Ahoy!

02.20.14

Welcome to Sealand: a Sovereign Nation

As if it were a plot point straight out of J.J. Abrams’ Lost, a man founded a nation off the coast of England while looking for a pirate radio broadcasting station. There was no black smoke or polar bears, but he did establish currency, flags and a royal court. All hail Sealand!

In the choppy North Sea about six miles off the English coast, a floating, rusty World War II fort is a self-proclaimed independent nation. Owned by one family for nearly 50 years, the Principality of Sealand peddles its own currency, citizenship, and has a defensive force ready to jump into action if enemy forces invade again as they did decades ago. The 50-citizen, 1,800-square-foot country resides on a platform of steel and concrete, supported by two beams reaching deep into the sea. It’s only accessible to visitors—who must apply for a visa—by helicopter or with help from a crane after a boat ride.

While the bizarrely dramatic island nation may sound eerily familiar to fans of J.J. Abrams’ hit TV series Lost, Sealand is in no way fictionalized. In fact, it’s so real, it’s existed for almost half a century in a geopolitical gray zone. It’s not recognized as a sovereign nation by the United Kingdom, but it considers itself as such and isn’t bothered by the government. The self-styled island’s motto is “E Mare Libertas” or, “From the Sea, Freedom,” and interested potential Sealanders are now even able to join the royal family for a $320 fee. (That buys a “Count/Countess Title Pack,” which includes stamps and e-mail addresses. Lesser fees buys you a baron or baroness title or lord or ladyship.)

The story of Sealand dates back to the 1960s, when a former British Army major named Paddy Roy Bates took control of a small outpost in the North Sea, three miles from the mainland’s coast. Bates’s intention was to turn it into a pirate radio broadcasting station to circumvent England’s restrictive regulations. But he was kicked out, and ended up finding Sealand, a former sea fort run by the British Navy during WWII that had been abandoned for 11 years and was out of the U.K.’s waters. Instead of broadcasting from this new station, he announced plans to form a sovereign nation. According to Bates’s lawyer, the platform’s location in international waters and abandonment by the U.K. made it up for grabs.

On Sept. 2, 1967, full independence was declared and the Principality of Sealand was born. A diagonally stripped red, white, and black flag was hoisted and titles of Prince and Princess were designated to Roy and his wife, Joan. They’d later draft a constitution and issue coins, passports, and stamps. (The passports are not officially recognized by any countries, and the Sealand Dollar is fixed to the U.S. currency.)

In response, the U.K. destroyed similar nearby towers so no one else could follow the Bates’s lead. But the government couldn’t ignore Sealand’s existence a year later, when Bates fired warning shots at an approaching British repair boat, whose crew were apparently heckling the Bates’s children. Bates’s son, Michael, was brought to court, where he won on the foundation that Sealand was in international waters.

In 1978, a group of Germans and Dutch hoping to turn it into a luxury casino descended on the platform and held Bates’s son Michael hostage without food or water for three days. Then they dropped him in the Netherlands. The invaders were led by a man proclaiming to be the Prime Minister of Sealand. The senior Bates, who had been lured by the businessmen to Austria, returned and connected with his son in Britain. The family hatched a plan to recapture their nation, hiring a helicopter to bring them back to Sealand and descending in a dramatic raid. The unwelcome outsiders surrendered and were taken by the Bateses as POWs. Unaided by Britain, Germany sent over a diplomat to free the now imprisoned invaders, who returned home to Germany and promptly set up the exiled “Sealand Rebel Government.”

In response, the Bateses formed the Knights of the Sovereign Military Order of Sealand, a quasi-defense force prepared to leap into action at the next attack. Luckily, that never happened, but as of 2012, you can join the order for $166.

While the land does boast living quarters, a chapel, and an exercise area, just one caretaker comprises the island’s population. The Bates family doesn’t live there full-time anymore, rather they reside in Essex. “The history of Sealand is a story of a struggle for liberty,” the nation’s website explains. Bates would later call the nation “a game, an adventure.” But he took his rulership seriously, and apparently at some point even met with the United Nations about recognizing its sovereignty.

Though the U.K. has since extended its territory from three to 12 nautical miles, which encompasses Sealand, there has been no further challenge to its perceived independence. "Although Mr. Bates styles the platform as the Principality of Sealand,” a spokesperson told Wired, “the U.K. government does not regard Sealand as a state."

Upkeep of the island has been pricey, but Sealand has found ways to pay the bills. Along with the memorabilia peddled on the website (from the aforementioned royal titles to “I Love Sealand” T-shirts and keyrings), the royal family has been open to hi-tech ventures. In 2000, a rogue tech company called HavenCo set up Internet servers on Sealand, billing it as an off-shore, out-of-government-reach date haven. Sealand later entertained possibly hosting WikiLeaks servers. But they’ve turned a number of undesirable offers as well, from developers seeking to build a “pleasure island” to Argentineans hoping to get close to Britain during the Falklands War. In 2007, Pirate Bay even attempted to raise the funds to purchase Sealand.

The sea air must have done Roy Bates good. He died in 2012 at the age of 91, but his son, Prince Michael (check out his recent Reddit AMA here), asserted the founding family’s continued devotion to their micronation. “The family,” he told the New York Times, “plans to continue the legacy.” According to recent news posted on the Sealand website, the platform nation was sending charity sports teams (they have their own national soccer and curling teams) across Europe, hosting music videos film shoots, and welcoming new royalty—Prince James, Roy’s grandson, had gotten married.