Ebb and Flow

A house that changes its elevation several times a day would unnerve most people, but for some, rising with the tides is the only way to live. “We rise and fall as much as six feet in a day,” says Larry Clinton, committee member and past president of the Floating Homes Association in Sausalito. “We spend part of each day floating.”

Indeed, “floating homes” (not houseboats) is the preferred term for the more than 400 structures on 11 docks in five marinas in Richardson Bay. After all, these days virtually none of the homes actually go anywhere, remaining bound to the pilings or spring lines that attach their concrete, Styrofoam, wood, fiberglass or steel hulls to the bay mud below.

“There is incredible diversity in the homes, with ‘palaces’ right next to handmade structures,” says Clinton, who moved to the area in 1982 when a friend’s boat became available and he fell in love with the sights, sounds and smells of waterfront living. “But there is still plenty of old construction to see.”

Each year Clinton and numerous volunteers from the association, which has about 300 member homes, invite the public to tour the docks and get a peek at their history and unique way of life (this year’s Floating Homes Tour is September 25). “The tour is the single biggest thing we do,” says Clinton, estimating average attendance at around 1,200. “It helps us raise funds to buy things like pumps and equip our emergency trailer.”

Public curiosity seems high when it comes to the colorful docks lined with gardens and plants, where each home is wildly different than the next and where artists and hippies once lived a stone’s throw away from the mainstream. “It was a patchwork community and very much an alternate lifestyle,” Clinton says of houseboat life in the 1950s and ’60s. “Even now it is a very seductive lifestyle. You buy here as a lifestyle choice, not as an investment.”

In the ’70s the “houseboat wars” between boat dwellers and the numerous city, county, state and other agencies with regulatory authority brought enough pressure to force occupants to build docks and bring their homes up to code. “Many embraced it and many didn’t like it,” Clinton says of the changes; nevertheless, the homes then started to attract new kinds of residents, including professionals and families.

One man who dropped everything to embrace the artistic waterfront lifestyle is 20-year resident and nuclear-engineer-turned-artist Jim Woessner. “I was a senior manager at PG&E and one day I just left my big house and job and started renting on Liberty Dock,” Woessner says. “My wife had difficulty with that decision but I never regretted it.”

Woessner eventually purchased a home on Issaquah Dock, earned a master’s in fine art, became a professional painter and more recently a sculptor, wrote three books of poetry, started an art teaching group called Threshold Creativity Workshops and formed the Bridgeway Artists salon and the Artists of Issaquah group (which holds an annual show in April).

“I wanted to create a venue for people on the waterfront to show work and discover who they are as artists,” Woessner says of of the Issaquah group, which featured 22 artists at this year’s show. “These surroundings attract people who have an openness and a willingness to explore.”

Neighborly camaraderie is something else he especially cherishes about life on the docks. “People have an idea that they want to live on the water, but that’s not enough to make you stay,” he adds. “You stay because of the community; my neighbors are my closest friends.” In fact, on a warm day he needs to leave the house half an hour early to have enough time to talk with other residents he meets.

Frank Howard Allen realty agent Charlie Martin lived on Issaquah Dock for eight years when he first moved to Marin, and prospective Sausalito clients ask him all the time about life on the water and what it takes. “That lifestyle is not for everybody, but for those who come to Sausalito it is hard to (resist),” he says. “It is a great community out there with a built-in neighborhood watch; you can have all the community or all the privacy you want.”

Challenges include the berth rents, which can exceed $800 a month and are not tax-deductible, the long walk to the car, parking in a semi-public lot, not owning the ground your house is on and the fact that only two lenders even offer loans for purchase of these homes. But for those eager to jump aboard, the 19 homes being offered at press time were priced from $249,000 to $975,000, and one sold in March for $600,000—$25,000 below asking price.