Sealand’s Prince Roy
In 1967, a radio pirate named Roy Bates took over a British sea fort, declared it an independent country, and crowned himself prince. Somehow, it worked — the British government has left him and his family alone for 45 years. Prince Roy reigned over the Principality of Sealand until his death last week at age 91.
I first read about the Principality of Sealand as a kid, in a book called 2201 Fascinating Facts. In that long-ago pre-Web era, when obscure stories could hide more easily, my curiosity went unsated for years. Once I became a journalist, I started researching Sealand, looking for a way to get there and write a story.
In 2001, I found the hook: Sealand’s royal family partnered with a tech company founded by a guy from Ann Arbor. John Hilton, my former editor at Ann Arbor’s monthly city magazine, assigned me to go to England, visit Sealand, and interview Roy Bates and his family. Here’s my story about his great obsession.
Sean of Sealand
The incredible saga of a Community High grad, the dot-com bubble, and a “micronation.”
By Erick Trickey
Ann Arbor Observer, December 2001
The lifeboat leaps into the North Sea, skipping over each wave. Six passengers, clad in scuba divers’ dry suits and sprayed with salt water, stare at a tiny rectangle on the horizon. The boat passes the last buoy, leaving the British coast behind, and the destination takes shape: two immense concrete columns supporting a thin platform.
Eight miles from Harwich, the ancient port town where the Mayflower was built, a sixty-year-old sea fort towers over the waves, dull and menacing. The assaults of the tide have stained its gray columns brown. The cabin on the platform is dark and uninviting, its few windows fogged with grime. Between them, crude white lettering reads “Sealand.”
Atop the platform a man is standing next to a strange flag; he waves and lowers a chain with a metal hook at the end. A passenger wearing a harness over his dry suit snaps the hook around a loop in the harness, and a winch pulls him thirty-some feet up to the deck.
The concrete on the platform, once painted red, is faded, cracked, and strewn with scrap metal and empty wooden cable spools. The metal parts of the deck have turned pure orange with rust. But the dark fort is surrounded by a panorama of blue-gray sea and sky, the British coast to the west, a passenger ferry sailing by to the north, and a line of freighters following a shipping channel to the east.
Those who lay claim to the fort insist that it is the world’s smallest independent country. It’s a pirates’ hideaway on the high seas, home to two very different groups of swashbuckling dreamers longing for complete freedom.
Thirty-four years ago, an English pirate-radio operator and his family took over the sea fort and declared it the Principality of Sealand. Because the fort was outside British territorial waters, they said, it lay beyond the reach of any law but theirs. None of the world’s nations recognizes Sealand as a country. But its founders have been left alone, to do as they please, ever since.
Then, last year, a young band of Internet entrepreneurs, led by an Ann Arbor native, joined the fort’s longtime owners in what may be the most daring and eccentric venture to come out of the late-1990s dot-com boom. They wanted to make Sealand into the perfect “data haven”—a sanctuary for computer servers, websites, and data storage free from government regulation and subpoenas. And though the collapse of the market for Internet stocks destroyed many other entrepreneurs’ dreams, HavenCo not only survived the dot-bomb, it’s actually turning a profit out in the North Sea.
In the late 1990s Sean Hastings was sunning himself in the British West Indies, trying to decide on his next destination. Hastings had gone far in ten years. Raised on Steere Place, off Packard on Ann Arbor’s southeast side, he’d taught his Community High math teacher about new computer systems and hung out with a crowd of conservative and libertarian students who challenged Community’s liberal conventional wisdom. After graduating in 1986, he went on to Washtenaw Community College and then to the U-M. There, friend Joseph Saul remembers, he spent most of his time working on his computer and going days without sleep. Sometimes the young men practiced Japanese sword fighting with bamboo rods—on the street in Hastings’s student neighborhood at 4 a.m.
“He didn’t finish [college] because he was bored to death,” says his mother, Janet MacDonald, a math and computer science instructor at WCC. After dropping out of college, Hastings moved around between many of the places restless young Ann Arborites go—New York City, the Bay Area, New Orleans. He rode the dot-com boom as a computer technician and consultant. “Systems architect” and “cypherpunk,” he calls himself on his personal website. He adds another title: “productive member of society—real soon now, I promise!”
Cypherpunks add spy-novel intrigue to techie obsession. They believe that communication and commerce should spread over the Internet unbound by government regulation; one way of advancing that goal is to create codes too dense for law enforcement to break. In New Orleans, Hastings did his part by starting a company that designed software for sports-betting operations based in countries with lax gambling laws.
In 1997 Hastings and his wife, Jo, moved to Anguilla, a small, self-governing British territory in the Caribbean, home to only 10,000 people. Part of a small but creative crowd of expatriate entrepreneurs attracted by Anguilla’s low taxes, they worked for a company that developed secure financial payment systems for use on the Internet.
Meanwhile Sean had bigger plans. In 1998, at a cryptography conference, he met Ryan Lackey, another young systems technician who’d spent some time on Anguilla. They bounced an idea around that was rapidly spreading among high-tech privacy advocates. They wanted to create a data haven “offshore”—that is, outside the reach of United States law. Anguilla wouldn’t do, because some of the biggest potential customers would be websites offering gambling or pornography—and Anguilla had laws against both. Where else could they go?
Hastings soon found his answer. He got hold of the book How to Start Your Own Country, put out by Loompanics Unlimited, an anarchist publishing company. It describes various people’s attempts to declare independence from all existing countries and found “micronations” of their own.
Most of the micronations in the book are pretty pathetic. Some people have tried to declare their house, ranch, or store an independent country. Others claimed remote islands or reefs where they’d never set foot. The book even includes the Conch Republic, Key West’s tongue-in-cheek attempt to secede from the United States in 1982 to protest a border patrol roadblock.
Even serious attempts to create micronations have generally gone nowhere. In the late 1960s an Ayn Rand disciple with a tippy boat undertook Operation Atlantis, trying (and failing) to lay claim to various Caribbean islands. In 1972 some Americans tried to create the Republic of Minerva by dumping sand on a Pacific coral reef. That didn’t work, either—the king of Tonga sent a boatload of convicts over to claim the new island for himself.
In the whole book there’s only one example of a micronation that’s survived and been left alone. It’s featured on the cover, where Prince Roy Bates, former pirate-radio operator, and his wife, Princess Joan, stand atop their sea fort, smiling for an aerial photographer.
Hastings had found the perfect location for his data haven, literally offshore: the Principality of Sealand.
Sealand’s story starts in 1965, three years before Sean Hastings was born, when a crowd of rebel entrepreneurs decided to break the BBC’s monopoly and bring commercial radio to Great Britain. They set up illegal radio stations just off the coast, some on ships, others on abandoned sea forts like Sealand, which had been built as an antiaircraft platform during World War II and had stood vacant since the 1950s.
Screaming Lord Sutch—recording artist, professional freak, and perennial joke candidate in British elections—sent his signal from a boat that sailed up and down the Thames River. Ronan O’Rahilly, a figure in Swinging London’s peace-and-love crowd, started a station named Radio Caroline; it became so popular that the Beatles recorded a Christmas message for its listeners.
Then there was Radio Essex, “arguably the most amateurish of all the pirates,” in one author’s words. It was owned by Roy Bates, a millionaire fishing-fleet, factory, and butcher-shop-chain owner with a dashing smile, bushy eyebrows, and a stubborn disinclination to follow anyone’s rules.
Bates had heard commercial radio on business trips to America, and he wanted a piece of the action. So he sailed out to the British Army’s old Knock John Fort, ousted a rival pirate, and fired up an old U.S. Air Force radio beacon. He spent more than a year broadcasting Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to the southeastern part of Essex, the seaside county on the north bank of the Thames.
But Britain cracked down, passing a new law called the Marine Offences Act and hauling the broadcasters into court. Bates decided to move his operation to Roughs Tower—another old fort off the Essex coast, this one outside Britain’s territorial waters, which extended only three miles offshore. He didn’t mind that Radio Caroline had gotten there first.
On Christmas Eve 1966, Bates, his fourteen-year-old son, Michael, and some friends sailed out to Roughs Tower. They climbed a rope ladder, grabbed an air rifle from one of the Radio Caroline employees, and took possession of the fortress. The next day they put their rivals ashore.
Several months of truce, standoff, and violence followed. Both the Bateses and Radio Caroline knew the fort’s location could provide a valuable sanctuary from British law, so they tried to share the tower and even built a helicopter pad together. But the armistice fell apart. O’Rahilly sent men to retake the tower, and Michael Bates threw Molotov cocktails into their boats. The men jumped ship and clung to the fort’s concrete columns, rope ladders, and winch cables until rescuers arrived.
Britain’s newspapers loved to recount the battles just off the coast of their orderly nation. The Times of London quoted Roy Bates bragging that his family had warded off the invaders with a flamethrower (a story he denies now).
The British government had recently hauled Bates into court and fined him for operating Radio Essex. At first everyone thought Bates just wanted to move his station farther offshore. But he had bigger plans. They were hatched one night when he met his wife at their favorite pub.
“Darling, I’ve got you your own island now,” he said.
“Now I’d like my own flag and palm trees, please,” Joan Bates replied.
All night, the couple and their friends kicked around the idea of starting a new country on the sea fort. To their friends, it was just bar talk. But Roy Bates went home, looked through some law books, and called a lawyer friend.
“A couple weeks later he phoned me up and said, ‘Well, apparently, what you’ve got is a first-class idea. It can be done. But of course it’s impossible. You can’t do it. The British government will do you in.’ ”
But Roy Bates is a headstrong man. At age eighteen he’d been so eager to take part in World War II that he lied about his age to join the army. He rose to the rank of major and fought his way up Italy, shaking off knife and bullet wounds, and quarreling with his commanding officers the whole way. Two decades later he was still unafraid of authority, or of a fight.
“I said, ‘If you say it can’t be done, that it’s impossible for me to do it, I’ve got to do it, don’t I?’ ”
On September 2, 1967, Bates declared Roughs Tower to be the independent Principality of Sealand. He proclaimed himself prince and absolute ruler, like the prince of Monaco before its constitution was adopted. The name Sealand reflected the grandeur of his ambitions: he dreamed of someday reclaiming land from the sea to expand his new nation.
“Ludicrous,” scoffed a government spokesman. Navy boats and helicopters buzzed the tower to intimidate the Bateses, but they wouldn’t budge. Officials offered to pay them to leave the tower. They refused the offer. Prime minister Harold Wilson decided not to take the fort by force, afraid someone would get killed.
A year later the Sealanders accidentally tested their sovereignty—and won. Government maintenance workers sailed close to Sealand to repair a buoy that warns boats away. Young Michael Bates was on Sealand with his sister, Penny. “They were making indecent comments to my sister,” he recalled in an August interview. “I fired a couple of warning shots in the water. They went away.”
Though Roy, who trained police in small arms, had a license to use the automatic pistol, Michael didn’t. Father and son were hauled into court and accused of violating British weapons laws. But since the incident happened outside the three-mile territorial limit, the judge ruled he had no jurisdiction to hear the case. To the Bates family, that was all the proof they needed: Sealand had won its independence.
Joan Bates lived a comfortable life until she got her own island. “I had a house. We had plenty of money. I had housekeepers, and nannies for my children, and people to drive my car.” Beautiful and blond, she worked part time as a model into her forties.
But one day in 1967 she had a fisherman take her out to Sealand so her husband could go ashore and run the family businesses. Soon she was sleeping with a Walther P38 pistol under her pillow, in case of attack.
For three decades Sealand was the Bates family’s home, the ultimate fixer-upper and money pit. As a business venture, though, it was never more than a pipe dream.
“When we first came out here,” says Michael Bates, “the place was derelict. There was loads of dead seagulls and cormorants lying around the place. There was no light, just candles.” Scavengers had torn out the copper wiring. The family lit smelly paraffin stoves to keep warm. “It was dark, dingy, dirty, horrible.”
Like a frontiersman’s wife, Joan helped build the family homestead. “When you live on an island,” she says, “you’re having to make your own facilities and make your own comfort day by day. You’re forever painting and scraping and trying to make it comfortable—make it civilized.”
Over the years the Bateses put in a kitchen, windows, a generator, and electrical wiring. They say they lived on Sealand for thirty years, returning to shore only for a few weeks at a time to conduct business and buy supplies. Meanwhile they accumulated more of a nation’s official trappings: a constitution, flag, anthem, and coat of arms with the motto “E mare libertas”—“Out of the sea, freedom.” Roy also commissioned silver coins with Joan’s face on them and issued passports to friends who helped the family keep Sealand going.
Convinced that Sealand’s ability to evade British law would somehow prove lucrative, they waited for the right business deal to come along. But a group of Germans they knew also saw financial promise in Sealand. In 1978 they staged a coup.
The Germans lured Roy and Joan to Austria with a business proposal. While they were gone, a helicopter swooped onto Sealand. Two German men jumped out and took Michael hostage, shutting him inside the cabin for three days without food. They reached through a window and tied his hands before letting him out, but he still tried to fight them. They had to bind his hands, elbows, knees, and ankles to subdue him. “One said in German, ‘Let’s shove this bastard over the side—he’s too much trouble,’ ” Michael recalls.
A Dutch trawler pulled up, and a German lawyer came out with a revolver in his hand.
“I see you have a little gun,” Michael said.
“I do, and I vill use it if I have to,” the lawyer said. The men took Michael to the Netherlands and let him go.
Talking to the businessmen in Austria, Roy and Joan felt uncomfortable and suspected something was wrong. They called a friend, who told them a helicopter had been seen over Sealand. They hurried home to England. There was Michael, who’d made his way back from the Netherlands.
Father and son rounded up some friends, including a helicopter pilot who’d done stunt work in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. They grabbed some guns and flew to Sealand. The copter hovered low behind a passenger ferry until it reached the fort, when it rose from the water to the platform.
The Germans “started running out of the building,” recalls Michael. “They were armed. We were armed.”
The Sealanders jumped from the copter’s legs onto the platform. Michael leaped over a water tank—and when he hit the floor, his sawed-off shotgun went off. The Germans dropped their pistols and rifles and surrendered. Furious that they’d taken his son hostage, Roy blackened some eyes and bloodied some lips.
The newspapers loved it. A reporter from the Sun tabloid sailed out on a tugboat, Michael remembers.
“Do you speak English?” the reporter shouted up at the fort.
“Of course we do.”
“Oh, but we understood there’s been a coup d’état.”
“We coup-d’étated the coup d’état.”
“Oh, bloody excellent! Do you have any prisoners? Can we see them?” So the Bateses made the Germans line up on the deck for the Sun photographer.
The Bateses soon released the men—except for one guy who was carrying a Sealand passport. Roy had given it to him a year or two earlier in exchange for legal help.
“We tried him for treason,” says Michael. They found the man guilty, fined him, and kept him prisoner for about a month, during which time they made him clean the fort, make coffee, and give them free legal advice.
An official from the West German embassy in London flew to Sealand to demand the prisoner’s release. Prince Roy refused. He was still hoping to collect his fine—75,000 German marks.
Roy eventually relented, releasing his prisoner after the German threatened suicide. “He drove us bloody mad,” Michael says.
After the countercoup, life on Sealand quieted down. The passenger ferries from Harwich to the Netherlands and Belgium started keeping their distance. The British House of Lords debated whether to extend Britain’s territorial waters to prevent further incidents on Sealand, but took no action. The Bateses kept armed guards on Sealand at all times; one guard had his wedding ceremony there in 1979.
The family settled into a quiet day-to-day life on the fort. Michael got married in the early 1980s and stopped spending much time there. The Bateses listened politely to people’s grandiose business proposals for Sealand, including one scheme for a leisure island complete with casino and whorehouse. But nothing seemed quite right. They tried to start a pirate TV station there in 1987, but that project fell through when the American who proposed it got arrested and went home.
That same year Great Britain extended its territorial waters to twelve miles from shore. But Sealand wasn’t much affected. The day before the law took effect, Roy simply declared he’d extended his watery borders.
No nation recognizes Bates’s claim. But, if nothing else, he’s an unusually successful squatter, left to do as he pleased with the fort. In 1990, when a Sealand guard fired another warning shot at buoy repairmen, the British government did nothing. Now, Joan Bates says, repairmen call to ask permission before they come.
As life on Sealand became calmer, the family began to shun publicity, politely dodging most interview requests. But in 1997 Sealand made the news for the first time in years, when Andrew Cunanan, the man who killed fashion designer Gianni Versace, committed suicide in Florida. Cunanan died on a houseboat owned by a German man who claimed he was a diplomat from Sealand and drove around with Sealand diplomatic plates on his car.
Around that time Sealand passports appeared all across Europe. They were sold by the thousands to Hong Kong residents nervous about the British territory’s impending transfer to China. The Bates family insisted the documents were fake—that real Sealand passports weren’t for sale. Finally, in April 2000, several men in Madrid were arrested and charged with fraud for making the passports. “There’s been some pretty bad people around the edges of what we do,” Michael says.
Roy and Joan Bates say they lived on Sealand almost full time until a few years ago, when Joan retired to their onshore apartment, which overlooks the mouth of the Thames in the town of Westcliff-on-Sea.
The cost of maintaining Sealand had drained their finances. “We’ve spent several million pounds on it over the years,” says Michael Bates. His parents have sold off all the companies they once owned. They used to be millionaires, he says, but not anymore.
Just in time, Sean Hastings offered them the business deal they’d always hoped for.
Hastings found the Bateses easily. In 1998 Michael, taking a step out of the family’s long seclusion, had put up a Sealand website. In summer 1999 Hastings e-mailed Michael, suspecting that a family of former radio pirates would like his data haven scheme. He was right.
“I told Michael we were basically doing pirate Internet, which means doing whatever people want to do, without government restrictions,” Hastings told Wired magazine last year. The two of them started negotiating.
Meanwhile Hastings asked his old college friend Joseph Saul for advice. He wanted to know whether Sealand had a plausible claim to independence. Saul, then a U-M law student, did some research and told Hastings that the fort’s legal status was unresolved. For Hastings that was enough.
Ryan Lackey flew to England, soon followed by Hastings. The Bateses weren’t sure what to think at first. The Americans seemed so young to Roy Bates; he wasn’t sure they had enough experience to carry out their plan. Lackey’s shaved head and combat boots shocked Michael and left him cracking jokes about how Hare Krishna robes might be more appropriate attire.
But the family was impressed with Hastings’s and Lackey’s technological skill—and with the free-speech ideals behind their ambition. They also had financial backing from fellow cyberlibertarians in the States—and Sealand needed cash to survive. Roy “was running out of money,” Hastings told Travel and Leisure last year. “He could only afford to live out [on Sealand] by himself.”
The Americans formed a company called HavenCo, with Sean Hastings as CEO, Lackey as chief technician, and Jo Hastings and several friends as corporate officers. In February 2000 the Bateses leased Sealand to HavenCo for a 16 percent share in the company and an undisclosed amount of cash.
Roy quickly rehired some of his old security guards, retired from his lonely vigil on the fort, and went to live with his wife on the mainland. (He’d already named Michael prince regent of Sealand in 1999.)
Once the HavenCo team told fellow cyberlibertarians about the plan for Sealand, excitement spread fast. They attracted a million dollars from idealistic investors. An e-mail group they set up was flooded with messages from people fascinated by the thought of founding a new country. One provision in the agreement with the Bateses even gave HavenCo an eventual option to buy Sealand. Hastings talked excitedly with Joseph Saul in Ann Arbor about writing a new constitution. “I think he felt [he was] creating a nation,” Saul says.
Lackey moved across the Atlantic in March 2000, and Sean and Jo Hastings followed in May. The couple split their time between Sealand and an apartment in London.
Lackey tackled the serious technical problems of installing Internet servers on an artificial island in the North Sea. Meanwhile, Hastings handled publicity. “A lot of the initial press stuff was Sean’s idea,” Lackey says.
Hastings put Sealand back in the news in a big way. When Lackey took his first trip to the platform, a writer for Wired tagged along. In June the trendsetting technology magazine put Sealand on its cover. Dozens of reporters rushed to match the story. An ABC News reporter flew to Sealand by helicopter and interviewed Hastings. Looking older than his thirty-two years, and speaking in a serious tone, the ponytailed, bespectacled Hastings said he was grateful to be starting his business in a place where the government didn’t put up many roadblocks to success.
All summer Hastings eagerly chatted up reporters by phone about the possibilities his new venture created. “Soon it will be impossible to trace where money is and who has money,” he told the New York Times. He informed the Austin Chronicle that copyright was obsolete, since music-downloading sites like Napster could move to offshore havens like Sealand.
The attention helped Hastings raise even more money. He and Michael Bates flew across the Atlantic to charm investors. He also helped Lackey with the hard work of getting computer equipment to the fort, by helicopter and by boat and winch. They brought on new generators, added a water-purifying system, set up Internet access for the guards, and hired a cook.
But as Michael Bates watched the brash young Americans work, he grew worried.
“I have to say it was quite disorganized at the beginning,” he says. “They were too involved in promoting it and the airy-fairy side of it, the political side of it, and really what they needed to do was generators and wiring.” At first they asked oil companies for advice on outfitting offshore platforms; eventually they just relied on Michael for practical knowledge.
Last fall, just as his vision was being realized, Hastings stepped down as HavenCo’s CEO. Repeated attempts to talk to him for this story were unsuccessful, but Michael Bates says Hastings moved back to the States to deal with some personal problems. He left the technical work to Lackey and Michael, who’s now the acting CEO.
“Sean’s a great ideas man,” says Michael. “I suppose he got itchy feet. I don’t think he’s the sort of bloke who’s used to the nuts and bolts, the physical side of doing it.”
Age and rivets, rust and dirty windows: that’s pretty much Sealand’s decor. The steel platform, topped with worn concrete, is only thirty-two feet wide and 110 feet long. The cabin sits in the middle, a helicopter pad atop it. From below, the ends of the copter pad look like ugly beams supporting a decaying bridge.
The only bright, modern note is a tiny satellite dish. The dish and a microwave link provide HavenCo’s connection to the Internet. At the platform’s far end sit big barrels of diesel fuel, which power an old, growling generator.
The kitchen inside the cabin looks almost homey. A bowl of clementines and a radio playing BBC Radio One rest on a table by the window. The cupboards are filled with nonperishable foods—soup, sardines—in case bad weather or a hostile siege keeps supply boats away. A pest strip covered with flies sits near two pairs of binoculars. Next to the phone, the coast guard’s number is scrawled on the wall.
Next door is a shabby living room with sagging ceiling tiles and two tattered couches. The black, red, and white flag of Sealand is draped across the wall behind the TV. Books, mostly cheap genre fiction, line another wall. Down the hall, in the security chief’s cabin, a pump-action shotgun lies next to the window.
“It’s all right if you want to escape from something,” says Andy, a security guard serving his first stint on Sealand. He should know; caught in a dispute with the government and his ex-employer over disability payments, he’s working under the table and won’t give his last name.
When he’s not checking on the generators or helping fix the place up, Andy surfs the Internet, reads mountain-bike magazines, chats on his cell phone, and watches TV. He’s been on Sealand a week, and he’s already bored. “I don’t think I’d do it full time. There’s no way I could live here day in, day out.”
Beneath the platform, the concrete columns are each divided into seven windowless floors, the lower levels underwater. During World War II more than a hundred marines and sailors lived here; some reportedly went crazy. Getting to the lower floors means climbing down vertigo-inducing ladders whose wooden steps are smooth and slippery from sixty years of wear. Some rooms are strewn with tools and scrap metal. At the bottom of the north tower, the Bateses installed a barred door, creating a jail—in case they have “somebody freak out or something,” Michael Bates explains.
Ryan Lackey, HavenCo’s chief technical officer, lives in three dark rooms in the north tower furnished in classic dorm style: a futon on the floor, a blue hippieish tapestry brightening the wall. He goes to work every day in the other tower, where HavenCo’s money has turned one floor into a very modern-looking tech-company office, with a horseshoe-shaped table circling the room, a futuristic lamp, and four computer workstations on the table. Most of the company’s servers are on the sealed-off level below. Gurgling, bubbling sounds leak from behind the wall: the sound of the North Sea battering the concrete.
Lackey, dressed all in black and wearing combat boots, looks like a stereotypical tech geek. Awkward and strangely unsmiling, he somehow manages to be shy and babbly at the same time.
HavenCo is doing fine, he says. Unlike many dot-coms, it’s turning an operating profit. It hasn’t made back the $2 million investment, but it’s taking in more money, month by month, than it’s paying in expenses.
HavenCo’s several dozen clients pay to have servers set up on regulation-free Sealand. On-line gambling operations, prohibited in many countries, are among the customers. So are companies who simply don’t want their e-mail subpoenaed. Last year’s news accounts breathlessly worried that HavenCo would become a haven for criminals, but Lackey says its services are attractive to legitimate companies fearing litigation. After all, Bill Gates’s e-mail was subpoenaed in the Microsoft antitrust case.
Sealand’s isolation doesn’t bother Lackey: “There’s few distractions. I get lots of work done.” The worst part is helping lug the 400-pound fuel barrels. Other than that, it’s like being home. If he were in the States, he says, “I’d be sitting in my apartment, working.”
Lackey does attend computer security conferences every few weeks, commuting by boat or chartered helicopter. And living on Sealand hasn’t hurt his romantic life. In a few days, he says, an ex-girlfriend and a “possible future girlfriend” are taking a boat trip together to visit him.
Back in the living room, Michael Bates tells Sealand stories over tuna-and-corn sandwiches and coffee. Stocky and gap-toothed, wearing a striped shirt and shorts, he seems like a regular middle-class British dad as he fends off pleas for attention from his ten-year-old daughter—until the talk turns to throwing Molotov cocktails at the men from Radio Caroline, and another incident when he stared down a British naval helicopter while holding an automatic pistol.
Even today, Michael admits, Sealand’s defenses include arms that violate Britain’s strict weapons laws (he won’t give specifics). In England he drives an SUV with a very un-British bumper sticker: “Fight crime—shoot back.”
The Bateses are Britain’s ultimate libertarians. Michael says his father always hoped Sealand’s edge-of-the-world legal status would attract a lucrative business venture, but he himself has another motivation.
“Ever since we found out that an Englishman’s home isn’t really his castle, [Sealand] became more of an interesting idea,” Michael says. “Anybody can enter an Englishman’s home these days. If a burglar comes in and you shoot him, you’re wrong. Customs and excise and police can pretty much enter your house. It’s not his bit of territory anymore.”
Sealand provides that bit of totally autonomous territory. The Bateses claim dual citizenship—but even as they call themselves patriotic Brits, they chafe at modern Britain’s heavy regulations.
Michael complains about the security-camera craze that swept through England in the 1990s. Today cameras not only guard against Irish radicals’ bombs but also catch highway speeders and even peer at guests in quaint English bed-and-breakfasts. “It’s Big Brother, isn’t it?” he says.
Roy, the old soldier and proud Tory, can’t even single out an example of the overregulation he so hates. “Everything,” he says with an all-encompassing wave of his hand.
In retirement, Roy and Joan live peacefully by the sea in a bright apartment filled with Sealand memorabilia: a copy of their nation’s coat of arms; a political cartoon showing the family peering down from Sealand, holding guns; a photo of Roy, looking dashing and confident, with Joan leaning lovingly on his arm as a helicopter lands behind them.
Today, at eighty, Roy is quiet and slow, a bit hard of hearing, and prone to gazing out the window at the sea. But as Joan, seventy-two, tells the family’s story, she’s as swept up in his romantic exploits as ever. “He’s the sort of man [that] when he walks into the room—as they said about John Wayne—he clanks. Everybody knows he’s there.”
If there’s such a thing as a British cowboy, it’s Roy Bates: a daring frontiersman, but reserved in conversation and prone to understatement. Asked how he’d like his work on Sealand to be remembered, he says only, “As an achievement.” Why did he start his own country? It was “a challenge.”
Finally, asked whether Sealand is a symbol, he opens up a bit.
“I think it’s old-fashioned British. Britain built the biggest empire the world’s ever seen. They did it by idiots like me going out, and claiming it, and doing it.”
Roy and Joan are now writing their life stories, while Michael fields calls from producers who’d like to make a Sealand movie.
The Bateses haven’t stopped tilting at windmills; decades after they first got the idea, they still talk about making their little nation bigger by building huge dams to reclaim land around the fort. All they need, they say, is an investor. “It’s very easily done,” Joan insists. “The Dutch do it all the time.”
Joan signs her checks “Joan of Sealand,” but that’s as far as the couple’s royal pretensions go. Occasionally, they say, they’ve used their Sealand passports when they travel, but their British passports are less bother.
Today, Sealand still maintains peaceful, ill-defined coexistence with the United Kingdom. After HavenCo hit the news, the British Home Office issued statements saying that Britain doesn’t recognize Sealand and that the fort is in British waters. The harbor police from Harwich patrol near the fort—Joan has even called them herself when suspicious boats have lingered near Sealand.
Last year a British judge declared that Sealand is part of Britain. The case was brought by a would-be radio pirate, Paul John Lilburne-Byford, who’s carried a grudge against the Bateses for more than a decade. Lilburne-Byford claims he tried to buy a boat from Allan Weiner, who briefly operated a pirate AM station off Long Island in 1987. The deal went sour—but Lilburne-Byford’s lawsuit stalled because Weiner claimed the boat was registered to Sealand. Roy Bates says that he turned down Weiner’s request to fly a Sealand flag of convenience. Still, Lilburne-Byford decided that to win his suit, he had to get a judge to rule against Sealand.
After the judge’s decision, however, Michael Bates defiantly told a British newspaper that the family sticks by its claim. And law enforcement is still leaving Sealand alone. “There’s not been a British official on here in thirty-five years,” Michael brags.
Meanwhile, though one dot-com after another has died in the economic downturn, HavenCo still operates inside Sealand’s south column. The Bateses and Ryan Lackey are cautiously optimistic about its future. “It’s [gone] a bit slower than we hoped,” admits Roy. But with tech companies suffering worldwide, he and his family don’t blame their young American partners.
“We have full confidence in them,” Joan says.
Lackey says the dot-bomb hasn’t hurt HavenCo as badly as it has other start-ups. Offshore companies attract a special kind of investor and client, he says—pro-liberty, no-tax types, whose interest stays high even when the economy sags. Now that HavenCo is established and profitable, he says, word of mouth keeps bringing in more clients.
And as Sean Hastings’s daring outpost of cyberliberty survives and maybe even prospers inside Sealand, Hastings himself is looking for his next big thing. He and his wife are working as computer consultants in New York City. They’re still partners in HavenCo, though not involved in day-to-day operations. Meanwhile, Hastings has been talking to his friend Joseph Saul, looking for advice on some new business plans. None of them involve nation-states, Saul says—but “God knows, he may come up with another cool idea.”