Dry Docks: Icon or Eyesore?

The dry docks in their heyday |  photos by Saul Rouda  |  post by Annie Suttter and Larry Clinton

Long before Forbes Kiddoo’s man–made island gained fame in the 1980s, a set of dry docks became a major landmark in Richardson’s Bay.

In a two–part series for Marinscope, Annie Sutter wrote about the four drydocks, “the many tons of wood, iron and granite ballast that were deposited in Richardson Bay on the evening of a high tide in July 1966.” What follows are some lightly edited excerpts from her account.

Nine drydocks were built at Moore’s Shipyard in Oakland in the 1930s for the purpose of lifting ships out of the water so they could be repaired or worked upon. They were used to repair combat damaged ships during the war, and one account even has them having been towed to and from the South Pacific in 1943.

After the war they were sunk near Moore’s Shipyard, where they remained underwater for years until a salvage company bought them and arranged to have them towed to the Delta and dumped. Enroute, while under tow off Alcatraz, the nine drydocks caught the eye and the imagination of Delmar “Red” Wise as he sat in his second-floor office in Sausalito. He arranged by VHF radio with the tug’s captain to buy four of them, reportedly for a towing fee of $25,000, and brought them in on a high tide that very same night.

“Red” had two plans for his impulsive purchase. One was to move them into his boatyard, Diesel Marine and Engineering at the foot of Napa St., and fix them up for sale; marine salvage was in those days a lucrative business. Quickly, the Sausalito city council passed an ordinance prohibiting drydocks within the city limits. That effectively kiboshed Wise’s plans to restore them.

The other plan—”Atlantis”—was cooked up with the help of artist friend Chris Roberts; they were going to create the “Ghirardelli Square of Marin County,” complete with shops, restaurants and, naturally, a waterfront cafe, with tourists being ferried across from the Napa St. Pier.

In 1968, “Red,” who was ill, sold the drydocks to Roberts for $l. Roberts, a free spirited soul and creative artist who had designed and built two fanciful structures, the 80′ tall “Madonna and Child” on a pile driver, and the “Owl,” a houseboat, had some energetic plans for his baby, including a 2.5 million educational and cultural complex; the “Atlantis” plan; and a gigantic, lotus–shaped art center with studios and live-work space.

In 1968, a giant daisy blossomed on the west wall. The idea was hatched in the No Name Bar by some “very respectable people in town,” according to newspaper reports. It took them two nighttime sorties in a rowboat to install it. One of the perpetrators said, “there was no reason, no message; it was just for fun.”

And there was a lot of fun to be had in those first years, the late 1960s. Folks would row out and have lunch. Others rowed out to smoke pot. A local caterer held an elegant wine tasting party for 100 people.

Probably the biggest and best remembered bash of all was in 1969, the 75th birthday party for artist and waterfront guru of good living, Jean Varda. One of the 300 or so participants recalls, “there were bonfires and a band and incense and marijuana smoke hanging in the air. It was really ‘hippiedom,’ beads and long flowing robes—I thought I was in the middle of India.”

LOVE IS was lettered alongside the daisy on Halloween eve, 1969. This was a message; it seems to have gone unheeded except, perhaps, by some of the waterfront community who began to call the drydocks home.

Among others, The RedLegs waterfront band from Gate 5 began visiting the docks to play music and to generally have a good time. “At first we just visited and played music, then 4 or 5 guys started living there all the time,” recalled RedLegs vocalist Maggie Catfish.

But not all of the waterfront was into being serenaded with rock and roll. Maggie Catfish recalls: “we sailed out on Joe Tate’s Chinese junk Hwang Ho and swam and played music and sang. There was a fireplace out there, and we burned this creosote–soaked wood, we’re sitting there watching pretty blue, green and purple flames, guys would sit there drinking tequila and go and pick up girls at the Trident… it was a constant party. A lot of weird things were going on politically: Vietnam, rock heroes dying, a general feeling of revolution. Against this backdrop, we were trying to have as much fun as we possibly could.”

One day things got rolling when “we were playing out on the docks, and we decided to stage a free concert for Sausalito. We loaded up the band and the generator and cruised the waterfront playing crazy, loud rock and roll. We gave the Trident a nice little show and mooned the Spinnaker (we always mooned the Spinnaker) and stopped in front of Zack’s. There was starting to be a sizeable crowd on shore and a police boat came to clear the area, so we started to leave. Just at that minute, the shift linkage broke. Can you imagine? Here’s the boat piled high with a generator and amplifier, drummer with all his stuff, a pile of people swarming all over the boat, and we can’t leave. The cops pulled people off with grappling hooks and loaded them into the police boat. We felt we were an oppressed minority. We were being rowdy but not hurting anybody. Loud, yes! But Zack’s blasted loud music all over the waterfront for years.”

Joe Tate and Maggie Catfish are still performing today, in the group The Hippie Voices.

Once measuring 125’ x 90′ x 51’ high, the drydocks were being eaten away by fire, decimated by demolition and scrapping contractors, attacked by chainsaws, punctured by gunshots, worn by the comings and goings of the community who called them home, and settled in the mud by the 1989 earthquake so badly that the decks were awash at high tide. Whether they were a “county wart,” “hulking eyesores,” or a “symbol of nose-thumbing nonconformity” depends on how you look at it. And what you know about it depends on who you talk to.

From then on it was an ongoing give–and–take scene between officials and the drydock inhabitants. In April 1970, a swarm of drug agents, police, a county health inspector and a Fish and Game warden converged on the docks. The word about the raid leaked out, and if there were any covert activities, they had ceased by the time the flotilla boarded. What they did find were a 14 and a 15 year old boy, three marijuana cigarettes, two tabs of LSD, and an old man sleeping.

In June 1970, a powerboat rammed into the docks in the night; the owner sued the county on grounds that the docks were not properly lit and were hazards to navigation. Flashing lights were installed, and then they were stolen.

The first serious drydock fire was in 1970, and by then, the “hill” and the “waterfront” had squared off, as noted in a Marin IJ article: “…an entire wall erupted in flames. Sausalito hill dwellers rushed down to the waterfront jumping with excitement to watch them expire like a torch. A San Francisco fireboat spotted the glow and gave houseboaters their turn to jump for joy by extinguishing the blaze.”

County supervisors and council members proposed and counter proposed plans to demolish the ruined hulks. One contractor took it on for $2, thinking he could sell the salvage, but he soon disappeared because his tools and materials disappeared.

Another stumbling block to progress appeared in the form of Ms. Laura Ashley Roberts, who, she said, had been given the docks by her husband Chris. She said she was entitled to the salvaged wood. She took the matter to court, but the judge ruled against Ms. Roberts and the salvors went back to work. However, the drydocks resisted with the tenacity of a hulking elephant, and the tactics of the waterfront guerillas reached new heights of creativity and effectiveness. Small equipment disappeared; cranes were sabotaged. Value of the salvaged wood or not, it was a money loser.

Rumors of arson followed the 1975 inferno

Help arrived in the form of yet another fire. On June 25, 1975, “the huge structure went up like a Roman Candle in the middle of the Bay; flames shot 20 or 30 feet into the air and left only a charred hulk on the water.” Yet, there was still plenty of space for the liveaboards to move back.

Probably the last proposed use for the drydocks surfaced about 1981, offered by Michael Haas, “the Shaman of Rainbow Bay.” His concept was for a “Lunar Village” community inhabited by the refugees of the houseboat wars. It would be a completely self–sufficient biosphere growing all food necessary for its inhabitants and harvesting all its energy needs from nature.

All to no avail. By 1991, the drydocks were the property of the County of Marin, acquired on the basis of abandonment. Funding was sought to remove them, and eventually Supervisor Bob Roumiguiere found that funding at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The remaining residents were moved off, and removal was completed in November of 1994.

More of the story of the dry docks can be found in the short film “Soul of Sausalito” by Saul Rouda, which can be viewed on Vimeo.