny you could use them as oversized dinner plates to serve steak tartare. The boat came with washer/dryer, heating, air conditioning, satellite TV, a stateroom with a queen-sized bed, a smaller room with bunk beds, and two heads, one with a tub. The bridge looked like the boardroom at Microsoft. There was even a version of e-mail called sailmail. A trip to Europe would be child’s play for the Perseverance, and a similar Nordhavn had just finished a circumnavigation of the world. They had brought their boat down to San Diego in 1997 and had made a number of other trips, including two four-month trips to Mexico. Don Rodocker was a high-priced engineer who designed, among other things, underwater devices. His current pet was a remote-controlled vehicle, 15 by 7 inches, with cameras, audio, and power, that could inspect the bottoms of dams and look at sunken wrecks. He had a variety of such toys. All this is to say that they were not your usual outcasts.
Don was in his 50s — trim, gray-haired, gray mustache, goatee, glasses. He had spent ten years in the Navy, three in submarines. “People like you to have real property, own a house. We’re gypsies, transients. No matter how much money you have, you’re riffraff. They don’t know how to categorize you. Even the marina’s live-aboard fee is there to exclude people.”
Carla had a story about the difficulty of getting charge cards because they lived on a boat, even though they had a bank account and a substantial amount of cash. Still, the bank was suspicious. She was in her 40s and very pretty, long brown hair and a good figure. “People say, ‘Oh, you live on a boat, that’s totally great, but it’s not for me — but say, if you want to come over and spend a few days in our guest room and use the shower…’ Oh, right!”
“Most people can’t imagine themselves living on a boat,” said Don. “Some admire our adventurous spirit, but they’re not about to sell their house anytime soon.”
“People come and visit us,” said Carla, “and a lot of them don’t even want us to take it out of the marina, they don’t even want to go out on the bay. Often it’s a sex thing. Women don’t tend to like boats as much as men. They’re more particular. Women who’ve been traveling on boats usually get together in port and they have scare stories like they haven’t had a shower for two weeks. If you don’t have any luxuries and just have to camp all the time, it would be just awful. But the guy’s attitude is usually different. It’s always the guy who’s the instigator with the boat; the single-handers are always guys. The wives often fly down and meet the guy when he reaches his destination. On the other hand, I like the simplifying concept. It keeps you honest with the junk you collect. And if you don’t like your neighbors, you can just get up and leave. And you can go see stuff.”
Back in the A-8, I thought that Mike’s catamaran was as different from the Rodockers’ Nordhavn as a month-old slice of bologna was from fillet mignon. Rich or poor they were all treated as gypsies, shiftless no-accounts. I asked Mike who else I should talk to.
He pointed across to a huge, rusty vessel with a small white convertible parked on top. “Go talk to Larry and Joyce. They’re pretty sane. We’re just crazy ones over here.”
So James and I got back in the kayaks. The trouble was that a wind had sprung up. There were white caps and a substantial chop. Mike and Freddie had talked about that wind — at one moment the bay could be smooth, then everything would change. That was one way how the dinghies got swamped going back and forth to Pepper Park.
I pushed off in the kayak, bouncing and rolling with water splashing over my legs. I felt like a piece of cheese perched on a saltine cracker, which the cat has begun to lick. However, I made the journey without incident, though I expect my fingers made permanent indentations in the aluminum bar of the paddle.
Larry and Joyce Graf had, in fact, three boats. The biggest was the Paradise, a 110-foot, ex-Navy WWII sub chaser. I would be hard pressed to say if the Paradise, originally white, was now predominantly white or rust. The convertible sat on top — a rusty foreign model that wouldn’t run again till it got to convertible heaven. A sort of wooden shed or garage was on the prow, along with other odds and ends — plastic barrels and suchlike. Their middle-sized boat, the Cream Puff, was a 36-foot ex-government personnel carrier that Larry was working on, building a large plywood forward cabin that towered over the deck. The third was a 17-foot covered motorboat they used to go back and forth to Chula Vista, where they had a 24-foot slip in a marina (the smallest slip available).
Larry was 75. He and his wife had bought the Paradise in 1967 in Puget Sound, where they had owned a trailer park, and cruised down to San Diego that same year, docking at Harbor Boatyard. Larry had worked there as a machinist, and when the boatyard closed, he and Joyce took the Paradise to Emery Cove and lived on the hook for ten years. Then Emery Cove was closed as a free anchorage in 1993 (it’s now a bird sanctuary), and they brought the Paradise to the A-8. At the moment it needed work and was relatively immobile — Jim Morgan had offered them $500 for it. The Grafs never cruised with the Paradise because there was no place to tie up; they said no mooring ball would hold it. Larry added that since they lived on little more than social security, they couldn’t afford to take the Paradise into a marina. At the moment they slept in it, while the forward cabins were used for storage. The rear, with a galley and living room, had a mobile home decor and was full of clutter — clothes, boxes, piles of papers, tools — as if nothing had been thrown away since they had bought it. Again the governing philosophy seemed to be to hang on to objects because someday they might be useful. Despite the whitecaps, the Paradise was as steady as Balboa Park.
The cabin of the Cream Puff was similarly crowded with tools, magazines, stacks of papers, suitcases, dishes, sheets of plastic. A couch covered with a bedspread was pushed up against the wall across from the sink, refrigerator, stove, and TV. A table saw was back by the door, and the brown rug was flecked with sawdust. Despite the jumble, it wasn’t quite messy. The magazines and papers were piled neatly; nothing was lying on the floor. The Grafs sat on the couch; I was in a chair; James had gone back to the Tequila Sunrise because his anchor seemed to be slipping. Larry was tall and wore glasses and had mild blue eyes — a pleasant doggy face with freckles or sunspots. He had on a blue watch cap and blue flannel shirt. Joyce had graying red hair and was heavyset. She was troubled by arthritis and remained on the couch the whole time.
“We’ve lived on shore,” Larry told me. “In fact, I used to build houses, but I’ve always preferred living on the water. We have all the amenities that a person would have on shore. The solar panels run all the power tools, the TV, Joyce’s sewing machine, and a lot of other stuff. We have a gas stove and gas refrigerator. We even have a Jacuzzi hot tub in the bow.”
Where Mike and Freddie were survivors, the Grafs were survivalists. Not only did they battle the elements, but they fought the system.
“The Port Authority would push us out of here if they could,” Larry said. “They’ll do it sooner or later. According to the master plan, they don’t want any anchorages in the bay. Only moorings. And they’ll probably get rid of those too. They probably don’t even want any marinas. They only want hotels. More development.”
“They forced all these boats to come out here in the first place because they knew they wouldn’t last,” added Joyce.
“The A-8 is the most dangerous place to anchor in the bay,” Larry continued. “Because the Sweetwater River empties out right over there, the bottom is mushy with eight feet of silt, and under that there’s hard clay. That makes it hard to anchor because the anchor drags, and it wrecks the smaller boats. And the wind conditions are very bad. The wind comes whipping across the strand — there’s nothing to stop it — and then the current always puts you broadside to the wind. You’d be surprised at the size of the waves. We’re always losing boats in the winter storms. Nobody in his right mind would anchor here if there was anyplace else to go.”
“I call this area the Devil’s Triangle,” said Joyce, and she went on to talk about the shortcomings of Pepper Park, the theft and damage to people’s dinghies. “Then when they’re going back and forth, they’ve got to watch out for the tugs. They go by too fast, and a lot of skiffs get swamped in the prop wash.”
But Larry Graf’s main enemy was the Port Authority, and he had been fighting it in court since 1987 on the legality of its enacting anti-anchoring ordinances. He claimed that the Port Authority didn’t want anyone living on state-controlled tidelands, which the state said it owned, but, said Graf, it didn’t. And this was at the center of the issue. The Port Authority said the land under the bay belonged to the state; Graf said it belonged to the federal government. He told me he had spent hundreds of hours researching this in a number of different libraries and had several boxes of papers. He began quoting several Supreme Court decisions that supported his argument. Then he urged me to write a real story, the story of his struggle with the Port Authority, and not some piece of fluff on the A-8. He started to get up to bring me one of the boxes. I stopped him and explained that my life just wasn’t long enough. He sat back down and a little wrinkle of scorn lifted the corner of his mouth in order to show me what he thought of my lack of seriousness. It stayed there until I left.
“We spent $300,000 on one lawyer, and we’ve had five lawyers,” Graf explained. “Another lawyer wanted a million, and he punched the clock when we came in the door. For a million he promised to win the case for us. This was when they were trying to kick us out of Emery Cove. We had an association made up of the people over there, and I was president of the association. You see, the Port Authority had no right to kick us out of Emery Cove, because it’s not state land, it’s federal land. If the federal government was in charge, then anyone who wanted a boat would have a much better chance of affording it, because so much of what goes to the marina and all these other expenses ends up going to the state in taxes. There are all sorts of taxes. I bet you could save up to 50 percent of what you spend on a boat. Why, there’s even a dmv tax on your dinghy.”
It seemed to me that the state taxes would then be replaced with federal taxes, but I kept quiet. It was a subject I knew nothing about and it could be a long discussion. But I sympathized. Larry Graf taking on the Port Authority was like David taking on Goliath without a slingshot. Whatever the common sense of his struggle, he had fought valiantly for 13 years, and the Port Authority could flick him away with a hangnail.
I asked Graf what he planned to do with the Cream Puff when it was fixed up.
“We’d like to take it up to Puget Sound as a first trip. Joyce’s dream is to go back up there, but we might end up staying around here. We’re going to have to move into a marina sooner or later because of Joyce’s arthritis. A lot of marinas want live-aboards because it means more security [in this he clearly disagreed with James Spring], and they help out in storms and if there’s a fire. They spread them around evenly so they can keep an eye out.”
Although his words were positive, his tone was bleak, but then Graf went on to talk about Jim Morgan and how much he helped everyone, how wonderful he was, but how the Port Authority wouldn’t let him have parties anymore, that it wouldn’t let him bring the partiers off a public dock. As we talked, an expensive motorboat chugged by with two couples in Nordstrom attire who peered in at us like looking at the monkeys in the zoo. I realized this must happen to the people of the A-8 all the time. Then Graf abruptly switched back to the subject of marinas.
“No, we’ll never do it. We don’t need any of the services they offer in a marina. We’re completely self-sufficient. We go into town twice a week — once to shop and then I work four hours on another guy’s boat every Sunday. No, we don’t need any marina. They’re terrible places. Living out here we can avoid the population explosion.”
Joyce spoke up. “In a marina you have everyone walking down the dock looking in your windows. You have regulations that stifle you. The dockmaster is always pushing people around. They don’t permit animals. It’s awful. No matter how stressed out you are, when you come out on the water, you become serene. You don’t see any boats out here with bars on their windows and bars on their doors like in Chula Vista and National City. It’s a lot safer on boats.”
Safer in the Devil’s Triangle, I thought.
“I don’t know,” said Larry, “Joyce’s arthritis isn’t getting any better so it will happen eventually, but we still have a few good years left.”
They sat side by side on the couch — two elderly people looking defiant. It was hard to be a survivalist and fight the Port Authority; it was hard to stand up for the little guy. But Larry Graf was 75 and the Paradise was over 50 — how many more winters could they get through in the A-8 even if the Port Authority let them stay?
Late that afternoon I drove down 24th Street in Chula Vista through a moonscape of commercial lots and holding areas to Pepper Park — about two acres of bright green pressed up against a river of questionable color. Sweet, I thought, the water probably wasn’t. A runners’ club was having a barbecue. Several quartets of young men were sitting in flashy cars puffing on peculiar-smelling cigarettes not found in stores. A sidewalk ran from the parking lot down to the dock where half a dozen dinghies were tied up. A Hispanic-looking man with long hair and a beard, carrying two car batteries and followed by a yellow dog, was making his way toward one of the dinghies. Then he returned to the parking lot to a battered, mustard-colored Ford Comet for two more batteries. In subsequent trips, he got oars, a small motor, life jackets, a cooler, several bags of food, and two backpacks. By his last trip I was down on the dock making friends with the dog. “Going out to A-8?” I asked.
His name was Joe and he was in his 50s, small, wiry, a bright smile — a self-employed landscaper in Chula Vista working four days a week. No way was he going to leave anything in his dinghy, he said. Everything got stolen.
“I spend all week in other people’s yards, then I go to my boat and forget everything else. I got it cheap a couple of months ago — a 65-foot sailboat, the Winterhaven. It was a wreck and I’ve been fixing it up, scrubbing and cleaning. It’ll take a couple of years to get it seaworthy. It’s got teak all over. But you get away from your problems, all the drive-by shootings, the crime, the stress. I bring my teenage son out here just to show him another kind of life. But it’s not easy. The Harbor Police get you for all sorts of little things — no lights, no life jackets. It’s worse than the land.”
Another man joined us — tall, gray-haired, wearing a green turtleneck. He lived in the A-8 as well and nodded earnestly as Joe complained about the Harbor Police. Then, when he heard I was writing a newspaper story, he vanished. I almost could hear a poof! I turned around and he was gone.
“We got guys who’re homeless,” Joe continued, “trying to make a go of it. More than half of them drink pretty steadily. Then there’s drugs. For me it’s a lot of fun, but I’m glad it’s not my home. Some people weren’t meant to live on the water. It can be rough out here. There’s a guy, John-John — his skiff sunk. Now he’s got no way back and he’s alone on his boat with his dog. People are giving him food, but they can’t just keep doing it. If people can’t live it, they just got to get off the water.
“Jim Morgan’s the daddy of the place. He’s helped people financially and with food. Not me, but he’s helped others. He’s just that type of person, always looking out for you, ready to help.”
All this time Joe had been loading his stuff into his dinghy. Now he was ready to go. “Come out some night,” he told me. “We can fish and talk. You can’t believe what it’s like out there. Sometimes at evening the water’s like glass.”
Several days later I rented a 16-foot powerboat from Seaforth Boat Rentals in Coronado in order to visit Jim Morgan. The seen-it-all, know-it-all handy-helper had me count the three blades on the propeller three times just so I wouldn’t quarrel with him if I came back with two. I’d never worked a motorboat before and I zigzagged a lot getting out of Glorietta Bay. The boats that saw me coming started zigzagging too.
It took 20 minutes to get out to the A-8. I drifted up to Neptune’s Palace, saw Morgan upstairs in his office, and hailed him. He waved and ambled down to his dock. Stating my business, I said I’d like to talk, and shortly I was sitting inside at his kitchen counter drinking coffee. I suppose it was a galley, but it looked like a kitchen — the sort one would find in a suburban ranch house from the 1950s.
Morgan was 72 and brought up in Dallas. A good-natured man with a Texas twang, he occasionally used exclamations like “Oh, my goodness.” He had bright blue eyes, glasses, a round, red face with thick light gray hair brushed back over his head. Although he liked to tell stories, he was not a linear storyteller; rather, his stories bent and circled and interrupted each other.
“All of us are characters for being out here. And a lot of them, if they weren’t here, they’d be on the streets. In fact, I think, probably most of them. Not Joyce and Larry, but that big boat of theirs, that’s their place to live at this point. Now, they’re a fine couple, very responsible people — no drugs or anything like that. They have a daughter who’s an attorney. Wonderful people. Every Christmas Joyce brings me cookies, which she made over there.
“I’ve spent my life on the bay. I got out of the Navy in San Diego and I’ve always loved the water, but I liked houseboats more than boats. I have a friend over in Coronado Cays, and the people over there, their dream is to get a house with a boat dock — those places sell high because of that — but very few people, after the newness wears off, they don’t even move them from the dock. Every man seems to want a boat, his dream is to escape and go someplace, and it hasn’t happened that way for them. It becomes more of a liability, of taking care of it, things of that nature. So how long have I been on the water? Since about 1960, but it’s been in houseboats.”
When he got out of the Navy right after WWII, Morgan started a trucking business that expanded rapidly, then collapsed just as quickly, leaving him with $569 that he put up in a sealed bid for a huge warehouse (“the biggest building in the world”) and eight smaller ones, which the Navy had built on North Island in 1945. Since other bidders were charging the government to get rid of the buildings, Morgan came up a winner. Within two weeks, he had sold the eight buildings for $2000 each, then he used the $16,000 to move the big one, floating it across the bay to the foot of F Street in Chula Vista. Morgan sold it for $65,000, and for a while it was home to the biggest Chinese restaurant in the world. As he spoke, Morgan drew out pictures, showing, among other things, the warehouse being pulled across the bay. Morgan became successful in buying military surplus, bidding low, then reselling what he bought at a large profit. When the freeways started going in, he did the same thing with land, bidding low and occasionally picking up parcels that others had missed. And when areas had to be cleared, Morgan bought houses that needed to be gotten out of the way, then moved them and resold them. And he showed me a series of pictures of houses he had bought for $150 each.
“I’m a person who’s out of step with society. The right person would never have any trouble at all, but I’ve never been the right person. Politics, you know what I mean? I’ve been in lawsuits with the city, with the port, but the main thing has always been that I look for an opening, and if there’s no law against doing it, then I take advantage of it. I had an awful lot of enemies in the city. That’s why I ran for mayor in 1959, because of the corruption.”
Morgan showed me an election poster with a picture of himself looking handsome and eager. He told me he came in second in a field of eight. He went on to more stories of city corruption in the ’50s and ’60s, in the city government and police department, bribes in the pawn-shop detail, the police taking bribes from cab companies, corruption in the vice squad.
“I brought about the biggest police investigation that was ever successful in San Diego. That was back in 1968 — it’s in the San Diego Public Library — it was such a rotten, stinking mess. You see, around 1968, my son opened a club called Les Girls, and there was a lot of police corruption in that, oh my God. Everything was corrupt in that type of a business. At first the police tried to close Les Girls, but we won all our cases. There were many, many cases ’cause the police were so corrupt. In fact, there were 308 cases of the policemen arresting the girls and all. We prevailed in all of them. I think on seven or eight there was some kind of deal — pleading guilty to some little thing. It was just harassment because we wouldn’t pay them any money. I called the attorney general in Sacramento. I lived up in University Heights at the time. An investigator came down to our home. And I gave them as much information as I could, because my son, with his Les Girls, these dancers knew all of the corruption. They’d worked at a lot of different clubs so they knew all the corrupt police and the worst of them was the head of the vice squad. So they started an investigation of the police department.”
Morgan showed me a copy of a magazine from the San Diego Public Library with a “Report on the Investigation of the San Diego Police Department,” January 22, 1970, detailing many examples of a policeman raping numerous women, including an officer in the police department, as Morgan fleshed out the details with juicier descriptions.
“He could have been sent to jail for the rest of his life,” said Morgan, “but they just let him retire early. He should have been killed, that would have been the best way.”
I tried to get Morgan back to the subject of the A-8.
“I have a nephew, Cecil Johnson, who’d been working in Alaska for Arco or something and he always used to come out and work with his uncle on the bay and things. And he wanted to build a big party place. He built the Castle over there, and he bought this place, Neptune’s Palace, from a guy in Chula Vista. Cecil and I beached it down in the shallows and did all the stuff he wanted to do to it. He loved it out here. But they’ve passed a law that you couldn’t charge to bring people out here. There’d still be parties out here if he didn’t have opposition from the port, because the parties they had out here, oh my gosh, they were always good — all kind of parties. Well, it fell apart. I stuck with him, I mean, he’s like a son. He still has it, of course. It just reached a stage in my life where I could be out here — I mean, I like it out here — and I have a very close friend over in the Coronado Cays. I’ve remained friends with practically everyone I’ve ever met in life — even the first lady who ever worked for me. She was 17, her husband was captain of the football team, and we’re still lifetime friends. I’ve been fortunate that way. But Cecil’ll come out of it. My thing is that you just coast along. They found out that that other outfit was selling drugs. It made a lot of trouble.”
Morgan went off into some other company’s “harbor-excursion type of business that caused all the trouble, but it’s all so much politics.” I said that I wasn’t following. Is that why they closed down the parties here?
“No, well let me tell you about the parties. Going back to 1960, there has never been one fight aboard any boat that was rented out. Nothing bad’s ever happened on these boats, no arrests, no fights, no drugs. It just seemed like the people really respected coming out here. It’s the politics again. Cecil owns all this now, and until things get straightened around, he said, let’s just let it sit. So we’re not having any parties here except once in a while, but he doesn’t really want to get involved in too much of a fight with the port, because the port won’t let them use the docks over there. That’s the only thing. So now it’s hard to get out here and Cecil doesn’t want to. And that’s been two or three years now. He’s had a couple of people out that want to buy everything from him, and I think at this point that’s what he’d like to do. When he first built this, he also bought all of these boats. Now he and his girlfriend — which is still a friend of mine and lives in the Cays — what they did was bid on boats from the Navy. It was a big, big sale they had, and what happened was the Navy somehow didn’t advertise it real good. So they bid on every boat but at a low, low price, hoping to get one or two boats, but what happened is that he ended up with 47 boats. So that’s a lot of the boats, people bought them and they went right to Alaska. They were good boats, excellent boats.”
The story went on until it was sidetracked by another, then another, except one of the Navy boats was tied up outside Neptune’s Palace, a 40-foot open boat.
To find out about the legality of transporting people from a public dock out to the party boats, I contacted Senior Officer Mario Martinez, Harbor Police bay control officer. First I asked him to define the job of the Harbor Police.
“Well, we maintain the free anchorages in San Diego Harbor, and we keep track of any vessels that come and go. And we also keep track of any sunken vessels. We make sure that the anchored vessels maintain the perimeter that’s shown for those anchorages. And any vessels we acquire through illegal mooring or sinking, we have to process them according to the harbor navigation’s code. And there’s police work. If we see any illegal activity, we will enforce the law.”
Then I described what Morgan had said about not being able to transport people from a dock out to the Floating Castle, Neptune’s Palace, or the three Party Kings for parties. Martinez said he hadn’t realized that Morgan or Cecil Johnson had been having any difficulty. He knew nothing about it. Then he explained what seemed to be the law.
“The only restriction I know about is conducting any commercial activity without a port permit, and I believe since he was taking passengers on for a fee to conduct his parties that he was conducting business without a permit. And I think that’s the only restriction there would be since the dock is for public use and he was using it for his own private and commercial use. That could have been the reason. Yeah, that’s it. The 8.05 upd Ordinance — Conducting Commercial Activity Without a Permit.”
So perhaps that was right, perhaps he hadn’t been able to get a permit, but Morgan’s tendency to switch from subject to subject, then stop and bring out photographs made it confusing. Not that I felt he was necessarily avoiding the subject, he was just a circular storyteller. And perhaps I wasn’t the best listener, because I could hear the meter ticking on my motorboat and the ticking kept getting louder. But when I asked again about the parties, Morgan went back to talking about his deals, fights, and lawsuits, his complicated relationships. Then something happened to bring everything to a stop.
“I lost my son, Ron, in an auto accident. He had to be fed through a tube in his stomach for four years. So the whole family all over the United States came to my aid. He was so brilliant, oh my God, he was brilliant. He could do everything so fast. He built the most beautiful home at the age of 19. He got married early and he went into business and he did pretty good. He wasn’t even old enough to buy the house.
“He had the accident in 1975, and he finally died on November 16, 1978. So life goes on and it was tragic. And it was expensive because you had to suction his mouth and throat every 15 minutes, turn him over from one side to another. I’d set up a fund with the family when they all came to the aid of my son, we’d set up a fund to keep him alive. Everybody pitched in. God, what an outpouring, it was beautiful. So everything I had went into the fund until I paid the five million dollars that we went through to keep him alive. The thing is that by 1991 I might have paid for it with Cecil and everyone in the family if I hadn’t run into obstacles, but sometimes you can have goals and, wow, things don’t work out the way you planned. So in 1991 I just went ahead and said the family’s always going to pay on this. So all the property I had, I signed it over in trust deeds to the Ron Morgan Sullivan Fund, which we’d set up in 1975 to provide care when he’d been injured because we knew we had to do something. If you could keep him alive for seven years, sometimes the brain will heal itself. Cecil’s family put in most of the money, starting back with the saving of my son. They all loved Ron, he was just so lovable. So I don’t own anything. And I don’t own Neptune’s Palace either. I just live aboard it and I’d just as soon be here as any other place right now. And Cecil doesn’t even pay me, but our family is a thing that everyone in the end does the right thing. It’s a family that sticks together.”
Morgan went on about his son for a long time and kept coming back to him as he moved into other stories. He showed me his picture. It was the sort of story that seemed to exist at the bottom of all other stories, a story he would never be able to get away from. Then he turned his attention to the A-8.
“Most people live out here because I don’t think they have any other place to go. Now, I’ve been a very frugal person, even though I accumulated property, expensive cars, houses, and all that, but they’ve never meant that much to me. I like the action of things. It’s just a different personality. Most of the people out here are on drugs or are alcoholics or are just dependent on something that took them to the bottom. It’s sad if you ever really get to know them. During storms, big boats have sunk out here — two big ones in one night, 45-foot boats. And I went out in one of my original Navy boats. Well, their boats had sunk but I put lines on them — their bows were still just sticking out of the water — and I towed them over here to this mud beach, because if they hit the rocks, they’d be completely gone. The rocks would just shred them. So I towed those over and usually the people would stay aboard here a couple of days till the storm leaves the area.
“People know I’m pretty honest. I never lie. I get onto them about stealing and lying. And I said, you’ve got to have trust in the world. I said, you can be stone-broke but if you’re trustworthy you can always get started again — that’s the main thing. I try to watch out for people. They know how frugal I am. Now, I always buy extra bananas, apples, anything that’s on sale. I’ve always done that. I buy what’s on sale. Now, this cereal here I buy for 99 cents a box at the 99-cent store. I buy it by the case. I give it to people who come by. What’s good about this cereal is it’s filled with chocolate or it’s filled with strawberry so even if they don’t have milk they can sit there and eat those. Because they get down to a point of not having any food at all — they can’t help it. If the drug habit’s too strong and they get money — and a lot of them get support, social security or something — it goes on the drugs. And that’s bad, that’s what destroys their lives more than anything else, so they end up without anything to eat at times. Well, for 99 cents a box, it’s not going to break me. You understand where I’m coming from on that?
“And you’ll get some funny people — there was a guy who was on drugs so bad he looked like he was starving to death, just starving. This was maybe three, four years ago. And I told him, I don’t have time to stop and talk to you, but come in and help yourself. You know where the food is. So he’d knock on the door and let me know it was him and he’d go and fix himself something to eat maybe once or twice a day. But then he didn’t appreciate it really. Well, maybe he appreciated it, but you know how when someone helps you all the time you can come to resent it? I tried never to talk down to him or anything, but it got to the point that I just had to ask him not to come around anymore, because he would talk about dangerous things. I mean, he was always wanting to kill someone. Every day he was sharpening a knife to kill someone out here, and when your mind goes that way, sometimes it could happen.
“There’s been up to 60 to 70 people out here, and it’s a real Peyton Place. They get mad at each other, but maybe two or three days later they’ll all be happy with each other again. The trouble with the Port Authority is that they don’t want anyone on this bay that isn’t under their thumb, that’s the main thing, and they’d love to clear it out, but living out here keeps these people off the street at least. You follow? I think they’d be more of a headache to the community if they were on the street. Now, a lot of them go over to Dumpsters to get food. At times they really want to change their lives, but not enough to give it up, give up the stuff. And it controls their lives, it really does.
“When you save someone’s life out here, it’s usually because you’re the closest one to save them. Every time you need a Harbor Police boat, it may be an hour or two before they ever arrive on the scene. For instance, about four or five years ago there was a used-car salesman from Chula Vista or National City who was on a wind glider type of thing, and somehow he fell off and got separated and he was drowning. He said if we hadn’t got to him right then, he was finished. And there’s another guy over here, Jake. He has club feet — they’re not really club feet, what happened is he’d been high on drugs or drinking at the stadium and acting up and he fell to the floor below and he crushed his feet something horrible. Well, one time I was sleeping up in my room on the top, and I heard screams about three o’clock in the morning — Help! Help! I usually just sleep with nothing on, maybe a pair of shorts or whatever, and when something like that happens you don’t even take time to put your shoes on or anything else. I dashed down, got a boat started, and I started yelling. It was a dark night and just a little choppy; I couldn’t even see who was out there. I said, Keep screaming. There was four people — there was one girl and three guys. Now, the girl was the best swimmer out of the bunch because she made it to here, and Jake had tried to make it to here but he couldn’t go any further. And it was just one of those things. If I had taken the time to put clothes on or something — once you go under in this current, he wouldn’t have made it. So I was able to get him, then I went back out for the other two guys. And they’d got parted; they don’t use their head. Now, they had too many people in a small boat. So once they started taking in water, they should have jumped in and reached up and said, Okay, let’s go on to where we’re going. But they don’t think. One was a big, big guy. Basically, I would say he’s the one who sunk it. So what happened then, he hung on to the boat. And the other one got parted, but I did find them all and got ’em back.
“There was another time just last year. There was a little boy about eight and his mother and two men in another dinghy situation — same type of thing, the boat flipped over. This was just by chance. The main thing is being there at the right time. I’d gone into the boat dock at Pepper Park and was coming back out. It was one of those cold nights, and there weren’t any other boats coming or going. It was after dark. And I heard this screaming, and there again there were four people. And I saved them, took them back into Pepper Park. And I told them I’d even pull their boat back and I’d wait there while they went home and got dry clothes and everything. God, it was about two hours before they got back, that was the bad part, because I had other things to do.”
Again there were other stories of people needing rescuing, storms, and boats going down. Some were retold to me by other people — a veterinarian called Doc who drowned the previous year, boats sinking during El Niño. In among the stories, Morgan spoke of his love of the A-8 and how he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
“What I like about it out here is the peace. Now and then I spend some time over at my daughter’s place — she has a home over on University Avenue — and I got a little apartment there I can stay in any time I want. But you hear ambulances, people screaming, fighting, everything — you can’t imagine. That’s in City Heights. It’s horrible. How do these people ever sleep? Three o’clock in the morning you hear the most blood-curdling screams! You’ll find people in the alleys dead. You’ll find stabbings; you’ll find them out there fighting, gangs, and all that kind of stuff. So being out here is paradise compared to what you see there, despite storms and everything else. Plus, I’m going to write about all these people, the ones I’ve met, tell the good parts about them. I wish I could bring out young people, huge loads of them, and just say, Meet these people and see what happens to your lives when you start on that drug route.”
But then Morgan started another story about his loss of faith.
“I’ve got a brother who’s a chaplain in the Navy. I came awfully close to becoming a minister myself, because I thought I could talk to God when I was young. I mean it, I’m not just saying it. That was back in Dallas…”
I realized I could happily sit and listen all afternoon and into the night. Then I thought of my bill at Seaforth Boat Rentals. I apologized, thanked him profusely, and, like a hand-sized bandage being pulled from a hairy chest, I yanked myself away.
I felt I needed to talk to more people, so the next day I rented another boat from the hotel at Coronado Cays (it was 15 minutes closer to the A-8) and went out again. It was a hot and sunny morning, and soon I was making my way up to a 30-foot sailboat badly in need of scraping and repainting. A half-sunken rubber dinghy trailed off the back. A blue plaster tarp stretched across the beam formed a sort of tent. There were coolers, water tanks, a bicycle, a charcoal grill, and various unrecognizables — everything except sails. A dog, part chow, part golden retriever, part mystery mutt — its name I learned was Leonardo da Vinci — barked ferociously when I shouted hello.
A gray-haired woman, blue eyes, trim figure, maybe 50, wearing a bright-colored Indian skirt and a gray blouse, came out of the cabin. She was friendly but said she had strep throat and bronchitis and didn’t want to get too close. Anyway, her husband had gone into town for supplies. Her name was Terry Aman. She and her husband Doug had lived in the A-8 for four years, before that they were in Glorietta Bay until they had been kicked out. Just then she saw her husband in a small yellow motorboat over toward Chula Vista, so she picked up a trumpet and began to blow. Then she put down the trumpet and coughed. “He’s coming,” she said.
“Four years,” I said. “You must like it out here.”
“It’s nice, it’s picturesque. You get the Navy stuff, the boats passing. You get the dolphins jumping. Honest to gosh — they just go whoosh, like you see on TV. It’s great. I’ll play the trumpet at night — taps once in a while. I’ll play reveille if I need someone in the morning. But for his health and my health we have to hit the road. We’ve a daughter in school in Arizona who’s invited us to come to live out there. We have our own means of supporting ourselves so we wouldn’t have to depend on them. But there’s a sense of family out here, you have to have it. I mean, some people are and some people aren’t. Some people have the means and some people don’t, and if they don’t have the means, then the other part will pitch in. And as far as the drugs and alcohol go, that’s their business, it’s not mine, you know? I’m too old for doing this stuff. I used to have a drinking problem and tried AA. It didn’t really take. Now I’ll drink my wine and that’s it. But there’re some pretty poor people out here, people on the ssi and whatnot. I just happen to be fortunate. If somebody’s hungry, I won’t let them go starving, but I’ll buy something for them rather than hand them the cash.”
It turned out that, like Jim Morgan, Terry also wanted to write a book — partly about the A-8, partly about her experiences leading up to the A-8.
Her husband had been dropping off supplies at several other boats, and now he arrived with another man, Jeff, who lived on another 30-foot sailboat, the Norma Zane, anchored about 100 feet away. Doug had dark hair, was stocky and good-natured. Jeff was tall, thin, deeply tanned, and in his late 40s.
I was still in my rented boat with a line tied to their sailboat. The dog, Leonardo da Vinci, had turned cheerful and wanted to jump in my lap. Terry kept saying, “He’s all right, don’t mind him. He’s friendly.” All the boats out here had dogs — they were like doorbells.
Jeff had come down the coast from up north and had stayed a bit in Glorietta, then moved back and forth between the three-day anchorages, trying to avoid A-8 because it was the worst anchorage in the bay, the most dangerous. Then he gave it up and settled in the A-8, but now he was sick of it and planned to go back up north. He, too, had stories of boats sinking or running aground.
“They put everybody out here hoping they’d leave,” he told me.
“They had too many complaints at Glorietta,” said Doug. “People would beach their dinghies at the golf course and use the bathrooms to wash up and they’d leave a mess. But Glorietta was protected. It was a cove. Here the wind comes roaring across.”
Several years ago I had met a dapper-looking man in his 50s with a well-trimmed beard who regularly used the showers at the public pool in Coronado. He had lived on his sailboat for 20 years, mostly up north but right then in Glorietta Bay. He got around on his bicycle and worked driving a cab. At that time he and others were being kicked out of Glorietta, because, as he said, they were “dragging down the tone of the place.” Their boats needed painting; they weren’t shipshape enough.
Doug and Jeff repeated the stories of many others — tugs going too fast, swamping the dinghies and jostling the boats; the problems with Pepper Park; the storms, the people they have had to rescue. But they wouldn’t criticize anybody and they spoke of ex-addicts, not addicts. However, they kept reemphasizing the danger of the variable weather and the fact that people out there were survivors.
“Actually,” said Doug, “the storms aren’t a problem if you put out two anchors. People just don’t realize that.” Then Doug spoke about their physical problems — his wife’s bronchitis, his bad back. Living on a boat was becoming impossible and soon they would sell out, move to Arizona or Mexico. And no matter how much he might like living on a boat, living in the A-8 took its toll.
“The anchorage is not a place where anyone would choose to live,” he said. “Whether or not the boats were pushed out here to keep people from anchoring anyplace else, I don’t know, but it’s still the worst anchorage in the bay. But if you want privacy, it’s private. You’ve no close neighbors, no noise. Why, sometimes the ones making the most noise out here at night is us.”
Jeff and Doug talked about how San Diego had been the first port on the West Coast and how, for boaters, it had the reputation for being the worst. They said that other ports had facilities for boaters who were coming in and people living on the hook — bathrooms, showers, Laundromats — but San Diego had nothing. Yet for all the difficulties of the A-8 and boat life in general, they kept returning to what it meant to look out for one another, of giving food if they had it to people who needed it, of forming a community of survivors; and they spoke of the beauty, the lights at night, the ships going by, and Terry spoke again about the porpoises.
Several times I asked about the Harbor Police. In general, Doug and Terry Aman didn’t have too much use for them, but there was one man they praised — Senior Officer Bill Mount. Jim Morgan had also mentioned Mount, as had a few others, so one morning I had called him and asked if the A-8 was really as bad as I’d been told.
“It’s the worst anchorage out there because it’s the only one. It’s the only free, long-term anchorage in San Diego Bay. There used to be more, but those became restricted. Anchoring anywhere, if you’re going to live out on a boat, is difficult — you’ve got storms and weather conditions. I mean, it’s not like you’re living on the ranch somewhere. You’ve got to know what you’re doing as far as anchoring. You’ve got to row in and go back and forth in a dinghy. It’s a hard life for someone, but that’s what they like to do. But as for the homeless people, they’ve got a roof over their head and someplace to go. It’s theirs, it’s not anybody else’s. They don’t have to answer to anybody. But they’re all good people down there — the Grafs and Jim Morgan — they’re pretty much the pillars of the community. Mr. Morgan’s the one who’s been around the longest, and he’s helped everybody else who comes and goes.”
Mount had been in the Harbor Patrol for 23 years and said that the A-8 had been used as an anchorage for at least 7 years. Mostly he had been down there when he had been the Harbor Police control officer in charge of all the anchorages, but now he had gone back to regular patrol and wasn’t there as often. I told him that he was the patrol officer who was praised the most.
“I appreciate that very much, but different people do the job in different ways, and I’ve been around for quite a few years, so my way of doing things might be a little bit different than somebody else’s. The people down there would ask for a lot of help about things here and there, just to know what ordinances there were and how things were going. I’d try to help out wherever I could, tell them what social services they could get help from. Some of the folks were pretty close to being homeless and so some of them would need more social services than others.”
Mount had suggested that I talk to the current bay control officer — Mario Martinez — so I called him as well.
“The A-8 is quite exposed. The waters get quite rough out there in the winter months and nothing can be done to prevent that. It’s just part of the anchoring that is out there. But there are other possibilities for those boaters.” Martinez went on to speak of the marinas and the mooring balls (for which there is a long wait) and the three 72-hour free anchorages in San Diego Bay — La Playa, Crown Cove, and Glorietta Bay.
“As for the homeless people in the A-8, that’s part of the give and take of that anchorage and San Diego Bay. You know, in the future it looks like there’re going to be a lot more stringent guidelines for that anchorage and all the other areas in the bay. I mean, that’s just the way it’s getting, because of the fact that people who are anchored in South Bay, in the A-8, don’t have those guidelines imposed on them for the benefit of all the users of San Diego Bay, inasmuch as people who are anchored in the A-8 are probably dumping sewerage over the side, they have no access to rest room facilities, and they’re out there for years at a time. The other things are vessels of unseaworthy condition that are constantly sinking or breaking their moorings and becoming a hazard to navigation. And those are the kind of concerns we have for the vessels that are actually anchored out there, because the Port of San Diego wants to provide other alternatives for these people in that they can anchor on a mooring ball and that mooring ball fee would cost them a little over $100 a month, but they would be a lot safer there than they’d be in the A-8.”
But there was no way that Mike and Freddie and a number of others I’d met could afford $100 a month, even if their boats passed some sort of inspection. One man I had talked to complained about the police coming around searching for crystal meth labs, but he hadn’t known if it was the Harbor Police or some other agency. I asked Martinez about this.
“Well, you know, it’s very difficult to enforce any drug activity in the A-8 because most of those vessels out there are private residences. People are living onboard those boats just like they do in their houses. Unless we have some kind of solid information that leads us to believe that people are making or using drugs onboard their residences, we are not going to go onboard their boats. However, if we encounter them in the bay doing something, like operating a vessel under the influence, then that’s a different matter. But, no, we currently are not attempting to identify or use any kind of other people to enforce that right now.”
I asked if they had found any drugs or crystal meth labs in the A-8.
“Not to my knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other agencies, such as the dea or the Department of Justice, that are conducting investigations on their own. You’ve got to remember that most of the people down there in the A-8 — I won’t say all, but most — are struggling to make ends meet day to day, so if they’ve got that much money to be using and selling drugs, well, it’s probably only for their own use.”
On the day I talked to Terry and Doug Aman and Jeff, they sent me off to talk to a number of other people. Some weren’t home and a woman named Liz who lived alone in a small cabin cruiser, the Sea Pearl, called out to me that she didn’t want to talk, adding, “Today’s a really bad day for me. I’m sorry, I’m having a really bad day.”
At last I wound up on another sailboat with Barry and Crystal and their small black dog, Jessica. Barry had lived in the A-8 for three years and before that he’d lived for a year in a marina in Chula Vista. He was a handsome man with a mustache, shiny straight teeth, square jaw, and a constant and explosive laugh that interrupted half his sentences. When he laughed, he looked as if he were snapping at the air, as if getting ready to eat a great flank of red meat. He seemed to be in his late 40s.
Crystal was a little younger with blue eyes, thin, fine red hair, and very light skin with freckles. Prone to sun poisoning, she stayed back in the shadow. She had been living on the boat with Barry for a year and four months.
This boat, like others, was piled with stuff, but it wasn’t quite as cluttered because Barry tried to sail it every day, at times stopping over at one of the 72-hour anchorages. Most out of place among a mound of plastic jugs and tarps was a Weed Whacker.
“I found it in a Dumpster over in Coronado, cleaned it up, and now it runs like a top. You want it? You can have it for 20 bucks.”
Barry was particularly cheerful because the previous day he had gotten the job of fixing up a lovely black-and-white 60-odd-foot ferro-concrete sailboat anchored nearby — three staterooms, three full heads, big diesel engine, big diesel generator. Two men claimed to have bought it at a marshal’s auction for $1000, but Barry and Crystal were skeptical. However, I’d heard the same story from Mike and Freddie, who had said the boat had been seized in a drug raid. Then Barry told me a little about himself.
“I grew up in Mission Bay. We always had boats. Then I moved up to Oregon. You see, people disapprove of us because we don’t live on dry land and have a house and all that stuff. I had those but my ex-wives took them all. Once I’d paid off $10,000 worth of child support, I just said, What am I doing here? I’d had my kids up in Oregon and ended up living on the same road with both ex-wives, and they were still trying to tell me what to do and I said, Hey, wait a minute. It’s all paid off, you took all my family so I’m outta here. See you. I’m going home to San Diego where I came from. I’m going to have some fun. [Barry was laughing all through this, abrupt explosions biting at the air.] So then I came down here and went to work with my dad. He worked in Chula Vista Marina. He’d lived for damn near 20 years on a boat.
“What I like about being out here is that nobody tells you what to do. Where else can you get this kind of view for $5 a year? You’ve got to take into account losing a boat once in a while, but… [He shrugged philosophically.] It’s kind of an adventure — you never know when something’s going to break loose or come at you or sink or blow up. In the El Niño I lost a 30-foot Owens, and after that went down I got a 41-foot Matthews. I had that, like, four days, and I’d tied it to Shelby’s barge over there ’cause I was working on it and getting everything moved onto it and then it sunk right there. It just worked up with these big giant waves and the boat kept slamming into the barge and I saved myself, but I couldn’t do nothing for the boat. The banging just ate a hole right through the side and it sank. The barge was moving too. It was a pretty rough night, 17 boats went down that night. We all ended up at Jim Morgan’s because he has that big 40-foot naval deal there and we just cruised around picking people up, pulling boats out of the way from hitting other boats and stuff. We did that the whole rest of the night. [Barry was still laughing.] Everybody just ended up over there in their dinghies because all their big boats were going down. I jumped off my boat with my shorts and my keys and that was it. [Barry could hardly sit still, he was laughing so hard.] Everything else was on the boat. So then I bought this boat for $6000. That whole winter it seems every three days we had six-foot waves out here. I mean, they’ve probably got us in the windiest spot in the whole bay. You’ll notice that all the sailboats come around here to sail.
“But the Port Authority took away all the good anchorages and they put us out here because they knew we wouldn’t last, but it’s the furthest place from anything too. They couldn’t put it anyplace else where it wouldn’t be in the way of the Navy or big developments, and they wouldn’t put it at a state beach, and naturally they wouldn’t put it around Coronado Cays. And they very definitely aren’t going to want you downtown.”
Crystal gave me some more coffee, offered me sunblock, offered me a piece of cooked shark, and shooed the dog away from me.
“Only the strong survive out here,” she said, half in the cabin to shade herself from the sun. “It’s not an easy way of living but it’s enjoyable. You have to get along with everyone around you. It’s not easy to plan things because the weather might change, you know what I mean? And these guys, half their life is living and the other half is working on outboards, getting them to run. [They both began to laugh — her laugh started high as if going down a kids’ slide.] It’s different. You got to go with the tide, you got to go with the current, go with the wind. I mean, this guy’s taught me more about sailing and about what not to do sometimes than what to do, like getting the boat caught up on the beach in the sand so it ends up like this [she tilted her hand at a 45-degree angle]. The dog didn’t like that experience too much. [They both laughed.] I’ve been homeless myself and I’ve been to jail before — and I try to look on experiences like that as experiences I can learn from and try to make good of whatever it is, even if it seems bad at the moment. You learn to grow from it and you end up becoming very strong — physically, mentally, and emotionally — and if you can give that away or share it with somebody else in life, then it really means something.
“The best investment I ever made out here was that I had a friend give me a whistle, and two days later it saved a man’s life — he was drowning off the bow of his boat and nobody could hear him and I got out and blew my whistle about 20 times and pointed where he was. That’s about the best investment you can ever have out here — that and a life jacket. I used to teach swimming — I was a water safety instructor, for Christ’s sake — but I’ve fallen off in the channel over there coming back from Pepper Park and for a couple of seconds I thought I was going to go under, because it was pretty rough that day and really windy. My jacket filled up with water and I couldn’t get it off for anything, and I tried to reach up for the bow of the dinghy and it was like I was reaching up a cliff and I couldn’t grab it for nothing, and I’d just moved onboard Barry’s boat two months before that, and all I could think was that he’d kill me if I lost his dinghy, for Christ’s sake, you know? So I couldn’t drown; I had to get that dinghy. But I like it, I mean, it’s enjoyable. I got my fishing license, finally. I’m the fisherwoman out here, I love to fish. That’s my enjoyment — I’ll stay up all night and fish sometimes. It’s beautiful out here at night — the scenery is constantly changing from one half hour to the next, the way it looks and the way the boats swing around and everything. Every time the wind changes it becomes a totally different place. But like I say, I’ve been homeless before and I’ve decided that home is where the heart is and that’s shelter, you know? It really can be, because I’ve known people that have had million-dollar homes and were heartless. They weren’t happy. You know what I mean? Same old same old. It’s all in here — you only take the love you put out, and the love you receive in life, that’s all you take with you. All this stuff is just stuff.”
“I’m taking my boat with me,” said Barry, interrupting and laughing.
Crystal laughed as well. “At least let me take the dinghy so I can come along too. But being on the boat, you have to be with yourself a lot and like that. I wasn’t sure how I’d react when I first came out here, but actually it was good for me, because I needed just to be for a while. And then I got accepted and my little birthday cards would read, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood, trooper.’ I’m called the trooper. But a lot of people come out and it’s, like, Oh yeah, here’s this person, and the women behave like, Stay away from my man, because you’re just one of those chickies, those partiers. But that wasn’t me and isn’t me, and finally you get accepted from people.”
“People out here share a lot more,” said Barry. “Instead of all those places where people are stealing from each other, people out here always come by and make sure you have food or something, you know, if you don’t have any work or anything coming in. People come by and just say, Hey, you need anything? That’s how we survive out here, by taking care of each other.”
And Crystal described a big Easter party for everyone over in Pepper Park and how there was a Christmas party on somebody’s boat and how people remembered each other’s birthdays. “Jim Morgan’s a storyteller and he’s an eccentric, but you can always count on him to help. Me myself, I love eccentrics, okay? You know, Michael Jackson eccentrics — they’re very creative, they’re different, and they’re open to so many different things in life, whether you take everything they say literally is up to you, but they’re definitely people you can learn from. But when the red light’s on and those balls with mirrors are going around, you know somebody’s over there having a good time.”
Again and again they came back to the difficulties — tugs going by too fast, the poverty, the troubles with Pepper Park, the drownings. And although Barry denied there were drugs, he was the only one who did. However, he complained about the police harassing people for drugs and looking for crystal meth labs. “I don’t know where they got off thinking that everybody was big criminals out here or something. People out here are just surviving.” But the worst thing was the weather and lack of shelter.
“In most places they give you a sheltered spot for your anchorage, like a cove. This is everything but sheltered. But that’s what you git. The boats that people don’t live on and don’t take care of don’t last long. Whenever a big storm hits, you get five-, six-foot waves out here and they’re only this far apart [he spread out his arms]. It’s not like waves at the beach that come in sets. They pound on that line until the line breaks unless somebody’s out there checking it and getting ready to put a new line on there. You can’t just park a boat out here and forget about it.”
The wind had picked up again and shortly I thanked Barry and Crystal and I took my boat back to the hotel as spray spattered across me and my cap threatened to remain in the A-8. There were odd contradictions to the anchorage. It was a place where many people lived at the brink of economic disaster; where, if they weren’t living on a boat, they might be living under a bridge; where a number had been homeless, in prison, addicted to alcohol and various other substances and perhaps some were still addicted. Yet there existed a camaraderie rarely found on land. They took care of each other, and even though they had their squabbles (several people had described it as a Peyton Place), they made them up. Birthday cards, Christmas cookies, holiday parties, violent storms, drownings, near starvation — it was an odd mixture. At the center of the A-8 was Jim Morgan in Neptune’s Palace — not quite a prince, not quite a daddy, yet over the years he had been the salvation of quite a few people. Certainly, in many ways, he made their lifestyle easier — perhaps even possible. And behind him were Larry and Joyce Graf. Despite its junkyard exterior and borderline existence, the A-8 was a tight-knit community. How odd then to see on weekends these expensive motorboats slowly wind their way among the barges and sailboats at anchor with the well-dressed and affluent staring out with vacuous smiles like people gawking at a carnival freak show.
Yet the A-8 is about to be regulated into nonexistence. It was clear from what Senior Officer Mario Martinez had said that sometime soon these people would be gone.
“The only thing I can see happening is that they’ve got to put in more stringent guidelines on the vessels that are anchored down there. They’ve got to make sure those vessels are seaworthy. They’ve got to make sure they’ve got some sort of facilities for sewerage, some kind of containment for that. They’ve got to make sure all these people’s vessels are not going to become a hazard for everybody else to contend with. So that’s been the issue all along. If it wasn’t for those things, I don’t think there’d be a problem, but it continues to be and it will always be a problem as long as people can’t really afford to own a vessel on the water when it’s continually bombarded by nature. And I’m extremely sympathetic to those people, because it’s a hard life for them, but by the same token you’ve got to think of everyone’s benefit, everyone’s concern over this issue. And when you go down along the Embarcadero and you see all those vessels, sailboats, and everything on the bay — that’s a beautiful sight. So it’s not something the port wants to get rid of, it’s something they want to enhance. They want to make it better for everyone. That’s the only issue and concern, I think. So that’s just the way it is and I wish there was something else we could do for them, but at this point that’s the only alternative.”
I asked Martinez who I might talk to at the Port Authority about this and he gave me some names. After I reached half a dozen dead ends, I received a call from Diana Lucero, assistant director of public relations for the Port Authority. In order to get the ball rolling, I said I’d heard that the Port Authority was intending to close down the A-8.
“I don’t think that’s true,” she told me. “It’s not an area that we plan to close at any time soon, but we are in the preliminary stages of looking into regulations for some issues — such as the size and condition of the boats and possibly requiring permits.”
That was pretty much it. Further questions elicited similar answers. Regulations such as Martinez and Lucero suggested — if they were enacted — would drive out most of the people now living in the A-8 and most likely get rid of the barges and houseboats as well. What does it mean, “the preliminary stages of looking into”?
When I had first gone out to the A-8, my friend James Spring had said, “What’re you going to do, hold down the little guy? These people in South Bay are the maritime version of squatters. It’s almost their constitutional right to be there.”
Maybe so, maybe not. But one thing is certain, sometime soon what is perhaps the most unique community in San Diego will be gone.