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Houseboat Heaven In Sausalito’s Dock Of The Bay

The big Yellow Ferry gently rocks Neil Sowerby

Written by . Published on December 19th 2013.

Houseboat Heaven In Sausalito’s Dock Of The Bay

OTIS, I am with you here... “Sittin' in the mornin' sun, I'll be sittin' when the evenin' come, watching the ships roll in, and then I watch 'em roll away again, yeah.” Well, in my case it’s kayaks and the occasional egret (the promised seals haven’t surfaced) I’m surveying from my deck overlooking an inlet of San Francisco Bay. A book on wine in my lap and a glass of the stuff in my hand. And I may soon have to cast myself adrift from my moorings for lunch at the best fish restaurant in California. Hell, life is hard.

'A bed you could record from in the loft, reached through a pair of giant red lips, and gas masks hanging from the ceiling if the likes of the Grateful Dead fancied a snort of on-tap laughing gas!'

To get to the economically titled Fish we’ll have to pass Waldo Point Harbour, where the immortal Mr Redding penned Dock of the Bay. The other side of our popular lunch spot – where both the sustainable Alaskan halibut with organic greens and the in-season Dungeness crabs are to dive for! – you can seek out the shell of Plant Studio on Marinway. There in 1976 an on-heat Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours. Sausalito is so Soul – and so Rock and `Roll.

Houseboat HeavenParadise for houseboat owners and, below, our on board Garden of Eden

Our Terrace Garden With Lemons At The Ferry

Look at The Yellow Ferry, our amazing lodging. OK, Otis was renting a houseboat for his bay watch, but not one like this. So iconic they named the whole harbour after it. What other houseboat offers a main living space that is 1,200 sq ft on a deck of three-inch thick douglas fir, inlaid with teak, and a master bedroom whose window frames the ship’s original side paddle wheel? The whole vessel, including owner Chris Tellis’s own (completely separate) apartment, is 80ft long and 8.000 sq ft in total – and painted yellow.

The Vast Living SpaceThe vast main living space of the Yellow Ferry (the kitchen's impressive, too!)

Paddle In The BedroomPaddle wheel window, through which you can see the Bay

Maiden Voyage 1888Maiden voyage 1888The ‘Ferry’ is the give away. The YF was originally the City of Seattle, launched in 1888 to carry folk across Oregon’s Puget Sound. It later transferred south to ply the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta inland in northern California. It was rescued from the wreckers’ yard in 1956 by Chris’s father, who paid just $1,800 for it. Ivy League educated like his dad, Chris also inherited his building skills, which have been instrumental in restoring the craft to its current glory.

Dining Table On The Yellow FerryThe impressive dining table; below some quirky table decorations

Table Decoration

This, the oldest surviving ferry boat on the West Coast is now a fabulously equipped holiday apartment on the water, sleeping six and with a table where 12 could dine easily, while the master bedroom boasts an elaborately carved king-sized. Oh and French windows give a 180 degree panorama of the water, the whole experience enhanced by the creaking of century-old timbers.

View From The Yellow FerryView from The Yellow Ferry and birds fleeing a photo opportunity

Scaring The Birds

The bohemian legacy is sustained by the presence of Chris’s wife, Isabella Kirkland, an acclaimed artist, whose magpie tastes inform the whole atmospheric cluster of the interior,  the rugs and throws on the huge sofas, the objets d’art and objets  trouvés from across the globe, the eclectic book choice. Totally engrossing if you weren’t so busy staring out at the garden on the decking or the partially submerged pontoon teeming with birdlife.

Painting By Isabella KirklandA calmer bird in an artwork by Isabella Kirkland

We had arrived at dusk, trundling our luggage down the walkways lined with the 22 other permanently moored houseboats that make up Yellow Ferry Harbour. Once it was a run-down hippie enclave in retreat from the Summer of Love Gone Sour. Today there’s still a strong individual creative vibe among this tight community but bedded-in affluence, too. Our lodging was love at first sight as we let ourselves in – no sign of the owners. In fact, Chris was driving Isabella back from the airport; she was  nursing a newly broken foot from her trip away.

God Of The WalkwaysGod of the Walkways welcomes us; below, our fancy neighbours

Our Harbour Neighbours

Guests on the doorstep were probably the last thing the pair wanted. Especially unexpected ones. Our booking confirmation had gone astray. Yet, overcoming surprise, they couldn’t have been more welcoming – a wine bottle was opened – and fortunately it was the first time in months the guest half was free. Huge sighs of relief as we settled in.

Cosy After DarkThe Yellow Ferry is so cosy after dark

After Dark

Chris, who has lived on the boat since he was 10, recalled: "The houseboat community began before the hippie movement of the 60s and 70s. These docks were shipyards where they built boats for the US navy. The warships used in the Normandy landings came from here and some of the boats that never made it to Europe later became home to shipbuilders and dockworkers who needed cheap housing after the war. Later, young beatniks discovered this incredible, natural way of life on the water and that's how it all began."

Sausalito Ferry Heads Across The Bay To San FranciscoSausalito Ferry heads across the Bay to San Francisco

A 30-minute ferry ride across the Bay from San Francisco, Sausalito gained its first generation of houseboats after the great earthquake of 1906 when many pleasure boats with floating roofs known as “arks” were tugged to shore and placed on pilings above the waterline, to serve as lodging for people who had lost their homes.

Moby Grape At The ArkMoby Grape played The ArkBut it was only after the World War II,  when many shipyards closed, that the houseboat community blossomed with an influx of artists and writers. The higgledy-piggedly legacy of “found” building materials and fantasy nautical styles remains, adding to the charm of the waterfront. During the Sixties, The Ark, an old converted Ferry boat (the Charles Van Damme) at Gate 6 acted as a sort of "after-hours" club for many of the San Francisco bands, running shows from midnight to six in the morning. Rather than payment, the bands   received a complimentary huevos rancheros breakfast in the morning.

Record PlantPlant StudioBut, as I mentioned before, Sausalito’s big musical contribution was its branch of Plant Studio. On your dockside walk you can easily miss what appears a lock-up warehouse (recording ceased there a few years ago) – the clue to its illustrious past is the crazy Robert Crumb style mural of animals with instruments jamming. Behind these doors Stevie Wonder recorded Songs In The Key of Life, Bob Marley Talking Blues and in 1977 Prince cut his first album there. The interior included psychedelic sunbursts, a waterbed floor, an actual bed you could record from in the loft, reached through a pair of giant red lips, and gas masks hanging from the ceiling if the likes of the Grateful Dead fancied a snort of on-tap laughing gas! Far out, as they once said.

Houses Cling To The Hillsides In SausalitoHouses cling to the hillsides in leafy Sausalito, while boats bob in the marinas

Upmarket Lodgings At Sausalito

The Marina At Sausalito

Sausalito’s much tamer these days but still packed with charm. Exquisite houses climb up the pine-clad hills; opulent yachts crowd its marinas. It’s a half hour walk (driving’s probably a better option) from Yellow Ferry Harbour into the centre with its upmarket shops sparring for the tourist dollar. In truth, there’s not a lot to do there and for idle mooching, sleepier Tiburon just across the Bay is a better bet.

So if you ever go to Sausalito, please take my advice: just hunker down in one of the world’s greatest places to stay – the one painted yellow with the big black funnel. Hit the deck and watch the tide roll away.

If you are staying in Sausalito, one must is a day ferry trip across to San Francisco. Here are my Ten Great Trip Tips for the City.


Fish %26#8211%3B Casual And Top NotchFish – casual and top notch; below, sustainable sturgeon and salad

Sustainable Sturgeon At Fish

Sushi Ran's Platters Are ExquisiteSushi Ran's platters are exquisite


Fact file

Getting to San Francisco:
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from Manchester to San Francisco, via Heathrow, and is offering return Economy fares from £689.74 per person. For further information contact www.virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770. This fare is available for selected departures during 2013 and 2014. Prices given are correct but are subject to change.

Getting to Sausalito:
The best way is to take a Golden Gate Ferry from the San Francisco Ferry Building, $11 each way. Or take the Golden Gate Transit No. 10 bus, exiting at Bridgeway and Bay Street. By car from San Francisco, cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Take the first exit after crossing the bridge (Alexander Avenue) and follow it into town. Remember that downtown parking is metered.

Yellow Ferry LogoWhere to stay:
The Yellow Ferry http://yellowferry.com
Sleeps six. Expect to pay between $350 and $525 a night, depending on the time of the week/season. Two-night and four-night minimum stay options may operate as well as cleaning fees and taxes.

Where to eat:
Fish, 350 Harbor Drive, Sausalito. www.331fish.com

Owner Kenny Belov is dedicated to sustainability and the freshest raw materials, which doesn’t come cheap, but the no-frllls all-day dining approach cuts costs and fish tacos or po-boys with draught Lagunitas makes an affordable feast, sitting out on the terrace.

Sushi Ran, 107 Caledonia Street http://sushiran.com

Elegant Japanese restaurant with a California twist is consistently rated one of the Bay Area’s top eating destinations – against phenomenal competition. Recommended are the   sake cocktails and vegetarian samplers. Pricey. Reservation advised.

Sausalito  tourism information:
Go to the The Ice House visitors’ centre at 780 Bridgeway, which traces the history of the town or visit this link.

Manchester Airport parking:
Neil Sowerby left his car park in T3 Long Stay. Here are all the options:
VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.
Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.
Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.
Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
JetParks –  low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link

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AnonymousJanuary 6th 2014.

This looks great.

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