You can find them wherever there is water. They have a culture all their own, they are independent, in tune with the tides and the moon and the migration of water fowl. They possess a sense of mystery. Their nature is somewhat apart, they are at once magical, enchanting and inspiring. They are called by different names around the world. In France they are known as working barges, in Kashmir, hotel houseboats, in Thailand, market boats, in Hong Kong, Junks. In Holland, England, and the United States they are simply called houseboats. Each houseboat community is as varied and colorful as the many different types of homes they contain. This is a story about one of those communities, the houseboat community of Sausalito.
This story starts in 1775 in the shelter of wooded hillsides rising from the sapphire blue waters of a crescent cove surrounded by groves of whispering willows. Christened Sausalito (little willow grove) by sea faring Spanish explorers, a wonderful place with a charm and character as vibrant as its beautiful bayside setting. Sausalito’s enchanting setting has attracted a rich and varied assortment of freethinking, independent and highly creative people, including many artists and writers. From the early 1800’s on, many of these people have made their homes on the water in what were formerly duck blinds, arks, boats and now permanent houseboats. Sausalito’s colorful houseboat history includes providing safe haven for the original 49ers, followed by bootleggers, beatniks, bohemians, hippies, yuppies, dot.comers, dot.goners and the beat goes on.
In a world where uniformity is the norm with non descript strip malls and housing divisions, the many shapes, hues and vibrant colors of Sausalito’s houseboats are a welcome source of free flowing, energizing vitality, creativity and inspiration. With names like Pirate, Spanish Galleon and Mermaid, many of the houseboats conjure up images of Sausalito’s nautical, sea faring past, evoking a sense of child like wonder and awe. Many of Sausalito’s houseboats are million dollar architectural masterpieces, having been showcased in Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. This story is not about those houseboats, rather it is about a closely woven group of people who have lived on the waters of Sausalito since the 1960’s.
In the tradition of the original ark dwellers of Sausalito, this community of freethinking, 1960’s ideologists truly define the essence of this place. They are the true spiritual descendents of Sausalito’s “Water Rats” of the early 1900s.
Starship Voyager – Penny’s Tale
We came from all over the world, hundreds of us. I don’t really know why or how, we were just drawn to this special place, all at the same time. My journey started with a song – Sittin on the Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding.
Sittin in the morning sun,
I`ll be sittin’ when the evening come,
Watching the ships roll in,
And I’ll watch ’em roll away again, yeah,
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay,
Watching the tide roll away, ouh,
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay,
San Francisco Bay was calling me. I answered the call, unaware at that time, that Otis Redding had written this beautiful melody while living aboard Schell Silverstein’s houseboat in Sausalito.
I arrived from London in 1971 and have been living here ever since. It was unlike any other place, we were free, free to create our own community, free to build our own homes, free to create our own history. In the tradition of the place we created a society of tolerance, generosity, diversity and individuality. From these waters and from this place came a social consciousness, an environmental consciousness, a spiritual consciousness, that is with us to this day.
We were the Silicon Valley of the 1960s and 70s. During that time, this was where history was being written. There was a revolution going on, a social and cultural revolution led by the likes of Jefferson Starship, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Credence Clearwater, and others. They all spent time with us here and drew inspiration from this place.
My home is named after Jefferson Starship. Like the rest of our community, I built my houseboat with the help of my friends, family and neighbors. Starship started her life as a World War II lifeboat and is where I raised my five beautiful daughters. Like voyagers of the past, with help from the constellations, sun and moon, Starship has safely guided us through the uncharted waters of our lives and has been a true lifeboat, a place of safe harbor and refuge.
Each and every houseboat here has its own story to tell. They are the descendents of sailing ships, steamers and ferryboats of California’s fabled, sea faring past. The sailing brig Galilee, the steam schooner Lassen, the ferryboats Charles Van Damme, City of Seattle, Vallejo, Issaquah, City of San Rafael, Vallejo, Delta Queen, and many other historic vessels, are now part of our lives. These vessels, their beams, hulls and spirits have become our homes, they live on in our community. They serve both as a bridge to the past and carry us forward into the future.
Our future, like the future of many unique communities and cultures, is an uncertain one. We are still here after having survived many epic battles with those who would dismantle our community and develop something in its place, something much more economic, something much more non descript, something much less individualistic, something much like everything else.
We are proud of our community. Proud to be the keepers and caretakers of the spirit and legacy of this place. Even though the times have changed, the essence of this place remains the same. Even though the beatniks are no longer here and even though many of my friends from the 60’s and 70’s are no longer here, their spirit, and the spirit of this place will forever be a source of free flowing, energizing vitality, creativity and inspiration.
it’s the same old dream
the houseboat nosed in at the riverbank
maybe a soft tree over to the left
trailing its long branches down to the water
or then again, maybe it’s not a river at all
but the curve of a bay
anyway the houseboat, all snug & smug & sweet
and the back yard flowing by serenely
and maybe i’m just sitting there
smiling and drinking midnight coffee
looking out at the moon dancing on the water
while the houseboat nods and bows
tipping her skirts to the stars
– Lenore Kandel
Story and Accompanying Photos by Joe Prickitt