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.