San Francisco Bay Is Filled With Boats, But What Do They Do?

8 min
A container ship waiting at Anchorage 9. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

Even though the Bay Area is surrounded by water, a lot of people don't know much about the nautical vessels that roam our waters, and many of you have asked Bay Curious about them.

So we turned to the experts — the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) — to help us find the answers to your many questions.

What's the difference between the various vessels on the bay?

Most of the large boats on the bay are either barges or cargo ships.

A construction barge next to the Bay Bridge took part in the last of the demolition work on the old bridge span. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

A barge is a floating platform. It doesn't have a motor, like the trailer part of a tractor-trailer.


There are many kinds of barges. Spud barges, for example, use a big steel shaft or spud that goes down to the bay floor to stay anchored in place.

Other barges are used for dredging and construction, which is constantly happening to keep certain channels in the bay deep enough for big vessels to get in and out of the ports.

The Treasure Island East Moorings. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

Many of these dredging barges are anchored at the Treasure Island East Moorings, east of Treasure Island and north of the Bay Bridge. Empty barges are tied there to floating mooring balls, which are anchored to the bay floor.

When silt and rocks are dredged from the bay floor, they're piled onto a barge. Once that barge is full, it's towed away to be dumped, and then one of the empty barges parked at the mooring group is brought in.

"It’s like a big parking lot is what it is," said Michael Roja, who leads VTS for the Coast Guard. "This is the biggest mooring group in the bay."

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Cargo ships have an engine and are designed to go long distances. They're often designed to carry specific cargo — cars, fuel — but in theory they can carry anything. Container ships are a type of cargo ship designed to carry shipping containers.

A container ship. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

In the Bay Area, there are a lot of container ships that come in from Asia and head to various ports (often the Port of Oakland), filled with all the stuff we buy from overseas. But before these ships can enter the bay, they have to go through a lengthy approval process:

  1. Ship operators have to submit a notice of arrival with the Coast Guard and request pilotage.
  2. Ships are assigned a pilot and a spot in the bay — either a berth at a port or a spot at an anchorage. (An anchorage is a set place in the bay for ships to drop anchor and wait. There are anchorages all over. Anchorage 9, off Hunters Point, is the largest in the bay and the only place fueling is allowed. Anchorage 23, up by Benicia, is for ships to wait out the fog.)
  3. The pilot boards the ship out at the pilot station — about 11 miles into the ocean from the Golden Gate Bridge — and then brings the ship into the bay.
  4. The ship goes straight to the port it's been assigned to unload or load (each port is designed for specific types of cargo) OR the ship goes to an anchorage to wait for a spot at port.

VTS oversees all boat traffic within 38 nautical miles from the top of Mount Tamalpais, so after a big ship enters that circle, they have to notify Roja's people — and they stay in constant communication about conditions and any obstacles.

It looks like some boats stay anchored in the bay for days at a time. Why?

A container ship being unloaded at the Port of Oakland. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

Most of the time big ships are unloaded and reloaded all in a few days, sometimes even just in one day. But it can be a little complicated to line up everything — the staff to unload, and then the next shipment for a company to load up and take to the next port.

There are 25 berths in Oakland, but it really can handle only about nine container ships at once, and that doesn't count the ultralarge container ships, which can be over 1,300 feet long. So when things back up, it slows down the whole process, like in 2016 when a labor dispute at the Port of Oakland caused major slowdowns.

Most of the time, though, if a boat sits around for more than a couple of days, it's because the shipping company hasn't given it new orders yet.

"It’s going to be based on their agent setting up their mooring inside the port," Roja said.

Sometimes if a boat is anchored for an especially long time, the Coast Guard has to check in to make sure the crew has enough supplies and is being taken care of.

What are the roles of the different ports?

Sam Lord, our question asker, and Michael Roja, our question answerer. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

Not only does each port have a specific role, but so do the docks at those different ports. For example:

  • The Port of Oakland is designed to unload containers with those big Star Wars-esque cranes.
  • The ports in Richmond, Benicia and Martinez all have fuel docks, meaning they can load and unload oil and petroleum; Richmond also has a car dock and an aggregate dock.
  • San Francisco has a car dock, designed to drive cars right off the boats. There are also two piers in San Francisco for cruise ships.

Which port and dock a ship is assigned to depends on what it's carrying and what the requirements are. If you're a little confused about where all this stuff is, here's a map:

(Mark Fiore/KQED)

What happens to the sewage on the boats?

It's collected, treated and processed, and then either pumped out when the ship is at dock or dumped as treated wastewater (not raw sewage) out at sea.

How do the crews get on and off the boats that are anchored in the bay?

With a ladder! Smaller boats bring mail and supplies out to the big ships at the anchorages, and even ferry crew members on and off.

And now here is a bonus photo of sea lions playing on the hull of a container ship.

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