Boat moorings all tied up
A black market for slips in California means that boaters on official lists can wait decades while sales go on all around them.
Since penciling his name onto a waiting list for a Newport Harbor mooring in 1966, Louis Parker has witnessed eight presidents, four popes, two Iraq wars and the return of Halley’s comet.
“I knew if I held out long enough there would be one coming — someone would die or there would be a plane crash,” said Parker, 84, who has notified the Orange County Harbor Patrol each time his address changed — from El Toro to Riverside to Palm Desert and back to Riverside.
Decades later, with his 18foot ski boat sold and the beach cottage where he stowed it a mere memory, Parker is still waiting.
“What’s five more years?” he said, when he’s already slogged through 40.
Because there are too few slots for the vessels cramming California’s coastline, a black market in moorings and dock space on public waterways has stranded boaters up and down the coast on waiting lists thousands of sailors long.
The problem of buying access to slips in public marinas is so widespread that state boating officials are preparing a report for legislators on how marinas in California handle the permit transfers.
Blame the existence of the bootleg market on people and vessels flooding the state during a time when California has virtually halted marina construction, and when harbor renovations, including in Long Beach and Marina del Rey, have resulted in fewer but larger slips.
“It’s a supply-and-demand issue that creates tremendous economic pressure to get around the waiting list,” said Monterey’s harbor master Steve Scheiblauer. “When every berth is viewed as a potential
[ savings account, the berth is never going to transfer to the list.”
This month, the Orange County Grand Jury lambasted Newport Harbor’s system for the way it manages its 1,235 moorings.
Brokers have fostered sales in which boats and mooring permits are bought in tandem, allowing buyers to sidestep lengthy waiting lists and sellers to jack up prices for decrepit craft.
“Those who are honest and patient are getting jilted,” said Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, whose district includes Newport Harbor.
The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury in 2001 dinged local harbor authorities for essentially creating “a private club on some of its most valuable property” by allowing a “demonstrably unfair” arrangement similar to that in Newport Harbor.
The marina is now phasing out its waiting list and switching to a lottery system to dole out slip permits.
Even in Long Beach, Avalon, Sacramento and other marinas where boaters are typically barred from transferring their berths, the wait can span years or decades, according to a draft of the state-commissioned report.
In Dana Point Harbor’s East Basin, for example, boaters desiring the biggest slips must pay the equivalent of a month’s rent — about $1,200 — and settle in for an estimated 14-year wait.
In the last three years, with the number of slip applicants increasing 50% to 1,200, more owners have tried to cash in by keeping their name on boat papers, but essentially selling the dock space to another boater, said Doug Whitlock, general manager of Dana Point Marina Co.
Like subleasing an apartment without telling the land- lord, the deals — sealed with handshakes and rarely reflected in documents — are tough for harbor officials to suss out.
“There’s so much pent-up de- mand . . . that boats are changing hands and no one’s telling us,” said Mark Sandoval, who manages Long Beach’s three marinas and more than 3,000 slips.
With boaters scrambling for space, moorings — buoys to which boaters tie their vessels — have shed a reputation as “second class citizens,” Orange County’s Grand Jury wrote. “The prestige of locating a boat on a mooring has increased along with its perceived value.”
In Newport Harbor, a boater can’t sell only a mooring — that’s illegal. But a boat and a mooring permit transfer can be coupled in a single sale for a far heftier profit than if the boat alone were sold. Hence, a recent online ad for a three-decade-old sailboat read:
“Thirty foot sloop rigged, keel stepped sailboat with 35 foot Newport Harbor mooring for $22,400. Boat sold separately for $14,900. Mooring will not be sold separately.”
Such robust price tags, some boaters complain, mean that only folks with deep pockets or a family mooring — passed down like an heirloom — can have a spot on the bay.
“The average guy? Forget it,” said retired engineer Joe Cefali, 73, who has been anticipating an offshore mooring in Newport Harbor since May 23, 1969.
Soon after that, Cefali, who lives in Newport Beach, joined the Balboa Yacht Club and now shells out several hundred dollars a month for a membership and 30-foot mooring — a far larger bill than for a harbor buoy.
“In the time I’ve been sitting on this list, I’ve had three wives,” Cefali grumbled.
Newport Beach, which manages most of the harbor while the Sheriff’s Department patrols it, has formed a committee to look into its mooring policies. The group is considering whether the harbor should tax mooring transfers and, to shut down the permit-trading industry, forbid brokers from bargaining for more than two transfers a year, according to member George Hylkema.
The group, however, is not recommending that the city ban permit transfers because “there would be a storm of protest” from boaters who paid a premium and expect to recoup it, said Hylkema, 71, who sits on the Newport Mooring Assn. board.
A retired boat-builder, Hylkema acquired a mooring and boat about two decades ago, promptly rid himself of the vessel and replaced it with his 36-foot wooden boat, Seadragon. “I didn’t want the original boat, I wanted the mooring,” he said.
Meanwhile, wait-listed boaters languished on blue note cards stored in three green shoebox-sized containers at the Harbor Patrol office. Ben Schmid joined the list on
[ June 27, 1966. He craved a shore mooring for his sailboat, which at 8 feet was too tiny to even name. Schmid, 84, of Balboa Island, has for years had to drag the boat on a dolly and heave it over a seawall to reach the water.
“I probably have another five years before I forget how to sail,” Schmid said.
Louis Parker’s request for a shore mooring on Balboa Island has proven more complex. In 1975, he was offered mooring W-53, which was “too far, no good, kind of ugly and too hard to get to.”
He figured another slot would open up. In 2005, he called the Harbor Patrol and, his note card said, was “advised that he is No. 1 on list.” He won’t delete his name because he could be- queath the mooring to his son — and “I’m a bulldog who’s willing to hang on by his teeth.”
Meanwhile, the lists have swelled to thousands of boaters, including a handful who optimistically signed up this year.
Rebecca Guess, 47, enrolled for an offshore mooring in January, shortly after she and her husband took sailing classes. Even though a boat purchase was years away, friends had prodded the Irvine couple to start looking for a berth.
Guess was asked at the Harbor Patrol office whether she had a boat, and “I said no, but that if she called me, I’d go buy one.” She reasoned that she has time. “I was told it could be as long as three or four years.”
PATIENT: Balboa Island resident Ben Schmid, 84, has waited for a bay mooring for his little sailboat since 1966. He’s resigned to storing the 8-foot Sabot in the alley next to his garage. “I probably have another five years before I forget how to sail,” he said.
CROWDED: A look at Lido Island and Newport Bay in 2002 shows moorings filled with boats. Boating officials are preparing a report for legislators on how marinas handle mooring transfers.
HOLDING OUT: Louis Parker, 84, of Riverside, shown with a nautical painting at his home, applied for a place to dock his boat in 1966 and, though he long ago sold the boat, is still waiting. “I’m a bulldog who’s willing to hang on by his teeth,” he said.