Workshop on Launch Design, Development and Management


  • Representatives from marinas, park districts, planning departments, the Department of Boating and Waterways, paddling, rowing and boardsailing clubs, and water trail project staff met to discuss boat launch facility design, development and management for future water trail sites.
  • Participants identified concerns and opportunities with launch facilities at water trail sites. In preparing the recommendations for the water trail plan, staff will be incorporating input from the workshop. Staff will also conduct smaller, follow-up meetings with individuals and organizations to determine how to address some of the more complex and site-specific issues raised at the workshop.

Workshop summary

  1. Issues and opportunities with launch site design, development and management
    After a brief introduction to the water trail project by Sara Polgar, she led a brainstorm and discussion in which she asked parks and facility managers and planners to identify their concerns and ideas for launch sites – or trail heads – on the water trail. The major points from the brainstorm and discussion are summarized in the bullets below.

    At the start of the brainstorming, participants raised questions about the definition of a water trail user – the person in a “non-motorized small boat” (NMSB). Staff defined NMSB to include rowing and paddle-craft (e.g. kayaks, dragonboats and sculls) and sailboards (e.g. windsurfers), but not large sailboats with motors. Concerns were raised that this definition is not inclusive enough and might preclude obtaining grants from the Department of Boating and Waterways which could be limited in its ability to grant funds exclusively for facilities for non-motorized craft. “Hand-launched boat” was suggested as an alternative term that could include small, motorized boats.

    Staff pointed out that trail head design, development and management would not be conducted with the intention of excluding motorized boaters, and in contrast should be as inclusive as appropriate. However, the target user groups for this trail planning effort fall within the NMSB definition, and water trail plan recommendations will focus on the needs and issues associated with this user group.

    • Launch design
      Participants recognized that the various types of NMSBs have unique needs for launching onto the water (e.g. a kayak can be launched from a beach, but not a scull). Furthermore, different shoreline areas are conducive to different launch types and designs. For example, a naturally sandy shoreline does not need to (nor should) be developed with a ramp or float, whereas these types of launch improvements are essential for access onto the water in other areas with riprap or existing docks. Water trail staff emphasized that not every trail head needs every amenity, nor should they all look the same. Taking a flexible approach to trail head design is consistent with the vision for the water trail.
    • Trail users' needs and wishesA question was raised about what users want at trail heads. Penny Wells addressed this question in her presentation later in the workshop (which is summarized below under “3. Presentations and Q&A”). During the brainstorm, though, participants began a ‘wish list' that included suggestions such as a safe landing spot (e.g. no big swells), a graded path to the launch, overnight camping or nearby hotel, accessible bathrooms, emergency phone and drinking water.
    • Park and facility managers' criteria for launch sites
      Shoreline park managers pointed out that they apply certain criteria in assessing the suitability of a shoreline area as a launch site. For example, is the location accessible by car, or are there sensitive wildlife and habitats at the site that will be negatively affected by boaters.
    • Conflicting uses at launch sites
      Introducing new access onto the Bay, or incorporating an existing launch site into the water trail could lead to conflicts among users. As examples, kayakers do not generally like to launch their boats or paddle near personal watercraft; and new opportunities for overnight accommodations might draw unexpected interest (e.g. from duck hunters). If restrictions are imposed on the use of a site to minimize problems, how are these to be enforced?
    • Wildlife and sensitive habitats
      Launch site owners and managers need guidance on what they should be doing to inform trail users about sensitive wildlife and habitat at or near trail heads.
    • Education
      The trail project needs to include development of signage and a guidebook and other education materials directed at NMSB users. Safety information should be prevalent at every trail head.
    • Development strategies and ideas
      Participants identified opportunities and strategies for trail development.
      • Form partnerships among adjacent parks, marinas, businesses and the Bay and Water Trail projects to develop access opportunities that benefit trail users and access and services providers.
        Offer overnight accommodations at hotels and bed and breakfasts along the shoreline, as well as on historic ships moored in the Bay.
      • Locate non-profit boating clubs and organizations at high-use sites to lower the “cost of entry” to the trail by enabling people to use the trail without having to own a boat.
      • Promote multi-day trips on the water trail through boating groups and guided tours to improve trail users' enjoyment and safety, as well as good boating practices on the Bay.
      • Along portions of remote shoreline establish “human inclusion zones” as resting spots. These would not have any facilities and only serve as a brief stop-over for paddlers to safely land and rest their arms without disturbing marsh habitat and wildlife.
      • Brand the water trail (e.g. the “water trail around SF Bay”) to create a concept that people can envision, and around which trail proponents can rally support and funding.
      • Involve the hospitality and concessions industries in trail planning and development.
      • Inside ties at marinas are existing opportunities – low hanging fruit – for onsite storage of some types of NMSBs.
        For trips to remote trail heads that lack bathrooms, portable toilets can be brought along.
  2. Presentations and Q&A
    Three speakers gave presentations on water trail users' needs, project design and construction considerations and ADA-ABA accessibility requirements.
    Penny Wells (President, Bay Access, Inc.) began by explaining that ‘one size does not fit all' among the different types of NMSBs. However, these water trail users have some trail head facility needs and wishes in common.
    • Under most circumstances, water trail users will need parking at launch sites. People that bring NMSBs on their cars want a loading zone and/or parking as near to the launch area as possible.
    • Having overnight parking available or making provisions for this, such as a special overnight permit, allows users to do multi-day trips without worrying that their cars will be towed.
    • Boaters are concerned about security at launch sites, particularly with respect to car break-ins.
    • A staging area is another very desirable launch site feature. This is a location adjacent to the launch site where boaters can drop off their equipment and then prepare to go out on the water.
    • For certain NMSBs, beaches with sand or pea gravel are ideal for launching, but beaches are rare in the Bay Area.
    • People launch hand-carried NMSBs from concrete launch ramps and docks designed for trailered or large boats, but these launches can pose challenges to NMSB users (e.g. competition for ramp space, slippery concrete and docks that are 18 inches or more above the water). A floating dock that is 4-6 inches high is best for launching most NMSBs. If a high dock is already in place, it can be retrofitted with a ladder to make it accessible for some NMSB users.
    • NMSB users can launch from concrete stairs but these launches are not generally desirable because the concrete is “hard on the boats,” stairs tend to be slippery and they are unusable for launching in areas of high surf. If stairs are to work, they need to extend to below the high tide line. Stair width should be as long as a boat (up to 18 feet in the case of a kayak) and the stair tread should be at least 24 inches to allow a boater to bring the boat up onto the first stair.
    • Penny mentioned some examples of very nice bathrooms at Crissy Field (San Francisco), Drake's Beach (Pt. Reyes) and McNear's Beach Park (Marin County) that are good because they have extra space and double as changing areas. Porta potties are also fine.
    • The ideal orientation of a launch site will depend on the users. Paddle craft users generally prefer sites that are protected from winds, whereas boardsailors seek out windy locations.
    • Penny also identified a list of amenities that are “desirable” at launch areas:
      • Fresh water for drinking and washing gear;
      • Close proximity to a restaurant or bar;
      • Demand for onsite boat storage for NMSBs is growing. Currently, the going rate is between $25 and $45 per month for storing a kayak.

    Mike Ammon (Boating Trails Department, Department of Boating and Waterways (DBW)) discussed the role of the DBW in developing the water trail by providing funding and design support on launch site projects. He highlighted a few of the many, DBW-sponsored launch sites around the Bay that will incorporate elements designed specifically for NMSBs (e.g. Boat Ramp Street in Richmond, Alviso Marina Park and Higgins Landing at Corte Madera). Mike emphasized that the agency's ability to help the water trail project is due to support from Steve Watanabe, DBW's Chief of the Boating Facilities Division. With this support for the project and the Boating Trails Department's experience in building small boat launches, DBW will have a central role in the development of the trail, and shoreline launch site managers and planners should look to make the most of the design and development resources that DBW offers.

    Bill Curry (Supervising Civil Engineer (Retired), Boating Facilities Department, DBW) addressed the status of Americans with Disabilities Act and Architectural Barriers Act (ADA-ABA) Accessibility Guidelines. The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) published the ADA-ABA Guidelines in 2004. These are under review by the Department of Justice and approval of these is expected in late 2007. Currently, the ADA-ABA Guidelines are not in effect or enforceable, but they will be once approved.

    Nothing in the ADA-ABA Guidelines addresses outdoor trails. In absence of specific guidance on trails accessibility in these guidelines, facility planners can fall back on an interim Access Board document, the Recreation Regulatory Negotiation Committee Accessibility Guidelines for Outdoor Developed Areas (REG-NEG Guidelines) published in 1999 ( Once the ADA-ABA Guidelines are approved, the Access Board will work to incorporate the REG-NEG Guidelines into these.

    Under the REG-NEG Guidelines, trail launch facilities are likely to fall within the category of Outdoor Recreation Access Route (ORAR), “an unobstructed path designated for pedestrian use that connects accessible elements within a picnic area, camping area or designated trailhead.” In preparing the REG-NEG Guidelines, the Negotiation Committee recognized that there might be situations in which site-specific conditions are incompatible with requirements in the guidelines. To incorporate the flexibility to address these situations, the REG-NEG Guidelines allow for four conditions that “permit departures from specific technical provisions.” These conditional departures enable facility managers and planners to address the site-specific aspects of their projects. Bill pointed out that the “driving force of these conditional departures is not to get out of compliance, but rather to identify what can reasonably be done to comply with accessibility guidelines.”

    In the discussion following the presentations, participants had questions about permitting requirements and raised additional points about accessible design.

    • BCDC staff was asked whether a permit is required for making an upgrade to an existing launch facility (e.g. adding a float onto a dock). A permit is required, but the permitting process can be less involved if the proposed project falls within the scope of a region-wide permit already issued by BCDC. Under this permit, the applicant only needs to demonstrate that the project is consistent with the preexisting authorization.
    • Water trail staff mentioned “Logical, Lasting Launches,” a guide published by the National Park Service ( on design of launches for kayaks and canoes. This has some information about designing for accessibility.
    • Bill Curry is developing accessibility guidelines for DBW's Boating Trails Program. These will be the guidelines with which DBW projects need to conform.
    • Bill emphasized that although the existing accessibility guidelines have “holes in them,” there is no need to hide from them because “we have enough information to know what we are doing.”
    • A growing concept of accessibility is “universal design” – designing for all people. This concept resonated with many of the meeting participants.
  3. Case Study: Oyster Point Marina, South San Francisco
    Robert Johnson discussed some key issues and opportunities presented by the water trail within the context of development plans that he has for Oyster Point Marina in South San Francisco where he is harbormaster. In addition to the marina docks and slips, his site has a beach and a windsurfing launch (with stairs leading to a ramp through riprap).
    Based on his experiences in developing water access and other projects at Oyster Point Marina, Robert identified key concerns and challenges that he and other facility managers have.

    • Funding for launch facilities is already difficult to get, and the Water Trail Plan recommendations need to provide information on funding sources and strategies.
    • BCDC permitting requirements for enhancing public access that are attached to shoreline development projects can put a substantial financial burden on shoreline owners and managers. If requirements associated with the water trail are made to be too rigid or onerous, these could tie shoreline owners' and managers' hands and ultimately stymie trail development.
    • Increased demands on facility personnel to address management and enforcement needs associated with new boating groups will increase costs.
    • Wildlife disturbance and safety have been high priority concerns at previous water trail planning meetings. These NMSB-related issues may be unfamiliar to many launch site owners and managers who will rely heavily on the water trail project for guidance on how to resolve these.

    Robert also felt the water trail project can be a benefit to Oyster Point Marina and other launch sites. He anticipates that the recommendations in the Water Trail Plan will both help shoreline managers develop facilities that are good for NMSB users, and provide guidance on other trail components such as signage and education programs.
    In the discussion that followed, participants looked specifically at the windsurf launch ramp at Oyster Point Marina. Due to subsidence at the site, Robert was required to put riprap on the shoreline along this portion of the property and he installed the stairs and ramp through the riprap in 1997 at a cost of $77,000; today this project would cost $200,000.

    A question was raised as to whether the launch could have been made more accessible to persons with disabilities by making some type of ramp in lieu of the stairs. The site probably does not allow for constructing a ramp that strictly follows the ADA-ABA and REG-NEG Guidelines, but this is an excellent example of how applying a conditional departure to the ramp design can help achieve reasonable accessibility. Robert pointed out that in planning the launch he considered two main factors with respect to accessibility: the constraints he faced due to wave conditions and shoreline slope that made development of a ramp difficult, and whether he had alternatives launch areas that were accessible. (Persons with disabilities can be accommodated within the marina facilities and his site has a beach that allows access onto the water.)

    The discussion wrapped up with a request to address in more detail the practical aspects of applying the launch design and development ideas raised at the workshop. Water trail staff will try to conduct follow-up meetings with facility managers and parks departments that are interested in further discussion.

December 6, 2006