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The last free ride: A pirate community goes legit

From the outside, Richardson Bay in tony Sausalito looks like a manicured sea of floating million dollar homes, bobbing up and down in orderly rows. But nestled in the middle of all that one dock stands apart: A squatter community of houseboats, inhabited by artists, hippies, and self-proclaimed pirates who for years have lived off the grid.

Since the arrival of people who took up residence here in the 1950’s and 60’s the Gates Cooperative has kept afloat in the face of police raids and lawsuits brought by the city. Now they are finally going, but they are not going away, instead they are going legit.

The Gates houseboats are being dismantled and renovated with the cooperation of the city and county. The community is readying the way for a real conversion, moving from outsider status to federally funded low-income housing.

The pier that leads to the Gates Co-Op houseboats is guarded by a sign that reads:  “Private Property – Keep out.” If you ignore the warning and venture inside, you find yourself walking along a rickety dock that snakes this way and that, leading to patched together homes plunked willy-nilly in the water.

Credit Sandhya Dirks

Look up and you see a bird’s nest of exposed electrical wires, hanging in tangles from lopsided poles. It is here I meet Gates resident Maria Finn. We walk down the clunky dock, and Finn talks in rapid fire, nodding towards the boats that sit along the cluttered dock.

“The wires are going to be gone, the docks are going to be gone,” she says. “All the houseboats are going to be moved.”

Including her own. By the end of the day the houseboat she has lived in for two years will be gone. All that will remain is the floating concrete barge in which it is cradled.

As the construction crew saws into the roof and walls that used to demarcate her kitchen, Finn looks on, occasionally lending a hand.

Credit Sandhya Dirks

“Look at this coming down -- oh my god,” she says, her voice hard to make out above the sound of power tools and hammering.

“I saw this this morning and I said ‘God, I’ve been living in the belly of a whale. Look at those ribs.’” Finn points to the old boat’s curved bottom as the construction crew starts to cut it in half.

I ask Finn if what it feels like to watch her home being taken apart, plank by plank.

“It’s like a relief but I am sad too-- but it’s change,” she tells me.

Finn’s one of the newer residents in the Gates Co-op. When she first moved in three years ago, the walls of her boat were rotted through – mushrooms grew inside and outside, and she could put her hand straight through the wall. The affordability was appealing – it cost much less than other boats on the bay. She liked the funkiness too, but she also knew it was not really sustainable.

“Right now 38 boats share the amount of electricity two normal houses have and everybody runs space heaters in the winter. So the electricity goes out, somebody puts on a jacket, goes and flips the main— so there’s sort of those funny, quirky survive things,” says Finn.

She won’t miss that, but that doesn’t mean there is no sense of loss. “I think people will be kind of nostalgic about that but at the same time -- not so much,” she says.

The nostalgia is for the dream of Gates – a water world of outsiders – who like many in those heady bohemian days of the 1950’s and 60’s banded together to forge their own society.

Some of the residents were already here -- working in the shipyards that boomed during World War II.

“But the war ended and 20,000 people were left with nowhere to go, so they just lived on whatever floated,” Finn says. “It’s kind of like hermit crabs -- old big ferry boats were supposed to be demolished-- people just lived in Them, they had rock concerts in Them-- so this is like, the last remnants of that.”

It wasn’t just unemployed ship workers. The Bay Area, and Sausalito, were flooded with people who came for the free-living lifestyle of the West– beatniks and then hippies.

Finn leads me back across the winding dock, as a few of the local cats scurry expertly across the wooden planks. She says I should speak to one of the community’s resident elders.

Penny Glory is packing up her boat, bit by bit. She’s boxing up her books– delicately stacking the frayed and well-thumbed-through tomes. Her boat is known in these parts as the Starship -- in part because of the hand painted sign on its sun-shaped mast. The Starship will be completely demolished, she won’t even keep the frame; instead Glory will have to start from scratch.

Credit Sandhya Dirks

Bright red and decorated with fake skeletons dressed as pirates, the Starship stands out on the dock. Rumor has it that Sammy Hagar used to live here. Glory says she hates packing, but she is ready for a change.

Now in her early 70’s, she’s let her long hair go gray and she’s missing a few teeth.

“I mean I’m sick of this house, it’s all worn out in there – and so am I, if I get a new house I might go back to being a spring chicken,” she says, laughing softly and shaking her head.

Glory is part of that bohemian wave that came to Gates in the late 1960’s. She’s lived here, in a series of boats, since around 1970. When she first set eyes on Gates, it was hidden behind an abandoned old ferry boat known as theCharles Van Damme.

“We walked behind the Charles Van Damme and there was a whole city going on,” she says. “So we got a houseboat straight away—we were very lucky.”

Glory also lived in a 120-foot barge anchored right out in the bay.

“They called it Sewer City,” she says.“A lot of families were out there, ten families and their children, fisherman mostly. I caught fish out there, I made 400 dollars one night.”

But the city of Sausalito stepped in, announcing plans to burn down the barges. This was one of the first altercations between the water squatters and local government. In many ways it was an opening salvo to what would become known as the water wars.

“That was a war,” Glory says. “It lasted five years, oh God.”

Living in one of the Gates boats put Glory on the front lines of the fight to stay in Richardson Bay. The only thing protecting the squatters was that giant ferry boat, the Charles Van Damme.  

“On the Charles Van Damme they had a big whistle, so when the cops were coming they would pull the whistle – and everyone would go to war.”

She says police would come at all hours of day and night, trying to evict the squatters, sometimes destroying boats. But the Gates residents were determined to stay, and they developed some pretty unique methods of defense.

In Medieval times when an army stormed a castle, defenders would pour hot sand or boiling water to keep out the invaders. The Gates residents, Glory says, used a somewhat similar method. “They used to have these big barrels of...” she pauses and laughs “...shit. And they would roll them and use that against the cops.”

She says that sometimes there would be as many at 300 law enforcement officers trying to evict them. “Whenever they came we’d have to go to battle,” remembers Glory.

But for every boat the cops took down, another two moved in to take their place. The squatters just were not going anywhere. So in the mid-1970’s the city stopped the battle on the docks and took it to the courtroom. And after 20 years of legal wrangling the squatters got to stay. But there was a catch; they had to go legit. It took another decade to reach a compromise with the city.

And that brings us to today and to the tearing down of the houseboats to bring them up to code. When they’re resurrected, they won’t be on this wobbly dock -- some will slip into the other docks, others will go onto a new dock. The Gates residents will remain special -- their homes will be officially designated as low-income housing. They will pay around 400 dollars a month to rent the slips on which their boats live, less than half the going rate for other slips in the neighborhood.

Glory says after all those years of fighting her biggest feeling is one of relief, “this is the final end of it I think. The county has decided to let us stay. It’s all the same, I’m living here, all my friends are living here—except we are all old ladies now, were definitely not in war moods.”

The fight that fed the ‘war mood’ was part of a heady idealism that carried with it a dark shadow side-- of depression, addiction, and Wild-West lawlessness. Stories circulate about how Gates had its own rules, and sometimes its own system of crime and punishment. Sometimes people would just disappear, and there were a lot of drugs and suicides. More than a few times, people died of overdoses in the parking lot.

“That has always been the danger I think of this neighborhood,” says resident Kristine Barrett. Barrett is nestled in the cozy window seat of her boat, at the end of the dock. She’s sipping from a mug of tea, her pet dog and cat curled up next to her.

Barrett is not one of the old war ladies, her husband and her bought this boat just a year ago -- although she has been staying at Gates longer. In a few months her boat will be completely rebuilt. She feels an intimate connection with the scarred wood and rusted metal on which she lives, even as she recognizes that it comes with ghosts.

“On this boat alone, two people have died,” she says. One man committed suicide, hanging himself. The other drank himself to death. “You can feel that on the boat. This boat was equally loved, and also a prison.”

Barrett says she has whispered into the beams and rafters of the boat, talking to it, telling it about the changes to come. But she believes the good parts—the happy ghosts of inspiration-- will continue to thrive.

“There’s still like a lot of artists and a lot of people doing really interesting progressive things,” she says. “It just looks different than it did.”

Because in some very real ways, the experiment of freedom and artistic triumph that was Gates did not work. Residents won the Water Wars and triumphed over the city in court, but Barrett thinks it is time for the shape of what they were fighting for to change, adapt, and learn from the losses.

“This is the last vestige of an era that’s already passed,” she says, looking out over the still water. “It’s not a free for all anymore. You don’t just get to come across a bunch of boats the military left and do whatever you want with them. That doesn’t exist anymore.”

The dream of Gates, of this bohemian renegade pirate brigade on the water, was not physically sustainable, nor was it emotionally sustainable. Just as boats rotted and began to fall apart, some of the people here did too. The next incarnation of this outsider community, as low-income housing along Sausalito’s waterfront, maybe, just maybe, that will be the real Gates legacy.

Credit Sandhya Dirks

At the end of the day, resident Maria Finn sneaks into her neighbor’s boat to grab a beer. In the slip where her boat once sat there is now an almost empty barge; the remnants of the old boat have been taken apart and carted away. But Finn rescued a few planks, physical reminders of the old craft.

“I saved just a couple small chunks of it. And I don’t feel sad, but it is a little sad. It was a beautiful boat,” Finn says, and then changes her mind. “No it wasn’t,” she laughs. “It was a crappy boat, it was never a beautiful boat, I have a picture of it. It’s a terrible old boat.”

Finn will use those planks to start over, to build a new houseboat, in a new Gates Co-op, integrated into the larger community, with proper insurance, paying subsidized rent. For her, and so many others here, the last free ride has come and gone.


Sandhya got her start as a reporting fellow at KALW, working on award winning radio documentaries about crime and justice and education in Oakland. She reported on the 2012 presidential election in Iowa, for Iowa Public Radio, where she also covered diversity and mental health issues.