All aboard the arks

Sausalito is an eccentric conglomeration of communities, from mega-mansions to floating piles of trash.

Sausalito is known by many as a tourist town, but beneath the latte sipping, art gallery veneer is a gaudy and delightfully decadent history. Marin County in general is the least uptight place I can think of.

Sally Stanford ran a notorious San Francisco brothel before The Depression and later moved to Sausalito, eventually becoming the mayor of the town. The Trident Restaurant was the hangout of the Grateful Dead and the Doors back in the day. Sausalito has long been a haven for real artists from Amy Tan to Shel Silverstein and even Margaret Keene of the big eyed children fame before she moved to Woodside in the late 70s.

Long out of style but a very BIG deal in the 70s

Sausalito has villages within villages. The hills are jammed with houses in the 5 to 30 million range. The waterfront has traditional marinas and is the center of boating on the Bay. There are also over 250 houseboats and next to them, the ‘anchor-outs’ 

I’m a boat guy. I have been on the water in one form or another for over half a century and have visited many ports of call. One of the great places in the world is the Sausalito waterfront and I love taking my passengers across the Bay to be part of the extraordinary scene there.

Otis wrote this in 1967 while living on a Sausalito houseboat. It was a huge hit but he died the same year in plane crash.

The houseboats date back to the 1880s when an avant-garde crowd from San Francisco built what they called arks. These were simple summer houses on small barges which wintered in the protected waters between Tiburon and Belvedere. Traditionally, the last Sunday in April is when the drawbridge between these two places was raised to let the arks out to be towed to Sausalito for the summer. This was called Opening Day. Opening Day is still celebrated and now it’s when decorated vessels crisscross the Bay for water balloon skirmishes (until we realized that fish ate the balloons) and water cannon battles.

In 1906 the San Francisco Earthquake caused most of the houses in the Bay Area to crumble or burn and the resulting housing shortage allowed the arks to remain full time along the shoreline in Sausalito. Then, during WWII, the whole waterfront was devoted to building Liberty Ships. 20,000 workers scrambled for housing, causing yet more houseboats to be launched. By the 70s things had spun out of control as there was no reliable sewer, water or power. Eventually the Houseboat War formal docks were built. The vessels there today vary from, well, crap to literal palaces.

Of the hundreds of houseboats, there is only one that can cruise under its own power—Stewart Brand’s, Mirene, a tugboat built in 1912. It’s berthed near to the ferryboat, Vallejo. Both have cast iron hulls which you might imagine would rust like crazy, but once these hulls develop a skin they last for a long time.

The Vallejo has been hippy central for generations. It was built in 1879 and a great many freethinkers have lived there like Alan Watts who entertained Timothy Leary, Abby Hoffman and Ken Kesey. Sargent Pepper jackets and bellbottoms were worn. Cheap wine was guzzled, sex was had, and drugs were taken. 

Vessel designs are as creative as their owners and since everyone has to schlep their stuff along the dock, the neighbors are very chummy.

In front of the houseboat community are hundreds of vessels with people who might otherwise be on the streets. These are the anchor-outs. The vessels are mostly floating (and sinking) piles of junk.

Many are made of wood and all wooden boats are desperately trying to reach the center of the earth, so keeping them off the bottom is a big job. Twenty-five years ago there used to be a huge, half-submerged gravel barge with lean-tos, tents, toddlers, goats, cats, dogs and chickens pecking about. Forbes Island was in the middle of this mishmash for many years.

There has long been an effort to oust these folks over ‘sewage, safety and unbeautifulness.’ In fact, hardly anyone drowns or is murdered among the anchor-outs—though it does happen from time to time.

Trying to stay afloat

However, the liberal bent of the woke age is keeping them anchored in place for the time being. I think they’re kind of cool, but I wouldn’t swim in the water thereabouts.

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  • ollie says:

    That was really great. My aunt had a place on 3rd in town, as a young boy in the 50’s
    spent many a summer day and night there.. Always a special place for me..
    Thanx for that and the history, never knew all that went on.
    Bless ya Captain James

    Love that place

  • Tyler McNiven says:

    Fun reading this listening to the Otis’s song.

  • George Moore says:

    I finally got around to reading this. I’ve always loved Sausalito and your interpretation of this historical place along with the link and videos really covered it all. Nice job.

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