California HISTORY

A Day In The Life: A Sausalito Houseboat

May 10, 2016

Just to mix it up, we rented a houseboat for a weekend in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve been intrigued by the 400+ floating homes in Richardson Bay since I moved here. Not unique to California, there are other floating communities dotted around the US in Seattle, Portland, Louisiana, and Florida.


Egret in Sausalito


Due to its desirable proximity to San Francisco, Sausalito marinas harbor impressive yachts and grand floating homes as large as 4000 square feet. Due to the area’s history, there are derelict houseboats and eccentric shacks too. Here, a houseboat is a general term referring to a semi-permanent floating house which may or may not have a motor attached (ours had a motor).

During WWII, Sausalito bustled with shipbuilding activity. Afterward, artists looking for an affordable place to live built homes out of whatever they could find on the southwest side of Richardson Bay. By living on the water, houseboats technically were not under the jurisdiction of city or county law. This freedom became a magnet for hippies in the mid-1960s.


A Day In Sausalito


Famous children’s author, Shel Silverstein, was one of the local residents at infamous Gate 5. His friend, Larry Moyer, remarked of his first impression of the docks, “There were a few hundred boats. It was total freedom. The music, the people, the architecture, the nudity—all we could say was, ‘Wow!'”.  And in 1967, it was on a rented Sausalito houseboat that Otis Redding wrote his bestselling song “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay“.

During the 1970s ‘Houseboat Wars’, free-spirit residents fiercely faced local officials attempting to bring order and regulation to the area. The county won.  The area was cleaned up, and houseboats are (presumably) up to code. Today, a diverse mix of homes and residents remain – from business owners and lawyers to people living on the fringe.


Expensive boathouse in Sausalito

One of the most expensive houseboats in the bay


Because the houseboats were small in our marina, I assume most were occupied by one or two people. Everyone seemed very quiet and kept to themselves, although everyone was incredibly friendly when we passed by. It was a warm atmosphere with boundaries of respect for neighbor’s privacy and quiet, including barking dogs and music.

Daily life looked and sounded different from what I know. In the morning, a man rowed to shore from his sailboat with sea lions trailing with curious eyes on his dog. Seagulls screeched loudly as they encountered interesting garbage floating nearby. Residents started making early-morning noises like you hear when you camp among other tent-goers.

During the day, we witnessed the water used by many in different ways: children at the beach, fishermen, outrigger teams, tour boats, sea planes, and outdoor photographers.

We kayaked as the sun set and were curious as to what other harbors, well, harbored.  We spied many sailing vessels from the South Pacific possibly resting for the night on their trip around the globe. That was very exciting.

Silhouettes of sailboats against a muted colored backdrop soon morphed into a dark starry sky reflection. Waves gently lapped the boat as we tucked into bed. As nighttime wore on, the wind came up, roughly rocking the boat which squeaked as it rubbed against the dock. Yep, life on a houseboat can be unpredictable and not always serene.


Houseboats at Gate 6 Sausalito


Spending time on a houseboat allowed me to imagine living on the water. I learned some of the houseboats don’t have showers, so it is not uncommon for residents to be walking to the marina showers in their bathrobe. Plumbing hook-ups looked to be the same as an RV’s, and I didn’t completely trust the effectiveness of our marine toilet. Container gardens occupied decks since no one had a yard. And I could appreciate the effort required to carry groceries the distance from the parking lot to the house.

Plumbing hook-ups looked to be the same as an RV’s, and I didn’t completely trust the effectiveness of our marine toilet. Container gardens occupied decks since no one had a yard. And I could appreciate the effort required to carry groceries the distance from the parking lot to the house.

One resident told me a little bit more. Home insurance is very high because one could physically hide their asset (house) if they wanted to – such an unusual idea for a novel! During her renovation, weights were moved around to level the home as furniture, cabinets and appliances were taken on and off the houseboat. Some pieces were delivered by boat if they didn’t fit down the gangplank.


Sun sets over sailboats at Richardson Bay Sausalito


I felt so grateful for the unique experience and was surprised my body rocked on solid ground although our stay was quite short.

Would you choose to live a life on the water? I know 400+ people who would choose no other way.

Sources: Marin Independent Journal, Sausalito Historical Society, MarinScope, SFGate

Next: 10 Locations to Photograph the Golden Gate Bridge


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  • Reply Kia DeCou May 11, 2016 at 12:12 am

    What a beautiful and interesting way to spend a week! The color blue is so present in that life it seems like it must be calming even if the wind does kick up sometimes. I loved reading about all of the information you found about the community you were in, fascinating.

    • Reply Laura May 11, 2016 at 1:34 am

      Thank you, Kia! Now that you mention it, yes, blue seems to be a big theme in the photos. I admit to getting excited about a bit of cloud cover or rain to mix it up a bit. But this whole area simply is stunning, I certainly can’t complain. Thank you for reading!

  • Reply Kay G. May 11, 2016 at 11:13 am

    Hey Laura!
    What a great post! You are living the life, all your time in England and now, in beautiful Northern California!
    No, I couldn’t live on the water full time but for a weekend? Bring it on! 🙂

    • Reply Laura May 13, 2016 at 2:32 am

      Thanks, Kay! I’m not much of a water person, but I find myself drawn to it more now that we’ve moved here.

  • Reply Suzanne May 11, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    Love it, and YES, I’d consider it,
    as I have always loved being near
    any type of water. What a fun
    weekend — one that will stand out
    in your memories!

    xo Suzanne

    • Reply Laura May 13, 2016 at 2:33 am

      Yes, it was a great weekend! Here’s to more in the future 🙂

  • Reply Maria Alva Roff May 24, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    Funny, my husband and I actually spent the night unexpectedly on a clipper ship in the Sausalito harbor after a night of outdoor festival revelry. Very bizarre waking up in a narrow bunk on a really old boat! I’d love to try it again soon : )

    • Reply Laura June 3, 2016 at 12:32 pm

      I bet!

      We’d like to try it again too. Although we were not too far from home, we felt we were in a different world. It was a great getaway.

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