Livin' on the Dock of the Bay

From the Beats to CEOs, the residents of Sausalito’s houseboat community cherish their history and their neighbors

Today, 245 floating homes nose into the five docks at Sausalito's Waldo Point Harbor. (Panoramic Images / Getty Images)

Larry Moyer faced me across a cluttered wooden table in the sitting room of the houseboat Evil Eye. He was wearing a brown suede vest. His eyes gleamed benevolently beneath a purple beret. A white beard billowed down his neck, thick as the smoke from his narrow black cigar.

Though Shel Silverstein has been gone 13 years, his spirit seemed to be with us as we relaxed in his former houseboat. Moyer—a filmmaker, painter and photographer who now stewards the Evil Eye—traveled with The Giving Tree author for years, when they worked together as a writer/photographer team for Playboy during the magazine’s first two decades. That was a while ago; Moyer turned 88 earlier this year. But he clearly recalls the story of how he and Silverstein arrived here, in Sausalito’s legendary houseboat community, 45 years ago.

“In February 1967, when I lived in a Greenwich Village apartment, a friend sent me a birthday present: A woman named Nicki knocked at my door, delivering a hot pastrami sandwich and a pickle.” Having just returned from San Francisco, Nicki suggested that the blossoming Haight-Ashbury scene would make a great feature for Playboy.

“So Shel and I got sent out West. We spent three months in the Haight. While we were there, we visited a friend of Nicki’s—rock guitarist Dino Valenti—here on the Sausalito waterfront.”

Moyer and Silverstein took in the scene. “There were a few hundred boats. It was total freedom. The music, the people, the architecture, the nudity—all we could say was, ‘Wow!’ So Shel bought a boat, and I bought a boat. And that was that.”

Today, 245 floating homes nose into the five docks at Sausalito’s Waldo Point Harbor. The scene’s a bit less wild. Pilots, physicians and executives now share the Richardson Bay waterfront with artists, writers and inveterate sea salts. Some of the houseboats are simple and unpresuming, enlivened with plaster gnomes and patrolled by tomcats. Others—custom-built dream homes valued upwards of $1.3 million—have appeared in films and magazines. And though the characters are as fascinating as they were in the ’60s, there’s a notable decline in public nudity.

Walking the docks in the early morning is a calming experience: an escape into a realm of broad light, subtle motion and seabird calls.

The variety of houseboats is astonishing. Though they’re physically close, the architectural styles are worlds apart. Each reflects the imagination (and/or means) of its owner. Some look like shotgun shacks, others like pagodas, bungalows or Victorians. Most defy a category altogether. There’s the prominent Owl, with its horned wooden tower and wide-eyed windows; the SS Maggie, a former 1889 steam schooner, now appointed like Thurston Howell III’s retreat; and the Dragon Boat, with its etched glass and Asian statuary. Quite a few look like what they are: former Navy ships, reimagined as private homes. They rise up from barges, tugboats, World War II landing craft, even subchasers. A couple, including the Evil Eye, are built atop balloon barges, ships whose lofted cables were designed to snare kamikaze aircraft.

Beyond the docks, a few lone houseboats rock in the open bay. These are the “anchor-outs”: solitary water-dwellers who rely on row boats and high tides to keep their homes provisioned. One of them is Moyer’s painting studio. The others belong to more elusive souls. They lend the neighborhood an air of mystery.

Larry Moyer’s arrival story isn’t typical, but his enthusiasm for the place wasn’t unusual. For certain people, life on the water has a magnetic appeal. Even today—as the harbor prepares for a makeover that will erase much of its storied past—the docks offer a sense of community and an otherworldly ambiance found almost nowhere else.

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