From a distance, it looked like the home of a prince or minor lord — the castle’s four turrets and dark crenellated walls. But as I got closer, I saw that what seemed to be bricks were in fact roofing shingles, that the white around the windows badly needed repainting, that other wood was rotting, and that on the white-plank door was a sign — No Trespassing, Keep Out.
The place was empty. In fact, no one had ever lived there. The roughly 70- by 30-foot Floating Castle was a party boat. Still, the idea of this castle ruling its watery domain stayed with me — its mixture of nobility and seediness, pretension and failure, its very eccentricity came to typify what I found in this particular anchorage, technically known as the A-8 but called by one of its oldest residents the Devil’s Triangle.
I first approached the A-8 with my friend James Spring on his 40-foot trawler-style motor yacht, the Tequila Sunrise, on a gray afternoon at the very end of April. Spring works for a small advertising company, is a fiction writer, and also does charters. He has lived on his boat for two and a half years in a marina on Harbor Island and was curious about people who lived on the hook; that is, live-aboards who forgo the marinas, forgo mooring balls, and get by on anchors alone. Spring was born in San Diego, is blond, in his 30s, and has a great affability.
The A-8 — the last remaining long-term, free anchorage in San Diego Bay — is situated in South Bay more or less between the Coronado Cays and the Sweetwater River coming out of Chula Vista. Drawing near the A-8, it at first looked like a floating junkyard. There were several derelict cargo boats and barges and three hulking tugs drawn up side by side. Then I began noticing the sailboats, catamarans, and motor yachts, most of them small, and then the barges and houseboats. Many of the vessels were heaped with stuff, barrels, tarps, pieces of plastic, water buckets, nets, bits and pieces of other boats and usually, on top, a bicycle. One 45-foot sailboat looked as if it had been through a fire. Several catamarans had broken pontoons like snapped-off teeth. One barge with a house on it had a pile of storm windows and doors, unidentifiable rusted machinery, all the chunks and assortments and oddities that could be categorized under the subject heading: Things that might turn out to be useful someday. No gelcoat salesman had been through the A-8 for a long time. If the A-8 were a college and had a school color, that color would be rust. But there were exceptions — two sailboats, each about 65 feet, that people were working on, gorgeous boats that their owners bought for a song. And a few motor yachts were in pretty good shape, a few smaller sailboats. But looking over the 60 or so vessels in the A-8, my sense was that desolation and decay were the winners here. And all the vessels were scattered — there weren’t the neat rows as when boats are tied up to mooring balls. You know how it is when someone takes a handful of pebbles, coins, and buttons and gives them a little toss? It was like that.
Among the tugs and abandoned commercial vessels, the sailboats, motorboats, barges, and houseboats, were also the party boats. The three smaller ones were called the Party Kings. One consisted of two dismasted sailboats with beams set between them and a rusty house trailer from about the 1960s set upon the beams. The other two were the same idea but used open Navy personnel carriers with big plywood cabins built on top and house trailers between them. Again there was a lot of rust, though I was told these were new acquisitions. Next to the name — Party King — was a phone number. I called and a mechanical voice informed me the number was not in service.
Finally, there was one last party boat, larger and just as distinctive as the Floating Castle. This was Neptune’s Palace — the longtime home of Jim Morgan, whom some people call “the Daddy of A-8.” Morgan’s nephew owned the party boats, and his son opened Les Girls, the strip club near the Sports Arena, back in the late ’60s. Jim Morgan had also been connected with Les Girls and the party boats, as well as with dozens of other enterprises in San Diego. He also ran for mayor in 1959. But now personal tragedy and financial setbacks had led him to a more or less quiet life on Neptune’s Palace where, at 72, he is preparing to write his memoirs. On the roof of Les Girls is a great chipped and rusty billboard advertising the Floating Castle — “Fabulous Parties, Banquets, Dances, Weddings.” The phone number is the same as the one painted on the Party Kings.
Neptune’s Palace looked like a seaside restaurant with a little penthouse — the aerie where Morgan had his bedroom. The front half of the Palace was all windows. In the back was the kitchen and storerooms. Upstairs was an office and other rooms. Down the center of the restaurant ran a raised gangway with a golden rug and stools set around it where strippers could strut the stuff they had to strut. There were colored spotlights and balls with mirrors on the ceiling.
“We’ve had dancers from Les Girls out here, sure,” Morgan told me one day. “They’ve had wonderful parties. In fact, I don’t ever know of a party that just really wasn’t a wonderful party.”
And a young fellow named Tom told me that he had once attended a Halloween party on the Castle with about 200 people. I asked him to describe it. “Wild,” he said. I asked him to be more precise and he thought about it. “Absolutely wild,” he said.
For the past several years, however, there had been hardly any parties, which was why the phone had been disconnected. But I’ll get back to that.