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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But a small community of mavericks, including Storms, refused to be bullied. The “Gates Co-op,” as their dock is called, remains a throwback to the old days. With its tangles of electrical wire, wobbly walkways and erratic sanitation, it looks more like Katmandu than California.

And so it will stay until July, when Waldo Point Harbor is supposed to begin a long-delayed reconfiguration process. Along with many other “improvements” (depending on your point of view), the funky co-op will be dismantled, and its residents relocated in subsidized houseboats at new or existing berths.

Will it actually happen? No one knows. The obstacles to getting anything done on the waterfront seem endless. There’s a much-loved example of this phenomenon, known simply as “the pickleweed story.”

Some years ago, the story goes, a goat lived at the co-op docks. It grazed freely, cropping all the nearby pickleweed. Then, as now, the parking lots near the docks flooded at high tides, sometimes destroying cars. The locals had a permit—approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—to raise the parking lots, using landfill.

As happens every few years, the Army colonel in charge was rotated out. Around the same time, the goat died—and the pickleweed grew back. When the new colonel toured the area, he shook his head. “Pickleweed means these are wetlands," he said. “And you’re not allowed to build on a wetland.” And so, for the loss of a goat, went the permit.

“Every year they say they're going to do the reconfiguration,” Joe Tate informed me with a grin. “But nothing has changed here very much—not since they bulldozed the Charles Van Damme back in 1983.”

The scrappy Tate, now 72, arrived here from St. Louis in 1964. He was the rebel leader during the Houseboat Wars, and lead singer/guitarist for the legendary RedLegs, the waterfront’s homegrown rock band. (Their current incarnation, The Gaters, plays most Saturday nights at Sausalito’s No-Name Bar.) Tate grew up along the Mississippi, where his father was a riverboat pilot. His boating and building skills—and reckless good humor—are evident to anyone who’s seen Last Free Ride.

 “I’m known as the ‘King of the Waterfront,’ and I don't know why.” Tate conceded. “I did lead the charge against the developers—but in 1976, in the middle of the whole thing, I sailed away with my family.” Tate, weary of the constant struggle, headed south. “We went to Costa Rica, to Mexico and to Hawaii. I thought we were going to find something better.” He shrugged. “We didn’t.”

Tate moved back to the waterfront in 1979. He now lives on the Becky Thatcher: the same houseboat (albeit renovated) that Larry Moyer bought in 1967 for $1,000. From his living room window Tate can look onto a broad channel, flanked by floating homes. “They say they’re going to fill all that up with boats from the co-op. I’m not looking forward to that,” he sighed. “But a lot of the people they’re going to bring over are old friends of mine.”

I asked Tate if he feels that, in retrospect, the Houseboat Wars were won or lost.

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