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Sailors across San Luis Obispo County want Port San Luis Harbor facilities to be more inclusive, less strenuous 

Seventy-seven-year-old Doug Morris belongs among San Luis Obispo's smattering of sailing aficionados. But the absence of an accessible sailboat launch facility at the Port San Luis Harbor put the brakes on a passion he's pursued from fourth grade.

"I'd like to sail down there before I die. Wouldn't that be nice?" he laughed.

click to enlarge ELBOW GREASE Launching a small sailboat using the Harford Pier hoist (pictured) is a labor of love in the absence of a floating dock down below. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHARLIE NICHOLS
  • Photo Courtesy Of Charlie Nichols
  • ELBOW GREASE Launching a small sailboat using the Harford Pier hoist (pictured) is a labor of love in the absence of a floating dock down below.

Morris' determination to sail drove him to spearhead a plan to update the Harford Pier with facilities like a hoist that can lift sailboats weighing at least 2,000 pounds, a staging dock, and an accessible stair and gangway that bridges the dock to the shore.

Brought to the Harbor Commission's attention in 2017, Morris' small movement became a magnet for the local sailing community. Now, a throng of recreational and competitive sailors keeps him company, all united in making Port San Luis more inclusive.

Morris' efforts prompted the Harbor Commission to asses whether it needed such an amenity. The agency commissioned an architecture firm to create a working design plan that might be included in the Harford Pier site plan, and the firm released a preliminary version of that plan in August 2021. The Harbor Commission will review the plan design in January 2022.

Currently, the port includes a hoist at the foot of the pier that can lift up to 1,000 pounds. But there's no floating dock below it that can make lowering boats from trailer to water less physically taxing. Instead, sailors have to stay clutched to a steel ladder while maneuvering their vessels.

"When I was 20 years old, that wasn't a big deal. But now I'm 65. It's not a place where you could launch 20 boats for a regatta. We'd love to have a 5,000-pound hoist, but a 2,000-pound would do," said Charlie Nichols, the fleet captain for DaySailer Fleet 128 in Morro Bay.

Nichols, a Morro Bay Yacht Club member, is one of the sailors who teamed up with Morris. He added that the existing hoist is too low, and sailboats couldn't be launched with the mast up.

Both he and Morris told New Times that the current launch facility isn't equitable and is more suited for sport fishing boats. It doesn't provide enough overhead space for sailing boats to unfurl their masts while the boat in the air. According to Nichols, opening the mast once the boat is lowered onto the water is nearly impossible.

"It's a nice facility for powerboats, but boy, it's not at all useful for a sailboat. We kinda feel like the sailing community has been left out over the years," Nichols said.

Though he said that the sailboat community isn't adversarial toward the Harbor Commission, Nichols mentioned that officials didn't funnel as much money toward sailing as they did to other recreational activities like tourism and the new Flying Flags RV campsite in Avila Beach.

Morris added that sailboats deserve a stronger limelight than they presently get because their wind-driven nature makes them ecologically sustainable, especially in contrast to sport fishing boats powered by fossil fuels. A retired architect, he provided pro bono advice to the Harbor Commission for launching techniques.

"Currently we are forced to travel long distances to the northern and southern California marinas to launch and sail our small sailboats due to the lack of a good usable sailboat hoist launch facility on the San Luis Obispo Bay," Morris said. "Additionally, this would attract many sailing organizations to our area ... [and] would also improve the local economy in many ways."

Another reason to make launching facilities more accessible: Sailors with disabilities can enjoy the local bay. Nichols wants a ramp or escalator added to the pier for them.

"I've taught disabled people how to sail. We see them all the time. There are boats made specifically for handicapped sailors. People don't think that's a thing: 'How can a person in a wheelchair sail a boat?' They can, they do. They have to have some special access stuff," Nichols said.

Even if a more inclusive pier gets the green light, it would still be a significant wait before such a facility could be installed because of possible grant acquisition delays.

Bruce Fraser of Fraser and Seiple Architects—the firm that the Harbor Commission contracted to oversee the pier plan—told New Times that the size of Harford Pier combined with its fairly unique status as a working pier and a tourist destination extended their investigation time.

Interim Harbor Manager John D'Ornellas said that administrators aim to complete the Harford Pier site plan project at the end of this fiscal year, which is next summer. He named some obstacles of the past.

"While the Harbor District has received requests to modify the hoist in the past and has looked into it, a practical and feasible design has not been realized. This was due to a number of factors including costs, safety, space, engineering, and displacement of other uses," D'Ornellas said.

"The board of commissioners considered including funding for the hoist in the budget a few years ago but did not receive majority support, so it was not pursued further," he continued. "We are again looking at it with the Harford Pier Site Plan."

But sailors noted the irony in the hoist upgrade being unpopular with the Harbor Commission. Nichols mentioned that at a special meeting in October, officials said they didn't see the need for small boat access at the port, attributing it to disuse.

"You don't see a lot of small boats out there," Nichols said, "frankly because you can't get them in the water." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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