Water Squatters

By Leon Elder

The following is excerpted from Leon Elder’s foreword to the 1975 book “Water Squatters The Houseboat Lifestyle” by Beverly Dubin:

Beverly Dubin has that gift of getting there, and surely could drive her van through the eye of a needle, twists through Sunday traffic like somebody's version of Neal Cassidy.  It was a clear October Sunday and she was taking me to see with my own eyes the water squatters of Sausalito.

I saw, not a few isolated craft, but a whole world in faint motion— hundreds of dwellings stretched-out as far as I could see—all of them listing in unison with something that goats, Capricorns, and landlubbers don't usually think about—water. We parked, got out and began to walk. I slowly absorbed this marvelous madness, this floating city where the lids were off, where the conformity levied by building codes, taxes and developers, by planners, officialdom and cosigned rubber stamps; where all these things, including sidewalks, gutters, parks, playgrounds and streetlamps, had been totally disavowed. Floating people, living their own ways—in revolt, madness, triumph and freaky improvisation.

These were the water squatters who either despise, hate or can't afford pavement, and who seek a last freedom in being afloat, and use air [encapsulated in hulls and oil drums], instead of concrete, to give them a hold. Air and water. I was awed. I saw transplanted two-story frame houses gently rocking, leaving towers, and an array of architectural spectacles, mutant structures, nightmares and glories, slipshod here, triumphant there, globular, boxy, wild, humble, absurd and shanty cozy. It was the most disparate cluster of dwellings that could ever be, and all of it, because it was a calm day, in the very scarcest motion.

The Owl has been an iconic houseboat since the 1970s.
Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

A houseboat bulging with plexiglass eyes stared at us with Martian inscrutability. Unnerving. I was startled. Not that some of the places didn't look like garbage dumps, but that directly alongside would be something majestic, proud, weird or poetic. Water is amorphous, so is the cosmos. Not easy for a goat to admit, or to feel at ease with.

We reached a heavy old cargo ship with a pair of weather-beaten masts, knotted and checked like old telephone poles. The hull was white, the caulking and planking rough and calloused. The schooner Isabel. She sat heavy and strong in the water, not in the light, dainty way that yachts have.

This turned out to be the home of Steve and Judy Siskind, their three children, a dog and cat. Steve appeared and invited us below. We listened to his ideologies. He is an architect and planner.

"In the first place," he said, "anyone who lives on water is a bit unusual. The ocean offers our last freedom. Land has been assaulted and insulted. Man has brought ruination upon it. Now we're beginning to exploit the sea and make the same mistakes we made on land. Territorial lines are being drawn further out at sea as though each country has the right to dredge it to death, or use it as a garbage dump. Along the shore, slums are being created by haphazard marinas. Look up the road at Gate 5. There're 400 houseboats jammed together there without privacy, their sewage spilling onto the mudflats. You need a gas mask when the tide is low. No one is taking responsibility for sanitation or space or the survival of the sea itself. What freedom is there when we are infecting the very element we live on? Yet with a little foresight, cooperation and simple technology, it could be a paradise."

Steve was obviously an intense and dedicated man, a "bit unusual", and with the courage to raise his family on this aged cargo ship. His neighbor, moored alongside, was a true houseboat aristocrat, his hold stoked with the best wines and brandies. When he came for dinner, he brought along a whole case of good vintage cabernet.

This is Beverly's book. It is entirely her vision of a way of life that may vanish in the next decade. She wanted to document it while it still flourished. But after meeting Steve Siskind, she sees that houseboat living may well proliferate, that more of mankind will settle on this watery frontier, as pioneers once filled the valleys of our land. She has an eye for the flamboyant, for the bizarre flowers from inventive minds. She saw too the patriarch in Steve, the stern wisdom. His cautions may contain the answer to the perpetuation of the very marvelous things that Beverly looks for.

If we think of the sea, and all that lives and grows in it, as an enormous mammal, we'll be considerate of its meanest mudflats and harbors, for these are the edges of its being. If it suffers our poisons, it would die under our hulls. It is entirely within our means to live well with her, and catch lively suppers off our decks.

Water Squatters, and two other vintage books on floating homes around the world, were recently added to the Historical Society collection through the generosity of long time Society member Ken Smith, who received them as housewarming gifts when he moved aboard his floating home at Commodore Marina in the mid-seventies.  The books are also available from used booksellers online.