The first foreign yachts turn up in the Pittwater, north of Sydney, Australia, around the end of September, just as the warm nor’easterly breezes set in and coastal dwellers are reassured that the winter has ended. Most have made the long passage non-stop south from Queensland harbours, standing well off the rock-strewn New South Wales coast to take advantage of the fast, south-flowing East Australian Current. Some have sailed further – from the Solomon Islands or Vanuatu or Fiji – and have had to beat a couple of thousand nautical miles to windward against brisk south-easterly trade winds to get out of tropical latitudes before the cyclone season begins.
It’s easy to recognise the long-distance cruisers. They have a rugged, purposeful aspect, with short, sturdy, over-rigged masts and wide decks to which are lashed anchors, boat hooks, small dinghies, surfboards, gas bottles and rows of plastic jerry cans. Their cockpits are shaded by wide sun-awnings, their hatches by weather-worn, folding canvas dodgers that look like old-fashioned pram hoods. Above their transoms, makeshift stainless steel structures support angled arrays of solar cells and propeller-driven wind generators, as well as radar reflectors, and radar, radio and GPS antennae. Faded ensigns flutter from backstays or short flagstaves to signal the vessels’, if not always the crews’, nationalities.
Foreign yachts tend to congregate, three or four at a time, on the western side of the wide, sheltered bay, where there are a few anchorages and fewer moorings designated by the state’s Maritime Services as suitable for ‘live-aboard’ visitors – as long as they don’t over-stay their welcome. Even if the authorities turn a blind eye, and they do, sometimes, the welcome is unlikely to last long. Crews are allowed to live aboard for just two weeks consecutively in the same anchorage. The half dozen suburbs that surround the Pittwater are some of Sydney’s wealthiest, and their ratepayers, especially those with high-value waterfront properties, are loathe to share their views (or anything else) for too long with scruffy interlopers who don’t pay utility bills, let alone local rates and taxes.
It’s a sentiment – and, increasingly, a set of by-laws – they share with shore-dwellers around Sydney Harbour, Port Hacking, Port Melbourne and along the Swan and Brisbane Rivers.
The petty squabble between urban shore dweller and visiting seafarer in Australia’s coastal suburbs is really just a recasting of the bitter, millennia-old conflict between settler and nomad, a social, economic and spiritual rift that in other parts of the world see- saws between bloody skirmish and nervous stand-off.
The nomad isn’t an indiscriminate traveller. Although the name is derived from the Greek word nomos (pasture) and the Latin nomas (those who wander in search of pasture), the nomad doesn’t wander, but rather follows a well-established, cyclical route to a series of temporary campsites next to pastures or water sources that can support a small tribe and its animals for all or part of a season. As the late Bruce Chatwin observed in his untidy essay, Nomad Invasions, in the collection What am I doing here? (Penguin, 1990), "Nomadism is born of wide expanses, ground too barren for the farmer to cultivate economically – savannah, steppe, desert and tundra, all of which will support an animal population providing it moves."
Later he notes, "a nomad’s territory is the path linking his seasonal pastures." But the very notion of territory is born of settlement. It is necessarily somewhere defined not just by boundaries but by a claim of ownership. When nomads’ traditional routes intersect anywhere claimed (by settlers) as territory – whether it’s the fenced perimeters of private property or an invisible state or national border – it is interpreted as trespass or, worse, invasion. The nomad’s innate disregard for territory is almost incomprehensible to the settler, whose first instinct is to restrict or refuse access. The nomad is characterised by a stubborn insistence on wide-ranging movement with few encumbrances and little desire for prolonged occupation, let alone possession, of any one place. Such lack of containment is almost spiritually troubling to the settler for whom the acquisition, development and protection of land and goods are intrinsic to his sense of self, security and belonging.
From the agony of loneliness and remorse, so much anxiety and suffering.
Long-distance seafarers are, and always were, a type of nomad too. The safety of their voyages – especially under sail – is dependent on seasonal shifts in monsoonal wind directions or the strength of trade winds, the intensity of temperate latitude depressions, the locations of permanent anti-cyclones with their persistent calms and fog, and the risk of cyclones, typhoons or hurricanes. Except for large, engine-powered, commercial ships – their movements determined only by trade and the fast, the economic transport of heavy cargoes regardless of season – the ideal timing and routes for ocean passages, have been the same for more than two thousand years.
Hundreds of generations of seafarers have recorded their observations of the sea surface, wind and sky, as well as the arc of stars and planets along these routes. They’ve passed them on in narratives – Polynesian mele, Icelandic sagas, Arabic instructional rahmanis – or as notations in log books and on charts, even as diagrams constructed from intricately bound sticks and shells. For example, in a passage from a rahmani known as Fa’ida of the Kitab al-Fawa’id, near the end of a section titled 'Seasons for leaving the Arabian coast', the renowned fifteenth century Arab mu’allim (navigator) and poet Ahmad Bin Majid warned of the intensity of the South-West Monsoon during summer in the Arabian Gulf: "Intelligent men never make this journey during the three months when the Dahur is at full strength for then it is a gamble … For these ninety days the sea is closed and he who would cross it deserves to be unhappy. From the agony of loneliness and remorse, so much anxiety and suffering."
Today, the routing charts, tidal atlases and sailing directions published by various governments’ hydrographic offices are simply the ongoing refinement of knowledge gathered and shared over several centuries by navigators around the world. This sharing is probably the oldest, maybe the only, ongoing tradition upheld by every nation with maritime interests. Part of the reason it endures is that the seafarer’s ‘territory’, the vast, refuge-less oceans beyond national territorial waters (and other, more arbitrary demarcations), doesn’t really belong to anyone.
Men first took to the sea in prehistoric times, but they learned to navigate – and so became seafarers – between four and five thousand years ago. Since then, man has headed out into deep waters to fish, trade, explore, migrate, invade, plunder, colonise, compete, conduct research and look for adventure. However, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that living on the sea was explored as an alternative to land-based urban or rural settlement. A word for it, ‘seasteading’, was coined in the 1970s to evoke the spirit of nineteenth-century pioneers who first settled the wide, open plains of the central and mid-western United States under the land grants of the Homestead Act.
Water-borne communities, both fixed and mobile, aren’t a new idea. They have existed on inlets, estuaries, canals and other sheltered waterways around the world for longer than men have sailed offshore. However, those which survive today – the river people of the Mekong, the Hoklo and Tanka junk communities in Hong Kong, the Uros who weave the floating tortora reed islands of Lake Titicaca, even the bargees who ply the canals and rivers of northern Europe – rely on proximity and inextricable social and economic connections to shore-bound communities.
Seasteading is about living alone or in small groups or communities with little dependence on shore-bound resources, mainly on the open sea but also off isolated reefs, islands or coastlines. How this is actually accomplished lies at the heart of an ongoing argument between two fundamentally divergent traditions: seafaring and sea-settling.
"The model of seastead I suggest is based upon a sailboat that has been built or modified to provide an individual or family a home on the sea,’ writes the American author and former ‘live-aboard’, Jerome FitzGerald, in his book, Seasteading: A Life of Hope and Freedom on the last viable frontier (Universe, 2006). As he points out, "The oceans are truly vast. Hundreds of thousands of miles of coastline remain uninhabited because the skills have not been acquired to live within this sometimes harsh environment. Thousands of islands as well remain empty due to lack of infrastructure and modern conveniences … Properly and thoughtfully equipped, a modest sailboat can be a very nearly self-sufficient entity suitable as a life-support platform for exploring these areas.”
James Wharram, a renowned English designer of sailing catamarans inspired by traditional Polynesian designs and techniques, and the first man to sail a multi-hull across the Atlantic, agrees with Fitzgerald. Thirty years ago, in an essay entitled The Sailing Community, he proposed a nomadic ‘sea people’ community: handfuls of families living on their own catamarans to avoid, as he put it, "proximity difficulties which can lead to social stress", with a much larger ‘mother ship’ owned by all the families as its hub. The mother ship would be regarded as shared space or ‘territory’, not as an extension of each family’s ‘home’. Manned by a crew made up of members of each family, he suggested it would carry additional victuals, fuel, tools and spares, as well as accommodate communal spaces, an office and workshop for use at anchor.
The sea-settler’s preoccupation with ‘freedom’ is less easily understood by the seafarer.
"Seasteading means to create permanent dwellings on the ocean," Patri Friedman, one of the participants in the San Francisco-based Seasteading Project, argues. The project aims "to build sovereign, self-sufficient floating platforms, thus creating new territory on the oceans" – in other words, to colonise what is still referred to in inter-governmental legal terminology as ‘the high seas’, the wide tracts of ocean over which no nation has sovereignty.
To seafarers, the Seasteading Project and others like it that propose purpose-built permanent or fixed structures, either on the sea’s surface or beneath it – civilian and military researchers have been living and working for extended periods in underwater ‘habitats’ since the 1960s, mainly inshore, at depths above fifty metres – are simply an expression of an archetypal shore-bound ‘settler’ mentality. Comparatively spacious, stable emulations of an island, they’re designed for a few to live on at first and then, following a pattern of scalability apparent in nineteenth-century North American home-steading communities, to expand with additional components, platforms and population to become a fully fledged sea-borne colony supported by what Friedman dubs (a little too cutely) a ‘seaconomy’. Inherent in the creation of such a colony is the ambition to proclaim it an independent ocean state, or what James H. Lee refers to in his paper Castles in the sea: A survey of arti-ficial islands and floating utopias as a ‘microtopia’ – in some ways, a virtual concept: a self-governing micro-nation founded atop a man-made, geographically non-specific fixed or floating space.
None of this is of much interest to seafarers. They have long known how to work around governmental strictures and retain a large measure of freedom. For example, the seafarer’s ‘floating space’ is required by international law to be ‘flagged’ – registered in the country in which its majority owner is either a citizen or resident. In practice, this is subverted by ‘flags of convenience’: the legal owners of many vessels, including yachts, are corporations set up in countries where taxes are lower or government maritime regulations less strict. As a result, a vessel can sail under the sovereignty of Panama, the Channel Islands, Mauritius or Thailand, for example, without ever having visited the home port inscribed on its transom. Moreover, its captain and crew will probably be a mix of nationalities, none the same as the vessel’s. Their certificates of competency, the seafarer’s equivalent of operating licences, might be issued by yet other nations.
Even a seafarer’s tax status can be moot. Although a tax domicile (the country to which one reports and pays taxes) is not normally something workers get to negotiate, seafarers who rarely set foot in their own countries – and have no property or other holdings there – and whose income is derived entirely from foreign or ‘offshore’ sources (especially those in opaque tax havens), are deemed by many nations to be ‘residents of the high seas’ and legally untaxable.
The sea-settler’s apparent preoccupation with ‘freedom’ is less easily understood by the seafarer. The rural nomad’s migration is, as Chatwin describes it, "a ritual performance, a 'religious' catharsis, revolutionary in the strictest sense in that each pitching and breaking of camp represents a new beginning". The pelagic nomad’s succession of voyages – during which, according to tradition, a course is never set ‘to’ a particular port but rather, less precisely, ‘towards’ it – are an actual and spiritual disconnection from the enervating sameness of settled life. The disciplined, ceaseless routine of working a vessel at sea can be hard and dull, but there is always a jittery awareness of possibility, of change, just beyond the horizon. At sea, nothing remains the same for very long – and every landfall is another opportunity.
The current British Admiralty chart, Singapore to Song Sai Gon and the Gulf of Thailand, is one of the few still published that uses fathoms and feet rather than metres, although it is modern enough to have surrendered soundings inside the ten-fathom line to an insipid pale blue – preferred by a generation of mariners who find older, more detailed and beautiful, monochromatic engravings hard to read. The chart is commonly used by vessels en route between the world’s two busiest ports, Hong Kong and Singapore, and two of its most congested sea passages, the Singapore Straits and the pirate-infested Malaccan Straits. A large-scale survey of 1:500,000, it covers nearly three thousand square nautical miles of sea.
A cursory look at this chart underscores the stark difference between seafarer and sea-settler. Sea-settlers are looking to the sea for room to establish new physical, social and political structures. Seafarers are just looking for sea-room, uncrowded, easily navigable open water with only the vagaries of the weather and sea-state to worry them. For the seafarer, sea-room – not a fixed structure, not the shore – is where safety, rest and freedom are found. And yet within this one relatively small, enclosed area of sea, which is similar to many others, such as the Mediterranean or North Seas, the Persian Gulf, or the Gulf coasts of Texas or Louisiana, real sea-room is hard to find, even without the hundreds of islands, drying reefs, sandbanks, isolated rocks and shallows that are natural hazards to navigation. More than seventy nautical miles offshore, on a line extending north-west for nearly five hundred nautical miles along the east coasts of Malaysia and Thailand, there are more than a dozen gas and oil fields. Associated with each of them are scores of production and pipeline platforms, tanker moorings and storage tankers, as well as uncharted exploration rigs. Inshore are marine farms and fishing stakes, few of them charted and none of them lit, all frequented by motor-driven, undecked canoes and outriggers – as well as a score of military exercise areas and firing ranges. Even the relatively shallow sea bottom is encumbered with wrecks, pipelines, telecommunication cables, submarine exercise areas and explosive dumping grounds.
At night, in these tropical waters, there are so many tankers, cargo-carriers, warships, trawlers and long-liners, pilot boats, tugs (many with barges under tow), ferries and pleasure boats that the diffused glow of their navigation lights resembles a city sprawling across the seaward horizon.
The last thing any seafarer wants is another structure, permanent or mobile, impeding a safe passage offshore. Yet the sea-settler, whose understanding of the sea is less practical and probably more romantic, dreams of man-made islands. These would more closely resemble an oil rig – if only because the complex engineering required to anchor a large, liveable structure in deep water and protect and its occupants – rather than the Disney-like artificial atoll developed as retreats for the rich off the coast of Dubai. Such structures, however they look, will be regarded by seafarers as an unwelcome hazard, interfering with safe navigation to and from adjacent coasts, fouling fishing grounds and probably requiring vessels – as vulnerable offshore oil and gas platforms do – to stand at least half a kilometre clear of them.
The piratical tradition appears to be what inspires the most passion in modern sea-settlers.
If the plethora of seasteading documents to be found online is any indication, sea-settlers are a lot less taken with the stolid quotidian routine of living and working on the sea than they are with the idea of reconfiguring the autonomous island state as an anarchic, or at least extra-national, social, political and economic experiment, akin to the ‘pirate utopias’ described by the cultish American political writer Peter Lamborn Wilson in his 1995 book, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes (Autonomedia, 1996). Wilson, who is also known as Hakim Bey, envisaged, "Remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned … some of these islands supported 'intentional communities', whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life." One seventeenth-century enclave, the tiny, self-proclaimed Pirate Republic of Salé in Morrocco, was so successful as a safe haven for Muslim corsairs – the so-called ‘Barbary pirates’ – it became a sea power in its own right and negotiated treaties and mercenary alliances with various Mediterranean powers.
This piratical tradition appears to be what inspires the most passion in modern sea-settlers. In Seasteading: The Second to Last Frontier, an article published three years ago in The Yale Free Press, Ben Darrington wrote: "Seasteading would provide an easier way for people who do not like their governments to set up new countries at sea where they could make new rules. Mobile ocean settlements would allow these new states to locate in more useful or less contested waters. This means more experimentation and innovation with different social, political, and economic systems and more competition to create efficient government. Certain businesses are perfectly suited to platforms: material industries such as oil and aquaculture can be self-governed and tax-free, and service industries such as casinos, offshore banking, and data havens avoid some of the existing domestic problems with vice laws, copyright restrictions, and government intrusion or revenue-seeking. Just as pariah individuals and groups seek the freedom of the frontier, pariah industries can ply their trade there, taking the benefits as well as the consequences upon themselves."
Unfortunately, Darrington ignores the almost insurmountable legal intricacies of establishing a legitimate micro-nation offshore today. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty (LoST) rejects claims of territory or special economic standing by private owners of extra-national human-made islands or structures. Even before the ratification of LoST in 1982, the few ill-advised and makeshift attempts to create offshore micro-nations all ended in failure.
REM Island was a floating platform built in Northern Ireland and towed to the North Sea off the coast of the Netherlands, in 1964 – the same year that the infamous ‘pirate’ Radio Caroline began broadcasting from a ship anchored in international waters off the English east coast port of Felixstowe. REM housed a ‘pirate’ broadcaster, Radio and TV Noordzee, for four months until the Royal Dutch Navy shut it down. The Republic of Rose, established in 1967 by an Italian engineer, Giorgio Rosa, on a four hundred square metre platform he erected in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Rimini, was destroyed within a year by Italian Navy sappers after Rosa was arrested for tax evasion. In 1972, a wealthy Las Vegas-based real estate developer, Michael Oliver, tried to raise foreign investment to turn Minerva Reefs, a group of semi-submerged coral reefs 260 miles south-west of the Pacific kingdom of Tonga, into a two and half thousand hectare atoll and micro-nation, the Republic of Minerva. A luckless Australian contractor had managed to dredge enough coral, shell and sand to create a couple of hectares of barren cay above the high-water mark when a Tongan prison labour gang, dispatched by King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, landed on it and claimed it as Tongan sovereign territory.
In the aftermath of these episodes, the Administrative Court of Cologne in West Germany held that "a man-made artificial platform … cannot be called either 'a part of the earth’s surface' or 'land territory' and only structures which make use of a specific piece of the earth’s surface can be recognised as 'State territory' within the meaning of international law". The court referred to the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States which outlined four very broad criteria for statehood: a permanent population; defined territory; government; and capacity to enter into relations with other states.
They emerged from a russet haze at twilight, just five nautical miles from the coast of Suffolk – a pair of grimy cement towers spanned by a rust-flecked steel tabletop. A fast, flooding tide churned the cold, mud-brown North Sea around them, and low waves edged with wind-blown spume spilled away like the wake of a ship. In the dying light, the persistent impression was that the whole structure was moving.
We were aboard a thirty-eight-foot, schooner-rigged catamaran on a passage ‘down Channel’ from Lowestoft, running fast before an easy nor’easterly that we prayed we might carry as far as the Scilly Isles and out into the Atlantic.
All afternoon, the low coastline to leeward of us had been a thin, grey-brown smudge, pierced here and there by a sliver of church spire or chimney. As much to relieve our boredom as to satisfy a mild curiosity, we plotted a course inshore towards a tiny symbol on the chart marked ‘fort’. This was all that indicated the existence of Sealand, the only surviving, man-made microtopia, a pioneering seastead that had somehow clung to independence and crypto-sovereignty for over forty years.
We caught a whiff of something dank and fishy on the wind.
Paddy Bates, an entrepreneurial pirate radio broadcaster, took over what was then a decommissioned World War II gun emplacement and fortified barracks in 1967. HM Fort Roughs had been built above the Rough Sands bank off Harwich to deter the Germans from mining the approaches to this strategically important port. Renamed Sealand by Bates, who renamed himself ‘Prince Roy’, its history since then has been colourful – armed stand-offs with the British Navy, court challenges to its self-proclaimed sovereignty, armed invasion by German and Dutch civilians and the kidnap of ‘Prince Roy’s son’, indirect links to passport scams and other crimes, failed business ventures and even fires.
A decade or so ago, Sealand finally established a modest ‘national’ economy when a data-hosting company, HavenCo, set up its servers within the fort and turned it into a discreet, secure, offshore ‘data haven’. Tourists are rarely welcome.
There was plenty of water beneath our shallow keels so we circled the fort at a distance of a cable or so before rounding up down-tide of it. We let the boat fore-reach slowly into the flood for a few minutes as we took a closer look. A squat, flat-roofed bungalow straddled the tabletop. The shadowy lip of a helicopter pad hung out over the sea. Tendrils of green-black marine vegetation and crusty barnacles clung to the mottled cement and we caught a whiff of something dank and fishy on the wind.
It was drear and foreboding, with scant evidence of any human presence. I tried to imagine how grim an urban dystopia would have to be to compel me to take refuge in this outpost, even for a day. It was more like a prison than a version of paradise.
We put the helm a-lee and let the catamaran drift astern before turning away from the wind. Slack sheets rattled in their blocks as the sails filled again. The hulls lifted and the wide decks flexed a little as the catamaran began to make way.
Sealand fell away astern. For a moment it felt as if we were fleeing for our lives.
C.C. O'Hanlon is something of a 'wild' polymath. Tech'-entrepreneur-turned-internet-apostate, photographer, small press publisher, sea-steader, map collector and ceaseless traveller, his occasional writings have been published in The New York Times, Griffith Review, and elsewhere.