Seasteading: The Movement, History, and Perspectives

by | Sep 19, 2023 | Blog, Featured

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In human imagination, the sea has always remained a symbol of freedom and independence — a sentiment with deep roots in both history and psychology. It was precisely that desire for freedom coupled with technological optimism that gave rise to the seasteading movement. The term combines “sea” with “homesteading,” indicating a self-sufficient, frontier-like approach but on the water. Seasteaders believe that the creation of permanent dwellings at sea, away from any country’s territorial waters — and the reach of any existing nation-state — unlocks opportunities for rapid innovation in governance.

Throughout history, the sea has been perceived as a route to escape — whether from persecution, as in the case of the pilgrims travelling to America, or from the state, as in the case of pirates. Maritime trade routes brought prosperity and cultural exchange. Literature, art, and film have added to this aura by romanticising the sea and life near it. As any tourist agent would confirm, most people prefer coastal resorts when they seek a respite from the hustle and bustle of urban routine. Living on a boat represents a level of autonomy not often found on land — and thankfully, modern technology is gradually making life afloat more feasible. The oceans, after all, make up over 70% of Earth’s surface area, so why engage in political fights over the remaining 30% if one can simply sail free?

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Main Challenges 

Upon closer look, it is not all that simple. Before ocean-born autonomous societies can become a viable lifestyle option, seasteaders must deal with some tricky technical and political challenges. Designing structures that can withstand the harsh marine environment, especially high waves and storms, creating sustainable food and freshwater sources, waste management, and energy supply — all of these combined represent only half of the story. The second half lies in the realm of politics. Seasteaders’ attempts to circumvent political obstacles have generated some media hype with catchy headlines — from a family couple threatened with a death sentence in Thailand to the floating city project in French Polynesia that fell victim to political backlash. 

And yet the leaders of the movement are as optimistic as ever: they are convinced that the lessons learnt in the past decade or so, as well as the recently achieved a critical mass of enthusiasts, are setting them on a fast track to success in creating the first floating societies. “Long before we go to Mars, free people are going to discover the planet that’s right in front of us,” says Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute, when we speak on Zoom after having met each other at the Liberty in Our Lifetime conference in Prague. Grant Romundt, CEO of Ocean Builders, a company now building a cluster of ‘SeaPods’ off the Panama coast, proposes seasteading as an unorthodox solution to housing shortages in booming cities. The oceans will provide the greatest real estate opportunity of the twenty-first century, he claims while presenting the prototype of the SeaPod at the same conference. 

Seasteading is “like Bitcoin but for the ocean — a thing that bypasses the established structures,” explains Aldo Antinori, a Panama native who was instrumental in introducing Ocean Builders to the country’s high-ranking officials. Well, that is exactly the source of scepticism: not everyone is convinced that creating a tool to escape government control is a viable proposition. Some critics say seasteading would only serve the wealthy, creating offshore tax havens or escapes from the responsibilities of citizenhood. On top of that, environmental concerns are voiced — building on the ocean could impact marine ecosystems (not necessarily in a bad way though: even the UN has endorsed seasteading as a possible answer to environmental challenges). Finally, some simply argue the technical challenges are too great — and that people en masse wouldn’t choose to live on the ocean.

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‘SeaPods’, sustainable and self-sufficient floating homes designed by Waterstudio.NL for Ocean Builders to be anchored in sheltered waters in Panama. Source: Ocean Builders.

Going Overboard: Authors, Architects, and Anarchists

Floating communities have been a staple in myths, legends, and fiction for millennia. One of the earliest mythological examples is Atlantis, described by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato as an island city of unparalleled grandeur and technology that was ultimately submerged and lost beneath the waves. Contemporary fiction reveals both fascination with and fear of the idea of living on sea — in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, for instance, the villain plans to craft his own seasteading utopia in the loosely regulated Caribbean waters by bringing together a fleet of modified oil rigs and tankers to form a gigantic modular platform. The 1995 film Waterworld is set in a post-apocalyptic future where Earth is entirely covered by oceans and communities of survivors live on floating structures. On the other side of the spectrum lies Sailing Free, a captivating libertarian novel co-authored by Gabriel Stein, a Mont Pelerin Society member, set in the 11th-century Icelandic Free State and celebrating the life of a young shipowner and sea trader who stands up for his homeland’s sovereignty.  

Architectural minds have been equally captivated by the idea, seeing it as an innovative solution to urban challenges, such as population density, land scarcity, and rising sea levels. The 1960s were marked by two daring projects, Buckminster Fuller’s Triton City and Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Bay Plan. The most notable 21-century proposals include Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad, a self-sufficient floating city for climate refugees, Shimizu Corporation’s Ocean Spiral, a 500-metre-wide underwater tower, and Lazzarini’s Wayaland inspired by Mayan pyramids. Most recently, world-famous architect Bjarke Ingels has made a splash with Oceanix City designed in partnership with UN-Habitat to be located in Busan, South Korea. The list would be incomplete without Dutch designer Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio.NL. Leveraging the Netherlands’ rich legacy of water management, his designs seamlessly blend aquatic and terrestrial environments.

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Lilypad

Proposed by Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut, this self-sufficient floating city was designed to accommodate climate refugees. It uses sustainable technologies and aims to produce more energy than it consumes.

Source: Flickr/Trinidad News

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The Ocean Spiral

Shimizu Corporation’s underwater city is a deep-sea habitat where people would live and work. It harnesses seabed resources and includes a sphere at about 500 metres below sea level for residential and commercial areas.

Source: Flickr/Forgemind ArchiMedia

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Oceanix City

Designed by Bjarke Ingels, this project envisions a series of modular, hexagonal islands, grouped together in clusters to form sustainable communities on the water. The design incorporates renewable energy, vertical farming, and aquaculture.

Source: OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group

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Tokyo Bay Megastructure, Kenzo Tange

Kenzo Tange’s proposal was a radical solution to the urban challenges faced by post-war Tokyo. The design saw reclaiming vast areas of Tokyo Bay to accommodate a growing population and infrastructure needs.

Source: Flickr/Ilona Gaynor

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Rendering Freedom

In 2009, the Seasteading Institute announced a design competition with a $1,000 grand prize for the concept of the first seastead and received 41 entries. Anthony Ling’s project was among the winners.

Source: Wikimedia

And then there were other sorts of dreamers — for them, the open sea offered a blank canvas to reimagine societal structures. Inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, in 1968 entrepreneur Werner Stiefel spearheaded “Operation Atlantis”, an ambitious project aimed at creating a sovereign, libertarian micronation. Stiefel purchased a ship and later a whole island near the Bahamas. However, political disputes and natural disasters, like hurricanes, continually thwarted progress. 

Equally short-lived was the Republic of Minerva, an attempt by Michael Oliver, a Las Vegas real estate millionaire, to establish a libertarian nation with “no taxation, welfare, subsidies, or any form of economic interventionism” on the Minerva Reefs between Tonga and New Zealand. Despite initial success, including the creation of an artificial island, Tonga soon claimed the reefs and disrupted the plan.

 

Sailing Close to the Wind: The Sealand Saga

The Principality of Sealand is arguably the most famous attempt to create a seaborne micronation. It was proclaimed in 1967 on a disused British anti-aircraft gunning platform built during World War II, 12 kilometres off the coast of England, by Paddy Roy Bates, a former British Army major turned pirate radio broadcaster. He soon moved to live on a platform with his wife Joan and kids. When a rival pirate radio station’s crew tried to storm the platform, the Sealanders responded with petrol bombs and guns; the Royal Navy intervened and were met with fire, too. Bates and his son Michael got arrested, but the Royal Court threw out the case concluding that the seastead lies outside the UK’s territorial waters, that is, beyond British jurisdiction. Sealanders rejoiced: their sovereignty was de facto recognised! In the following years, they introduced their own constitution, flag, and national anthem, started minting coins and printing stamps, and began issuing Sealand passports. The founder was crowned Prince Roy and his wife Princess Joan of Sealand.    

At its peak, about 50 people lived on the platform. The micronation even faced a coup attempt in 1978, when German-born lawyer Alexander Achenbach, serving as Prime Minister of Sealand, hired mercenaries and took Michael Bates hostage. The Bates family fought back and, ultimately, Achenbach was captured — and charged with treason against Sealand. That was the moment of truth: what will Germany do? In a sense, it was a Catch-22: if the country decided to negotiate his release through diplomatic means, that would look like the recognition of Sealand; if Germany, instead, dropped the case, concluding that Achenbach was a Sealand citizen and thus outside of their jurisdiction, that would, again, look like the recognition of Sealand! The German embassy in London sent a representative to investigate the case, but eventually, Achenbach paid a fine to the Sealand authorities and was released and returned to Germany — only to proclaim a Sealand Rebel Government in exile.

 

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Despite its colourful history and claims of sovereignty, the Principality of Sealand has not been recognised as a sovereign state by any internationally acknowledged government. Source: Sealand.gov.

In 1987, the United Kingdom extended its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, thus making it factually harder to uphold the claims of sovereignty by the Principality of Sealand. Roy Bates died in 2012 at the age of 91, and his son became Prince Michael of Sealand. Despite nobody living on a rusty platform these days — Michael Bates, who published his memoir Holding the Fort in 2015, resides in his bungalow in Essex — “the world’s smallest country” still issues passports, sells memorabilia, and even has a football team. For as little as £25 one can become a Lord or Lady of Sealand, while more expensive royal titles are sold for £500, with several options in between. The parchment certificate confirming one’s title is adorned with Sealand’s coat of arms bearing the stubborn nation’s motto: “E Mare, Libertas” — “From the sea, freedom”.

 

Diving Deeper: What the Law Says

At the heart of all seaborne micronation projects lies a deep-rooted belief in maximising personal freedom and minimising state intervention. Sealand, with its tumultuous history, has lived longer than others — sceptics would argue because they were too tiny for the British Government to ever bother. But what were the UK authorities legally supposed to do with Sealand, if anything? What does the international maritime law say about seasteading? 

To begin with, there is no legal definition of a seastead. Seasteading is an umbrella term encompassing all sorts of different structures. Just like there’s no universal way of living on land, there is no one-size-fits-all type of a floating community. Seasteads may take the form of individual boats, oceanic platforms (free-floating, permanently fixed, or somewhere in between), or entire man-made islands. The definition of a “vessel”, for instance, varies from one country to another. An important question is whether a given structure is fixed to the ocean ground or changes its location regularly. 

Secondly, seasteading projects vary in their proximity to the shore, the main factor influencing their level of autonomy. The ocean is governed by a number of multilateral treaties signed by most nation-states, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The document delineates four primary legal maritime zones. Each coastal state has sovereignty over its territorial waters which extend 12 nautical miles from its coast (a nautical mile is a unit used in sea and air navigation, it equates to roughly 1.151 land miles). Sailing a further 12 nautical miles from the shore, we remain in the so-called contiguous zone, where the coastal state can enforce laws related to customs, taxation, immigration, and pollution. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends 200 nautical miles from the coast — here, a coastal state has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, living and nonliving, but other states can navigate EEZ, too. Placing seasteads that close to the shore implies closer collaboration with nation-states — see some examples below.

And finally, there are the high seas, the final frontier, where waters become truly “international”. Here, all states have freedom of navigation, but no state has sovereignty. Sounds like an ideal location for a seastead, right?

 

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Maritime zones. Source: ​​Flickr.com/Riccardo Pravettoni  

The idea of a permanent floating community on the ocean presents new legal challenges. Even the high seas are not the realm of complete lawlessness — a ship, for instance, must carry the flag of some nation-state. Professor Tom W. Bell, a California-based legal scholar who advised Seasteading Institute (and some prominent Free Cities, including Honduran ZEDEs), has crafted a recipe for steasteads that want to bypass the rule of most maritime conventions. To remain off the radar, he writes, floating communities should stay fixed in place, below 24 metres long at the waterline, and avoid entering foreign ports. 

“Seasteads win further exemptions if they stay in or close to sheltered waters and remain smaller than 12 meters long, 400 gross tonnage, and 15-person capacity. Though voyaging or larger seasteads fall within the scope of additional conventions, they might qualify for exemptions from many of their requirements.”

“Artificial islands” are another option. UNCLOS grants nations the right to construct those on the high seas. But again, we are talking about internationally recognised states, not groups of stateless enthusiasts. Ryan C. Schmidtke, author of Artificial Islands of the Future, concludes that the most viable option for a seastead would be to strike a deal with a friendly host nation for the creation of a maritime Special Economic Zone (SEZ). This would give seasteaders much-needed physical protection as well as legal certainty, along with the desired, though limited, political autonomy. As we shall see, this is exactly the route that seasteaders have explored most intensely in the past decade — with varied success.

 

Casting a Wide Net: Who is Who in Seasteading

“Seavilisation”, “sevangelists”, “aquapreneurs”, “aquatecture”, “aquaculture” — be prepared to learn some new words if you decide to delve deeper into the seasteading movement. The word “seasteading” itself was first coined by software entrepreneur Wayne Gramlich in 2008. Together with Patri Friedman, a grandson of Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman, they co-founded the non-profit Seasteading Institute (TSI) to promote the creation of sovereign floating communities. For over a decade, while keeping his daily job as an engineer at Google, Patri was the face of seasteading — explaining the concept over and over again to the sceptical media crowd, organising the Ephemerisle festival dubbed “Burning Man on boats”, and pitching the idea to the Silicon Valley gurus. Thanks to his efforts, TSI received a $1.7 million endowment from billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal. A few years later, Thiel resigned from TSI board, concluding that the idea was “not quite feasible”. But the movement lives on. Uniting venture investors and crypto enthusiasts, academics and lawyers, architects and software engineers, it continues making waves on a global scale.  

 

 

Joe Quirk, TSI president, considers himself, first and foremost, a storyteller. In 2017, together with Patri Friedman, he published a book titled Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians — a very bold promise indeed. “When I first learned about seasteading”, Quirk tells me in an interview, “it was kind of a fringe movement. It was demonised in the press, you know: rich people want to create evil islands of selfishness. It couldn’t have looked worse.” The goal of the book was to reframe the debate and recruit hundreds of people with diverse political and professional backgrounds into the movement. And it worked, he believes. 

The stories below might have never happened if someone hadn’t read the Seasteading book at the right moment. Someone like Rüdiger Koch, a German engineer and bitcoin enthusiast, who has read it twice and approached Quirk to confirm that all of that was technically feasible. Someone like Grant Romundt, a software developer from Canada, who met Quirk on a plane one day and got intrigued by his “Stop arguing, start seasteading” T-shirt. Someone like Chad Elwartowski who volunteered to become the first-ever seasteader only to find himself in the midst of a Hollywood-like story. “These two people [Elwartowski and Romundt] are like the two hemispheres of the human brain — they are working together on this thing I never would have imagined”, Quirk says, referring to Ocean Builders, a company behind some of the most notable seasteading endeavours to date. “My only service is to tell the story.” With several novels behind his back, he believes that reality can be more mind-blowing than fiction.

 

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Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute, speaking at the Liberty in Our Lifetime 2022 conference in Prague.

 

‘Tis The SeaZone: The French Polynesia Chapter

All Free City initiatives, essentially, face a trade-off between stability and flexibility. Carefully balancing their desire for autonomy with the need for legal certainty and physical protection, they often seek agreement with an existing nation-state. Governments, in turn, may be willing to carve out a territory and give it a go, hoping that relative freedom attracts talent and capital. Seasteaders, at least in theory, don’t need to ask anyone for permission — after all, they are not treading on any country’s sovereign land. They can start building a new, stateless society entirely from scratch. In real life, however, seaborne startup nations need stability more than anyone — even physical stability, when you live in the high sea, becomes a challenge. Solution? A SeaZone. 

In 2016, the Seasteading Institute and their for-profit cousin, Blue Frontiers, were approached by Marc Collins, a former minister of tourism of French Polynesia. An overseas territory of France with a high degree of autonomy, it comprises over a hundred islands and atolls scattered through the South Pacific, Tahiti being the most famous one. Renowned for its picturesque turquoise lagoons, coral reefs, and volcanic islands, the country relies heavily on tourism. To French Polynesia, the perspective of becoming the first place in the world to have a futuristic floating community with homes, restaurants, and hotels looked like a chance to boost its tourism potential to new heights. A memorandum of understanding was signed between TSI and the French Polynesia government for the creation of modular islands off the Tahiti coast. A series of semi-autonomous platforms plus a land-based settlement would make up a ‘SeaZone’, a sea-based SEZ.  

 

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In September 2016, an international team of seasteading delegates travelled to Tahiti to meet with Polynesian President Édouard Fritch and several other government officials. Source: The Seasteading Institute

For seasteaders, French Polynesia ticked many boxes. The country enjoyed the rule of law and institutional stability, good transport connections with major cities, and decent infrastructure, including broadband internet, a must-have for digital nomads. Inside the country, not everyone was welcoming the initiative. As the new electoral season approached, local politicians bashed the floating island project as “neocolonial” and “elitist” and blamed the incumbent government for a lack of public consultation. Proponents argued that the SeaZone would not only create 2,000 jobs and bring over $170 million of total investment to French Polynesia but also improve its climate resilience. None of that convinced the country’s government, which in 2018 changed its mind and ended its collaboration with TSI and Blue Frontiers. 

That has not discouraged “seavangelists” and “aquapreneurs” from searching for alternative routes to success. Maybe trying to get a state on board when building a stateless society was a bad idea to begin with? An opposite strategy — asking for forgiveness, not permission — was tried out in parallel on the opposite side of the globe.  

 

In Deep Water: Escaping Thailand 

Growing up in a small farm town in Michigan, Chad Elwartowski was an unlikely candidate to become the first seasteader in history. Yet, inspired by the “stop arguing, start seasteading” strategy, he and his Thai-born partner Nadia Summergirl volunteered to become trailblazers. In early 2019, Ocean Builders installed a one-family floating home 12 nautical miles off the coast of Phuket in Thailand. A simple 6-metre-wide octagon structure costs about $150,000 to erect. The couple lived in their new home for a few weeks, occasionally visiting the mainland to sort out the basics, and trying to get permission from the Thai government in writing. In the meantime, three local lawyers confirmed there was nothing illegal about their plan. After all, the seasteaders thought, it wasn’t very much different from living on a boat. “All we expect from the Thai government is that they follow international law. We will be doing the same,” Elwartowski told Reason at the time. Turns out, that was already too much to ask. 

 

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A single-family seastead where Chad and Nadia spent a blissful few months in 2019 before getting noticed by the Thai Navy. Source: The Seasteading Institute

One day, Elwartowski’s friends saw a horrifying post in their Facebook feed. Apparently, the Thai Navy found their little shelter a threat to the country’s independence, no less, a crime potentially punishable by life imprisonment — or death. The two had to promptly seek ways to escape the country. For Nadia, a Thai citizen, that meant asking for asylum and being unable to come back home. In that Facebook post, Elwartowski was asking for legal help and diplomatic protection, emphasising, once again, that their intentions have been benign all along:  

“We were hoping to bring tourism to Phuket with an underwater restaurant, floating hotels and medical research, tech jobs, etc. We had 3 wealthy entrepreneurs in the past week tell us they were coming to live in Phuket because they were excited about the project. We love Thailand. Nadia is a proud Thai. She is a proud Buddhist who does not support violence. I am a pacifist who would not harm a fly.”

Threatening the first seasteaders with a death sentence, he concluded, was “exactly the reason someone would be willing to go out in the middle of the ocean to get away from governments” in the first place. What motivated the Thai Navy to react so harshly remains a mystery, but Joe Quirk is trying to untangle it in his upcoming book, The Freest Person in the World, which he has almost completed. “They lived in a Hollywood movie that would make Tom Cruise jealous,” he says, talking about the couple. Having a military background, Elwartowski decided that ‘disappearing’ for a couple of months, even after escaping Thailand, was the best thing to do. The two came back to the surface in Panama — but that’s the next chapter of the story. 

 

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats? The Panama Chapter

Why Panama? Geography is part of the answer: the country is a global logistics and transportation hub, which lies outside the hurricane zone and enjoys access to two oceans. The economic climate is favourable as well. Panama already has a good track record of SEZs — including, notably, the Colón Free Trade Zone, the largest free port in the Americas and the second largest in the world. It also happened to be the first foreign country that, in 1903, adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency — dollarization makes Panama an attractive destination for foreign investors and saves it from the hyperinflation curse familiar to many other Latin American countries. Last but not least, Panama’s territorial taxation system makes it a magnet for digital nomads: income generated abroad is not taxed in Panama. Joe Quirk adds one more reason: “They don’t have a navy — some of us are a little touchy about navies since Thailand.”

 

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The Colón Free Trade Zone in Panama, the largest free port in the Americas and the second largest in the world. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On top of all that, the Panamanian government showed interest in the initiative. One person instrumental in connecting all the dots was Aldo Antinori, an avid bitcoiner and Panama native, who got ignited by the seasteading concept and also happened to know the right people. He invited Joe Quirk to the country and introduced him to the president’s office, several ministries, and the Panama Canal authorities. The fact that Hector Alexander, minister of finance, had been a student of Milton Friedman at Chicago back in the 1970s, also might have helped. As a result, the idea of a libertarian enclave at sea, spearheaded by Milton Friedman’s grandson among others, fell on a fertile ground. 

“Governments love everything that has to do with investment and innovation,” Antinori explains to me in an interview. “We said: listen, we have a group of investors that are creating this innovative technology and want to try it out here in Panama. And they were like: Yes, of course, how can we help?” In the end, the government didn’t do much to help, he admits, but at least they didn’t mind Ocean Builders continuing their work. The SeaZone idea was on the agenda once again. Yet Ocean Builders quickly figured out that they could vastly speed up the process if, instead of applying for a SeaZone status, they dropped an anchor in a privately-owned marina that already operates as a public-private concession. 

The Linton Bay Marina was exactly like that. Moreover, its president happened to be Surse Pierpoint, the founder of Fundación Libertad Panamá, a free-market think tank, and a former manager of the Colón Free Trade Zone. A prominent libertarian thinker and practitioner, he was aware of seasteading as a concept and was quick to appreciate all the benefits a project like that could bring to Panama. Ocean Builders opened a workshop in Linton Bay, hired about 30 employees locally, and started building a prototype SeaPod.

 

The Tip of the Iceberg: Bitcoiners vs. Bureaucrats

That was late 2019, not long before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. On the one hand, Covid lockdowns took its toll on the country’s economy, creating uncertainty for all, including Ocean Builders. At the same time, the unprecedented encroachment on personal liberties, masked as public health concerns, made many citizens worldwide — many of them for the first time — question the legitimacy of governments as such. The seasteading movement has gained many new supporters. 

Meanwhile, the cruise ship industry was in shambles. Some companies tried to save their business by organising “cruises to nowhere”, but many started to get rid of their main assets: ships. Ocean Builders saw that as an opportunity: never before could one buy a gorgeous 11-deck cruise ship, designed by Renzo Piano and accommodating almost 2,000 passengers, for less than $10 million. The ship previously known as the Pacific Dawn was renamed MS Satoshi and envisioned as a centrepiece of a future floating city in Panama. Surrounded by a constellation of SeaPods, she would form a giant ‘B’ letter, as in ‘bitcoin’, to reflect the cryptoanarchist views of the founding crew. 

 

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MS Satoshi crew. Source: Seasteading.org.

If something looks like a ship, sails like a ship, or sounds like a ship, then it probably is a ship — that’s the way any bureaucrat thinks, be it in Panama, Portugal, or Pakistan. MS Satoshi, no doubt, looked like a ship, even though the Ocean Builders planned to convert her into a permanent floating condominium. As a ship, she required a flag (ideally Panamanian, otherwise she would have had to get out of Panama’s territorial waters every now and then), functioning engines and diesel tanks (even though the plan was to get rid of those and use the freed up space for workshop facilities), a crew of at least 30-40 people, and, most importantly, an insurance. 

“My daily job was reading every maritime law that Panama has passed, which was not a fun thing,” Chad Elwartowski recalls. The most frustrating discovery for Ocean Builders was that no one was ready to insure something as groundbreaking. “There are only about a dozen insurance companies in the world that cover large ships, and they didn’t like it that we were innovative, so we were not able to find an insurance company that was willing to work with us,” he explains. Despite the overall support of the Panama government, MS Satoshi ended up in regulatory limbo.

In late 2020, just days before Christmas, Ocean Builders announced that, sadly, the Satoshi Crypto Cruise Ship was sold to another cruise company. This was not the end of the story though. They still had a SeaPod factory running in Linton Bay Marina, the Panama authorities were still on their side, and the seasteading movement was growing larger than ever — in line with the collective disillusionment in traditional government structures. The idea of a ship as a centrepiece of a liberty-minded, bitcoin-powered floating community in Panama was abandoned, but not of the community itself. 

 

Smooth Sailing: Smart Floating Homes for Sale 

SeaPods, seashell-like floating homes with panoramic ocean views, were designed by the world’s leading “aquatect” Koen Olthius. Though anchored to the seabed using a spar buoy system, SeaPods could be moved to different locations if necessary. They may also be grouped into clusters, creating entire seasteading communities. Ultra-minimalist, sustainable, eco-restorative — designed to increase, not deplete habitat for sea life like coral and fish — and, at least in theory, entirely self-sufficient, these structures are equipped with solar panels and rainwater collection facilities. Each SeaPod provides 833 square feet of living space, comparable to an average 2-bedroom flat, with the price ranging from $295,000 up to $1.5 million. 

The prototype SeaPod — spaceship-like, tech-infused, with massive panoramic windows overlooking the marina — was installed in Linton Bay in late 2022 and is now available for curious visitors to stay overnight. “I go visit about once a month and stay [there] overnight,” Chad Elwartowski tells me, “and every time I’m there, there’s some new fancy technology. Like, you open the bathroom door, and the seat opens up for you. Everything is very high-tech.” A team of software engineers work around the clock on upgrading the ‘smart home’ features, a process meticulously documented in the blog. In perspective, SeaPod occupants are expected to use a wearable ring for everything, from dimming the LED lights to ordering drone food deliveries.

 

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A prototype SeaPod. Source: Ocean Builders.

The process wasn’t smooth in the beginning. Everyone following the seasteading movement remembers the “ouch” moment when the flagship SeaPod tilted and then partially sank right after its installation. Embarrassing photos, which filled the media in September 2022, showed a crowd, including the Panamanian president Laurentino Cortizo, helplessly staring at a sleek white structure that was about to go underwater. The “Tilt”, apparently, was caused by a pumping system malfunction that destabilised the SeaPod. Within days, the construction was fixed and the SeaPod was floating again — and has been floating since. 

“It was a quick way to know who our friends were and who were the detractors,” Elwartowski recalls the cold shower Ocean Builders receive on social media. The global audience largely ignored the fact that the problem was solved within days, he says, but the Panamanian public remained largely positive. In the past few years, Ocean Builders have been providing jobs and training to dozens of local low-skilled workers, collaborating with coral reef preservation and marine science research initiatives. “We’re winning over the hearts and minds of Panamanians,” Joe Quirk proudly concludes (though TSI officially pulled out of the project in 2023, he remains a friend and a firm supporter). 

The feeling is mutual — Elwartowski now speaks very fondly of his new home. “We love Panama,” he says. After escaping Thailand, he and Nadia got married and had a child in Panama. “We are raising our little girl and we feel safe. The weather is similar to Thailand and the people are friendly.” One of the richest countries in Latin America, Panama is attracting more and more tourists and expats each year. Most of them flock to the capital, but some might be seduced by an opportunity to live in a floating home with a 360-degree ocean view and freedom-loving neighbours all around. According to Elwartowski, “Once you experience it, it’s just hard to not want to get back out there.”

 

A Drop in the Ocean? Why Starting Small May Be Key

A minimalist one-family floating home, or even a congregation of those, seems like a far cry from the original ambition to create entire stateless nations in neutral waters. But seasteaders see it not as a diversion from the big vision but rather as the first incremental step towards it. Linton Bay will be a nursery to test-drive ocean living, prove that it is possible, and raise funds necessary for scaling up. “But our ultimate goal has always been to go out into the open ocean,” Elwartowski assures me. 

In the short run, the plan is to make SeaPods in Linton Bay marina available for overnight booking and then start selling them to large marine resort operators worldwide. The next generation of floating homes, the Deep Water SeaPod, will have an underwater room. Affluent travellers already pay thousands of dollars per night to stay below the ocean level (see some examples below). Seasteaders are going to charge much cheaper “because we want middle-class tourists to come and stay on it,” Quirk explains this ‘Seabnb’ model. According to Ocean Builders, they already receive requests from luxury resorts willing to buy a few dozen pods each.

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The world’s first underwater hotel residence, the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island owned by Hilton charges a minimum of $10,000 per night for a luxury stay beneath the ocean. The top floor, which rests above the water, comprises a sprawling deck for tanning and relaxation.

Source: Flickr/Daniel Gillaspia

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The Atlantis Underwater Suite on the Dubai Palm offers a mesmerizing view into the resort’s Ambassador Lagoon, home to 65,000 marine inhabitants. While watching sharks and rays glide by is a unique experience on its own, the suite also offers other luxuries such as a 24-hour personal butler — all for $7,125 a night.

Source: Flickr/Werner Bayer

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On Sentosa Island, a stone’s throw from Singapore’s coast, Resorts World Sentosa presents 11 duplex Equarius Ocean Suites. They uniquely integrate the resort’s vast aquarium, allowing guests to enjoy an outdoor patio on the top level and captivating underwater vistas of 40,000 fish on the floor below for $1,450 a night.

Source: Flickr/Simon_sees

But what about political freedom? “Being on the water already gives you some degree of sovereignty,” Elwartowski reasons. “I mean, if you look at all these people that live on their boats, they’re not too worried about a lot of things that the rest of us worry about, like zoning laws and property taxes.” “​​The autonomy comes from the fact that you’re able to move it,” Antinori agrees. If Panama suddenly becomes hostile, SeaPods can be floated to neighbouring Costa Rica, or even further to Honduras, where the new seasteading community can become part of an existing ZEDE. Ocean Builders claim they already get “a lot of interest from other governments”, without revealing the details just yet.

 

Anchored in Experience: Three Main Lessons 

Navigating political currents in French Polynesia, escaping a deadly storm in Thailand, dropping an anchor in Panama — it was a pretty eventful decade for the seasteading movement. What are the main lessons learnt and what will be the next steps?

First of all, seasteaders are now convinced that starting small is the best strategy. “Enough with the big visions of giant floating cities — just give me one technology that could be replicated and pay for itself,” says Joe Quirk when I ask him this question. The Seasteading Institute, despite their widely-known brand, has only two full-time employees, but multiple non-profit and for-profit organisations, with various approaches and backgrounds yet shared goals and values, are engaged in smaller-scale innovation under the TSI umbrella. The projects endorsed by TSI massively range in scale, from a single brick proposed as an eco-friendly material for building on the ocean to single-family seasteads to entire sea colonies. This startup-like approach allows ‘aquapreneurs’ to try out different monetisation strategies in parallel. For instance, the property-tech company Arkhaus is currently developing a floating private club in Miami for “like-minded disruptors and innovators” with annual membership packages starting from $7,500 — if it pays off, they intend to replicate this model in New York, Istanbul, Dubai, and Paris. 

A different but complementary strategy might be to gather an online community before building something physical. In line with the concept of non-territorial governance (also known as cryptosecession) and network states, this approach allows seasteaders to get a critical mass of supporters without asking them all to leave their lives behind and move to a shaky remote floating platform — and to test-drive new ideas without cutting through red tape or engaging in political fights. Ethos Island, for instance, intends to create an oceangoing private city-state in international waters and is inviting everyone to join their virtual crowd and vote for location. 

Another example is Atlas Island. Founded in 2021 by a group of TSI ambassadors, they have gathered about 400 online members committed to becoming citizens of a future seastead. At first, the plan is to establish marina communities made up of individual vessels close to onshore amenities, and then gradually develop the infrastructure necessary to move further into the high seas, away from any government control, and ultimately, become a fully-fledged seastead with contract-based citizenship, akin to a free private city. The founders are now choosing locations for pioneering communities — one in the Mediterranean and one in the Caribbean — and developing the “Ark of Liberty”, a self-sufficient single-family boat house to serve as a building block. The Atlas Island team is also negotiating with an undisclosed government to adopt a flag of convenience (FOC) — a practice commonly used by ship owners of registering a vessel in a country other than the country of actual ownership to bypass costly rules and regulations.

 

Here comes the second lesson the seasteaders have learnt after several attempts to strike a deal with nation-states: It’s time to stop negotiating with governments and start negotiating with flagging registries. It is a common practice for nation-states to delegate the administrative and regulatory functions of registering a ship, enforcing maritime regulations, and inspecting vessels to third-party private entities. As a result, while the ship flies the flag of the nation in question, a private entity handles many of the day-to-day regulatory tasks. The practice is ubiquitous: the lion’s share of global shipping is carried out under FOCs. For nation-states issuing FOCs, more vessels carrying a country’s flag — and paying a yearly fee for that — means more money into that country’s budget, making it a win-win arrangement. Panama firmly holds the leadership by the number of ships carrying its flags, followed by Liberia, the Marshall Islands, Malta, and the Bahamas. As Quirk explains: 

“The legal ecosystem for seasteading is not defined in international law, so the Seasteading Institute intends to negotiate with flagging registries to get the Bahamas, Panama, Malta, or Liberia to define seasteads as a legitimate category of vessel in international law. … If we do that, two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is an open canvas to experiment with voluntary societies.” 

In the case of MS Satoshi, Panama was ready to grant its flag to the mega-ship, they just had no idea how to classify it. Classifying it as a seaworthy vessel implied that the ship would move around, transporting passengers and goods, carrying thousands of gallons of fuel, requiring a crew of some 30-40 persons, and following a plethora of costly environmental and labour regulations — all of which are, in fact, irrelevant for a floating residential community which MS Satoshi actually intended to be. If only Panama, otherwise rather warm towards seasteading initiatives, could define seasteads as a legitimate legal entity, that would be a game-changer. The ocean rules are fluid (just recently, for instance, the UN has updated environmental rules governing high seas) and new legal precedents will eventually lead to new legal practices. 

Here comes the third major lesson learnt by seasteaders to date: prioritise safety. It is easy to see how cumbersome regulations hinder scientific and institutional progress — and indeed, the precautionary principle, instinctive fear of all things new, is to a large extent responsible for the slowdown of innovation globally. But for techno-optimists to win the argument, it is equally important to remember that deep down, when it comes to normal people, this fear is driven not by some partisan ideology but by a natural human desire for safety. Thus, to get public opinion and decision-makers on their side, seasteaders must show that when seeking to escape government rules, they don’t just throw every precaution into the bin — they replace burdensome and obsolete maritime regulation with modern and agile self-regulation. 

The recent catastrophic implosion of OceanGate’s Titan submersible was a tragic reminder of the ocean’s dangerous nature that could have been avoided, the TSI blog writes: “Seasteaders are on the edge of innovation, but innovation cannot ignore physics.” To prevent future tragedies, counter anxiety, and boost public confidence, TSI is now reinventing itself as a classification society. A team of volunteers are busy skimming through thousands of pages of existing safety standards and drafting a document (“Classification Society Rules and Standards”) to legally define seasteads in international law. That would allow the TSI to use their reputation to grant — or refuse — their seal of approval to projects that want to be considered seasteads. If all goes as planned, that would make all sides — flagging registries, insurance companies, investors, and seasteaders themselves — more confident when exploring the uncharted waters of ocean living.

 

A Sea of Possibilities: What’s Next for Seasteading?

Seasteading ideas did not evolve in isolation — like Free Cities, seasteads belong to a broader movement of initiatives exploring how innovation in governance increases human freedom and prosperity. Compared to land-based free communities, seasteading projects have one big upside: mobility. Individual vessels and entire floating communities can be moved to a new place if the political environment in the country of origin becomes hostile. This fluidity allows seasteads to enjoy unparalleled autonomy here and now. 

We might be decades away from the United Nations acknowledging floating micro-states as sovereign entities, but persuading at least one country (maybe Panama?) to recognise seasteads seems quite possible. As oceanic laws adapt and shift, almost half of the world’s surface remains unclaimed by any government — an open canvas for exploration and experimentation. In this vast expanse of blue, there lies a promise of creating “a huge diversity of governments for a huge diversity of people” and a future where every wave brings forth new possibilities.