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Barging In

A Short History of Liveaboards on the Bay

By Larry Clinton

Author Larry Clinton near his houseboat home. The open area behind him is not an empty slip; it’s officially a Sausalito city street, zoned as such when plans were drawn up for sprawling houseboat subdivisions.

In the beginning, there were the arks – the first liveaboard community on San Francisco Bay.

As early as 1890, San Franciscans began mooring small vessels in Belvedere Cove, some as weekend residences, others as duck hunting cabins. Designs ranged from rafts to elegantly upholstered retreats. One measured 62 feet long, including a garden under glass. Another was made up of four abandoned streetcars on a raft. Most had vaulted roofs, four rooms and a galley, with plenty of bunks for visitors. A few were owned jointly by several families. By the turn of the century, thirty or forty of these jaunty little vessels dotted the cove in summer. In the winter, they were towed into the shelter of Belvedere lagoon.

An English magazine, The Strand, glowed with praise for the quaint community:

There is an indescribable charm about the life; one has the pleasures of boating combined with the comforts of home; sea baths are at one’s very threshold; fish are caught and cooked while you wait. ...The monotony of the scenery is varied by the swinging of the ark as it turns with the tide. There are neighbors, thirty or forty families of them, within easy reaching distance if one can pull a stroke, for there is always a following of rowboats lazily resting upon the water in the wake of each ark. The butcher, the baker, and others ...who supply the needs of daily life each has his little boat which he sends around every morning for his customary order, and the joint for dinner and the ice cream for dessert are delivered as promptly to the ark-dwellers as they are to those who are still in the city.

Arks of various shapes and sizes dotted Belvedere Cove at the turn of the century.

Some families left homeless by the great San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 moved onto their arks, pulling them up on shore or hoisting them up on stilts for easier access. A few examples of these unique residences still exist, at Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco, along Tiburon’s Ark Row, in downtown Sausalito, and in the floating homes community just north of town along Bridgeway near Gate 5 Road. One, the Mayflower, will be open to the public during the September 30 open homes tour sponsored by the Floating Homes Association (for information check or call 415-332-1916.)

The real "housing boom" along the Sausalito waterfront began during World War II, when 75,000 men and women flooded into the area to work in shipyards which had sprung up in the Marinship area. Housing was scarce, and some of these ingenious laborers created living quarters from old boats and any other materials they could scrounge. To get a feel for that era, visit Sausalito’s Bay Model, which is housed in one of the original Marinship buildings. There’s a graphic display of the Marinship life and times, and guided walking tours of the historic area are offered twice a month. (Check 415-332-3871 or for details)..

Ark dwellers enjoy an outing on the Bay.

After the war, veterans settling in the area continued the hand-to-mouth waterfront tradition, and soon artists were attracted to this alternative lifestyle. In the 60’s, a mix of old beatniks and young hippies began to create a community of fanciful homes in the old Marinship area known as "the Gates" – a holdover from the days of the gated shipyards. Combining living quarters with art forms, many of these homes featured fanciful designs and the creative "wood butchery" style of the day. Some were anchor-outs, floating in the middle of Richardson Bay. Others were beached on the mudflats. Some were navigable vessels, while some could barely stay afloat. The ferryboat Vallejo became the cultural center of the community. Shared by artist Jean Varda and Zen philosopher Alan Watts, it attracted luminaries like Shel Silverstein and Sterling Hayden, as well as an oddball mix of folks seeking truth, enlightenment, and a free crash pad.

Some anchor-outs collect flotsam and jetsam the way some dogs collect fleas.

By this time, a significant number of people were also living on boats in the Oakland-Alameda Estuary and in marinas all over the Bay. Initially, this practice had been encouraged because full-time residents provided a measure of security for the marinas. But as housing prices soared in the Bay Area, the liveaboard lifestyle grew more popular, and problems such as waste discharge became critical. Many marinas provided on-shore shower facilities and "honey barge" service to remove waste from the boats’ holding tanks. But as the liveaboard population grew, these services were often overwhelmed.

On Richardson Bay, anchor-outs have mingled with "legal" floating homes since the mid-70’s.

Concerns over Bay fill, waste discharge and navigational hazards led to the passage of the McAteer-Petris Act in 1965 to regulate uses of the Bay. This law established the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) as a state agency charged with preparing a plan for the long-term use of the Bay and regulating development in and around it.

The ark "Mayflower" now rests on stilts in Waldo Point Harbor. Photo courtesy of Floating Homes Association

One of BCDC’s first acts was to permit the creation of private floating home marinas to house the diverse community of anchor-outs and tidelands dwellers. Boat owners were offered the opportunity to bring their homes up to code and permanently berth them on docks where they could be hooked up to utilities and – most importantly – sewer systems. Many took advantage of the offer, but many did not. Just as the hippies had feared, a mix of middle class commuters and retirees began to fill the available berths with new or remodeled floating homes featuring ferro-cement barges, hot tubs, and full size kitchens. Residents knew the community had really been yuppified when cable TV was installed.

"The Owl," a classic example of 60’s wood-butchery, still floats in Waldo Point Harbor today.

Marin County decided to play tough with those who refused to go along with the program, leading to the infamous "houseboat wars" of the 70’s. Evening news footage showed sheriff’s deputies jousting boat-to-boat with long-haired defenders of the free-and-easy houseboat lifestyle. Those wars raged on the waterfront for a decade, and similar skirmishes are being played out in courtrooms, government chambers, and BCDC hearings to this day.

"The Madonna," built around an old pile driver, was a Gate 5 landmark until it burned in 1974. Designer/builder Chris Roberts described his creation this way: "It was a sculpture, that’s all. And at the same time a place for people who had nowhere else to stay, a kinetic sculpture in a sense."

The last of the 70’s era lifestyle is now concentrated in two main groups: the anchor-outs and such non-code-compliant enclaves as the Gates Co-Op (an eclectic collection of 40 or 50 homes tucked among the "legal" docks of Sausalito’s Waldo Point Harbor) or the Redwood City Marina (known locally as "Poop Lagoon"). Their continued existence raises serious health and safety issues. But how to solve the problems without evicting low-income (in some cases no-income) people from their homes? These are the thorny questions the BCDC and local jurisdictions continue to wrestle with today. 

BCDC’s View on Anchor-Outs

by Will Travis, Executive Director

San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission

On August 2nd, a state agency—the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, or BCDC—will decide on how best to enforce a long-standing prohibition against permanently living on vessels in the open waters of Marin County’s Richardson Bay.

To accomplish this, BCDC’s staff has proposed a strategy, which has drawn fire from a variety of critics. Media reports have described it as an initiative of bureaucrats to evict artists, the poor, and people who have made a lifestyle choice to live on boats. Recreational boaters claim the proposal proves BCDC staff is nuts because "a boat is a boat," the boaters say, "not Bay fill."

In truth, the proposal involves little more than continuing the long-accepted implementation of existing laws and policies.

For over a generation, state law has treated a vessel moored in one place for an extended period as a type of Bay fill. And for good reason. A boat, whether a single vessel used as a residence or the mothball fleet near Martinez, can have negative impacts on the Bay’s ecology, much the same as an artificial landfill. So the law treats the two the same.

And state law prohibits private residences on the publicly-owned open waters of the Bay just as the law prohibits housing subdivisions from being built in public parks.

Despite these provisions of law, BCDC has recognized that living on boats is part of the rich tradition of the Bay and that recreational boaters often reside on their boats as part of an active sailing life. Therefore, the Commission has adopted a self-imposed limitation on its authority. BCDC deals only those boats that are used as primary residences, are permanently stored in the open Bay, or are abandoned derelicts. And the Commission accommodates as many boat dwellers as legally possible. Up to ten percent of the berths in recreational boat marinas can be used for "live-aboard boats"—navigable vessels also used as residences. The Commission has also authorized a number of marinas exclusively for houseboats and live-aboard boats, including five along the shoreline of Richardson Bay.

The sheltered waters of Richardson Bay have attracted "anchor-out boats" for over a century. Over the years, many of these vessels sunk or were abandoned, leaving the public with the problem of getting rid of the derelict boats and paying to clean up the mess left behind.

In 1985 the five local governments around Richardson Bay joined with BCDC in adopting a plan which prohibits new anchor-outs and calls for removing the remaining anchor-outs. Since then the local governments have been making slow, but steady process in cleaning up Richardson Bay.

Many anchor-outs were moved into marinas that can provide the boat dwellers with sewer connections, fresh water, electricity, fire protection and other amenities. BCDC has taken enforcement action against recalcitrant anchor-outs that discharge sewage into the Bay, are hazards to navigation, or pose other public health, environmental or safety problems. But water contamination in Richardson Bay is still a problem, and the remaining anchor-outs continue to be navigational hazards and interfere with the public’s rights to use and enjoy the Bay.

If BCDC adopts its staff’s proposed Richardson Bay enforcement strategy is adopted, here is what will happen:

People who choose to use boats as their primary residences will still be able to—in houseboat marinas and at recreational boating marinas that have facilities to accommodate live-aboard boats.

Sailors who live on their recreational boats, whether overnight, for a weekend, a month’s vacation or during a round-the-world cruise, will not be impacted.

Anchor-out residents will not be evicted and made homeless. The goal of the strategy is to move anchor-out boats and their residents into marinas, not to add to the region’s homeless population.

More than anything, approval of the strategy will inform the public that the Commission remains committed to solving the problems laws were enacted to address a generation ago. 

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