In his memorable Harper’s feature “Lost at Sea,” journalist Joe Kloc captures the struggles of the approximately one hundred people who live on salvagd boats off-shore from affluent Sausalito, California. Theirs isn’t a subversive lifestyle choice. It isn’t alternative living. The people known as “the anchor-outs” are essentially homeless and have found a way to survive on the water, instead of on land.
Thanks to the second tech boom, San Francisco has forced many residents to leave the Bay Area in search of affordable living. Yet the anchor-outs live in view of the famously expensive city’s famous skyline, and new residents arrive regularly, buying discarded ramshackle boats and becoming part of a tight-knit floating community who survive on their wits, salvaged materials, shared resources, and food grown on deck and gathered on-shore. On calm sunny days, they call their life outside Sausalito “Shangri-lito.” During a bad storm, they struggle to stay afloat. Death hangs over this aquatic community as much as poverty. Kloc illuminates their lives with great care and nuance. He spoke with me about his story and this community by email.
As your article mentions, you first started talking with the anchor-outs in a Sausalito park in 2015. Was your entry into their world pure happenstance, or had you heard of this community before?
It wasn’t happenstance. I first heard of the anchor-outs in 2010 or ’11, from a friend who grew up in Marin County. I tried at the time to write a pitch for the story, but failed. I could never figure out what it would be about, what the arc would be. That was a blessing. Twenty-four-year-old me would not have been a good fit for the job. I would have romanticized the anchor-outs and their troubles. When I returned to the idea years later, after having spent some time on Richardson Bay, I realized that the situation was more complicated. Time passed harshly on the water, and luck changed quickly, but the anchor-outs found meaning and friendship in their lives despite it all. That became what I wanted to write about: how people trapped in poverty lead beautiful and complex lives. Hopefully that came across.
Yes, the beauty of their social ties came through clearly. One of the things that moved me was that sense of community, how they share resources, time, and loyalty. Did they treat you, an outsider, with suspicion? As a journalist, how did you develop enough trust to be allowed so deeply into peoples’ worlds and then walk that line between reporter and friendly acquaintance?
The man named Innate Thought was very helpful in bringing me into the fold. That is just who he is. But it also didn’t hurt that a year before we spoke face to face, I had found his email on a YouTube video that he had posted, of anchor-outs meeting with Sausalito city officials. I sent him a message, and though was too busy to talk at the time, when we eventually met in 2015, that bit of history gave him the sense that I was invested in his story. Once we spent a few days together, he began making a lot of introductions for me. I recall him saying to Larry Moyer something like, “He’s a reporter, but don’t worry, he isn’t looking for a scoop.” What exactly that meant I’m not sure, but it appeared to put people at ease. Then I just stuck around long enough that I sort of became furniture in their lives. That’s a great place to be, in terms of access. But like you said, that’s where the line between reporter and friend becomes difficult to navigate. I was sharing their food and talking about the hardships in their lives. A bond did form. There were times when we’d argue about politics, or mourn the death of an anchor-out that we all knew. I tried my best to build the trust in our relationships around me being fair to their stories. I think all that most people want is a fair shake. They never asked for anything more.
People living in poverty are harassed in so many ways, from restrictive local ordinances to aggressive law enforcement. It is often motivated by false assumptions that dehumanize and isolate struggling people, cutting them off from the world.
From your first 2015 park encounter with them, it took you four years to report and publish this story, but really it took about eight or nine. How does a writer stick with a story that long?
For one thing, Innate and Melissa would occasionally call me on the phone, sometimes just to say hello. That gave the project a momentum of its own in my life. But more to your question, once I settled on the idea that the passage of time would drive the story, it was harder for me to stop reporting it than to keep going. The longer it went on the more complete it felt, and the more confidence I gained that I could fairly portray the people and circumstances involved, though I’m still nervous about having gotten those things right. Eventually, I did feel I’d reached an endpoint. Many of the anchor-outs I knew had either passed away or left the anchorage or fallen out of touch. I knew I was very lucky to have had this window into their lives, and I felt obligated to keep up my end of the bargain.
The anchor-out Larry Moyer lived on Shel Silverstein’s old boat. Now that Moyer has died, what’s happened to that boat?
There is no easy answer to any question about boat ownership, but here goes. First off, when Larry was living on Shel’s boat, he was not anchored-out, as Shel’s boat, the Evil Eye, is docked along the shore. I’m not sure who lives on the boat now. The last I heard, not long after Larry died, Larry’s wife, Diane, moved out of the Evil Eye and onto the boat where Innate and Melissa had been living when I first met them. That boat was known as Larry’s boat, as it was the boat Larry had lived on before he moved onto the Evil Eye. When Diane moved to Larry’s boat, Innate and Melissa moved to a shrimp boat. Innate told me they were very happy with the arrangement. It was always stable when a storm came through.
‘Many [people] assume that a person who looks broken must be shattered, when in fact he is trying to fix himself as best he can.’ That was the story I tried to tell.
Your story touched gently on the tensions between the anchor-outs and the people who live on shore — the landlubbers’ claims of increased crime rates, the bar patron’s comments about them being homeless — but were there layers to these tensions you decided not to include? You mention “efforts to remove them.”
I want to note that there are many people in the area who aren’t opposed to anchor-outs, who have a lot of affection for them. Several churches organize hot meals, and locals bring food to the park. That said, the efforts to remove and regulate the anchor-outs are both real and complicated. Some people advocate for a mooring field in the anchorage, and others believe no one should be allowed to live out there at all. Had I far more space, I would have gone into detail. But I think, in a story of this length, the day-to-day lives of the anchor-outs would have gotten lost in discussions of local politics. This may be wrongheaded, but I felt that, for what I was hoping to accomplish, it was more important to keep the focus on them. People living in poverty are harassed in so many ways, from restrictive local ordinances to aggressive law enforcement. It is often motivated by false assumptions that dehumanize and isolate struggling people, cutting them off from the world. While I was reporting, I thought about the book Sidewalk, by Mitchell Duneier, who spent years following the lives of booksellers on the sidewalks of Greenwich Village. He wrote, “Many [people] assume that a person who looks broken must be shattered, when in fact he is trying to fix himself as best he can.” That was the story I tried to tell.