Living Off the Grid in California’s Coastal Waters

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

While San Francisco tech millionaires spend their days disrupting things and hailing Ubers to meetings, a small group of people live nearby on salvaged boats that might capsize in a storm. Known as the anchor-outs, these industrious people grow food on their decks, make repairs with found wood, trade with each other, and talk about the way people live onshore. Money is scarce, but on good days they call their life outside Sausalito “Shangri-lito.”

For Harper’s, editor Joe Kloc spends time with these scrappy survivalists to understand why they choose this life, or how life chose it for them. Is their situation freedom or a trap? Heaven or hell? And how exactly do they survive? If you’ve ever fantasized about ditching society and finding a quiet place to live outside the system, you’ll want to read this.

On sunny days, the anchor-outs make for the waterfront. They toss their garbage in the dumpsters outside a 7-Eleven and gather together on a four-acre stretch of grass called Dunphy Park. They lie in the shade of box elders and oaks, reading to one another from the newspaper as their children play nearby, ankle-deep in the water. Some discuss their stays in the county jail. Others dream up inventions they will never build, like a heater made from magnets or a shower that runs on a gas-powered generator. Once in a while, a small group convenes near a boat slip to hear a sailor with a long beard and a gnarled walking stick lecture on the anchor-outs’ right to live on the water, a case he makes with dog-eared copies of county ordinances, maps, and city contracts that he prints at the public library and carries around in grocery bags.

I began spending time in the park a few years ago, drawn to the ease with which the anchor-outs took what came their way. Court dates and rough waters always loomed, and the church van promising a free hot meal was never guaranteed to arrive, but these were only temporary setbacks; the anchor-outs had built a paradise, if only the rest of the world would let them enjoy it.

One afternoon, on an early spring day in 2015, I struck up a conversation about the bay with an anchor-out who went by the name Innate Thought, though he was born Nathaniel Archer. Innate had lived on the water for more than a decade and was now almost fifty years old, with a sun-worn face and a generous, worried smile. He was sitting on a bench, listening to a portable radio. He told me he was happier living on the water than he had ever been, and explained his contempt for the world ashore with a story about requesting a free packet of barbecue sauce from a cashier at the local Burger King.

“She said, ‘I’m sorry, I have to charge you twenty cents.’ I said, ‘I know, I remember when we were going through an economic crisis and Burger King replaced those plastic menu boards with TVs. So I know you’ve incurred some costs.’”

Innate fixed his gaze on me. “What was she protecting?”

I shrugged.

“She’s protecting against me coming in every day, taking five sauces, and selling them outside.” He asked if I understood the damage that is done when everyone expects the worst from one another.

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