Randy Pench / Bee file 2009

Sausalito's floating homes offer a unique lifestyle. Several will be open for viewing Saturday.

Discoveries: Visit the houseboats of Sausalito during Sept. 22 tour

Published: Sunday, Sep. 16, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H

SAUSALITO – Think "houseboat" and "Marin County," and the mind automatically reverts to this default- setting image, so hideously 1970s:

Bewhiskered bohemians in various states of undress, basting themselves in oaken hot tubs while sipping chablis and crafting stream-of-consciousness poetry, while assorted hipsters lurk on the deck of dark, dank cedar dwellings that lurch and creak with the changing of the tides.

Think "floating homes," however, and the mental image changes to something altogether less clichéd and entirely up-to-date:

Smartly dressed, middle-aged professionals, their well-behaved children in tow, entertaining in the spacious and tastefully appointed living room of a 3,380-square-foot dwelling, with a hot tub floating on the back deck and even a sauna downstairs next to the laundry room.

"Damp and musty," said Paul Bergeron, sitting in the aforementioned living room of his floating home on the East Pier. "That's been the biggest misconception."

His wife, Lori, who painted the home's dark cedar ceiling an eggshell white when the family moved here in 2004, begged to differ.

"I think the biggest misconception is that people think (the homes) can (sail off) anywhere. That's why, maybe, they changed the name to 'floating homes.' "

"Yeah," added 11-year-old Roman, "when my friends come over, they say, 'Where's the wheel?' "

Semantic designations alone do not explain the evolution of Sausalito's famous houseboat community, which sprang up during the Beat generation and became all the rage in the hippie epoch, into its current incarnation as an upscale enclave for Bay Areans with a true love of the watery world.

The name change reflects a sea change in design and lifestyle among the populace. You can see this transformation for yourself on Saturday when 16 of Sausalito's elegant floating domiciles fling open their doors to the public for the area's 27th annual home tour.

The Bergeron residence, which will be among the places on display, is believed to be the third most spacious floating home among the 250 on the five docks, behind the aptly named Taj Mahal and the Dragon Boat.

Upon stepping aboard, a visitor forgets he no longer is on terra firma. There's nary a ripple of oceanic movement, due to construction that has encased the edifice in a concrete hull.

Their home is, of course, exposed to the elements and, being on the bay, the elements can get mighty challenging in the winter, but the Bergerons abide. Signs giving specific daily hours for high tide are prominently posted on the docks, but Paul says flooding is minimal, "depending on how big your house is and where it is."

True, the bigger and sturdier the dwelling, the more it's apt to withstand storms. Most floating homes now are well-anchored, though there are a few ramshackle vestiges from the hippie era with plywood siding, exposed electrical wiring, sketchy sewage disposal and a certain swaying even at low tide.

Those boats, most part of the '70s-era Gates Co-op, are in the slow process of gentrification. Still, even some of the sturdiest homes can slosh and rattle occasionally. It takes, essentially, a certain hardiness and sea- living bonhomie to live here.

"A long time ago, I lived in Tiburon, with a great view of Angel Island, and everybody talked about the water views," Lori said. "But water views are not living on the water. That's the alluring thing for a lot of people.

"But you do have to park your car all the way down the (dock), schlep all your groceries and – when these guys (her kids) were little – double strollers through the rain. It's in January when you want your Genie garage-door opener."

Small annoyances are offset by the advantages of dockside living, the biggest being a sense of community and, as Paul says "a close relationship with the water."

In the midst of marine life, residents often are treated to sights of otters and sea lions and a vast avian habitat out their windows. Young Roman says he and his buddies go down to the end of the dock to go crabbing and fishing.

"It's as much a community as you'd want or as private as you want to be," Lori said. "But we do watch out for one another."

That feeling is just as strong over at the, well, lower-rent district of the docks, where the less elaborately constructed houseboats sway in the mid- morning fog.

Karla Schlesinger, 20, lives in one of what is a dwindling number of "bohemian throwback" houseboats on a free-floating dock. She admits it can get cold and drafty during inclement weather, but she's got space heaters and a fireplace.

"I grew up in Mill Valley and I never knew my neighbors," she recalled. "I know everyone here.

"My dad lived on these docks in the early years. He was part of the original community. We're definitely surrounded by millionaires now, but it's still laid-back living on a houseboat."

So, yes, a semblance of the easy-living '70s houseboat spirit lives on even in the more elaborate.

"A lot of people who came here in their 20s," said Felicity Kirsch, whose home also will be on the tour, "never wanted to leave. You can see why."


SAUSALITO FLOATING HOMES TOUR

What: The 27th annual tour also features an art show and music acts.

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Waldo Point Harbor, Sausalito

Tickets: $35 advance at www.floatinghomes.org

Information: (415) 332-1916 and www.floatinghomes.org

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