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Those hoping the anchor-outs will eventually go away are kidding themselves, he says. "These people been here 30, 40, 50 years. Where are they going? They're not going nowhere. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em—work with them."
McGovern, a Mill Valley native who was left temporarily homeless when his boat burned last January, says he has twice been turned down for SSI benefits. Blind in one eye from a firewood-chopping accident and diagnosed with emphysema three years ago, he struggles to navigate the medical system. "I can't believe the paperwork and tonnage of hoops I have to go through to see the doctor," he says. "I need an advocate is what I need."
Lack of accessible public showers in Sausalito is a particularly sore point for anchor-outs like McGovern and Romanowsky, who say they usually go without. Others depend on the kindness of friends or have managed to gain access to private harbor facilities. "I'm stuck out here, and they've closed every shower," McGovern says. "It makes a person like me become real angry."
Romanowsky says he'll easily go a year without a hot shower. "This town is so stingy that they won't provide any public showers," he says. "I have a big long bread knife. I just scrape my skin with a bread knife. I call it a knife bath."
Though some anchor-outs are just struggling to survive, others have managed to settle into a comfortable existence on the water. No one has been living at anchor here longer than Ale Eckstrom, a 76-year-old musician and poet who, after logging more than five continuous decades afloat on Richardson's Bay, can rightfully be called grandfather of the anchor-outs. With his spry, compact figure and lyric-laden speech, Eckstrom looks a bit like a seafaring leprechaun, the likeness accented by his knee-high socks and breeches, brown vest, Celtic brooch, scraggly orange beard, ruddy visage and tweed cap.
A Colorado native, Eckstrom first walked into Sausalito in 1957 after serving in the Navy. He made a living as a concertina player in coffeehouses and cabarets along the coast, and his entertainer's impulse is still audible in the limericks and sea shanties that pepper his conversation.
Most days he can be found aboard his 63-foot World War II–era aviation rescue boat Yesterday (after the Beatles' song), with its onboard workshop, claw-foot tub and eclectically decorated den of found objects, books, and large windows giving out on an ever-shifting panorama of water, shoreline and mountains. He reluctantly comes ashore every few days for supplies ("I like fresh milk," he says) in his motorized scow, but he's happiest at home on the water. Most days, he says, are spent "dancing around and playing with boats" and keeping company with his two feline shipmates, Siammy and Calicoco.
While he spent two decades brewing his own black stout aboard his vessel and many more years nursing a drinking habit, Eckstrom says he’s been sober since 2001. “If I didn’t quit drinking, I was on the verge of having a nasty accident,” he says, citing the inherently perilous journey to and from shore in a small skiff. “Alcoholism is an entertainer’s hazard,” he says, adding that a particularly tumultuous relationship finally “drove him to sobriety.” These days, he steams the alcohol out of his Sierra Nevada stout and drinks from a small jar in his pocket as he runs errands ashore on a rusty old small-wheel bicycle.
Even for a seasoned and sober seaman, threat of disaster is a constant companion. "There are times out here when if you make a misstep, it may very well be the last step you ever make," he says. During a fierce storm one night last February, Eckstrom nearly lost his boat when the wind and waves severed both chains anchoring the vessel to the bay floor, suddenly setting him adrift. He was able to set his spare anchor before his vessel crashed upon the Tiburon shoreline downwind. “Every time the boat needs saving," he recounts, "you have to save it again or all the other times don’t count.”
But for Eckstrom, life at anchor is infinitely preferable to what he views as the landlubber's indentured plight of rents or mortgages. "The real estate mentality just refuses to think of anyone having an alternative to leasing and renting property," he says. "If all you own is a boat, no matter how nice it is or expensive it might be, you're shit in most people's eyes." Mere mention of landlords makes him visibly shudder. "I'd live in a tree before I'd pay a landlord," he says.
It's a common sentiment among anchor-outs. Jan Zaslav, a public health nurse for Marin County who has worked with anchor-outs, says, "What's interesting is you go out there in the boat and you see all these mansions—Belvedere, Tiburon and Sausalito—and their point is, 'The people living in the mansions are the slaves. We're the free ones.' "
Or as Eckstrom, donning his poet's cap, puts it, "I rise and fall on every tide that flows, turn to face every wind that blows."
This article was produced as a project for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.