Coast Guard deploys boats to deter 'pirates' taking over Oakland estuary, officials say

Stephanie Sierra Image
Thursday, September 14, 2023
Coast Guard deployed to fight 'pirates' taking over Oakland estuary
The U.S. Coast Guard is deploying boats to fight "pirates" taking over and trashing the boats at the Oakland Estuary Marinas, officials said.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Pirates are taking over the Oakland Estuary Marinas. Yes, pirates. And local and federal authorities says it's getting so bad - the U.S. Coast Guard is deploying help to patrol the area.

"Boat owners attacked by pirates," said Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao. "There are no excuses for that."

From shipwrecks to sunken sailboats to pirate attacks, the shoreline around the Oakland estuary is seeing a new level of violence that's leaving the area torn up and trashed. The irony is it's happening right in front of one of the agencies responsible for addressing it.

"I've heard it's gotten to the point of near fist fights on docks," said former Harbor Master Brock de Lappe.

The vessels abandoned are covered in graffiti - left like a battleground scene of an action movie.

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"We're talking about piracy," de Lappe said. "People who are living aboard marinas are being terrorized by these elements coming in at night in small dinghies."

De Lappe served as Harbor Master in Alameda and Oakland over the course of 10 years. But, he's never seen it get this bad.

"You can see one here that's recently sunk," he said, pointing to boat bow peeking out of the water. "As you can see out here at the pier, the public fishing pier for Union Point Park. There's at least two sunken vessels off that pier."

Oakland police are not providing the I-Team with any specific data, but De Lappe says over the past few months pirates have been attacking vessels at five different locations along the channel - including Jack London Square, the Jack London Square Aquatic Center, the Estuary Channel west of the Bayside Hotel, Union Point Park West, Union Point Park East.

From boats to masts - the problem is sticking out right in front of the U.S. Coast Guard Island. The federal agency has shared responsibility with local authorities to oversee the waterfront. The problem with abandoned boats has been present for years, but the new level of crime is prompting action from the commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector for San Francisco.

"Our primary effort from the Coast Guard is to ensure that there is a deterrent," said Coast Guard Cpt. Taylor Lam.

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Cpt. Lam says they're deploying different multi-mission small boats to conduct regular patrols throughout the Oakland Estuary and other waterways in the region.

"Our plan is to increase the level of Coast Guard law enforcement presence in the estuary at random times throughout the day," Cpt. Lam said.

In part because police say the thefts are happening at random - morning, noon and night.

"They take things that are easily fenced, outboard motors, radios," said De Lappe. "In the case of the boat stolen out of the embarcadero cove marina, they found firearms. It's not a good situation."

Mayor Thao says the estuary crime has only recently popped on her radar.

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"There has to be justice," Thao said. "That means policing has to be done differently, investigations must be done differently, along with how resources are deployed."

In March, the City of Oakland unanimously passed a nuisance vessel ordinance.

"This gives the OPD and Marine Patrol Unit the tools they need to deal with boats anchored out in the estuary, especially those living on them," said De Lappe. "But the Alameda County Sheriff's Office has since disbanded their unit."

"Many of the people that come and rent spaces to leave their boat overnight or for months - they return and there are people living in their boats," said Councilman Noel Gallo.

An example of that is present in the parking lot of the Jack London Square Aquatic Center. Emails obtained by the I-Team show the city has received reports that high school crew students have been harassed and threatened by those living in the parking lot.

"The problem has grown tremendously where our youngsters cannot even freely get out and sail or row their boat," said Gallo. "We're trying to address that here with the Oakland Police Department, we don't have a boating operation."

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This is where the U.S. Coast Guard comes in. Cpt. Lam says there are multiple types of vessels that would be used in situations like this - including a 45-foot response boat the Coast Guard would deploy to help local agencies.

"Additionally, we will be looking to use some of our aviation resources to provide, overt presence from the air," said Cpt. Lam. "So we see what is happening along the estuary."

"Throughout your career, have you ever seen it get this bad in the Oakland Estuary?" ABC7's Stephanie Sierra asked.

"Well, I would certainly say that this phenomenon of criminal activity in the maritime domain, it's new to me," said Cpt. Lam. "I think it's going to take a comprehensive inter-agency effort to really effectively address it. And we're committed to doing it."

Cpt. Lam says the U.S. Coast Guard is also focused on any vessel that may interfere with military traffic along the channel as well as the pollution threats these vessels may pose.

Take a look at more stories by the ABC7 News I-Team.

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