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)

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The houseboat era began in the late 19th century, when well-to-do San Franciscans kept “arks”—floating holiday homes—on local rivers and deltas. After the 1906 earthquake, some became semi-permanent refuges.

But the modern branch of Sausalito’s houseboat evolution began after World War II. Marinship Corporation, on Richardson Bay, operated a facility for building Liberty ships: vital transports that carried cargo into the Pacific theater. More than 20,000 people worked intensely on that effort. When the war ended, though, Marinship ceased operations almost overnight. Tons of wood, metal and scrap were left behind. Richardson Bay turned into an aquatic salvage yard, a tidal pool of possibilities.

Ecologist and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, who has lived on the tugboat Mirene since 1982, tells how “the former shipyard became a semi-outlaw area and riffraff moved in—floated in.” During the 1950s and ‘60s, as the Beats gave way to the hippies, the chance to construct rent-free homes out of abandoned boats and flotsam was a siren song that drew a spectrum of characters. Some were working artists, like Moyer, who bought and improved old boats. There were also musicians, drug dealers, misfits and other fringe-dwellers. The waterfront swelled into a community of squatters who, as Brand puts it, “had more nerve than money.”

“People lived here because they could afford it,” agreed Moyer. “You could find an old lifeboat hull to build on, and there was always stuff to recycle because of the shipyards. Whatever you wanted. If you needed a beam of wood ten feet long by one foot wide, one would come floating up.” Through the early 1970s, the Sausalito houseboat scene was a sort of anarchist commune. The heart and soul was the Charles Van Damme, a derelict 1916 ferry that served as community center, restaurant and rumpus room.

Shel Silverstein wasn’t the only celebrity in the mix. Artist Jean Varda shared the ferry Vallejo with Buddhist writer/philosopher Alan Watts. In 1967 Otis Redding wrote his hit “Dock of the Bay” on a Sausalito houseboat (which one, exactly, is still a matter of controversy). Actors Sterling Hayden, Rip Torn and Geraldine Page all kept floating homes. The roll call would in time include Brand, author Anne Lamott, Bill Cosby and environmentalist Paul Hawken.

But the good times didn’t last. A paradise for some, the chaotic community—with its wacky architecture, filched electricity and untreated sewage—was an eyesore to others. Local developers set their sites on revamping the Sausalito waterfront, with its dizzying real estate potential.

At the park’s edge stand the antique paddle wheel and steam stack of the Charles Van Damme, all that remain of the now bulldozed ferry. Doug Storms, a commercial diver who has lived on the waterfront since 1986, led me past a small waterfront garden.

“In the 1960s and early ‘70s, there was the classic conflict between the haves and have-nots,” said the sinewy Storms. "Between the developers and the local community, many who were living here rent-free."

The result was a long and ugly battle known as “The Houseboat Wars.” Dramatized in a folksy 1974 film (Last Free Ride), the battle pit the waterfront’s squatter community against the combined might of the local police, city council and Coast Guard.

Ultimately, the developers more or less prevailed. Most of the houseboats were relocated along a series of five new docks, built by the Waldo Point Harbor company. Their electricity and sewage lines are now up to code. The process of gentrification on the new docks has been steady and not altogether unwelcome. Though they bristle at the monthly slip fees, many old-timers have seen the value of their floating homes skyrocket.

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