Model Kyleigh Kühn and Ryan Bankwell make a sea change by overhauling their dream boat in Sausalito.
Blame it on the classifieds. In early 2014, model Kyleigh Kühn, a sixth-generation San Rafael native, and her longtime boyfriend, Ryan Bankwell, moved back to Northern California from New York, and were soon submerged in a major undertaking: restoring a 1979 Gibson houseboat that Kühn had unearthed on a daily sweep through Craigslist. She impulsively purchased the battered bateau from a seller in Sacramento for $3,000—money she had earned from a Gap holiday campaign (she’s also graced the Pirelli Calendar and ads for Toms shoes). “The boat’s name was Whim, which seemed perfect,” says Kühn, 28.
The timing was also right: In the months before the couple’s return to the West Coast, the humanitarian organization Roots of Peace, started by Kühn’s mother, Heidi, in 1997, was the target of a Taliban attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. The tragedy left Kühn shaken and yearning to be closer to her family. “I felt helpless,” she says. “I needed to get my hands dirty. I wanted to feel useful.”
For a year and a half, Bankwell and Kühn worked 10-hour days on their future home, under the guidance of Kühn’s father, Gary, who has been repairing boats since the age of 14. Three months in dry dock were spent fiberglassing Whim’s hull and gutting its congested interior, which Kühn likened to a “spider’s nest” for its dark wood paneling and claustrophobic arrangement of walls.
Once the boat was docked in Sausalito (Kühn found a slip for rent on—where else?—Craigslist), the couple’s modern maritime vision began to take shape: A loft bed was built to make space below for a “tearoom,” now anchored by an antique chinoiserie table that Kühn inherited from her great-grandmother. Shelves composed of collected West Marin driftwood are emblematic of the surrounding landscape. Elegant brass accents—a sink, a mirror, a nautical bell roughly etched with “Whim”—gleam in the cabin’s generous sunlight. In the newly widened galley, Bankwell, a cook at San Francisco’s beloved Quince restaurant, whips up pan-roasted king salmon and quinoa for alfresco lunches on one of three outdoor decks. On clear evenings, friends mill about the boat sipping cocktails before an easy stroll to nearby Bar Bocce for wood-fired pizza.
Such are the rewards for an intense 18 months of boat “flipping.” There are others: undisputed DIY swagger; new and improved couplehood (“We are more trusting and patient with each other after this experience,” says Bankwell, 28); and, most of all, says Kühn, “a safe little place to call our own.”
Currently, Kühn is renovating a heritage Craftsman in Marin with her three brothers; splitting time between a Brooklyn apartment and Whim (both occasionally available through Airbnb); and hyping another Craigslist discovery, a small warehouse on Clementina Street in S.F.’s South of Market neighborhood. Dubbed The Clementina, the work space/arts venue is where Kühn hopes to build a community of S.F.’s creative minds. Kühn’s father grins as he recognizes her go-getter streak—his daughter, the accidental real estate mogul. “When I was young, my nickname was Go,” he says. “Kyleigh is all action—she’s Go Jr.”
Written By LEILANI MARIE LABONG.
PHOTOS: THAYER ALLYSON GOWDY.