Law enforcement are calling attention to the latest threat to come out of the San Francisco Bay Area: piracy.
Residents living on houseboats and yachts in the San Francisco Bay have been forced of late to battle against seafaring bandits who are ransacking their ships, with residents blaming the homeless crisis as the root cause of the crime wave.
The Oakland-Alameda Estuary, a popular marina hub with over 3,000 slips, has been a hot spot of recent pirate activity.
Former harbor master Brock de Lappe expressed his concerns during a recent municipal meeting.
“The open shoreline of the estuary is littered with sunken wrecks and derelict, end-of-life vessels, and crime has risen to truly intolerable levels,” he stated.
He went on to describe how multiple vessels had been stolen and ransacked, forcing victims, including seniors, to confront the criminals personally due to the lack of police support.
The pirates responsible for the crimes have been targeting boats and houseboats, often using small dinghies to board larger ships and yachts. Once they plunder anything of value, the thieves either sink the ships or abandon what remains, miles away in the Oakland Harbor or along the shoreline.
In one incident, a woman revealed how she rescued a man whose sailboat was adrift in the bay without a motor or any means to return to shore. One of the “pirates,” as residents call them, had cut his boat line during an argument.
The situation has become so severe that a local sailing school in Alameda is on the verge of closing after pirates stole four of their safety boats, each valued between $25,000 and $35,000.
Mary Spicer, who leads a group of volunteers cleaning the estuary, canceled their cleanup efforts this year due to safety concerns arising from a nearby homeless encampment, where violent incidents have occurred.
Many residents and local officials attribute the pirate problem to the larger homeless crisis in Oakland, which has spilled over into the waterways. The city of Alameda, a neighboring suburban island, has been rated as one of the best places to live, while Oakland grapples with an increasing homeless population.
According to the nonprofit EveryOne Home, there are now more than 9,700 homeless people living in Oakland, marking a 22% increase since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alameda Police Chief Nishant Joshi confirmed that his department is working in partnership with the Oakland Police Department and the Coast Guard, which has a base in the estuary, to address the issue collaboratively. He stressed the importance of these partnerships, as Alameda lacks its own marine unit and has experienced significant attrition in its police department.
“We have officers trained for marine patrols and have increased patrols in our marinas,” Joshi said. “Working together regionally is essential in tackling this issue.”
However, Oakland Police Officer Kaleo Albino, who works as a marine officer, said the department is currently understaffed when it comes to patrolling waterways.
“Fighting crime out here on the water is tough, as we only have one full-time marine officer, and that’s myself,” Albino told CBS Bay Area last month.
“But the city of Oakland Police Department, we tend to make things work with what we have, and I’ve been training approximately ten other maritime officers on how to operate the vessel,” he added. “So, the vessel is available more hours than just myself being here.”
Despite the alarming reports from residents, Joshi noted that less than 1% of incidents in Alameda are attributed to the marinas. He suggested that crime, whether perceived or real, often plays a role in shaping the community’s concerns.
The influx of small boats around homeless encampments in Oakland has raised suspicions that the pirates responsible for the maritime crimes may be individuals affected by homelessness. However, the exact identity of the culprits remains unclear.
While residents and officials continue to grapple with the issue, they are taking measures into their own hands, with some resorting to arming themselves for protection. The situation has also prompted a regional approach to bolstering security in the waterways.
“In the waterways, it’s very difficult to draw a line,” Joshi explained. “There are no roadways or fence lines, so we all have a shared interest, much like crime as a whole, to deal with this as a regional approach.”
Violent crime in the area has generally been on an upward trend, according to SFPD crime statistics. Indeed, the month of August saw a 12% increase in violent crime in San Francisco compared to last year. Robbery has also surged by 31%, while burglary has dropped by 17%.