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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“We didn't lose completely,” he said. “I mean, they were going to run us out of here!” By fighting back, the Gates Co-op people reached an agreement with the developers; those who moved onto the Waldo Point docks got 20-year leases. “So we’ve settled into a steady state of exploitation,” the former rebel sighed, “where the rent goes up every year.”

“But we’re managing,” he allowed cheerfully. “With all the old ‘Gaters’ and the new people, too. After all these years, we’re still a community.”

There are pros and cons to houseboat living, but Tate hit the nail on the head. One afternoon, while exploring the docks with a San Francisco physician named Paul Boutigny, I understood the importance of community to this enclave of Sausalito.

Boutigny and his wife are new arrivals on Main Dock, having moved there from the Haight in 2010. Young and affluent, they represent the oft-maligned trend toward gentrification. Still, they’ve been welcomed by their neighbors. Sharing a meal with Boutigny, who’s clearly enchanted by his new neighborhood, it’s easy to understand why.

“Everybody who moves here brings something different,” he said passionately. “And everybody, rich or poor, is part of the waterfront—from the anchor-outs to the huge houseboats at the ends of the docks. Everybody’s connected by one fact: We live on the water. Now that doesn’t mean that we all know each other. But there’s a commonality we all share.”

“There are people on welfare, there are millionaires, there are outstanding artists, there are computer whizzes,” agreed Henry Baer, a retired dentist on dock South 40. “I’ve lived in apartment buildings with 20 units; maybe you know your next-door neighbor, because you meet them at the mailbox. Here, walking to and from your boat, you meet half the people on the dock. Yes, we all come from diverse economic backgrounds. But when there’s a problem, everybody comes out and helps one another.”

Day after day, on dock after dock, I heard confirming stories: people going out in kayaks, checking their neighbors’ moorings before an El Niño storm; houseboats rescued from fire or flood, even while the owners were on another continent. There’s an unwritten code of cooperation, tempered by a hard-wired respect for privacy.

“It’s not something we indoctrinate people about,” said Larry Clinton, president of the Sausalito Historical Society and a houseboat resident since 1982. “We don’t put people through an orientation when they move here. They just get it. It’s the most amazing phenomenon of self-help in a community that I’ve encountered.”

Another big perk is that the community, as Clinton pointed out, is not limited to humans. “The fish and birds change from season to season—even with changes of the tide, because some birds prefer low tide. The egrets and herons come out then and peck thru the mud.”

A sea lion swam past, glancing briefly at its bipedal neighbors. Clinton laughed. “My wife says that looking out our glass doors is like having the Nature Channel on all day long.”

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