American software developer Chad Elwartowski and his Thai girlfriend Supranee Thepdet made history earlier this year when they abandoned their landlocked lives and embarked on their shared journey as pioneers living on a seastead in the high seas.
Living on a permanent floating dwelling in international waters was supposed to make them the freest people in the world. Instead, it made them a target of the Thai government, which is now threatening the couple with their lives.
Pioneers on the High Seas
Working with Ocean Builders, a group of “engineering focused entrepreneurs” who build these structures (see below), the couple used cryptocurrency to purchase their floating home. The seasteads Ocean Builders designs are octagons made of steel and concrete. The structures are inspired by the “spar” design of oil platforms that already exist out at sea, except they are not nearly as large nor are they as expensive. While they are tiny—about 25 square meters—they are able to withstand strong waves and even hurricanes.
As Ocean Builders explains:
Our spar platform consists of a 20 meter steel cylinder that is ballasted by concrete at the bottom. This allows for very little movement from the waves keeping the center of gravity low below the water line.
On February 2, 2019, they officially moved into their new residence, which they named “Exly” after the Roman numerals XLII, a reference from Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Exly was strategically placed in international waters just 12 nautical miles out from the official jurisdiction of Phuket, Thailand.
Close enough to take a short boat ride to the shore but far enough away to live a completely sovereign life unshackled from government rule, the couple took a philosophical concept, now decades old, and turned it into a reality, inspiring all those dreaming of a living a truly free, self-sufficient life.
“I just want to make seasteading happen for real,” Thepdet told Reason in March. And while they got to experience true sovereignty for a handful of weeks, their experiment was cut short after the Thai government declared that their seastead was a threat to its national sovereignty.
Elwartowski and Supranee were merely trying to live their lives on a tiny seastead in the ocean and did not pose a threat to anyone.
To be sure, while the couple had spoken passionately about freedom from government rule, their actions were not seditious. Neither had ever threatened to overthrow the Thai government; nor had they made threats of violence or belittled the sovereignty of Thailand. Elwartowski and Supranee were merely trying to live their lives on a tiny seastead in the ocean and did not pose a threat to anyone. Ocean Builders and the couple have both said they made certain that the structure was in international waters and, thus, beyond Thailand’s jurisdiction, but the authorities have claimed otherwise.
Asserting that Exly was still within Thailand’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone, the government made plans to charge the couple with threatening Thailand’s national sovereignty, a crime punishable by death. However, before the Thai Navy could come detain the couple, they were tipped off and managed to escape. They are now on the run, fleeing for their lives.
What Is Seasteading, Anyway?
In the marketplace, individuals are free to try a variety of goods and services before deciding which one they prefer. If, for example, a person tries Gym A and then finds they do not like the equipment it provides or the gym’s policies, they can break their contract and try Gym B, Gym C, Gym D, etc. If none of the options available are to an individual's liking, they can also take the entrepreneurial route and start their own gym.
When it comes to governance, however, individuals do not have the same freedom. Sure, a person can “shop around” and experiment living in different jurisdictions, but if they are dissatisfied with their options, they are not free to form their own laws or governing structures without facing serious consequences. Such acts are usually seen as seditious and can end in bloodshed.
Seasteading, however, theoretically gives individuals the opportunity to treat governance like any other market entity, choosing which laws they want to abide by without resorting to violence or facing repercussions from established governments.
45 percent of the earth is still unclaimed and free from any state’s jurisdiction.
The general concept of seasteading has been around for years, and there are many examples throughout history of permanent structures floating at sea. However, the modern seasteading movement can be largely attributed to Wayne Gramlich, who wrote an essay in 1998 entitled “Seasteading – Homesteading on the High Seas.”
The essay spoke of the potential for colonizing the ocean's surface with floating structures, the purpose of which was to give individuals the freedom to circumvent oppressive governments, experiment with different types of laws, experience true religious freedom, and escape excessive taxation. Years after it had been written, the essay caught the attention of Patri Friedman, who later joined with Gramlich in 2008 to launch the nonprofit organization, the Seasteading Institute.
The two were not content to keep the concept of seasteading confined to the pages of Gramlich’s essay. The Seasteading Institute sought to take these ideas and turn them into reality by encouraging and facilitating the real-life establishment of these permanent floating structures. And as crazy as this idea might sound to some, the leaders of the Seasteading Institute, along with others, have done their due diligence to discover how this could “legally” be accomplished.
While the world has largely been settled and claimed by various world governments, 45 percent of the earth is still unclaimed and free from any state’s jurisdiction. However, since this large chunk of unclaimed territory exists in international waters, relocating from dry land to the sea has not been appealing to most people. But the Seasteading Institute sought to find a way to help people live far enough away from official government jurisdiction that they were not bound by the laws but still close enough to visit land should they desire.
The answer lies in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which created an interesting loophole through the existence of something called exclusive economic zones. According to the United Nations (UN):
The exclusive economic zone is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, subject to the specific legal regime established in this Part, under which the rights and jurisdiction of the coastal State and the rights and freedoms of other States are governed by the relevant provisions of this Convention.
These exclusive economic zones, which are subject to the rule of local governments, extend 200 nautical miles from the shore. But beyond that point rest the high seas, which belong to no one. And in the absence of an established government and legal code, Friedman and Gramlich found a way to bring their dream to fruition.
The Seasteading Institute and the rest of the seasteading movement envisioned a future where groups of seasteads could form communities, where each member promised to obey mutually agreed upon rules. If someone decides they no longer want to be a part of this community, they are free to detach their seastead from the rest of the community and live on their own or find another seasteading community to join.
At one of the first Seasteading Institute conferences, Friedman spoke to this effect, saying:
When seasteading becomes a viable alternative, switching from one government to another would be a matter of sailing to the other without even leaving your house.
This idea caught the attention of venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who eventually pledged $500,000 to the newly-created nonprofit. Thiel said that seasteading is "one of the few technological frontiers that has the promise to create a new space for human freedom." He has since given more than $1 million to the Seasteading Institute, and his major contributions helped thrust seasteading into the mainstream.
The Seasteading Institute and Ocean Builders are not the only advocates of this lifestyle, however. Blue Frontiers is another group that is working diligently to spread the seasteading doctrine. Joe Quirk, who runs Blue Frontiers, even wrote a book entitled Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians, which, as the title eludes, highlights how seasteading can create practical solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems.
While the movement to create these floating structures has caught on over the years, it was still largely just an idea whose time had not yet come until Elwartowski and Thepdet made the courageous decision to volunteer as the first seasteading pioneers.
Fleeing for Their Lives
On April 13th, the Thai navy boarded the seastead and began dismantling the small 20-foot wide structure that briefly stood as a beacon of individual freedom for the entire world. The couple had plans to build an entire seasteading resort, which they believed would have helped bring increased tourism to nearby Thailand. These dreams have been demolished now.
Phuket’s police chief, Major General Wisarn Phanmanee, told reporters:
At the moment we have already gathered evidence and spoke to witnesses from those involved in the construction as well as others.
In a Facebook post, Elwartowski wrote:
This is ridiculous. We lived on a floating house boat for a few weeks and now Thailand wants us killed. … We had to go underground because our contact warned us before this came out.
When he speaks of the government wanting to kill him, he is talking directly about Section 119 of the Thai criminal code, which states that those caught threatening Thai’s state sovereignty will suffer life imprisonment or death.
However, no one was threatening the government or Thailand’s sovereignty. And the only radical action taken by these two was their decision to live together in such a small space at the edge of the ocean.
Responding to the government’s claim that the two are somehow plotting some sort of overthrow of the Thai government, Friedman, commented: “Two people on a floating home is a honeymoon, not a revolution.”
"The Freest Person in the World"
For activists longing for freedom but morally opposed to using aggression or violence against oppressive governments, seasteading gives them the option to opt out of these systems peacefully. Tranquilly floating on a structure in international waters poses no threat but instead offers viable means to voicing dissent against our current power structures.
Thailand’s actions are setting a dangerous precedent. If other governments follow Thailand’s lead and begin going after those who would try to peacefully live their lives in international waters, then those longing for freedom will have few options left (if any).
While the couple is in hiding and their fate is still unknown, Ocean Builders has confirmed that they are safe for the time being. Elwartowski also wrote in a Facebook post:
Hunting us down to our death is just plain stupid and highlights exactly the reason someone would be willing to go out in middle of the ocean to get away from governments.
I have no idea what’s going on now.. why is the Thai Navy has torpedoes looking for us ..?..we are not killers we just loving couple who want to have a floating house we just want to have a simple life we don’t want to get in war with anything.... why are they doing that to us..??
While some may scoff at such a radical and seemingly rash decision to live on a seastead, the couple’s willingness to take a risk and live at sea has stretched the canvas of what is possible for the future of sovereign living. Just days before the Thai Navy began destroying Exly, Elwartowski lamented in a Facebook post, "I was free for a moment. Probably the freest person in the world. It was glorious.”