Skip to main content
Original Issue


Shipboard living is no longer the exclusive province of the rich. Today men—and their families—are going down to the sea in everything from sleek yachts in orderly marinas to old scows clustered together, as in Sausalito, Calif. (below)

Ever since the days of Noah, the idea of living on a boat has appealed to a good many people, and even in these modern times of receding waterlines there is no sign that this desire is drying up. Today there are some eight million pleasure boats in this country, of which some 20% are estimated to be of a size and shape that permits living aboard Not counting merchant mariners, dredgers, ocean-going squash professionals and such, who are occupationally locked in the cradle of the deep, there are thousands of Americans who live on their boats. Some sack out aboard for a weekend or, at most, a vacation, but a growing number are permanently domiciled on the water—in Long Island Sound, Chesapeake Bay, the Inland Waterway, the Great (and many lesser) Lakes of the Midwest, in canals, channels, sloughs and bayous from Nebraska to Pennsylvania, St. Paul to New Orleans, Anchorage to San Diego. Wherever there is a puddle of sheltered water, people have moored, docked or run aground small craft and have made their homes in them.

Recently, during a tour of gracious homes on the water in California, where people are migrating to marinas like lemmings to the Atlantic Ocean, one of the first things I learned was that not every boat lived on by people is a houseboat. Among the set who fight barnacles rather than Japanese beetles, a houseboat, by common usage and sometimes by legal definition, is something that floats but does not move under its own power, any more than the land-based, mounted-on-foundation mobile homes that evolved from the house trailer. When houseboats must be moved they are towed like mobile homes. Using this as a point of reference, there are many other categories of things (things, since some of them resemble conventional boats only in a vague, free-form way) upon which people live on water. For example, distinct from the true houseboat, there are mudders and arks. A mudder is something that was once a boat but has been so permanently embedded on the shore that nothing short of a tidal wave will ever move it again. An ark is surrounded by water, but it was not necessarily ever a boat. Arks are more like artificial islands built on pilings, dock ends, high mudbanks or even anchored rafts, out of whatever material an arker can afford or, in many cases, salvage from the water.

At the other extreme, there are real boats that move under their own sails or engines. In California people who make their permanent homes on such craft are called liver-inners. There probably are more liver-inners than there are houseboaters, arkers and mudders combined, one reason being that they are more popular with marina owners and municipal authorities. The feeling is that colonies of permanently fixed on-the-water dwellings tend to degenerate into marine slums, where such things as garbage, sewage and fresh paint are treated lightly, if at all. By local ordinance and by the refusal of many marina operators to give them slip space, the boating Establishment wages a continuing vendetta against these immobile floating homes. In fact, it seems likely that arks, mudders and true houseboats may go the way of the log cabin.

The variety of structures that enable people to live on the water is great. There is an ark near San Francisco made largely of salvaged Styrofoam, as well as a mudder (once a cement barge) with a badminton court. There are houseboats that were once ferryboats, showboats, fishing trawlers, scows and rafts. There are people living on former subchasers, the decks of which, even to the engine room, have bulkhead-to-bulkhead white carpeting. There are people living on former subchasers in which most of the decks, including those of the engine room, have rotted, away. When it comes to real boats in which liver-inners are living, the categories of craft seem limitless. They run from boxes mounted on pontoons and pushed along by out-board motors (a shallow-draft contraption popular in the inland maze of the Sacramento River delta) to tiny cabin inboards where two bunks are cunningly fitted inside one shower stall to, finally, yachts with swimming pools and recreation rooms

At first inspection, the municipal marina at Long Beach, where there are a good many liver-inners, does not seem to be a likely haunt for seafarers. The marina grounds look like, and in fact are, a symmetrically landscaped, meticulously maintained park. The slips at which 1,800 small boats are tied up are a freshly painted white, and clean as a modern dairy barn. There is no smell of fish, tar or oil, nor is there much sea smell in the sheltered, man-made cove. (The full-time job of one municipal employee at the marina is to keep the water clean—straightening up the flotsam and jetsam.) There are no tattoo artists hanging around the Long Beach docks, no bearded sea-dog types, no sense that the boats are about to set off for some distant, exotic port. The sense one does get, if one squints until the masts of the motor sailers begin to look like TV antennas, is of Levittown or some other densely populated development community.

The principal reason that this $14 million public marina looks so well-scrubbed—and, in fact, the reason it exists at all—is that Long Beach is in some ways like a Persian Gulf sheikdom. Along with onshore boats, Long Beach has a lot of offshore oil. One of the restrictions on the city's share of the oil royalties is that they must be used for improving the commercial, scenic and recreational aspects of the municipal waterfront. Therefore, just as oil sheiks keep air-conditioned Cadillacs while desert sheiks keep camels, the Long Beach Marina keeps men, 45 of them, busy planting palm trees, painting slips, cleaning lavatories and laundry rooms, guarding boats and scouring the water. Because of the special economic conditions, monthly slip rental at Long Beach (approximately $1 a foot) is only about half what it is elsewhere, which explains a good deal of the carping about public marinas heard from private entrepreneurs in the same line of business. The low rates and fringe conveniences also account for the fact that there is a list of 6,000 boat owners waiting to get a slip at Long Beach. Owners who made reservations as long ago as 1960 have only now, in the spring of 1967, reached the head of the list.

As yet, no true houseboat has turned up at the head of the waiting list, but the possibility that one might does not please Lawrence McDowell, director of the Long Beach Marine Department. "At the moment we have no ordinance against houseboats," Mr. McDowell says, "but we might need something of the sort in the future. Some houseboats are quite elegant, but if you let in one you have to let in all of them, and that could change the whole atmosphere of our place. We don't want to be faced with something similar to what has grown up around Newport Beach or even Sausalito."

The Long Beach Marina atmosphere—clean, orderly, safe and low-priced—not unnaturally appeals to liver-inner families who apparently admired these virtues in their landlocked days. At Long Beach the stock answer to the stock stupid question, "Why do you live on a boat?" is, "You don't have to mow the grass here." The Long Beach liver-inners are good, responsible-citizen types. Many of them came to the marina after they had raised a houseful of children on land. Some are still working, and the Long Beach docks at 7 o'clock on a weekday morning look a little bit like the platform of a suburban commuter-train station. Not a few of the liver-inners have retired. And here and there one meets liver-inners who have made short voyages in their homes or are contemplating a cruise, but by and large they stay fairly close to the slips.

The romantic trappings of the sea are missing in this tidy boat park, but the romantic spirit is there. After talk moves on from quips about not mowing grass or having to climb stairs, Long Beach liver-inners almost invariably explain themselves by saying in one way or another, "We dreamed about this for years. We're so happy here we would never be satisfied living anyplace else." The thought occurs that at Long Beach the dreams and satisfactions of living on the sea must have a particularly strong and steady interior reality, because the conventional, exterior pelagic props are so sparse. Being able to think salty and feel salty in the snug and vaguely smug municipal marina is perhaps the unadulterated essence of romanticism—like that girl who dreamed about princes and crystal slippers while she cleaned the hearth.

There are, for example, the Thompsons, who formerly owned a wayside restaurant near San Diego. For eight years, two months and two days, out behind the kitchen, John Thompson worked on the boat in which he and his wife now live at the Long Beach Marina. In their floating home there is a brick-faced oven ("Real brick," says Thompson proudly. "Rap it and see. I split them in half to make room"), a hand-carved mantelpiece ("that baby took some time") and all the conveniences of a small, intricately planned apartment ("It's just as comfortable as an apartment and easier to take care of," says Mrs. Thompson). What with the bricks, mantel, a lot of decorative teak, mahogany and brass, the 40-foot, 18-ton boat, which Thompson values at $76,000 (it cost him $16,000; the difference is his eight years of labor), is not much for seagoing. However, from the Thompsons' standpoint this is hardly a drawback, since they seldom leave the marina, anyway.

"I built her for comfort. This is our home," explains John Thompson. "To get some of the conveniences we wanted, you have to sacrifice some cruising factors. That suits us."

Thompson's theory of nautical design is becoming increasingly popular among professional builders and, by inference, the boat-buying public. A yacht broker, now pushing a line of 32-foot auxiliary ketches, says, "They wanted a dry boat, so we made it very high. They wanted stability, so we made it wide. We gussied up the cabin and galley so it would look just like home to the wives. Then we put in two tons of lead ballast. Finally we put on some sails and hoped it would move, but that isn't the important thing."

"I'll tell you, though," says John Thompson, waving across the spick-and-span municipal marina, "I wouldn't trade this kind of life for any other. It makes you feel free."

Fifteen miles north of Long Beach is Portofino, a comparatively small, 200-slip marina, owned and operated by Mary Davis, a blonde, jaunty ex-professional sports-car driver who seven years ago borrowed three million some dollars and gambled it on her hunch that Californians in increasing numbers were going to be leaving the freeways and coming to the water. Portofino, in King Harbor at Redondo Beach (just to the windward of an enormous power plant), is not quite as manicured, landscaped or inexpensive as the Long Beach municipal marina. Ropes, paint buckets, drills and piles of lumber lie around the Portofino docks. Somebody is always thumping or scraping away on a hull, and quite often boats move out of the harbor. If Long Beach is a stable floating suburb, Portofino is more like a fairly elegant campground—a way station between land and open sea.

About 15% of the slips at Portofino are occupied by liver-inners. They are younger and more restless and seem to have, or at least talk about, more adventurous plans than do the solid, semi-aquatic citizens at Long Beach. As a rule, neither comfort nor escape from yard work is cited by the Portofino people as a reason for living aboard.

"Let's face it, it's not as convenient or as easy as having a house," says Ed Pollock, who, with his wife, Marilyn, and three children, lives aboard a 41-foot Alden ketch tied up at Dock C, Slip 13 at Portofino. "But as far as I am concerned the lack of some of the so-called conveniences is one of the attractions." Pollock is an intense, disciplined-looking man who gives the impression that he may have a hair shirt stored away in a forward locker. "I'm a teacher in a well-to-do area. A lot of the children I see just have too many things. They have a hard time becoming what they might, because they are already tied to their possessions and to the idea that the purpose of life is to accumulate more things. I want my children to be independent, resourceful, curious, able to make do. You don't get that if your life revolves around possessions. It doesn't on a boat. Even if you're tempted, you can't have much. No room."

Until three years ago, when they went to Hawaii for a six-month sabbatical leave, the Pollocks, if not an ordinary family, lived in an ordinary way—in a beachside house surrounded, they say, by things. "When we got back," says Marilyn, a pretty, enthusiastic young woman of the kind found in cub scout dens everywhere, "it seemed too dull, too pointless, to go back to the old routine. You know—the old life-is-too-short bit. So we sold the house and bought the boat.

"It's true it's cramped," she says, "but I really think the children feel more a part of things living so close. And there are fewer things to pick up.

"We don't have room for a lot of hobbies, models, crafts, games, but I never hear them asking, 'What can we do now?' Paul would rather fish than eat, and he can fish right off the boat. Roy is our sailor. He's in the dinghy a lot. Jodi is the kind who on land would have cats and dogs and rabbits. She can't here, so she catches starfish, crabs and things. She had a pipefish on a leash once. And they just play around the boats and dock doing whatever kids do. I don't think they're bored.

"I suppose the thing I miss most is privacy, but on the other hand we are so close we are close, if you know what I mean. The togetherness thing. I think we really have it, and we like it. We're all involved with the boat, boat living, much more so than we were with a house."

Ashore the Pollocks were beach sports—swimmers, surfers, volleyballers—but since becoming liver-inners, learning to sail their house has become the principal all-family, do-it-yourself project. "We made some mistakes," says Ed. "One night aground we spent more time in the water than out. It wasn't really serious, but we learned that the sea is real. If you make a mistake you get penalized—and the worse the mistake, the worse the penalty. There aren't any excuses. That's another thing I want my children to know, through experience, and it's getting harder and harder for people to find that sort of risk and experience on land."

A year ago the Pollocks untied their home and sailed it along the Mexican coast for six months, cruising, anchoring and living as far south as Mazatlàn. The experience was real enough, educational enough and fun enough to make them want more of the same, to want, specifically, the Grand Tour of all Pacific sailors—to go to the South Seas.

The Pollocks' plans and general outlook are unquestionably influenced by Bill and Marci Taylor, another three-child couple currently, if temporarily, tied up at Portofino. The Taylors are somewhat less analytic about the virtues of living-in (perhaps because they have been and, in a sense, still are a long way from land), but they are classical salt-spray, high-wind marine romantics.

"I sailed all my life," says Bill Taylor, "but somehow we got stuck on land. I was in business 19 years, you know. Get ahead, don't ask where. What did it was we built a big house up there," Taylor waves a disapproving hand in the direction of the Santa Monica Freeway. "When we got through nobody hung any medals on us. We decided we didn't much like where we were or who we were. We sold the house, I quit work. We bought the Gitana, an old 38-foot yawl but tough, and we took her to Tahiti. We were gone 13 months. We're sort of regrouping now.

"It isn't that we went that puzzles us. It's that we waited so long to go. The first day is the hardest. Up until then it's all talk. But you get out just an hour or so and it hits you, what you are really doing. That was the one time I was scared, not about the sailing or the Gitana. It was the idea we had really cut loose. Maybe if there hadn't been so many going-away parties we might have come in. But after the start it was easy. We knew we were right."

While the Tahiti trip may have been easy for Bill Taylor, his two teen-age daughters and his son, it was anything but for Marci Taylor, who, every day of the four months spent under way, was seasick. "I took all the pills. They didn't help. People told me it would go away, that it was in my mind. It didn't. It wasn't. It was in my stomach. I couldn't go below at all, but it wasn't so bad on deck. I could take my turn at the wheel." ("She had a way with the wind," Bill Taylor says admiringly of his wife. "I'd wake up and it would sound like we were running over gravel, the Ghana was going so good. I'd yell up and she'd say she was fine, and that was about the only time she was.")

Seasickness, like slipping on a banana peel or getting poison ivy, is traditionally a joke misfortune. But for anyone who has ever suffered this fatal-feeling queasiness for even a day four months of being seasick seems like a terrible price to pay. "The good things made up for it," says Marci, and she proceeds to recite, as sailors from Ulysses to Sterling Hayden have, the ancient litany of the Good Things of the Sea. "When you are alone at night under that moon you're absolutely alone. The only sound is the water under the bow and the wind in the rigging. It is worth anything, being sick, anything. You just can't know how good it is until you've done it."

There is another way to go to Tahiti besides sailing there. You can create, and escape to, your own Polynesia, or at least to a Polynesian state of mind. That is what a good many members of an on-the-water colony near Sausalito have done. They have broken away from the way things are done by the average homebody, perhaps even more irrevocably than have the Pollocks, resisting the tyranny of possessions, and the Taylors, searching for a full moon and empty sea. Their houseboats, mudders and arks, on the littoral of San Francisco Bay, are thatched huts, and they have gone native the hard way, making their own village and their own folkways.

The Sausalito houseboat is one of the most famous, or infamous (depending upon the informant), in California. In Long Beach, Los Angeles and many other removed-from-the-scene places the word is that the Sausalito waterfront is a den of dirty, depraved beatniks. In San Francisco, where considerable stock is put in the sophisticated image, some express a certain pride in the colony, showing it off from a safe distance to visitors, much as one might a particularly fine monkey island at a zoo ("That is where they hung up the dirty anti-Communist sign"). Directly across the bay in Berkeley, the would-be Athens of the West, there seems to be considerable hostility toward the Sausalito houseboaters, particularly and surprisingly among the very people who in externals seem so much like the houseboaters, sharing, for example, an apparent fondness for barefootedness, beards and hallucinatory drugs. Under the surface, however, these are two very different kinds of cat. A house-boater may go barefooted because he doesn't have the price of a pair of shoes or because he forgot to put on the pair he does own. Berkeleyites may be turned out in the same fashion, but usually as a matter of principle: they do it to express displeasure with the employment practice of the leather-goods industry, or to show solidarity with the bootless masses of Zambia.

"They are hedonistic vegetables," a Berkeley political activist says scornfully of the Sausalito crowd.

In the No Name bar, a dockside social center for the houseboaters, a frail, blond boy with a Jesus beard stares dreamily across the bay toward the Athens of the West. "I went to one of their parties once. They have them to put down their friends. Ugly. They are savages. They don't give a damn about anything."

The 500 or so houseboaters encountered around Sausalito are apt to strike one as an exceptionally mild, unaggressive, soft-spoken lot. (An occupational hazard of making social calls in Sausalito is ear strain. They are the Whispering People.) It is true that the colonists have only a vague, passing concern with the outside world—they have opted out but good. On the other hand, they are not proselytizers as, say, are some of the aggressive Berkeleyites. "You live, man, in your ugly way, and let me live in my beautiful way," is the fundamental plank in the Sausalito tribe's foreign policy. Also, the houseboaters are not ambitious in constructive Big Civilization ways. They manage by selling trinkets, collages, mobiles—hammered out of old auto fenders—and by proving Bill Taylor's economic theory that if you have sufficient faith something will turn up. However, they are not a burden to anyone else.

One's good opinion of the Sausalito Tahitians can be happily influenced, of course, by such a member of the tribe as Shawn, a remarkable chestnut-haired, big-eyed girl with a talent for seeing goodness and beauty in the most unpromising places. If the devil should ever want to make a resort subdivision of hell he could do worse than hire Shawn to sell lots on commission. Once, in rather improbable circumstances, she was a member of a group of Peace Corps trainees taken into a wild West Virginia cave (the exercise was identified as Preparation for Cultural Shock). After an hour or so underground the group took a break, squatting down on the lip of a ledge overlooking a deep, black limestone chasm. A good few of the trainees were on the edge of hysteria because of dirt, the close quarters and exhaustion. At the far end of the line Shawn, however, had opened her pack and by the light of her carbide lantern was doing some sort of busy work.

"What are you doing?" someone asked.

"I am sewing a pretty dress," Shawn said.

And she was.

Shawn was later "deselected" from the training program, a development that was almost inevitable. A Tahitian who says in all innocence, as Shawn has, "Marriage is for people who don't trust each other," has to be suspect and incomprehensible to bureaucrats who can, and admit they do, deselect people. After her deselection Shawn returned to where she had come from and where she belongs, to her houseboat in Arques Shipyard, just north of Sausalito.

One thing about this place that cannot be denied is that if you are going to have a California Polynesia it would be hard to find a more scenic spot for it than Sausalito. The town, the No Name, the docks and boats lie underneath Mount Tamalpais, a rugged-looking hill dominating a peninsula that separates the Pacific from the Bay. The slopes of the mountain are green, in a rain-forest sort of way, often shrouded in mists rolling in from the sea and across the bay toward Berkeley. The Sausalito waterfront—the swaying, slippery, decaying docks, the old boats and rich mud—has none of the antiseptic tidiness of the Long Beach municipal marina or the seagoing efficiency of Portofino, but it is attractive in a disheveled way. "I think," says Shawn, leading the way out of the boatyard, "that we have the greatest old wood here of any place in the whole world."

The Sausalito Polynesians, like other cheerful, close-to-nature peoples, are fond of bright, curiously shaped and symbolic objects (there may not be another boat in the whole world that has a bulkhead as impressive as Shawn's beaded Turkish curtain). In, on and hanging through the rotted wood are all sorts of flotsam and jetsam, which Sausalitans call Things—colored glass, rusty auto parts, cans, old clothes, dried weeds—all sorts of Things fished up from the water, scavenged from the land and displayed for decorative purposes.

"We had this wonderful bathtub," says Shawn. "It had those big, clawy feet. We set it right at the head of the dock and made a flower garden in it. Somebody, a cop or a garbage collector, came along and dragged it away. They said it was trash. I bet they would have let us keep it if it had been a chemical toilet."

Cops, sanitary engineers, antipollutionists, industrial planners, real-estate developers, municipal inspectors and just plain people who find the houseboaters and their Things outrageous are forever trying to disperse and replace them. One of the more recent ploys of the authorities (whom the houseboaters regard in the way the Tahitians must have looked upon Captain Cook's crew: mysterious, malignant beings wielding great power without discernible motive) was to declare the mud flats and shallows at the edge of town to be city streets. The boats were then said to be on city streets, the houseboaters were called squatters and were told to either pay a fee to the sanitary district or get out. The houseboaters reacted in typical fashion, ignoring the order, reasoning that a check in the maze of docks and floats would be as hard to make as a census of eels. "But," says Peter, a friend of Shawn's, "should those souls really be serious, we thought we would form a club together and let a house on the land. That way we would have an official residence."

(Peter, a Canadian, was once an engineer. Seven years ago, vacationing in San Francisco, he found Sausalito and a vacant mudder and stayed. "I thought I was much too young to be a businessman. I still am."

"Petah invents things," says Shawn of her friend.)

The houseboaters are very clubby, not only because they have a common tradition and outlook, but also because they share a sense of persecution. Everyone knows what everyone else is up (or down) to.

"Poor boy," says Shawn of a wraithlike figure who slips through the sea mist. "He has the most terrible family. They are always hunting for him, trying to bring him back. He hides under the dock and takes dope."

A long, tall girl of the build and complexion of a camel cricket glides in out of the night and seats herself in Shawn's cabin.

"You're so late, Martha. What happened to you?"

"I had to stay late after my yoga lesson," whispers the cricket.

"Martha takes yoga from this weight lifter. He was like Mr. America of 1927. Martha, I don't think I could concentrate. He is not attractive."

"I think he is beautiful."

"Martha, this is my friend, Bil. He likes caves. He wants to know why we like boats."

Martha smiles dreamily and smiles and smiles and smiles and then finally begins to enumerate, like a housewife checking off a grocery list. "The boats are cheap. They are beautiful. We are happy, because we are like one blood. It is like we are all ribs and fingers of the same body, we are so close."

"Martha, that is so talky. We're just hung up on water. Water is just about the greatest thing in the world."

And maybe that will do, not only for the Sausalito Tahitians but also for the Tahiti-bound, the Tahiti-yearners everywhere—for those in the aquatic suburbs off Long Beach, for Marci Taylor, seasick under a Pacific moon, and for those who are mowing their lawns.



Some 1,800 boats tie up at the well-scrubbed Long Beach Marina, and enough of these are permanently inhabited to produce a sort of floating Levittown.


Resembling a South Sea Islander, a resident of the Long Beach Marina returning to his boat after early-morning stroll encounters a ladies' coffee klatch.


Content in tight quarters, Pollock children amuse selves before bedtime. "You've got to keep things where they belong" says their mother, "or you can't move."