Many dream of living in an ocean city, but what is it actually like? Rose Eveleth asks the ruler of Sealand, the unusual settlement off the coast of England.

Michael Bates grew up seven nautical miles off the coast of England, on a platform made of concrete and metal. Michael, the son of Roy Bates, is the Prince of the Principality of Sealand, a contested micronation that, despite its size, has become a darling of adventurers and journalists alike. Sealand has a football team, its flag has been run up Mount Everest, and it offers personalised knighthood for a mere £99 ($145).

Today, as futurists, tech billionaires and libertarians start looking to the sea for the next stage of cities and governance, Sealand serves as a tiny example, a strange and intriguing case study of all the good and the bad of living on the waves. What can the experiences of the Bates family tell those who dream about ocean living?

The precise history of Sealand is contested, but here is, essentially, how it came to be. Sealand was originally called HM Fort Roughs or Roughs Tower, one of four naval sea forts designed by Guy Maunsell for the British Royal Navy to defend against the Germans in World War Two. During the war, somewhere between 100 and 120 naval officers were stationed on the tower, but in the early 1950s the tower was abandoned.

Fast forward to 1965. Roy Bates is a pirate radio operator on another one of Maunsell’s forts called Knock John. But Knock John was located closer to the shore, within the three mile radius that was, legally, British territorial water. In 1966 this fact finally caught up with Roy, who was convicted for illegal broadcasting from Knock John. His solution was to simply move further out, and he packed up and headed to Roughs Tower.

He never did restart his radio station, but he did occupy Fort Roughs with his family. A year later, on 2 September 1967, Roy declared independence, raising a flag and making his wife “Princess Joan.” Thus the Principality of Sealand was born.

Since 1967 there have been all kinds of debates over whether or not Sealand is in fact a nation. Here’s what Michael told me when I asked: “We have never asked for recognition, and we’ve never felt the need to ask for recognition. You don’t have to have recognition to be a state, you just have to fulfill the criteria of the Montevideo Convention which is population, territory, government and the capacity to enter into negotiation with other states. We can and we have done all these things. We’ve had the German ambassador visit at one point to discuss something: that was defacto recognition. We’ve had communication with the president of France many years ago, but we have never asked for recognition and we don’t feel we need it.”

The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States that Michael is referring to was signed in 1933 at the International Conference of American States. According to this, a nationhood requires four things: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the “capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” Sealand supporters argue that Sealand has fulfilled all four of those requirements. Technically, only 16 states have ratified the convention, and all of them lie in the Americas, but according to the American Society for International Law, “the Montevideo Convention is generally regarded as the standard definition of the state".

Things got a little bit more complicated in 1987, when the United Kingdom extended its territorial waters from three miles to 12. Sealand, sitting six miles offshore, was suddenly, technically, on British land. The Sealand family argues that their nation had fulfilled the requirements of the Montevideo convention before the UK extended its territory. The UK doesn’t seem to care. When asked about Sealand in 2000, a spokesperson for the Home Office of the UK said that they didn’t see any reason to consider Sealand a nation. "We've no reason to believe that anyone else recognises it either," the spokesperson told the BBC.

Today, few people live on Sealand (“normally like two people,” Michael told me) but when he was growing up it was home. “My family used to spend all our time out there for 20 or 30 years.” And when he was a kid, Sealand was just as isolated as you might expect. “When I was first there I was 14 years old, there was no mobile telephones, no communication at all. You would go there and be there until the boat came back in two weeks to get you. And it might not come back for six weeks. You would stare at the horizon waiting for it to come back.”

Luxury living?

Modern Sealand is equipped with phone and the internet. They have a gift shop, have issued passports (they stopped after 9/11, but Michael said they plan to start issuing them again soon), and even started a data haven called HavenCo in 2000. HavenCo closed down in 2008 amidst numerous problems, but re-opened in 2013 with the help of internet entrepreneur Avi Freedman.

When I asked Michael what Sealand does to make its estimated GDP of $600,000 (where this number comes from is unclear, since Sealand is not included on most official lists of GDP by country), he said: “We’ve been involved in different things over the years, including internet data havens. We have our own stamps, coins, passports, right now we cover our expenses with our online shop. We market titles of nobility and T-shirts and mugs and stamps, coins, just about anything to do with our little mini-state. I travel on other business as well, I have other business interests involving shellfish and other internet stuff.”

Modern Sealand also has a futuristic ideological heir: seasteading. The concept isn’t quite the same – seasteaders plan to build their own floating nations rather than commandeer existing structures. “So seasteaders think a lot bigger and more glamorously,” said Joe Quirk, the communications director for the Seasteading Institute, “we also like to think we’re very pragmatic.” But in many ways, they share the same ideals – independence, freedom, adventure.

The Seasteading Institute is probably the largest face of the seasteading movement – although they are certainly not the only one. The group was founded in 2008 by economist Patri Friedman and Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel with a pretty simple idea: create floating nations. The logistics are a bit more complicated of course – their structures will need to have energy and food, ways to create and recycle water, and systems to deal with waste. And most of those logistics haven’t been quite ironed out yet.

Right now, the Seasteading Institute is in the research and design phase. Last month, they launched an architectural design contest for their Floating City Project – what is essentially a beta-test of the seasteading concept. Quirk said that as they work through the design and technology required of the city, they’re also trying to find a location – a nation that will allow them to build a floating community offshore. “We’re in talks with several nations at this point, they’re all in different stages of possibility.” As the experience of Sealand shows, a country like the UK might be unsuitable if it refuses to recognise the new nation's sovereignty or independence.

Quirk couldn’t say which nations were in the running, but he said that they had a few ways of narrowing down who to ask. “I think what makes a nation a good candidate is if they’re interested in creating start-up cities within their own territories. So a lot of people don’t know there are thousands of special economic zones created by countries all over the world.” Quirk pointed to places like China and Panama who each have special zones where different trade rules apply. “The key idea is experiments with new government cities. So the Seasteading Institute approaches nations like that.”

Once they have a location, and a design, they’ll have to fill the city. “We’re seeking people interested in moving to the floating city project," said Quirk, "We’ve had about 2,000 people fill out our survey telling us what they want from a floating city.” Eventually, the plan is to move the floating cities away from the coast and into the high seas. “Once you get beyond 200 miles out, you’re in the high seas,” and Quirk said their legal scholars have advised that this guarantees true independence.

Quirk also pointed out that the idea of floating nations may become more accepted as the impacts of climate change are seen. Consider the Maldives, he said, which is sinking below rising sea level. “You can see this nation could be transitioning to a floating nation, and the question becomes, does the world recognise them as a nation?”

Rule breaker

Sealand and the Seasteading Institute share some core aims and values, but they’re also substantially different. Sealand was a quirk of history, a single man who flew in the face of rules he disagreed with. Seasteading has much of that in its heart, but with a more complex philosophy behind it, rooted in the principles of the free market.

Unlike Sealand, which isn’t trying to build a population, the seasteads would have to compete with one another to attract people to live there. Quirk imagines a world in which citizens, unhappy with the infrastructure, laws or systems of one nation, can break apart and float over to another. “We think a market of competing services will unleash innovation in governance,” he said.

When I asked Quirk what he imagines when he closes his eyes and thinks about a future seastead, he answered quickly. “Venice. I love the history… people were chased out of the places they lived in by warfare and they moved out into swamps and over time they built a civilisation on stilts that eventually became one of the wealthiest places on Earth.”

Michael said he’s never actually talked to the seasteaders, and Quirk confirmed. “I’ve never talked to them,” Quirk said, “but Sealand is to me an example that the desire to start a new nation is always present among people. I think of seasteading as providing this escape valve for people who want to innovate in governance. Even if you provide the worst possible and isolated environment, people want to go out there.”

When I asked Michael what he thought about the seasteading projects, he was a bit sceptical, but encouraging. “Great, good luck, we’ll see what happens.” But he also thinks Sealand is a novelty. “Sealand is a one off that could never be repeated in international law due to a unique set of circumstance,” he told me. “There’s nowhere else where you could do what we did. I think you’ll find everything is claimed now.”

Today, Michael lives in the UK with his family. When he had children of his own, he wanted them to be educated in schools in the UK, and so they moved the family to the mainland. But the future of Sealand still lies in the Bates lineage. “With my new grandson Prince Freddy being fourth generation Sealander its future will be assured,” Bates said.

And so far, the family line has remained interested in their odd little nation. “My sons enjoy being involved in it, it gives them an interesting life and they meet interesting people.” Bates isn’t sure exactly what will happen in the future, but he is confident that its legacy and ethos will live on. “I would hope there will be many more adventures.”

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We’ve had the German ambassador visit at one point