Safe Harbor: Rigging the Water Trail to Welcome Everyone

Water recreation is a mainstay of Bay Area culture. And it’s about to become even more accessible. The San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail — a network of over 100 launch and landing sites for non-motorized watercraft throughout the nine-county region — is trying to better accommodate people with disabilities. To that end, the California Coastal Conservancy, the government organization primarily responsible for managing the Water Trail program, has recently developed a 173-page draft accessibility plan to help bring the ideal of universal accessibility closer to reality.

Although originally passed in 1990, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act did not address recreational boating facilities until 2010, and many owners of the Water Trail’s various launch and landing sites remain unsure how to meet the requirements. Responsibility for compliance rests with these independent site owners, but the Water Trail on the whole, as a state agency program, must be accessible to people with disabilities. The draft plan surpasses the letter of the law, however, recommending site features that improve access beyond the legal requirements.

The draft plan serves as both a guide to best practices and as a resource for site owners interested in furnishing more accessible options. One chapter describes the laws, regulations, and standards for disabled access to recreational boating; another chapter provides contacts and resources to consult for further insight. Ultimately, the draft plan concludes, three features of launch and landing sites are essential to fostering more accessibility.

One, they need to provide a firm surface for crossing any beaches, as it’s hard to maneuver a wheelchair through sand. One solution is something called a “beach mat,” a portable rollout pathway made of rubberized material. San Francisco’s Crissy Field, for instance, utilizes a woven plastic beach mat that goes to the high tide line. A more permanent option is coming to Ferry Point in Richmond, where the East Bay Regional Park District is putting in a concrete pathway.

Two, they need to provide low-float docks as opposed to high-freeboard docks. The latter are what you’d typically see at a marina, involving a ramp for motorboats to go down into the water. Such docks are not especially close to the water’s surface because the boats that use them ride higher. Low-float docks, however, are secured so as to float up and down, probably no closer than nine inches above the water’s surface; they’re designed to make it easier for people to get in and out of watercraft. The challenge, however, is more than making a launch and landing site accessible to people with disabilities. Because different kinds of watercraft have different launching needs, the Water Trail sites also face the challenge of being accessible to different kinds of boats.

Three, sites need to implement “transfer systems” to facilitate getting boats and passengers in and out of the water. So far, there aren’t very many such systems around the Bay Area. A good example, though, is at Marina Green, just west of Fort Mason in San Francisco. The launch site there has a low-float dock, shaped like a “T” and fitted with rollers to help watercraft get into the water. The draft plan includes two appendices pertaining to transfer systems, as well as cost estimates for each of the different methods.

Moreover, the draft plan describes the nature of the Water Trail program, details the kinds of non-motorized boats it serves, and addresses the public’s specifically expressed water recreation needs. In addition to being a resource for site owners, in other words, the draft plan lays out the Water Trail’s internal program-level ideas and intentions: for instance, to help develop at least one “high accessibility site” in each of the 14 geo-regions that the system spans, potentially through grant funding. According to the draft plan, efforts are also in motion to provide more information on the Water Trail website, so that people can tell whether a particular launch or landing site will work for the needs of those with a specific disability.

The California Coastal Conservancy’s board of directors is scheduled to finalize the draft plan on January 29. After that, we’ll all be boating soon.

Chris Ingraham works as a freelance writer while completing a Ph.D. in rhetoric.