Feature Story – September 2007
The Floating Homes of Sausalito
by David O’ Neal
Living on a houseboat is cool--cool like Andy Garcia, the Toyota Prius hybrid, mango ice-cream, and Independent voters. I moved to Sausalito recently from the East Coast and I intend to stay here. Nature around the Bay Area is startlingly diverse and beautiful. And I live on a floating home to boot.
I treasure the people who live in the “floating homes” (houseboats which have no means of locomotion) of Sausalito. The men here don’t wear ties, and the women don’t sport skirts or high-heeled shoes. And I like the houseboats and the surrounding environment for the same reasons their owners do: it is quiet and peaceful. It is a place to chill out and to heal from whatever ails you real or imaginary) It is a safe-haven, a refuge and a place to repair oneself from the stresses of modern life.
My parrot also likes it here. Her wings are not clipped, and occasionally she escapes into joyous flight and perches on nearby rooftops. It’s a fairly safe environment for her because there is nowhere else for her to fly except other houseboats. We are good friends, my parrot and I, yet she regards me with aloof disdain when I summon her back home.
Other winged creatures make this area their home as well. Between November and March, herring surge through the Golden Gate of San Francisco Bay and make their way into the shallows of Richardson Bay. They spawn near the floating homes. At such times, thousands of birds of different species fly together in formation, skimming a few inches above the water. Then they land and roil the bay in a frenzy of feasting. The Bay Area is on the pacific flyway so there are also gaggles of migrating geese, loons, American Coots, Red-Breasted Mergansers, grebes, Belted Kingfishers, and others. Near my houseboat, a raft of fifty floating logs forms a bird habitat on which mostly gulls and cormorants rest. Because they don’t have waterproofing oil, cormorants can dive deeply without being held up by excessive buoyancy. After swimming and diving for some time, the cormorants rest on the logs and spread their waterlogged wings to dry so they can dive again without sinking. All these birds are an integral part of the seascape; I watch them for hours with curiosity and amusement. When the black and white birds form a chorus line, extending their wings and vocalizing en mass, the choreography resembles a Broadway musical.
There is a special feeling to living on the water in a houseboat so close to a broad variety of wildlife. There are crabs, snails, muscles, sea squirts and numerous other invertebrates, as well as pods of harbor seals that call this same place their home. Sometimes at night raccoons forage surreptitiously on the docks for cat food and other forbidden nourishment. Harbor seals haul out in the evening onto floating platforms near the houseboats, and the territorial males grunt and groan.
Among the fish are the plainfin midshipman (Porichthys notates) and the humming toadfish. The toadfish are nocturnal bottom dwellers and live much of the year off the coast at depths approaching 1,000 feet, feeding mostly on shrimp and burying themselves in sand and mud during the day. In July and August (their mating season), they move into bays and estuaries and often set up housekeeping underneath the hulls of houseboats. The mating call of the male is a humming or droning sound — a perfect A flat. They hum by vibrating the extraordinarily strong muscles above their swim bladders. These muscles vibrate 6,000 times a minute, twice the speed of the wings of hummingbirds. They can hum for hours at a time, and their “love-songs” will set off the motorboat-like noise of neighboring toadfish, keeping some house boaters awake all night.
Not all is wild and wholly in the bay, however. Civilization is here as well. The floating homes of Sausalito are examples of urban living with a watery twist. The houseboats all have modern amenities: electricity, sewage disposal, DSL and cable TV, telephone and gas lines, and fresh water. The homes are small and the docks densely packed. After all, downtown San Francisco is only thirty minutes away by car or ferry.
While the history of houseboats in Sausalito begins in the 1880s, the real boom in water-homes came during World War II when the Marinship Shipyard employed 70,000 workers to build Liberty Ships. Many of these laborers created homes from old boats and other floating equipment. When the shipyard closed, still more boats, including small naval craft, were added to the waterfront, as well as much miscellaneous cast-off building material.
After the war, veterans and workers settled in the area and continued the frugal waterfront living tradition. Soon artists were attracted to this alternative lifestyle, followed by writers, photographers, actors, filmmakers, carpenters, seamstresses, craftspeople, musicians, radicals, hippies, free-thinkers, mystics, bon vivants, and persons with connections to the sea--such as active or retired Navy and coast guard, shipbuilders, yacht surveyors, and marine biologists. The Zen philosopher Alan Watts lived on these bobbing structures, along with the artists Jean Varda, Gordon Onslow-Ford, the actor Sterling Hayden. and the poet-cartoonist Shel Silverstein.
Nowadays, the floating homes of Sausalito are entered by moveable gangplanks -- at high tide the homes rise above the docks, at low tide they sink below. Their architecture is exceptionally diverse, colorful and funky. Many reflect imaginations that have run wild. Others seem to have sprung out of bizarre dreams. Some conform to or distort the hulls of the old boats they are built upon. And still others resemble homes on land but incorporate more glass, including walls and doors, particularly in the back where they open directly to water. Boardwalks are lined with potted flowers, shrubs, ferns and small trees. These form lush linear botanic gardens of great variety and beauty that emblazon the boardwalks with kaleidoscopes of brilliant colors. Butterflies flutter among the plants, and finches, sparrows, and shimmers of hummingbirds hover and fly around in the gardens. The homes are often for rent, and this unusual friendly floating community can be an ideal place for a vacation that offers a splendid, kinetic seascape of constantly changing wind, water, light and sound.
Almost all the houses have rooftop or other decks as well as floating docks behind them to which are tethered some kind of watercraft: canoes, kayaks, rafts, zodiacs, platforms propelled by water-wheels, rowboats, motorboats, and sailboats. I go kayaking with my bird on my shoulder. She holds tight to the folds of my shirt and, head cocked to one side, peers into the water as if trying to see her reflection or fathom a mystery. Throughout the year, at springtide when the moon is new or full, there are unusually high tides and some of the parking lots flood. At such times, residents don their wading boots, negotiate the water in shopping carts, give piggy-back rides to each other, or hold kayak races in the lots that are deep in several feet of water.
Many of the homes are painted wild colors, and for decoration, inside and out, the houseboat residents use model yachts, ship’s bells and wheels, barometers, compasses, fishnets, flags, pennants and ensigns, colored buoys, paddles and oars, decoys, and other nautical paraphernalia. There is a strong presence of Asia on several docks: figures of Buddha and other Buddhist icons and symbols, little spirit houses to welcome one’s ancestors.
A particularly unusual houseboat, Train Wreck, consists of an 1889 Pullman car cut in half with the two pieces set at right angles to each other. A house, topped off by a study with 360-degree views, was built on top of and around the train car. The Owl has an upper story with a concave roofline and two large round windows encircled by a widow-walk that resembles the head of that favorite nocturnal bird. Among the boats transformed into homes is the Mirene, a nearly century-old tugboat. Among the home names are Tranquility Base, The Answer, Freedom and Chateau Bateau.
Water acts as a great social leveler; it is impossible not to know those who live on the same dock as I. There is only one way out and one way in and we pass each other frequently. Certain universal houseboat values are apparently shared by everyone: an abiding love of water, an attraction to the ever-changing scenery, a sense of community and cooperation. During storms people watch out for their neighbors’ houseboats that are, at such times, vulnerable to slipping or breaking their moorings. And when owners rent their homes, a neighbor volunteers to be “superintendent” for the temporary resident, giving advice and counsel. There is a feeling that we all share the same habitat, and the closer we are to our environment and to each other, the better off we will be. Houseboats occupy the space between solid ground (for solid citizens) and the mythic sea (mermaids, pirates, mysterious creatures), and they share the luxuries of water and sky that impart a sense of plenty. Now and then spontaneous parties erupt on the docks: someone sets out a table and residents show up for conversation with wine and cheese, sausages, dip, cookies and other goodies. Dwellers of the floating homes are quirky in the friendliest way. Eccentrics and free-spirited individuals live here. They are grounded yet slightly out of kilter. Many have traveled “the road less taken” on their way to the docks of Northern California.
On top of the water where the homes float, movement is constant: wind, waves, and current change direction throughout the day and night so that the houseboats gently bob, rock, rise, fall and move in delightful ways. Each water-home is a floating observation station, an outpost on the ever-fascinating bay. The neighborhoods of docks and boats are set against a vast expanse of blue sky and water, and in big, bright magnitudes of uncluttered space, water-dwellers are treated to a rare relationship with light. Sunlight enters the homes in shimmers and beams, directly coming in or reflected by the surface of the water. When wind rakes the water and it reflects shifting clouds, tremulous patterns bounce onto the interiors of houseboats and changes color. Light and shadow interplay on the crests of wavelets to produce phenomenal visual effects, especially at night when houses and dock lights become glowing patterns of yellow dots, rectangles and other animated shapes.
Sounds, too, are unique on floating homes. Wavelets slap softly against hulls. Footfalls drum pleasantly on wooden planks. Rain splatters and patters on the docks and in the bay. The houseboats creak and groan as they strain against their moorings; garden plants stir in the wind; the riggings of nearby sailboats whistle and hum. During the day there are constant birdcalls, cries and songs, which form delightful avian background noise.
Then at night, all is quiet.
The floating homes of Sausalito are a magical water-world, and their residents live among a flotilla of houseboats that go nowhere yet make them feel like they are everywhere.
In 1973, David O’Neal established his own antiquarian book selling business in Boston, which became among the foremost rare book and manuscript businesses in the United States. In 2001, he retired and now devotes his time to writing non-fiction, short fiction, essays and poems. The Sailor’s Hornbook, or ABC is his first book. O’Neal has two grown sons and lives in San Francisco with his parrot, Streak. He can be reached at email@example.com.