A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to join a tour of Sausalito’s floating homes. Organized by the Floating Homes Association, this once-a-year event, now in its 30th Anniversary makes it possible for the public to view this incredible assortment of eclectic and artistic houses floating on Richardson’s Bay. As you are given access to the piers, you can see all the houses up close from the outside, but a few are also open for viewing on the inside.
I have been fascinated by the floating homes of Sausalito for a long time, so when I saw the tour announcement in one of Marin Magazine‘s e-newsletters, I jumped at the opportunity.
After a long spell of relentless sweltering heat with sunny days that frequently touched the mid-nineties (around 35ºC), September 12 was the first day of “normal” south Marin summer weather, with high fog overcast and a nip in the air. I was both bummed and relieved. Relieved because of the respite from the heat, and bummed because sunny days make for more cheerful photos. On the other hand, cloudy skies meant I would not have to deal with high contrast areas of light and shade while photographing the exteriors in the middle of the day, nor have to remember to remove the polarizer when indoors.
From the tour information I had learned that we would have access to quite a few of the homes, and that space inside them would be limited. I had no idea how many visitors to expect, but I decided to get there by opening time (11:00 am) and limit myself to leaving the camera bag at home and hand carrying my Nikon D2x with one lens: my new 35mm f/1.8G ED. A fully charged battery and a 16GB memory card would have to be enough: more photos than that would allow would mean I was going overboard – pun intended. It turned out to be a smart decision, because visitors were many and indoor space was indeed tight.
Above and below are images of the first home I visited, called Radium Girl and located at nr. 17 on the West Pier. Only a few of the open homes had their owners/residents in attendance, and this one did. We were given a friendly welcome by Radium Girl’s proud owner and East bay firefighter Charohn Dawson and his family. The name for his floating home has been inspired by the women who used to hand-paint luminous dials on watch faces and instruments during World War I.
When living in a 900 sq. ft. floating home you need to get creative with your space. Above is a glimpse of the bathroom on the main floor. Below left is a peek at the ceiling by the kitchen: a creative way to store wine. Radium Girl is also host to many beautiful artifacts from all over the world collected by Dawson during his extensive travels.
As you can see, these floating homes come in many different sizes and styles. Like in any on-dry-land neighborhoods, some are newly built or renovated, and some are rather dismal and in desperate need of TLC. I did not take pics of the latter. But if they have one thing in common beyond the obvious is that they are all unique, delightful and artistic. It is as if, having already broken the mold by choosing to build a dwelling on a floating platform instead of terraferma, the owners (both the original ones and the more recent ones) felt free to continue breaking it by getting creative with style, colors and accessories. As you walk along the piers you get to see a bit of everything: from Cape Cod style homes, to what looks like boats placed on platforms (and probably were once boats).
The homes are built onto what is essentially a concrete barge. These barges are not foundations, they actually float on the water of the bay, and go up and down twice a day with the tides. San Francisco Bay can rise and fall as much as two to eight feet, following the rhythm of the Pacific Ocean just outside the Golden Gate. When the tide is out far enough, the supporting platforms sit in the mud.
Noticing that all the homes visited were equipped with full bathrooms, kitchens and washer/dryer units, I asked one of the residents about sewage, utilities and all that mundane but important stuff. He explained that each home is equipped with a holding tank, and this tank is connected to a flexible hose which then connects to the dock and leads to shore. So basically all utilities are land based and supplied through long cables. Certainly no sewage or dirty water is allowed into the bay.
In many ways, floating homes, because of their compacted space, force a more efficient use of heat, electricity, water and certainly storage, thus resulting in a possibly more environmentally correct living space. There are also no such things as garages, driveways or backyards, so maintenance is down to a minimum.
The Blue Pirate below is one of the homes open to visitors on the East Pier. With her 2,000 sq. ft. the Blue Pirate is one of the larger ones, and is laid out on two stories. I read in the brochure that this boat home was originally built in Los Angeles in 1963, but it recently received a makeover courtesy of HGTV cable network for one of their “Curb Appeal” episodes. The Blue Pirate is available as a vacation rental through VRBO, listing #1234046.
Next came The Happy House, and might I add happy owners as well. Below you can see Robert Davis welcoming visitors with a big smile. This 1,200 sq. ft. home has a split level lay out divided on two stories. Like most of the homes I visited, the main heating is provided by a free standing fireplace/stove and supplemented by room heaters.
In the image below you can see Julan Pekkain (on the left), the other happy owner of The Happy House, talking story with two visitors in her small but beautifully appointed kitchen.
The Happy House is Julan’s and Bob’s home base when they are in California. Two world travelers, their other house is just where the cushion says: in France.
Above and below: view from the back patio of The Happy House.
Lemons and limes are definitely a feature of the pale yellow A-Frame home in the image below. Located at 10 East Pier, this 1,300 sq. ft. structure is laid out on three stories, and is both home and studio to photographer and musician Katy Boyd.
The Mayflower below is about 1,400 sq. ft spread over two stories, and it is brand new. It is actually divided into two units: the main one as the owner’s residence, and a smaller rental unit. The images are of the beautiful stairway and kitchen in the main unit.
Next comes the WaterSong, whose interior turned out to be one of the most beautiful and well organized of those I visited. This boat house is a recent remodel (2013-14) and has an approximate square footage of 1,300 laid out over two stories. It is a unique combination of residential home, glass artist’s working studio, and writer’s studio.
When your space is limited, a tendency toward zen style is always a good idea, as is a flat screen TV that disappears into the stairway wall when not in use.
There may not be gardens or backyards, but some of the residents clearly have a green thumb and like to embellish the pier walkway in front of their homes.
The first open home I visited on the Issaquah Dock was The Luisiana Purchase pictured below. This small, 600 sq. ft, floating home on two stories is rich in history and full of personality.
The name is easily explained by the fact that it is owned by Luisiana and Dick Gale, whose main residence is in central Marin.
The brochure tells me that The Luisiana Purchase originated as a WWII landing craft intended for the assault on Japan before becoming part of the “rag-tag houseboat community living on the Bay.” In the early 1970’s, the main structure was put on a barge, and the upstairs bedroom was added later.
The Painted Whale, pictured above and below, covers about 1,200 sq. ft. spread over three stories. It is the now permanent home of seafaring couple Frank Hemmert and Denise Ward, who used to spend six months of the year on a sailboat and now often travel via cruise ship. Hmmm… I can sense a previous life as ocean adventurers…. or maybe pirates… wink, wink!
The lilac beauty below certainly caught my attention, reminiscent as it is of the Victorian painted ladies in nearby San Francisco. Alas, I did not get to see the inside, as it was not open to visitors, but – based on the outside only – this would be my pick, as I am a sucker for colorful Victorians.
With such a fascinating and bold exterior, this hottie below is another one of those whose interior I wish I had been able to see. It cannot go unnoticed!
And seeing the big red one below from the end of the pier made me think of a stately cruise ship.
Dragon Boat: another fascinating home remained unexplored along Issaquah Dock. It had just been sold and the exiting owners happened to be around. So I asked them what they would miss the most about the place. Their answer was: “The community.”
Below is a glimpse of the lovely home at 34 Issaquah dock. 1,700 sq. ft. distributed among three stories, this boat house was still a work in progress in 2012, but now features luxuries like wall fireplaces in the lower bedrooms, heated toilet seats and a beautiful custom bookcase among other things.
There can only be one reason why I did not take more photographs of this home: too many people exploring the inside.
This blue house towards the end of Issaquah Dock is another one I wish I had seen from the inside. Look at all that beautiful stained glass!
A floating home on the Bay in Sausalito is not just a different, more artistic style of home: it is a lifestyle. All the people I talked to on that day expressed their love for their home, but also for the way of life and their neighborhood, which is rich in artists and people as eclectic and unique as their homes.
Most of the residents are owners, but there is also quite a number of renters. And if you are interested, a few of the homes were up for sale when I visited, and a couple were available for rent. There are actual floating home brokers and they are listed on the Multiple Listing System, as well as notices and offers on the bulletin boards by each dock for properties both for sale and for rent.
Just to give you an idea, during my visit I saw a flier posted for a floating home for rent, one of the smaller ones. The rent was $2,385 a month – a strange number, I noticed – and I am assuming and hoping it included the berthing fee, which in turn includes water, sewer, garbage, parking and all utilities.
There was one main condition: “No smoking dogs!” I thought, well, my dogs don’t smoke, maybe I should apply! – wink, wink.
As I walked around and explored each open house, it was clear why this lifestyle attracts so many artists. The act of living in such limited space constantly pushes your creative boundaries as it requires you to engineer better and smarter ways of organizing your life. This type of mental flexibility comes easier to us creative types.
Now I have to confess: I did not visit all the open homes. It took me from 11:00 am to almost 3:00 pm just for these three piers, and by the time I walked off Issaquah I was inspired but also exhausted by the slow crawl dictated by photo taking, the standing in line waiting to access an interior, and the crowded spaces, even if filled with nice people.
As I reached the shuttle bus stop, the one heading to Dock 6 1/2 was filling up fast, while the one headed back to the visitor’s parking lot was empty. That sealed the deal. Dock 6 1/2 would have to wait till next year.
I hope you have enjoyed this colorful tour. If you are interested in more information on the history of the Sausalito Floating Homes, you can check out this page. If this article has sparked a desire to experience life on a floating home, a good way to find out more is also by checking out the Association’s bimonthly newsletter, available in PDF format at this page. Just reading a couple gave me a good idea of both the delights and challenges of life on the water.
Have you ever lived on a floating home, in Sausalito or elsewhere? If yes, what was/is your experience? And if not: would you consider living in one? What is the appeal?
For me the appeal would definitely be the community, and, in the right place, the coziness, comfort and also adventure of the ‘gathered’ living space.
So delightful! I feel as if I were on tour with you! Thank you for this whimsical piece!
You are very welcome, Diantha. It was a fun tour and the styles and colors are just so fun and, as you say, whimsical! It is a very interesting community. 🙂