What is Access?


An unfinished draft for Bay Access and the Bay Area Water Trail


By Paul Kamen

with contributions by Penny Wells, Maryly Snow and David Dolberg


September 2004


(This is not a Bay Access document and does not necessarily represent the position of Bay Access)



Past meanings of "access"


"It is time we demanded access onto the water, and not settle for only access to the water."

Will Travis, Executive Director, Bay Conservation and Development Commission.


Access to San Francisco Bay has always meant different things to different people.


Until recently there has been a consistent but narrow definition of "access" as interpreted by the majority of park planners, commercial developers and regulatory authorities. Providing access to the Bay has all too often meant access  to the shoreline, usually by providing a shoreline path, park benches, and respect for the “view corridors.” In some instances "access projects" cater only to a select social demographic - e.g., facilities that serve the owners of trailer-launched powerboats or marinas for storage of power and sailing yachts.  Finally, many recent projects provide access to the water, but aren’t designed to allow for the safe launching and landing of hand-carried craft. 


A significant segment of water users - and arguably the largest segment - has been neglected. This paper will redefine "access" to include a broader range of users and use patterns than has previously been considered.


The challenge we face is to provide the kind of access that allows the general public to not only get close to the Bay, but to move beyond the edge and get on or even in the Bay. To float, rather than to watch. To paddle, soar, skim or swim rather than to bike or blade. This kind of access can extend deep into the demographic mix of waterfront cities, and does not have to compromise the environmental and habitat value of the urban shoreline.



Bay Access proposes that these goals can be met by giving higher priority to the requirements of human-powered boats and hand-launched sail craft, and by encouraging the organizational structures and physical facilities that make these activities available to the public at very low cost. We present an evaluation of current efforts in this direction, and guidelines for those private and public developers and regulatory agencies that are ready to accept a better and broader definition of water access.








Kinds of Access


There is a sublime pleasure in floating in a small boat and directing one's own course. It is recreation, exercise, and therapy. It is connection with a natural environment in the middle of an urban one, and it instills a deep sense of place that applies to one's home waters, home shoreline and home town.

The most basic: day launch of small private watercraft.


The most basic level of water access is provided simply by designating a place from which people can launch their own watercraft. These watercraft types generally include kayaks, canoes, small rowing shells and windsurfers. For them, the access can be as simple as a gap in the shoreline development that allows entry to the water over unimproved beach or rip-rap.


For almost all people wishing to gain access to the water for recreation, the limiting resource devolves to one word: Parking. The inescapable fact is that the vast majority of water users, laden with gear and equipment, get to the Bay by car. This is true for nearly all demographics. In the absence of on-site storage for equipment, whether this gear is a kayak, a windsurfer or a wetsuit and a change of clothes, the car will continue to be the primary transportation mode and the mobile equipment locker.


Basic access, then, requires two things: Parking and a place to launch (or in the denser urban environments, on-site storage and a place to launch). For boats that can be hand carried to the water, this can be as basic as a few parking spaces near the water, and the shoreline detail can be anything that makes it possible to walk into the Bay.


Users of different types of watercraft have different siting requirements. Windsurfers need windy spots where the wind meets the shore, preferably at a specific angle. Rowing shells need smooth water. Kayaks are the most tolerant of the widest range of conditions but prefer protected launch sites. Small sailboats need deeper water for rudders and centerboards, and also prefer a protected launch but need access to moderate winds.  Outrigger canoes traditionally use gently sloping beaches, and whale boats, dragon boats, rowing sculls and most sailboats need docks.


All boaters desire to unload gear as close to the water as possible. Watercraft are heavy and the accompanying gear is often cumbersome.  A loading zone immediately adjacent to a staging area beside the launch site is most desirable.


Nearby parking is needed that permits water based recreation to actually take place.  Many fine access sites have been made “inaccessible” because of parking restrictions


But how close is close enough? Kayaks are not particularly difficult for two people to carry over a considerable distance, and windsurfers can be easily carried by one person. The issues are inconvenience and security problems. Because it usually requires several trips between car and launch site to set up for launch and departure, and because urban access points are often vulnerable to security problems, launch sites will be less desirable if the boat has to be left unattended while the boat's owner is out of sight making another trip back to the car.

Important details: Posted rules must reflect reality. While those "in the loop" may know that certain areas posted as no parking or limited time parking are perfectly okay for even extended parking, most people are not "in the loop" and most people actually do try to observe posted parking regulations. If it is okay to park all day or all week, the signage needs to reflect that fact or access is effectively denied.


If there are special security concerns - i.e. frequent car break-ins - a warning to that effect needs to be posted also.


There is a perception that water access parking needs to be paved, landscaped and cosmetically pleasing. But water users generally have their eyes on the water, not the land, and while it is an exaggeration to say that they hardly notice the condition of the parking lot, it is very true that this is low priority compared to what they find on the water and the ease with which they can move their boats in and out. A gravel or packed earth parking lot serves almost as well as landscaped pavement, especially when it makes the difference between feasible short-term implementation and a project with years of lead time.


Enhancement Level One: Ramps, Tidal Steps and Beaches 


These features create a much more inviting route into the water, although it must always be kept in mind that paddlers or sailors are primarily interested in the water-borne part of their outing, and are generally not that concerned about the aesthetics of the land-based access facilities. Ramps, tidal steps and beaches are mostly static features and are virtually maintenance free.  Different  users have different needs in this regard. Steps are great for windsurfers but can be dangerous for users of other watercraft.  The ideal is a wide ramp with steps along the edges.








Enhancement Level Two: Bathrooms and Rinse Water


Bathrooms are very important but expensive amenities. Bathroom facilities make a site much more attractive to users and protect the Bay from human waste. In developed commercial settings, public access to bathrooms can be negotiated as part of the development agreement. In open space settings it is important to site bathrooms so that they are accessible to water users as well as land-based park users. When cost concerns preclude plumed facilities, portable toilets should be considered as a practical low-cost alternative.


An inexpensive feature to add to any plumbed bathroom specification is an outside hose bib for washing down equipment after use. A cold-water outdoor shower head is also appreciated by windsurfers and sea kayakers using wetsuits.


Enhancement Level Three: Floating Docks


This is where sites become differentiated by geography. Floating docks require some degree of protection from waves . They are essential where boats must be stored in the water, or in tidal areas where low tide exposes large expanses of mud.


A small simple floating dock allows the user to get to deeper water, facilitates entry and exit  for small boat users, relieves crowding in tight access areas, and offers an enhancement to ramps or stairs. 


The floating docks near launching ramps and in marinas are typically 18”-24” off the water to facilitate stepping off a power or sail boat.  These docks are difficult to negotiate when the boater is sitting in a kayak at water level and must stand up to reach it.  Far more desirable are low (4"-6” high) docks specifically designed for small boats.  The small craft launching dock in Palo Alto is a prime example of  a low dock.


Floating docks can also be configured to allow storage of light watercraft (kayaks, small ourtriggers, rowing shells, small sailboats) on the float, in very close proximity to the water. This dramatically reduces the setup overhead, often an essential feature for making short (lunch hour) excursions practical.


Floating docks allow use by human-powered boats that are too big or too heavy to be  hand-launched, such as the 40-50 ft long “dragon boat” canoes, or sailboats with ballast keels. Large outrigger canoes are commonly stored on beaches where there is adequate space above high water, but these can also be berthed in the water at floating docks.







The advantage of these large paddle-propelled boats is that they allow very cost-effective team and youth programs to develop. A single dragon boat, for example, costs about $10,000 and can keep a team of 22 youth occupied for hours of on-the-water training or racing. Compare to the cost of a acquiring a new playing field (about $2 million per field in the East Bay) and the related maintenance and staffing requirements.


Water does not have to purchased, graded, landscaped, fenced, mowed, weeded or lighted. Water access that caters to big multi-paddle race boats can make a very significant difference in the recreational options available to a community.


This is an opportunity that is especially valuable to those youth who are not attracted the culture of field sports; paddling is often viewed as an off-mainstream alternative, and it can get many kids engaged in competitive sports who would otherwise be left behind.


This level of access improvement begins to serve the wider social demographic by supporting teams and youth programs.







Enhancement Level Four: On-site Equipment Storage


On-site storage has a very strong broadening effect on real access because it removes the requirement to own both the watercraft and the means to transport it to the site. Non-profit clubs, co-ops and commercial rental operations become possible when there is provision for on-site storage, and shore-side environmental impacts are reduced when equipment does not have to transported via car.


On-site storage may at first glance appear to differentiate sites based on availability of additional space for boat storage. However, any site with even a small amount of parking also has the potential for significant on-site storage. Fifteen windsurfers or twenty kayaks can be stored in about the same footprint as a single parking space.


The advantages of on-site storage for access enhancement include:


1) Non-automotive transportation to the site becomes feasible because users no longer have to transport their equipment. This may significantly reduce the parking load on the facility.


2) Automotive access can be more direct (e.g. users can come straight from work, instead of having to go home first to pick up gear) saving many driving miles, even if the parking load on the site is not reduced. This is probably represents a very significant shore-side environmental gain, albeit one that is very difficult to measure.


3) Most importantly, on-site storage is a prerequisite for alternate ownership models. Without on-site storage, all equipment has to be privately owned. When on-site storage is available, non-profit clubs and co-ops can own the equipment and run very low-cost volunteer-based programs.


Enhancement Level Five: Overnight Accommodations.


"All we need is a place where we know we won't get arrested."  David Dolberg.


The overnight and multi-day outing has become one of the lost traditions of small boat paddling and sailing. But there are still enough people who remember the possibilities of multi-day trips to spark a revival in this kind of water use, if it were possible to do it legally and safely.

Traditional park campsites do not serve the needs of the small craft beach cruiser for two main reasons: 1) They usually require reservations well in advance, and 2) The campsites are generally so far from the water that the boats must be left unattended. Presently, the only central SF Bay sites that are even practical for overnight camping are Angel Island (State) and Kirby Cove (Federal) both of which require leaving the boat on the beach and hiking several hundred yards up to the campsite. Even with these limitations there are not nearly enough campsites and not nearly enough locations to serve current demand.


Camping from a small muscle or wind-propelled boat, while popular on many waters throughout the U.S., is a concept that is not very well developed on S.F. Bay. Concerns about opening new campsites include maintenance, vandalism, security and misuse by non-boaters. However, boaters can be completely self-contained and need not leave any trace of their overnight stay. As a minimum, all that is required is a designated area where boaters can be assured they won’t be hassled or arrested.  Toilet facilities would be a welcome addition as would a fire ring. Nothing more. The designated area is best located in a part of a park which is presently underused and as much away from heavily used areas as possible. Alternatively, the chosen area could be designated camping only from sundown to 10AM. A permit system would keep the area from being overused and a combination system could keep the toilet facilities from being used by unauthorized personnel. Permits, however must be more flexible for those arriving by water due to the dependence of a boater's schedule on the weather.


There are many locations around the Bay that seem suitable to such a camping paradigm: Crown Beach in Alameda; Middle Harbor Beach in Oakland; the west side of Brooks Island in Richmond; Marin Island in San Rafael, and China Camp in San Rafael.


One successful model for overnight accommodations in an urban environment is the youth hostel. The obvious policy problem, however, is that those arriving by water must compete with land-borne guests who would be very likely to fill up hostel capacity well in advance of a kayak's arrival. Presently there is no youth hostel in the entire San Francisco Bay region that can accommodate travelers that arrive by boat.


Existing waterfront hotels or inns offer another possibility, although this is necessarily somewhat upscale and exclusionary. All that would be necessary to accommodate multi-day trips is secure boat storage for guests at these waterfront inns.


One option that has been successful on other water trails in other parts of the U.S. is a camping platform, only accessible by water. Although floating platforms have a number of technical and regulatory problems that might make them infeasible in tidal waters, camping areas installed on existing detached rock breakwaters could be viable. The important feature is separation from land so that only water-borne users have access.


The Bay Trail makes it possible to walk or bicycle around the entire bay, yet the vast majority of use is day use that begins and ends at the same access point. Most trail users arrive by car and leave from the same access point at the end of the day. Still, it is the concept of the "Continuous Bay Trail" that provides context to the local access point. The concept of the continuous trail raises awareness throughout the region of the existence of the local trails.


The Water Trail would undoubtedly share this dynamic most of the time: Although the trail makes it possible to paddle the entire shoreline, most users will probably launch and retrieve from the same location. But some will definitely enjoy the adventure of a circumnavigation.





The Bay Access website

"Logical Lasting Launches," a guide to launch site details, from the National Park Service Rivers & Trails Program.

Technical Report on Small Craft Operation in the Eastshore State Park