From Arks to Anchor-Outs: The History of Waterfront Living on Richardson Bay

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An anchor-out sits in Richardson Bay in Marin County. At last count, there were 235 boats anchored in the bay. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

In a region dealing with an immense housing crisis, it's not surprising that some people have turned to the water to find an affordable place to live.

"Anchor-outs," people who live mostly rent-free on boats anchored offshore, can be found in several parts of San Francisco Bay. The most well-known are in Richardson Bay, a shallow estuary that borders the Marin County towns of Sausalito, Tiburon, Mill Valley and Belvedere.

"It's a hot topic," said Polly Chandler, who can see the boats from her home in Tiburon.

The anchor-outs have been a point of tension for decades. Dropping anchor and living on a boat in the bay is technically against state law, but enforcement — which is left to local governments and agencies — has always been spotty.

Chandler asked Bay Curious, "How did we end up with so many boats getting anchored out there?"

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All Aboard the Arks

A full-page spread in the Sept. 17, 1899, edition of the San Francisco Call highlights a celebration on the waters of Belvedere, one of the homes of the late-19th century ark scene.
A full-page spread in the Sept. 17, 1899, edition of the San Francisco Call highlights a celebration on the waters of Belvedere, one of the homes of the late-19th century ark scene. (Newspapers.com)

Starting in the 1880s, rich San Franciscans built houseboats on the waters around Belvedere and Tiburon to use as weekend retreats and summer homes. They referred to their boats as "arks," which featured arched roofs, decks at either end and French doors at the bow.

A thriving social scene grew up around these Victorian arks. There was swimming, boating and parties — and boardwalks were built to connect the boats to land.

The earthquake and fires of 1906 turned some of these pleasure arks into full-time homes after their owners' homes in San Francisco were destroyed. Over the next 30 years, most of the arks moved in from the open waters. They were either moored to shore or transported onto land to become traditional homes.

World War II Sparks a New Era of Waterfront Living

During World War II, the Sausalito waterfront was transformed into a shipyard known as Marinship. At its peak, Marinship employed 20,000 workers pumping out vessels for the war effort.

"And when the war was over, the Bechtel Corporation, which had been running the shipyard, just abandoned it," said Larry Clinton, former president of the Sausalito Historical Society.

A former shipyard worker, Don Arques, acquired much of the land and excess Marinship materials, and began offering them to returning soldiers and free-spirited artists who were looking for cheap housing.

The Marinship shipyard along the Sausalito waterfront in 1943. After the war, a local shipyard worker acquired much of the land and excess materials and gave them to returning soldiers and free spirits to live on.
The Marinship shipyard along the Sausalito waterfront in 1943. After the war, a local shipyard worker acquired much of the land and excess materials, and gave them to returning soldiers and free spirits to live on. (Sausalito Historical Society)

"(Arques) allowed them to grab a leftover lifeboat, build a little superstructure on it, pull it onshore and live aboard it for free," Clinton said. "So that became the genesis of this community."

Over the next several decades, the community would flourish, growing into an anarchistic and passionate collective that helped shape Sausalito's image as an artist's paradise. Beatniks and bohemians like Allen Ginsberg and Shel Silverstein found refuge on the water, which was filled with eclectic vessels ranging from the barely buoyant to floating works of art.

"There were many, many very weird boats, sloppy homemade things, piles of junk," said Jeff Costello, who moved to the water from the East Coast as a musician in the 1970s. "There was a little thing called the Donald Duck boat, which was a 22-foot metal lifeboat with a cabin on it and two front windows, and made to look like Donald Duck."

Most of the boats at this time were tied up along shore — and like Haight-Ashbury across the bridge in San Francisco, drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll fueled a raucous party scene on the water. But also like the hippies in the Haight, the party wasn't allowed to go on uninterrupted.

Many of the houseboats in Sausalito in the 1960s and 1970s were works of art, like this one, known as 'The Owl,' that is still docked there. Others were barely buoyant scrap heaps.
Many of the houseboats in Sausalito in the 1960s and 1970s were works of art, like this one, known as 'The Owl,' which is still docked there. Others were barely buoyant scrap heaps. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

The Houseboat Wars

As early as the 1950s, officials tried to curtail and clean up the water dwellers, focusing on the houseboats' lack of sewage hookups and an old Sausalito plan to build a canal system to try and get rid of the boats.

Decades of legal battles, heated committee hearings and physical skirmishes between police and boaters followed.

Things got really serious on June 7, 1971, when Marin County sheriff's deputies pulled their guns on one resident who refused to give up his boat, which they had a court order to remove. For the next decade, officials and boat owners continued to spar in what has come to be known as the Houseboat Wars.

In the late '70s, a detente of sorts was reached, after the building of five permanent marinas where "floating homes" could permanently dock and get linked to utilities and sewage. Yet some saw this as gentrification of the waterfront, and some of the boats made the move to open water to become anchor-outs.

Anchor-Outs

While the Houseboat Wars raged along shore, Greg Baker and the other early anchor-outs mostly avoided the drama.

"The government didn't know we existed," he said. "Nobody had the slightest idea we were living on our boats out here."

When Baker first dropped anchor in Richardson Bay in 1963, he said there were around 20 boats anchored out. "I think I lived on an old metal lifeboat with a canvas over it," he said.

Even after the building of the marinas in the late '70s, which drove more people out to the open waters, Baker said there were still fewer than 100 anchor-outs. That changed about a decade ago, when numbers started to grow.

Around this time, other anchorages in the Bay Area closed or clamped down on live-aboards, leaving Richardson Bay as one of the few places where people could live freely on the water. It was also the height of the Great Recession — as it became harder to afford a place to live in the Bay Area, a rent-free life on the water became an even more attractive option.

A Cartoonists Look at Life as an Anchor-Out

By 2016, there were 235 anchor-outs in Richardson Bay, according to the Richardson's Bay Regional Agency (RBRA), a cooperative agency serving Belvedere, Tiburon, Mill Valley, Marin County and, until 2017, Sausalito.

Baker said many of the newcomers didn't come with a lot of marine knowledge, leading to more calls to police about domestic violence, drug use and drownings. There were also environmental concerns about the boats' impact on the bay's eelgrass population.

In 2017, Sausalito passed a law saying the city could impound any vessel left in its waters for more than 72 hours. But city leaders say the top priority of the new law is getting rid of the many boats anchored without anyone living on them, boats that are either abandoned or being used as storage.

"It's not our intention to ever force folks who are living on their boats to leave our waters," said Sausalito City Councilwoman Joan Cox. "But as people do leave, we intend not to have them replaced by other people."

The Future of Anchor-Outs

Greg Baker has had several boats since he first became an anchor-out on Richardson Bay in 1963. His current boat is anchored behind him.
Greg Baker has had several boats since he first became an anchor-out on Richardson Bay in 1963. His current boat is anchored behind him. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

Cox says Sausalito has reduced the number of boats in its waters from more than 70 a few years ago to just 27 at last count. Earlier this week, the City Council agreed to move forward with a pilot program that would pay for eight anchor-outs to dock at one of the city’s marinas for six months and get connected to social services.

"There are anchor-outs who, if simply given the opportunity to bring their boat from the water to a slip, will not have to spend all of their time surviving on the water," Cox said. "They'll be able to go out and seek job opportunities, get on their feet again and move their lives forward."

The RBRA is looking at the feasibility of setting up a permanent mooring field that would allow permitted anchor-outs to stay in the bay while being as ecologically friendly as possible.

Baker said he understands why some people are upset about the current state of the anchor-outs. He's part of a group of live-aboards who have committed to having their anchors inspected to make sure the boats don't get blown away, registering their boats with the U.S. Coast Guard, having a reliable way to dispose of sewage and keeping their decks clear.

"We are trying to keep people safe," he said.

But he also makes it clear that he doesn't plan on leaving the water anytime soon.

"It's home, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," he said. "They'll have to take me away in handcuffs."

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