It was a sunny, early-fall morning and two wardens with the state's Department of Fish and Game were zipping between boats moored just off Morro Bay's Natural History Museum.
Warden Drew Brandy was at the helm, Patrol Lt. Dean Hileman was in the bow, and the two joked back and forth in the windless morning. At each boat they came to, Brandy would edge the warden's boat close and Hileman would lean over the side and tie plastic-coated tags with "NOTICE OF VIOLATION" in big black letters to each mooring. Then he'd tie a letter to the side of the boat.
"Dear Vessel Owner," the letter read. "It is a misdemeanor for any vessel to remain in the Wildlife Area. ... Any vessel remaining in the Wildlife Area after [Dec. 31] will be subject to seizure, and the vessel owner will be subject to criminal prosecution."
Over the last 30-something years, boat owners have installed more than 35 illegal moorings in Windy Cove- a tract of the bay that's owned by the state's Land Commission and has been leased out by the California Department of Fish and Game.
Fish and Game wardens say they were never able to adequately enforce the law because of a lack of funds and a lack of personnel.
Now, law enforcement and environmental officials say the situation has gone too far. Citing concerns about pollution from the boats, and using funds from a water-quality fine paid by the California Men's Colony, wardens have begun the process of clearing out that corner of the bay.
On that sunny morning, Hileman and Brandy attached 33 letters to 33 boats. A few days later, Hileman would send out certified letters to each of those boat owners, explaining why the boats must be removed.
But some of those owners are wondering if the state has put enough thought into the process.
Quill Chase is the owner of the Eohippus, a white sailboat with blue trim that's moored in the back half of Windy Cove. Chase has a long history with the cove- he and his brothers first got a mooring there in 1984 for a commercial fishing boat.
Chase is a soft-spoken man who says that as an organic farmer, he understands concerns about bacteria and chemical toxins polluting the bay. But he wonders why the state can't just remove the derelict boats- which only make up about 10 percent of the boats in the cove- and allow the others to stay.
"Everybody says we're freeloading, and if it comes down to that I could see paying a mooring fee. Frankly, I like that I don't have to pay, but if that's what it would take, okay," he said.
Vincent McNamara, who moors two boats in the cove, The Osprey and the Nelly Bly, also wonders about a compromise.
"If [the state] would monitor or set up some regulations to make sure that there's no sewage in the water, or garbage, or paint being scraped off boats, we're all for it. Whatever we have to do to keep our boats there," he said.
But there's little chance the Department of Fish and Game will change its stance. Since it's leasing the area from the state's Land Commission, it has to follow the rules of that agency. Namely, no moorings allowed.
And while the sudden enforcement of that law might seem severe, several boat owners New Times spoke with were pleased that Fish and Game was willing to work with them.
But that still leaves some, like Chase and McNamara, with several months to find a place for their boats, and few available locations.
"I don't know where we're going to go," Chase said. "Will the bay be that much more pristine when the boats that have been there 20 years are gone? How will anybody tell?
"And if the bay isn't cleaner, then the boats are gone and what's it for?"...
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.