Is Seasteading a viable opportunity to escape from the complications and restrictions of modern life?

Or is it just another fashionable game for the rich, the media and the anti-social?


Seasteading -From Wikipedia

Seasteading is the concept of creating permanent dwellings at sea, called seasteads, outside the territory claimed by the government of any standing nation. Most proposed seasteads have been modified cruising vessels. Other proposed structures have included a refitted oil platform, a decommissioned anti-aircraft platform, and custom-built floating islands.[1]

No one has created a state on the high seas that has been recognized as a sovereign nation, although the Principality of Sealand is a disputed micronation formed on a discarded sea fort near Suffolk, England.[2] The closest things to a seastead that have been built so far are large ocean-going ships sometimes called "floating cities", and smaller floating islands.

The term combines the words sea and homesteading. At least two people independently began using it: Ken Neumeyer in his book Sailing the Farm (1981) and Wayne Gramlich in his article "Seasteading – Homesteading on the High Seas" (1998).[3]

Legal issues

Outside the Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles (370 km), which countries can claim according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the high seas are not subject to the laws of any sovereign state other than the flag under which a ship sails. Examples of organizations using this possibility are Women on Waves, enabling abortions for women in countries where abortions are subject to strict laws, and offshore radio stations which were anchored in international waters. Like these organizations, a seastead would take advantage of the absence of laws and regulations outside the sovereignty of nations, and choose from among a variety of alternate legal systems such as those underwritten by "Las Portadas".[4]

"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," said Patri Friedman at the first annual Seasteading conference.[5][6][7]

The Seasteading Institute

The Seasteading Institute (TSI), founded by Wayne Gramlich and Patri Friedman on April 15, 2008, is an organization formed to facilitate the establishment of autonomous, mobile communities on seaborne platforms operating in international waters.[5][8][9] Gramlich’s 1998 article "SeaSteading – Homesteading on the High Seas" outlined the notion of affordable steading, and attracted the attention of Friedman with his proposal for a small-scale project.[3] The two began working together and posted their first collaborative book online in 2001, which explored aspects of seasteading from waste disposal to flags of convenience.

The project picked up mainstream exposure in 2008 after having been brought to the attention of PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, who contributed $500,000 to fund the creation of The Seasteading Institute and has since spoken out on behalf of its viability, as seen in his essay "The Education of a Libertarian",[10] published online by Cato Unbound. The Seasteading Institute has received widespread media attention from sources such as CNN, Wired,[5] Prospect,[11] The Economist[9] Business Insider,[12] and BBC[13] American journalist John Stossel wrote an article about seasteading in February 2011 and hosted Patri Friedman on his show on the Fox Business Network.[14]

On July 31, 2011, Friedman stepped down from the role of executive director, and became chairman of the board. Friedman was replaced by Randolph Hencken. Concomitantly, the institute's directors of business strategy and legal strategy went on to start Blueseed, the first commercial seasteading venture.[15]

Between May 31 and June 2, 2012, The Seasteading Institute held its third annual conference.[16]

In the spring of 2013,[17] the Institute launched The Floating City Project,[18] which combines principles of both seasteading and startup cities,[19] by seeking to locate a floating city within the territorial waters of an existing nation. Historically, The Seasteading Institute has looked to international waters for the freedom to establish new nations and spur competitive governance from the outside. However, they are now seeking a host nation because they posit a) It is less expensive to engineer a seastead for relatively calm, shallow waters compared with the open ocean outside of territorial waters; b) it will be easier for residents to travel to and from the seastead, as well as to acquire goods and services from existing supply chains; and c) a host nation will provide a place for a floating city within the existing international legal framework, with the associated protections and responsibilities. The Institute raised $27,082 from 291 funders in crowdfunding campaign[20] and commissioned DeltaSync[21] to design a floating city concept for The Floating City Project. In December 2013, the concept report was published. The Seasteading Institute has also been collecting data from potential residents through a survey.[22]


Retrofitted cruise ships

The first seasteads are projected to be cruise ships adapted for semi-permanent habitation. Cruise ships are a proven technology, and they address most of the challenges of living at sea for extended periods of time. The cost of the first shipstead was estimated at $10M.[23]

Spar platform

The Seasteading Institute has been working on communities floating above the sea in spar buoys, similar to oil platforms.[24] The project would start small, using proven technology as much as possible, and try to find viable, sustainable ways of running a seastead.[25] Innovations that enable full-time living at sea will have to be developed. The cruise ship industry's development suggests this may be possible.

A proposed design for a custom-built seastead is a floating dumbbell in which the living area is high above sea level, which minimizes the influence of waves. In 2004, research was documented in an online book that covers living on the oceans.[26]

The Seasteading Institute focuses on three areas: building a community, doing research and building the first seastead in the San Francisco Bay. In January 2009, the Seasteading Institute patented a design for a 200-person resort seastead, ClubStead, about a city block in size, produced by consultancy firm Marine Innovation & Technology. ClubStead marked the first major development in hard engineering, from extensive analysis to simulations, of the seasteading movement.[9][26][27]

Modular island

At the Seasteading Institute Forum, an idea arose to create an island from modules.[28] There are several different designs for the modules, with a general consensus that reinforced concrete is the most proven, sustainable and cost-effective material for seastead structures,[29] as indicated by use in oil platforms and concrete submarines. The company AT Design Office recently made another design using the modular island method.[30]


Many architects and firms have created designs for floating cities, including Vincent Callebaut,[31][32] Paolo Soleri[33] and companies as Shimizu and Tangram 3DS.[34] Marshall Savage also discussed building tethered artificial islands in his book The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps, with several color plates illustrating his ideas. Some design competitions companies such as Evolo have also yielded designs.[35][36][37]


In 2008, Friedman and Gramlich had hoped to float the first prototype seastead in the San Francisco Bay by 2010[38][39] but 2010 plans were to launch a seastead by 2014.[40] The Seasteading Institute projected in 2010 that the seasteading population would exceed 150 individuals in 2015.[41]


The Seasteading Institute held its first conference in Burlingame, California, October 10, 2008. 45 people from 9 countries attended.[42] The second Seasteading conference was significantly larger, and held in San Francisco, California, September 28–30, 2009.[43][44]

The third Seasteading conference took place on May 31 - June 2, 2012.[45] Speakers included Patri Friedman, Patrick Kenji Takahashi, and Max Marty.


The first "Ephemerisle" event was held October 2–4, 2009, on the Sacramento River delta in California by The Seasteading Institute.[46] A second Ephemerisle event scheduled for July 22–25, 2010, was canceled by organizers.[47] TSI cited "unexpectedly high insurance costs" as the reason and stated that it would indefinitely postpone plans for a future Ephemerisle to concentrate on its research initiatives.[48] However, many attendees still gathered in the same location on the planned date for a grassroots community weekend consisting of informal presentations, talks and socializing.[49]

Community-run Ephemerisle events continued annually on the Sacramento River delta in 2011 and 2012, and the 5th annual event is scheduled for July 10–14, 2013.[50] Due to event growth, 2012 and 2013 featured multiple "islands" of houseboats, sailboats, platforms, and rafts tied together, each with different themes and cultures, embodying the seasteading concept of dynamic geography.[citation needed]

Spin-off projects


As of 2011, Blueseed was a company working on launching a ship near Silicon Valley which was to serve as a visa-free startup community and entrepreneurial incubator. The shipstead planned to offer living and office space, high-speed Internet connectivity, and regular ferry service to the mainland.[51][52] The project aims included overcoming the difficulty organizations face obtaining US work visas, intending to use the easier B-1/B-2 visas to travel to the mainland, while work will be done on the ship.[51][52][dated info] Blueseed founders Max Marty and Dario Mutabdzija met when both were employees of The Seasteading Institute.[51][52]

In popular culture

Seasteading has been imagined numerous times in pop culture in recent years.

  • Waterworld was a major motion picture that featured seastead communities at various points throughout the film.
  • The book Snow Crash in part takes place on Rife's Raft, a floating refuge camp consisting of boats, rafts and anything that floats tied together.


Super-yacht not big enough? 'Seasteads' offer libertarians the vision of floating cities for the future

For (very) wealthy libertarians, seasteads – floating cities – might be the way forward, with their ambition of 'guaranteeing political freedom and enabling experimentation with alternative social systems'

Available soon, for sale or rent: brand new island with sea views from the terrace, fresh fish daily and swimming pool in the resort hotel. An ideal base for 225 pioneers with £100m-plus to spare and a yearning for a new political and social system.

And if you don’t like it, no problem. Hitch the house to the back of a tug boat and try somewhere else.

For the right-wing American libertarian with deep-seated problems with Big Government, the 19th century challenge to “Go West, young man” retains a powerful appeal. But for the current target audience – the free-wheeling capitalist dotcom millionaire in Silicon Valley – going west means getting wet.

Not an issue, according to a new design report investigating the feasibility of “seasteads”, communities of like-minded, self-governing individuals established on the high seas, free from what its proponents see as the restrictions of nations, welfare systems and punitive taxes.

The seasteading movement has emerged as a political movement – with nods to climate change and land shortages – to create new water-borne city states. Over 85 pages, a Dutch engineering and urban development company has outlined the feasibility of a floating “village” for 225 permanent residents and 50 hotel guests – a blueprint that the pioneering seasteaders hope will become hundreds of floating petri dishes of social and political experiments.

Seasteads design concepts 

The design consultants envisage a series of interlocking “hollow box” square and pentagonal platforms, allowing each city to grow organically – or be dismantled and towed away in the event of political dispute or interference. Individual seasteaders would decide on how they would rule or be ruled.

According to the feasibility study by DeltaSync, a specialists in floating structures in the low-lying Netherlands, early residents would live in flats of 70 square metres, with terraces open to the sea. Solar energy would power general daily living, including electric-only cookers, while water for showers and drinking would be supplied by the rain.

Early residents would include entrepreneurs, social experimenters and people to tend the floating fish farms. A helipad would allow access to land-based hospital facilities or for when self-sustainable living just became too painful.

The vision is funded by a US non-profit organisation, the Seasteading Institute, established by two darlings of the libertarian movement including the billionaire founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel.

The institute’s stated ambition for the seasteads is to “guarantee political freedom and thus enable experimentation with alternative social systems”.

Establishing an independent non-state settlement on the seas is not an entirely new concept. Roy Bates, a retired army major, occupied a Second World War sea fort off the Suffolk coast in 1967 and a decade later he declared Sealand a sovereign principality, with himself as head of state. The Foreign Office does not recognise Sealand as an independent state, but the Bates family remains unmoved.

Various other attempts at floating cities and tax havens have failed in the face of significant legal, technical and political hurdles.The first rudimentary seastead project is slated to launch this year by a separate group called Blueseed. It is essentially a ship moored far enough off the California coast to sidestep US immigration rules.

For safety reasons, the first proper seastead is likely to be anchored in a protected bay inside the territorial limits of a “host” country. The institute claims to be in early talks with up to five governments to be the first host. It aims to close its negotiations in 2014, with the first seastead residents moving in by the end of the decade.

Given that the whole politically-driven point of the seastead is to provide freedom from government interference, the dependence on a host country’s “supervision” would appear a fatal blow. Not so, said the institute’s executive director, Randolph Hencken.

“It’s a business negotiation,” he told The Independent. The group was asking for “substantial political autonomy, within reason” and in return would supply the host with “some form of compensation”.

After a “large scale selection process for suitable countries”, the study focused on the Gulf of Fonseca, which is bordered by El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. The latter appears a particularly strong candidate, as it has already announced plans for free trade zones with minimal government control. But even if the San Francisco-based Seasteading Institute secures a deal with a host government, its dream of independence will still be difficult to obtain. The US government has asserted its right to policing outside its territory, and for its citizens to pay its taxes.

Mr Hencken suggests that the residents of each seastead would set the rules of their community, but using them as centres for things such as a drugs marketplace would be “just asking for trouble”. And what if undesirables tried to buy their way in?

“I’m not going to be in charge, but I wouldn’t want to have exiled dictators who had committed atrocities,” Mr Hencken said. “I wouldn’t want it to be a haven for evil.”

The seasteaders see the platforms as long-term communities, with the ability to join and leave as key factor based on political and economic choices. Engineers say they could be built to last. “If you use the right mixture it can last for a long time,” said DeltaSync project leader Karina Czapiewska.

The seasteading vision is for innovative and self-governing societies that are seedbeds for radical technologies and forms of government. The founders talk of businesses based on Bitcoins – the virtual currency – such as medical and research centres, free from the rules of regulatory authorities.

Mr Hencken said the seastead idea had received an enthusiastic response globally from people who wanted to run their own shops, gyms and research centres.

He said he knew a “handful” of multi-millionaires interested in the project, the first one of which has an estimated cost of £104m. But if you require millions to buy or rent a place in the first place, who will clean the toilets?

“The guys who are very wealthy don’t have personal assistants, many of them clean their own toilets,” Mr Hencken insisted. If not, there was capacity to pay people to do the “dirty work in exchange for a wage and a place to stay”.

Even ardent supporters recognise that the plan may be ambitious and the seasteads are not the best places to live. “Get a group of libertarians on a boat and they won’t agree with each other,” said Cody Wilson, a libertarian activist and “open source” gun designer. “It’s in their nature to be anti-social.”


Cities on the ocean

Seasteading: Libertarians dream of creating self-ruling floating cities. But can the many obstacles, not least the engineering ones, be overcome?

THE Pilgrims who set out from England on the Mayflower to escape an intolerant, over-mighty government and build a new society were lucky to find plenty of land in the New World on which to build it. Some modern libertarians, such as Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, dream of setting sail once more to found colonies of like-minded souls. By now, however, all the land on Earth has been claimed by the governments they seek to escape. So, they conclude, they must build new cities on the high seas, known as seasteads.

It is not a completely crazy idea: large maritime structures that resemble seasteads already exist, after all. Giant cruise liners host thousands of guests on lengthy voyages in luxurious surroundings. Offshore oil platforms provide floating accommodation for hundreds of workers amid harsh weather and high waves. Then there is the Principality of Sealand, a concrete sea fort constructed off Britain's coast during the second world war. It is now occupied by a family who have fought various lawsuits to try to get it recognised as a sovereign state.

Each of these examples, however, falls some way short of the permanent, self-governing and radically innovative ocean-based colonies imagined by the seasteaders. To realise their dream they must overcome some tricky technical, legal and cultural problems. They must work out how to build seasteads in the first place; find a way to escape the legal shackles of sovereign states; and give people sufficient reason to move in. With financing from Mr Thiel and others, a think-tank called the Seasteading Institute (TSI) has been sponsoring studies on possible plans for ocean-based structures and on the legal and financial questions they raise. And although true seasteads may still be a distant dream, the seasteading movement is producing some novel ideas for ocean-based businesses that could act as stepping stones towards their ultimate goal.

Floating some ideas

Seastead designs tend to fall into one of three categories: ship-shaped structures, barge-like structures based on floating pontoons and platforms mounted on semi-submersible columns, like offshore oil installations. Over-ordering by cruise lines means there are plenty of big, second-hand liners going cheap. Ship-shaped structures can pack in more apartments and office space for a given cost than the other two types of design, but they have a big drawback: their tendency to roll in choppy seas. Cruise ships can sail around storms, but static seasteads need to be able to ride them out. And the stabilisers on big cruisers only work in moderate seas and when the ship is moving.

Pontoon-type structures, or giant barges, are the cheapest of the three options, but they are even more vulnerable than ships to choppy seas. Shipbuilders like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan have proposed various designs for floating cities based on massive “mega-float” pontoons, with skyscrapers towering above the waterline. But these would only work in calm, shallow waters—and these tend to be within land-based governments' territorial limits. George Petrie, a former professor of naval architecture at the Webb Institute in New York state who is writing a series of technical papers for TSI, has calculated that even in a relatively benign stretch of water off Hawaii, such structures would leave their residents pretty groggy much of the time.

As oil companies drilling in ever deeper waters have demonstrated, structures built on floating columns are the most rugged, though they are more expensive than ship- or pontoon-type vessels. The shipbuilding industry has plenty of experience in making them, but the expectations of comfort among the permanent residents of a seastead will be much greater than on an oil platform, where workers are paid well for short tours of duty in relative discomfort. Even in placid weather, floating-column structures bob up and down as the sea heaves beneath them, which can make people seasick. To prevent the vessel from drifting due to currents and winds, seasteads may need dynamic-positioning thrusters, but these would increase costs. In waters less than 1,800 metres deep, Mr Petrie calculates, a cheaper option would be to moor the platform to the seabed. As it happens, there are a number of barely submerged islands off the coast of California, the location of preference for early seasteaders. Alas, they tend to be volcanoes.

Even once a viable blueprint for the structure of a seastead is produced, the technical challenges are not over. The more it relies on land-based supplies of fuel and water, the harder it will be to achieve the libertarian dream of escaping the evil ways of existing governments. At sea there is plenty of wind and wave energy, and occasionally sunshine, but building renewable-energy systems that can survive harsh ocean conditions is even harder and more costly than designing land-based ones. Another problem is communication. Satellite-based connections are slow and expensive. Laying a fibre-optic cable would be difficult. A point-to-point laser or microwave link might work, suggests Michael Keenan, the president of TSI. But that would rely on a land-based transmitting station, again making the seastead reliant on landlubbers.

The long arm of the law

The technical challenges are daunting enough. The legal questions that seasteads would face are no less tricky, and call into question whether it would really be possible to create genuinely self-governing mini-states on the oceans. Until seasteaders are ready to cut their ties with the land altogether, they will want to build their colonies not much more than 12 nautical miles (22km) offshore—the limit of countries' territorial waters—otherwise travelling to and from the seastead will take too long. But the laws of the sea give countries powers to enforce some criminal laws up to 24 nautical miles out and to regulate some economic activities in a 200-mile “exclusive economic zone”. Ships are granted exemptions, but a seastead tethered to the seabed would not qualify.

Some countries (notably America) assert the right to extend their jurisdictions, in matters affecting their citizens, across the entire planet. And like any other seagoing structure, a seastead would be obliged to register with a “flag state”, to whose maritime laws it would be subject. Some flag states are lax about enforcement but if, say, America disapproved of the goings-on aboard a seastead, it could lean on such states to get tough—and offer enforcement on their behalf. In the 1960s Britain's government shut down pirate-radio ships not by sending the navy to attack them but by banning British suppliers and advertisers from doing business with them.

In all, the leaders of the seasteading movement concede that they will have to avoid getting into anything too provocative—drugs, pornography or money-laundering, for example. As for taxes, America already demands that its citizens pay income tax even when they are living abroad—and that would include living on a seastead. There is nothing to stop other countries following suit and indeed getting extraterritorial about other taxes too. Until seasteaders are able to bank their money with independent, ocean-going financial institutions, they may not be able to escape the taxman's clutches.

“The ideal builders of seasteads may not be small groups of innovators, but giant engineering firms.”

And escaping the taxman may not, in any case, be enough of an incentive to lure residents to a seastead. Despite their stated preferences even libertarians, it seems, prefer to live in over-regulated, high-tax places like London and New York. Mr Keenan notes ruefully that the Free State Project, a scheme started ten years ago to get 20,000 people to move to New Hampshire and vote in a libertarian local government, has had little success so far. Unless a seastead were the size of Manhattan its citizens would have to forgo the cultural life, the parks and the wide choice of shopping and restaurants offered by large cities. The most realistic designs produced so far would reduce residents to living in cabins that, however sumptuously kitted out, would be little bigger than a typical millionaire libertarian's bathroom.

Some seasteaders think the way forward is to build less ambitious offshore communities to demonstrate the potential of the idea. By basing themselves just outside countries' territorial waters to avoid some of their laws, floating habitats could show land-based governments how such things as low taxes, light regulation and free access for foreign workers can produce wealth without ill effects. Such ocean-based businesses could be a step on the way to true seasteads.

Stepping stones to a seastead

In 2010 a group of marine engineers produced a detailed design study for the ClubStead—a floating resort city which would sit perhaps 100 nautical miles off the Californian coast, with 70 staff and 200 guests. It would combine the comforts of a cruise ship with the resistance to wind and waves of an oil platform, which its design closely resembles. Seven storeys of buildings would be cantilevered off the columns and, in an idea borrowed from bridge design, its extensive open decks are slung from cables. There would be solar panels (and gardens) on the roofs of these buildings, but the ClubStead would also rely on diesel power. It would make its own fresh water from seawater and have two helipads and a dock for boats.

The ClubStead design study includes a lot of detailed work on wind and wave resistance, construction methods, and so on. But its authors admit that much more would need to be done to produce a full blueprint ready for a shipyard to start building it. Nigel Barltrop, professor of naval architecture at Strathclyde University in Scotland, says he has “little doubt that you can do something like this and make it work”. But he thinks the structure may need further reinforcement to prevent fatigue—think of all of those metal joints constantly creaking in the waves. Otherwise the result could be a disaster like the collapse in 1980 of the Alexander Kielland, a floating accommodation block for North Sea oil workers, which broke apart and capsized, killing 123 people.

Besides its moderately spacious apartments, the ClubStead would have room for either a casino resort or a “medical tourism” centre. Many of the staff could be non-Americans who would otherwise struggle to get visas. They could spend most of the time aboard, taking occasional shore leave on tourist visas. The designers reckon it would cost $114m—less than some land-based luxury hotels—of which the biggest item is constructing and kitting out the apartments, at just under $50m. Running costs would be $3.4m a year.

A breakaway group from TSI is working on a simpler and cheaper idea called Blueseed. The idea is to convert a cruise liner into an offshore “incubator” for small, high-tech start-ups and position it just outside American territorial waters off California. The attraction for the start-ups is that they would be able to hire foreign engineers and scientists without the hassle of getting work visas for them.

Dario Mutabdzija of Blueseed says chartering and adapting a cruise ship should cost $15m-50m, depending on its size, and the combined rent for a tenant's living quarters and office space might be around $2,000 a month, comparable with costs in Silicon Valley. So far the project is at the seed-capital stage, working to overcome venture capitalists' doubts about getting involved in something subject to maritime law, an unfamiliar matter. Another problem, Mr Mutabdzija admits, is that it is unclear how American officials will choose to interpret the complex and vaguely worded immigration laws. He hopes that they will “just leave us alone for a while and see how it goes”.

If the sort of “just-offshoring” approach of the ClubStead and Blueseed projects can prove itself, it might be attractive for several industries in which large revenues are generated by relatively small numbers of skilled people, and which are subject to onerous taxes or regulation. Financial trading, gambling and cosmetic surgery are obvious candidates. Private hospitals could provide new treatments that have been approved by other countries but not by America's sluggish regulators.

Rather than deciding in advance which line of business will be a seastead's livelihood, Mr Petrie has a more Darwinian idea, one that libertarians should warm to: create a large expanse of floating “land” in mid-ocean and rent it out to whoever wants it. Individual homes and business premises would be winched aboard on cranes and bolted down. If their owners don't pay the rent, they could be lifted out and replaced. The seastead thus “evolves and finds its way”, says Mr Petrie. He has set himself the objective of making the cost of living on a seastead not much more than the average for upper-middle-income housing in a typical American city.

Linguists quip that a dialect is a language without an army and a navy to enforce its status. Theologians likewise say that a cult is simply a church that lacks political clout. Seasteads may end up as wannabe sovereign states without the means to defend their autonomy against land-based governments. The first ones to overcome the many technical challenges, raise the money to construct their vessels and set out for the open seas will be quite dependent on terrestrial authorities' goodwill. But countries short of available land, or whose leaders are struggling to pass liberalising reforms against resistance from vested interests, may tolerate limited experiments in low-tax, rule-free self-government. So the seasteaders may be in with a chance.

Who will jump in first?

Given the huge costs and risks involved, perhaps the ideal builders of seasteads will not be small groups of innovators like the Blueseed team, but giant engineering firms such as Mitsubishi, India's Tata group or Samsung of South Korea. Indeed, as Mr Keenan notes, the most viable political model for a seastead may not be a libertarian democracy but an enlightened corporate dictatorship.

Sceptics will say that floating pies in the sky are more likely to materialise than floating cities on the oceans. But the seasteaders are undeterred. Nobody anticipated the immense variety of uses that would be dreamed up for the internet, Mr Keenan observes, and the same may apply to the idea of creating colonies on the high seas. As Mr Petrie puts it: “All that is lacking is for the first one to go into the water and say, ‘Hey, come on in, the water's fine.'”


Charlie Deist

Ocean living: A step closer to reality

Village on the sea
Mankind has long sought shelter on the sea. Members of China’s Tanka community have been living in villages based entirely on water for more than 1,200 years. (Rex Features)

Life on the sea has been one of mankind’s enduring visions, but the technology hasn’t been up to the task... until now. Are we on the cusp of housing communities permanently on the ocean?

The 1995 film Waterworld was one of Hollywood’s most infamous budget busters – a mega-million-dollar post-apocalyptic thriller that, at the time, cost more than any other film ever made. It did a pretty decent job of sinking Kevin Costner’s career for the rest of the decade. More importantly, it may also have helped do the same to the idea of mankind living on the sea.

Though scientists aren’t predicting sea-level rises of the magnitude seen in Waterworld – hundreds of feet thanks to melting polar ice caps – we may have to plan for a world with much higher sea levels. There has long been a dream that one day mankind, or at least some of us, will live on the ocean. Designer and architect Buckminster Fuller saw cities at sea contributing to a sustainable future for humanity. But then floating cities evoked images of flop films, or worse, of wealthy “robber barons” escaping to the high seas for financial reasons. Now, several groups are trying to change this perception by researching technologies that could help create floating cities, or “seasteads”, which become innovative models of sustainability and peaceful cooperation.

Does this sound too futuristic? Then consider China’s Fujian Province, where the Tanka people have been settled at sea since 700AD. Pushed into coastal waters in wartime during the Tang Dynasty, these boat dwellers weren’t allowed to set foot on land until the second half of the 20th Century. Today, some 7,000 Tankas still maintain a sea farming life – possibly a preview of a future to come for many more of us. Before the industrialisation of agriculture, most people lived in land-based villages no larger or more complex than the Tankas’ simple water-based community. It took a series of green revolutions in farming technology to allow people to leave rural communities, and move into densely-populated urban areas. We see signs that a “blue revolution” in ocean harvesting technology is underway, suggesting floating cities can’t be far off.

Supply issues

It may be a necessity – not merely a novelty – to inhabit the sea in the coming decades, but to do so will require the means to create reliable and sustainable food and power souces. Dwindling fish stocks from overfishing have prompted humanity to create farmed supplies, beginning with the most accessible environments on or near land. Yet most fish farming has not evolved beyond the low-tech cages and seaweed-draped lines anchored in shallow seas by ancient peoples like the Tankas. The most advanced methods of mass production employ harmful antibiotics and genetically modified feed in unnaturally crowded ponds on land.

But the drawbacks of current fish farming has created opportunities for technology like the floating “drifter pens” pioneered by Kampachi Farms. Given enough time, Kampachi Farms will replace stagnant ponds with GPS-tracked cages stitched out of copper wire to enable a constant inflow of fresh ocean water without flushing out the precious fish. These geodesic aquariums, inspired by Fuller’s prototypes for sturdy light-weight structures, will be let loose in swirling ocean gyres, where they only need occasional course-correction to maintain a rough position. This will be accomplished by nimble harvesting vessels driven by pioneers of this new life on the water.

Collapsing fisheries are of immediate concern, but land-based agriculture may also be in danger due to a predicted shortage of the crucial nutrient phosphorus by the year 2050. Once again, there could be a solution out at sea.

Blue Revolution Hawaii, led by Professor Patrick Takahashi, is another group planning for a future with thousands of floating cities. Takahashi and his team have devised a plan to enable large ships equipped with ocean thermal electric conversion, or Otec plants, in which warm surface waters interact with cold water “upwelled” from the deep ocean to drive a large power turbine. The cool water pumped to the surface contains the exact ratio of nutrients – including phosphorus – needed to support plant growth.

Otec technology has already been tested in Hawaii, and China’s Reignwood group recently announced plans to complete a 10 megawatt plant – the first on the open-ocean – not far from the Fujian Province in China’s southern seas. Living space may be cramped at first, but the abundant sunlight and acres surrounding these pods will be enough to feed vast ocean ranches, supercharged by Otec’s nutrient-rich byproduct. At the bottom of this food chain, algae will feed fish, which feed bigger fish, which will in turn feed seafarers and land-lubbers alike. Sinking fish waste and seaweed detritus will gradually sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and deposit it on the seafloor to restart nature’s eons-long process of creating fossil fuels. By 2050, it’s not far-fetched to imagine hundreds of these plants grazing the high seas, trading abundant seafood surpluses with cities on land.

Meanwhile, Shell is preparing to anchor the world’s largest floating offshore structure – the Prelude Floating Liquefied Natural Gas facility – off Australia’s north-west coast in 2014. The structure will be massive – the length of four football fields and one field wide. It will be built to withstand Category Five typhoons, and will produce the natural gas equivalent of 100,000 barrels of oil per day. While few groups could afford to build a floating city capable of weathering such storms, Shell’s example demonstrates the long-lived feasibility of living on the sea. In fact, most fundamental challenges of living safely on the ocean have been solved by offshore drilling or shipping companies (cruise lines got satellite internet years ago, while most of Asia and Africa still lack it). Costs will fall over time. And what is Shell going to do with Prelude once all the natural gas runs out?  The infrastructure for a marine community will be waiting to be used.

Free floating

The Seasteading Institute has also been dealing with the challenges faced by communities trying to live permanently on the ocean. It is an audacious but essentially pragmatic endeavour. Taking a cue from the Tanka people, the plan is locate in the protected, territorial waters of a nation willing to “host” the structures and their inhabitants. With help from the Dutch aquatic architecture firm DeltaSync, the institute hopes to design something that will meet the needs of residents, and the host nation. From a calm coastal area, the logistical challenges needed allow a community to live on the high seas can be solved one at a time.

British designer Phil Pauley has developed a concept for a sea habitat comprising interconnected spherical modules that could submerge during storms and rest at the surface in good weather. The long vertical trusses holding up Pauley’s design use Fuller’s principles for strong, lightweight “tensegrity” structures. They maximise support without using too much expensive material such as steel. To reach much deeper waters, communities will ditch the stilts and float freely or anchor.

Others are trying investigating this technique on a smaller scale too. Do-it-yourself sea-living enthusiast Vince Cate has been using prototyping simple “ball stead” homes, which achieve buoyancy and stable surface “real estate.” Testing models in the Caribbean Sea, near his home in Anguilla, Cate has found that suspending a heavy weight well below the surface keeps the ball from moving amid the waves.

And these structures could last for a very long time indeed. Simple cement structures, reinforced with steel, can displace massive amounts of water, and last for decades - or even centuries. Even after 2,000 years of the sea’s harsh beating, a Roman harbour built with a mixture of standard concrete and volcanic ash is still intact. Electro-accretion – essentially sticking concrete-like minerals on galvanized underwater structures – means electrified steel mesh could eventually be used to reinforce and repair underwater concrete structures.

The first floating city is expected to take to the water around 2020. We are already researching ways to harvest food and energy in deeper, more remote parts of the ocean. Future cities built from scratch will be more dynamic, energy-efficient and flexible. These cities of the sea could use algal biofuel production and store energy from wind and the Sun. As designs improve – and get cheaper – the idea of a home on the ocean will become more affordable.

Does all of this sound crazy? In a sense, it is. But some would prefer to be called crazy than to pretend our cities and species can keep going with the status quo.


Project HomeFarm
Garden Diary

Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2013