Meet the Man Who Has Lived Rent-Free Near Sausalito for 50 Years … On an Illegal Boat

Ale Ekstrom, who's been living on the water for over 50 years. (Photo: Sam Harnett)
Ale Ekstrom, who’s been living in an “anchor-out” for more than 50 years. (Photo: Noam Eshel)

Marin County is one of the most expensive places to live in the Bay Area, which in turn is one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Unless you live in an anchor-out, that is—then your housing costs are practically nil. Anchor-outs are boats that people are living illegally off the coast of Sausalito, and they are not without controversy.

This 2012 Smithsonian Magazine piece addresses the checkered history of Sausalito’s houseboat community, which includes both the anchor-out boats and those moored on the docks …

During the 1950s and ‘60s, as the Beats gave way to the hippies, the chance to construct rent-free homes out of abandoned boats and flotsam was a siren song that drew a spectrum of characters. Some were working artists … who bought and improved old boats. There were also musicians, drug dealers, misfits and other fringe-dwellers. The waterfront swelled into a community of squatters who, as [houseboat resident and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart] Brand puts it, “had more nerve than money ….” Through the early 1970s, the Sausalito houseboat scene was a sort of anarchist commune.

A conflict with land interests ensued, and a “long and ugly battle known as The Houseboat Wars” followed, in which “ultimately, the developers more or less prevailed.”

While hundreds of houseboats are currently docked at Sausalito’s harbor, since the recession in 2007 the number of anchor-outs beyond those moorings has grown from about 100 to 150. I went out recently to visit one of the oldest members of this community, Ale Ekstrom, who’s been living on an anchor-out for more than 50 years. The Marin Independent Journal calls him “the grandfather of Sausalito’s storied anchor-outs.”

To get to Ekstrom’s boat, you need a boat; he lives about a quarter-mile offshore, in a wooden naval search-and-rescue ship from 1942. It’s about 30 feet long, with a little house perched on top.

“I don’t get that many people who take the trouble to come all the way out to the boat,” he tells me.

Ekstrom hasn’t lived on solid ground since leaving Kansas to join the Navy. He says he was a radarman in the ’50s and was sent down to the Marshall Islands for a series of atomic bomb tests. After witnessing the explosions, Ekstrom, who is 76, says, he never expected to live much past 30.

He  joined the floating community in Sausalito after he left the service, playing folk music, living off the grid and on the water.

Ekstrom takes me through a trap door to the bottom of the ship. Passing some crowded storage areas, we reach a washroom with a claw-foot tub. The boat also has a kitchen and a living room, packed but orderly—shelves of books, a miniature upright piano in the center. Knickknacks abound. Ekstrom has a a furnace, plus 500 gallons of fresh water and even a generator. It’s all pretty cozy … until bad weather hits.

“Oh Lord, I tell people I rise and fall on every tide that flows and turn to face every wind that blows.”

Ekstrom says the town and bay have changed drastically since the height of the houseboat community in the 1970s.

“It was a Portuguese fishing town when I got here. … None of all these yachts and all this stuff, none of that was here. There were just some ruins, old boats and ships and things along the mudflats here.”

He looks out the window at Strawberry Point, which used to be undeveloped but is now covered with sprawling houses.

“They’re too large for single family dwellings and they’re too close together,” he says. “You can’t throw a piss pot out your window without staining your neighbor’s wall.”

Ekstrom lives on Social Security and says he can’t save up enough money to give the boat a good bottom cleaning.

“Oh I’m overwhelmed by the boat,” he says. “You see signs of dry rot all around it. Sooner or later it will be impossible to keep this old boat afloat any longer.”

Still, Ekstrom doesn’t plan on leaving.

“I wonder what people without boats could possibly do with all that extra time. It’s taking care of the boats and dancing around for the emergencies and all that has kept me limber.”

As we shove off, Ekstrom pulls out his old Navy bosun’s whistle and blows us a goodbye.

  • ancientWisdom2

    Part of the houseboat community at one time was a houseboat divided into two apartments, one occupied by artist Jean Varda, the other by Alan Watts, philosopher and author of The Way of Zen.

  • hisserenehighness

    What the article doesn’t mention is the early joiners didn’t want to pay to hook their boats up to the municipal water system, which meant they were dumping thousands of gallons of untreated raw sewage and waste water directly into the Bay every day. Most of which, due to the nature of tides in that location, simply collected and eddied and rotted. Totally disgusting.

  • bolo

    way to rat him out

    • jovyxafeseda

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  • http://www.facebook.com/rebecca.polack.1 Rebecca Polack

    i used to have a sailboat in sausalito, and would have to deftly motor around the “anchor-out boats” as we made our way into richardson’s bay and further to SF bay… it never happened to us, but we heard stories of folks getting eggs and rocks thrown at them by the “anchor-out” folks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709898123 Rachel Biello

      It never happened to you, but I bet because you heard it, it’s totally true.

    • Sherrie

      As an anchor out for a bit, I can safely say that sailboaters were not the object of scorn among this community. several had sailboats of their own or lived on working sailboats of various riggings.

  • SteadyShip

    There are people on welfare, there are millionaires, there are outstanding artists, there are computer whizzes,” agreed Henry Baer, a retired dentist on dock South 40. “I’ve lived in apartment buildings with 20 units; maybe you know your next-door neighbor, because you meet them at the mailbox. Here, walking to and from your boat, you meet half the people on the dock. Yes, we all come from diverse economic backgrounds. But when there’s a problem, everybody comes out and helps one another.”

  • Cole

    A great take on the American Dream.

  • Longago

    So
    often they use the word ‘squatter’ when they refer to the houseboats. The artist
    community that was tied to the docks paid rent to Don Arques. It wasn’t much
    but it was what you might expect for a trailer park. Don Arques owned the land,
    but not the boats and he didn’t build the docks. After Arques died and they
    threw his wishes out the window, the houseboats that were at the docks paid
    rent to the property company that won ‘the war’ (with the help of the sheriff,
    coast guard and the Marin county judicial system that wanted to get rid of the
    ‘eye sore’).

    Don Arques had been happy to rent his land out this way. He encouraged the
    arts, yes including people like Vardar, Alan Watts, Shel Silverstien and many
    others. But, he was also angry with the county of Marin. The Arques family
    owned quite a lot of waterfront property, though it wasn’t worth anything like
    what it is worth today, the family was unhappy when they built the hwy 101
    (rainbow) tunnel above Sausalito and dumped all that dirt in the bay at the
    North end of the hill.

    THIS is why there is that terrible, deep, sticky mud along the waterfront. It
    was, until that time, white sand.

    Anchor outs may not pay rent, but they do pay in other ways, as anyone who has
    tried it will know. You have to provide your own electricity or alternative
    methods for light and heat. You must haul all your own water. You must provide
    for waist disposal. Groceries must be hauled to the skiff and then gotten to
    the boat. If your skiff has a motor, then you pay for that gas. If not, then
    you row, no matter the weather, out to your boat. And weather is a big factor.
    In big storms, a boat can drag anchor. You must be sure your boat doesn’t hit
    another or get damaged if it runs aground. You have to manage getting the boat
    back to your anchorage.

    You must also be sure not to anchor in the ‘shipping’ lanes, or where there is
    a strong currant. If you do not take vary good care of your boat, you can sink.
    It’s not just about a leaky roof, it can be about the entire place filling with
    water and all your possessions ending up on the bottom of the bay. It has it’s
    romantic and beautiful side, and it’s a lot of work. You can just call the city
    when your power goes out.

Author

Sam Harnett

Sam Harnett is a producer and reporter who contributes regularly to KQED News, The California Report, Marketplace, and The World. He is the creator of Driving With Strangers, a podcast of stories told to a rideshare driver; and a co-founder of Blocsocks, an initiative to help Bulgarian women sell their wool goods abroad.

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