To get to Ephemerisle, the floating festival of radical self-reliance, I left San Francisco in a rental car and drove east through Oakland, along the California Delta Highway, and onto Route 4. I passed windmill farms, trailer parks, and fields of produce dotted with multicolored Porta Potties. I took an accidental detour around Stockton, a municipality that would soon declare bankruptcy, citing generous public pensions as a main reason for its economic collapse. After rumbling along the gravely path, I reached the edge of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. The delta is one of the most dredged, dammed, and government subsidized bodies of water in the region. It’s estimated that it provides two-thirds of Californians with their water supply.
At the marina closest to the festival, I spotted a group of Ephemerislers in swimsuits crammed into a dinghy. I approached them, but they were uninterested in small talk: their engine had run out of gas, and the marina was all out, too. They could give me a ride, they said, if I tracked down fuel. I contemplated the sad marina, its shabby rental boats, the murky water. Almost an hour had passed when the festival’s ferry service showed up. At around noon, six of us took off in a small motorboat, speeding past Venice Island, a private sliver of land where Barron Hilton, heir to the Hilton hotel fortune, hunts ducks and puts on an annual July 4th firework display. Five minutes later, Ephemerisle came into sight, bobbing gently in an area called the Mandeville Tip.
It looked, at first, like a shapeless pile of floating junk, but as the boat drew closer, a sense of order emerged. The island was made up of two rows of houseboats, anchored about a hundred feet apart, with a smaller cluster of boats and yachts set off to the west. The boats had been bound together with planks, barrels, cleats, and ropes, assembled ad-hoc by someone with at least a rudimentary understanding of knots and anchors. Residents decorated their decks with banners and flags and tied kayaks and inflatable toys off the sides, giving the overall landscape the cephalopodan quality of raver pants. Dirty socks and plastic dishes and iPads and iPhones littered the decks. An enormous sound system blasted dance music, it turned out, at all hours of the day.
Each of the two-dozen boats at the party had a name—Bayesian Conspiracy, Snuggly Nemo, Magic Carpet, Mini-ocracy—and each name a personality to match, conveyed by the resident boaters’ choice of drug, beverage, or degree of exhibitionism. When I arrived, the Ephemerislers were partying in various stages of undress. They had been encouraged to make the space their own, to mind their own business, and to do as they pleased. This was, after all, a celebration of the laissez-faire life—an escape from the oppressive, rule-bound grind of dry land. In this suspended, provisional unreality, everybody was a planner, an economist, a designer, a king. Attendees were ready for everything the elements had in store, but knew escape was just a few clicks away, should the experiment go terribly wrong.
It is apparently a coincidence that Ephemerisle’s location shared a name with the 16th-century proto-libertarian philosopher Bernard de Mandeville. Mandeville Tip is a breezy point in the middle of the Delta, flanked by levees and a short boat ride away from a former county park. It’s named after a 19th-century Californian politician, J. W. Mandeville, but the more well-known Mandeville, of the Fable of the Bees, had much in common with Ephemerisle’s freewheeling spirit. The Fable’s most famous lines, cited by Keynes, come from Mandeville’s poem entitled “The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves turn’d Honest,” which argues that allowing private vices makes for good public policy. “Bare Virtue can’t make Nations live / In Splendor; they, that would revive / A Golden Age, must be as free / For Acorns, as for Honesty,” concludes Mandeville, after bemoaning the unhappiness and lack of prosperity the bees experience while living in a more wholesome, regulated hive. Ephemerisle was its own little beehive of decadence, a floating pillow fort saturated in sex and soft drugs. It billed itself as a “gathering of people interested in the possibility of permanent experimental ocean communities,” but felt more like Burning Man, if Burners frolicked in the tears of Ludwig Von Mises.
Ephemerisle got its libertarian streak from its founders: the event was originally conceived of by the Seasteading Institute, a San Francisco nonprofit that supports the creation of thousands of floating city-states in international waters. After overseeing the first Ephemerisle in 2009, the Institute handed over responsibility for the festival to the community in 2010—it turns out a raucous floating party costs too much for a tiny think tank to insure—and last year, the group consisted of 300 amateur boaters, intoxicated partiers, and a committed clan of Seasteaders.
Seasteaders made up about a quarter of Ephemerisle’s attendees. If they took the operation somewhat more seriously than the young Californians who came just to party and build things, it’s because they dream of a day when they’ll have their pick of floating city-states to live on, work from, and eventually abandon in favor of a different platform when they get bored. Borrowing from the lexicon of evolution, the Seasteaders say that a “Cambrian explosion” of these new countries will bring about greater freedom of choice for individuals, stimulate competition between existing governments, and provide blank “nation-slates” for experiments in governance. Ephemerisle is supposed to distill the ambitious project into a weekend that would “give people the direct experience of political autonomy.” It combines its political ambitions with appeals to back-to-the-land survivalism, off-the-grid drug use, and a vague nostalgia for water parks. “There are no tickets, no central organizers, no rules, no rangers to keep you safe,” reads the Ephemerisle mission statement. It’s “a new adventure into an alien environment, with discoveries, adventures, and mishaps along the way.”
I was dropped off on the North neighborhood—the most raucous of the three—which, in addition to a row of houseboats, had a big platform serving as a communal front yard. One of the boats had pirated a radio station, “Radio FMerisle.” Other boats had tents pitched on their roofs to accommodate boatless hangers-on. It was a vision straight out of Neal Stephenson’s cult sci-fi novel Snow Crash (1992), which turned out to be one of the most influential texts in the Seasteading community—beloved for its dystopian portrayals of life in a virtual, post-statist society. “Small pleasure craft, sampans, junk, dhows, dinghies, life rafts, houseboats, makeshift structures built on air-filled oil drums and slabs of styrofoam,” wrote Stephenson two decades ago, describing an itinerant flotilla full of refugees called The Raft. “A good fifty percent of it isn’t real boat material at all, just a garble of ropes, cables, planks, nets, and other debris tied together on top of whatever kind of flotsam was handy.”
As I hopped from boat to boat and onto the platform, I noticed many of the men in attendance had sparkly turquoise polish on their grubby toenails. On one of the houseboats, a body-painting session was in full swing, but the hot California sun quickly reduced the painted swirls to an eczemic crust. Within minutes, I overheard an endless stream of conversations about start-ups, incubators, hackerspaces and apps. Naked bodies ambled by. While looking for a bathroom, I walked in on a couple having sex in a houseboat’s aft cabin.
I had arranged via Facebook and Paypal to sleep in a houseboat in the South neighborhood of the island, not realizing the logistical difficulties involved: unless a motorboat happened to be passing by, the options for moving from one platform to another were limited to kayaking or pulling oneself across with a rope while balancing on wooden planks. The rope looked precarious, so I found a soggy kayak and paddled over three days’ worth of luggage, food, and supplies. The South looked a lot like the North, only less busy. Its smaller shared platform housed the Cuddle Gallery, a large white tent adorned with a cloth jellyfish where boatless residents could nap and work by day, and sleep, or cuddle, at night.
My cabin mates were already in the South when I arrived. Cyprien Noel, a soft-spoken French libertarian and an avid advocate for the Seasteading project, had rented the houseboat from the marina with his sister and brother-in-law, who were visiting him in the Bay Area from France. He’d also invited two Chinese engineers from San Jose and a woman in her thirties who had brought with her an espresso machine, a waffle iron, and a milk frother that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. They planned to stay afloat for four nights and four days.
I asked Cyprien how he’d ended up so far from home. He explained, in French, that after trying unsuccessfully to obtain an American visa to work as an entrepreneur, he’d won the Green Card lottery and immigrated to the United States about four years ago. He wanted to leave France in part to escape an overbearing state that he found “closed and afraid,” and today sees Seasteading as a potential solution to the lack of competition in government. “There’s no real innovation or genuinely free market in France. I was tired of it,” he said, adding, “Libertarians in the US don’t know how good they have it.”
The Seasteading Institute was founded in 2008 by PayPal founder Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman, a former Google engineer best known for being Milton Friedman’s grandson. Although both men are outspoken libertarians, the nonprofit institute insists that it isn’t politically motivated. It claims to want more space for political experimentation—and the beauty of aquatic governance experiments is that they’re free to fail on their own merits. “If we can solve the engineering challenges of Seasteading, two-thirds of the Earth’s surface becomes open for these political start-ups,” explains Friedman, a self-styled cult leader who’s known to the community as just Patri. The Seasteaders have chosen as their motto “Let a Thousand Nations Bloom’—an apparent spin on “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom,” a Maoist policy which encouraged dissidents to speak out and then used their views as a pretext to jail them.
The mantra was repeated many times during the Seasteading Institute’s third annual conference, which took place one week before Ephemerisle in the basement of the San Francisco Grand Meridien Hotel. The Institute hasn’t been officially affiliated with Ephemerisle since 2009, but a number of attendees, many of them Seasteading Institute staffers, had plans to go to the festival and encouraged me to come party with them. A few older donors to the Seasteading cause planned to make appearances at Ephemerisle, expecting to look out of place in the festival’s trippy, offbeat surroundings. There was a rumor that Peter Thiel would go, too, but no one could confirm it.
The crowd at the conference was disproportionately white, male (I counted maybe ten women in the room) and wealthy (tickets started at $715), and the vast majority of attendees needed no prompting to profess their tax-hating libertarian views just minutes into a conversation. The junket also brought together a number of academics, who, I later learned, had been courted by the Seasteading Institute because their expertise—legal, environmental, or technical—happened to contribute to the greater Seasteading project. The experts had no plans to visit Ephemerisle; in fact, the movement’s radical, libertine side seemed to elude them completely.
Like Ephemerisle, the tenor of the conference was scrappy, defiant, and idealistic. The event was staffed by a group of a dozen Seasteading Institute “ambassadors,” who proselytize for the cause all over the world, and talks ranged from the highly speculative—“Seasteading for Medical Tourism,” “The Economic Viability of Large Floating Structures”—to the practical: “Seastead Security,” for instance, outlined how water cannons and noise machines can protect the cities from pirates and government agents. A panel of legal experts offered a dense explanation of the legal aspects of Seasteading, which is theoretically possible since no one nation has jurisdiction over the high seas. Still, as one lawyer on the panel pointed out, there’s no way of knowing how existing countries will react to this assault on their dignity. The Seasteaders I spoke to were undeterred by the possibility of a seastead shutting down at the hands of a belligerent country or the international community. One Institute “ambassador” who spoke of Patri Friedman in hushed, reverent tones, told me she was confident that the movement was on the right side of history, and that they would be vindicated in the end.
A Costa Rican professor of agricultural engineering named Ricardo Radulovich gave one of the session’s most impassioned talks, about how terrestrial crops like tomatoes could thrive at sea and how algae could provide a sustainable energy alternative to fossil fuels. I met Radulovich, a dapper, ponytailed man in his fifties, over breakfast on the first day of the conference. After telling me about his passion for seaweed, Radulovich pulled a small vial of dried algae from his pocket and opened it on the table. Between bites of his Continental breakfast, he assured me that the powder, which smelled like fish food, would someday “feed the world.” He described his involvement in Seasteading as a conversion: “I couldn’t care less about land anymore. I was able to transcend land. It is too limited for the solutions we need.”
The end of the second day of the conference ended with a boat cruise, complete with open bar and live jazz band. The ship looped around the Bay as the sun set. The Seasteading Institute’s male employees looked like they’d stepped out of a casino, wearing jaunty fitted suits, sunglasses, fedoras, and silver jewelry. Attendees name-dropped Austrian economists and carried on long discussions about the restrictive, freedom-thwarting nature of American immigration policy. I sat at a table with a clean-cut young Seasteading Institute employee named Charlie, who was explaining to an older gentleman the merits of the Paleo diet, a lifestyle that advocates eating a lot of fat and mimicking the eating habits of our caveman ancestors. Paleo was one of the meal options I was given when I signed up for the conference; I would soon learn that it was popular lifestyle among the new wave of tech-libertarians.
“I advocate butter for life extension and feeling vibrant,” said Charlie “Some foods just give you the urge to lift things.” His interlocutor, an Institute ambassador in his fifties, looked a little confused. “I’m sick of being fat,” he said. “Can we have a seastead with a bootcamp?”
The Institute also held a dinner for its benefactors aboard Forbes Island, a floating restaurant off of Pier 39. The dining area was below the deck and maritime paraphernalia adorned the walls of the dim cabin. The room could have passed for a Midtown social club, with its entrepreneurial young men and its rare steaks and red wine, except that the scene would periodically tilt over—a queasy reminder that there was no ground below.
I met Patri Friedman in the apartment of Seasteading donor John Chisholm, on the thirty-third floor of Infinity Towers, a high-rise development in San Francisco’s SoMa district. Just over five feet tall with a mane of curly black hair and a wiry beard covering his pointy chin, he sat in a chair by the window, explaining his political philosophy while puffing on an electronic cigarette. Seasteading, Patri told me, was borne out of his “personal dissatisfaction with the range, as a consumer.” The faulty products that Patri referred to were countries.
Some thirty years ago Patri’s grandfather famously argued that companies have a social responsibility to increase profits and engage in competition. He didn’t advocate for a complete free-for-all—businesses and individuals, he insisted, must play by the rules—but governments shouldn’t be allowed to thwart free trade by monopolizing industry, either. Patri has adapted this thesis for a globalized ideas economy in which countries and borders don’t matter as much as the free flow of people, money, and information. Governments, Patri says, should operate the way companies do, serving their customers (that is, citizens) with the best product possible. And like retail consumers, citizens ought to be able to “vote with their feet,” converging in self-selected groups and encouraging governments to compete for their allegiances. “What if Apple’s genius designers applied their insights on a user experience to build a city that’s as fun to use as an iPad?” Patri asked during his talk at the conference.
As the theory goes, increased competition for citizens in the public sector would cause the best systems to attract more people, encouraging the widespread adoption of the most popular forms of governance while precipitating the decline of oppressive ones. Thousands of aquatic petri dishes (or, as his colleagues quip, “Patri” dishes) would encourage people to try out new forms of government to see which ones worked best. If the market were truly free, this would occur naturally, but the structural constraints of the world we live in—the finite number of countries, the limits on mobility based on a person’s citizenship, and the artificially imposed impossibility of starting new countries from scratch—instead creates a monopoly on the governance “market.” Existing governments have no interest in making themselves vulnerable by opening up their borders, so the only solution is to go create thousands of “start-up countries” in the legal vacuum of international waters.
Patri came to these conclusions after having searched far and wide for Utopia. After graduating from college with a degree in discrete math in 2002, he led the itinerant and occasionally debauched life of a self-professed trust fund kid: living abroad, playing poker, experimenting with drugs and sex, and traveling the world looking for a country to call his own. “The thought of living alone, on an island that is completely mine, quietly building infrastructure and waiting for others to choose to join me, is a serene one,” Friedman wrote in a Livejournal entry (since deleted) during an exploratory trip to Costa Rica shortly after September 11. “True freedom would be worth long periods of isolation. But how much loneliness can I accept for this little step towards freedom, this slight disentanglement from government?”
Patri’s initial hopes for starting an anarcho-capitalist commune in Costa Rica didn’t pan out. He liked the idea of Switzerland and Singapore well enough, but they weren’t long-term solutions. He even considered buying into a citizenship-by-investment scheme in the Caribbean to escape the US, but the costs, he said, were too high. So Patri returned to California, enrolled in a part-time MBA program at Stanford, and began thinking about more radical ways to opt out—starting, then leaving, an “intentional community,” and co-founding the Seasteading Institute. “To spend the rest of my life living under a society whose rules don’t fit with my sense of justice—that just sounded horrible and miserable,” Patri told me. “So I learned about this whole history of nation-founding and floating city movements, and was like ‘You know, there’s something to this. People should be able to start new countries.’ And I think the ocean is the most realistic way of doing it.”
The idea of an island utopia isn’t exactly new. Erwin S. Strauss’s How to Start Your Own Country (1983) has served both as a handbook both for new country founders and for historians of floating-city ventures. Strauss’s definition of a country is a loose one: sidestepping the mainstream understanding of what constitutes a country—a population, a currency, land, and some sort of law, for starters—Strauss focuses on one-man attempts at physical DIY statehood staged on ships, fortresses, and artificial land masses.
In 1965, Ernest Hemingway’s little brother Leicester announced himself the president of the Republic of New Atlantis, an eight-by-thirty-foot barge anchored near the west coast of Jamaica, and later claimed sovereignty over a larger barge near the Bahamas. A few years later, an Objectivist businessman named Werner K. Stiefel founded Operation Atlantis, a new country venture he planned to develop on an island in the Caribbean. Operation Atlantis was originally run out of a motel in upstate New York, where Stiefel lodged volunteers in exchange for their labor. His staff spent several years preparing a ship that finally launched off the East Coast in December 1969, but “the Atlanteans took a few liberties with the ship’s design,” according to Strauss, and the boat sank in a hurricane. Then in 1972 a Lithuanian immigrant-turned Las Vegas real estate mogul named Michael J. Oliver hired an Australian dredging ship for $10,000 a week to fill in two reefs with sand 260 miles northeast of the Kingdom of Tonga. He filled fifteen acres, hoping that investors would finance the remaining 1,485 acres to build an island, but the King of Tonga intervened, sending a gang of Tongan convicts to plant a Tongan flag, sing the Tongan national anthem, and claim the land for the Kingdom.
The best-known self-made country is the Principality of Sealand, founded by Paddy Roy Bates, a British pirate radio operator who moved into a World War II anti-aircraft tower off the coast of Great Britain. Bates declared his independence on September 2, 1967 and went to great lengths to preserve his honor, firing shots at repairmen working on a nearby tower and taking some German businessmen hostage after they attempted a purported coup d’état. About ten years ago Prince Roy started a data hosting service called HavenCo with entrepreneur and cyberpunk author Sean Hasting, hoping to build a relatively unregulated alternative to existing server farms on Sealand. The experiment was short-lived: it turned out that the rig-like platform lacked the necessary infrastructure to host sophisticated servers, and when Hastings dropped out for “personal reasons” in 2002 there was no one to lead the way.
Four years later, a fire broke out on Sealand. The Bateses were in Spain at the time; the only Sealand resident, a security guard, was rescued by the British Royal Air Force. The damage reached half a million pounds, but authorities decided not to charge Sealand for the trouble.
A more contemporary example of aquatic self-governance is Freewinds, a cruise ship chartered by the Church of Scientology (another California-based, sci-fi inspired faction of privileged, somewhat paranoid individuals). Freewinds houses the Sea Org, the group’s elite junior corps, and flies a Panamanian flag, functioning essentially as its own floating nation. But it’s anything but idyllic: a number of former residents have publicly complained about the slavelike conditions and environmental hazards on the ship.
The vast majority of the ventures in How to Start Your Own Country are either the follies of egocentric young men or thinly veiled tax and regulation avoidance schemes. None of the “countries” Strauss describes were ever recognized by other, existing countries, or by the UN, which is generally how new states gain legitimacy. Aware of this history, the Seasteading Institute has done what it can to distance itself from the comical undoings of new countries past—couching its free-market theories in techno-utopian language and using the abracadabra of innovation as its crutch. “People dismiss the idea as crackpotish,” remarked John Chisholm, the donor, at the conference. “But if you address them as you would your fellow futurist, it might be more palatable.”
The Institute has also focused on the idea of creating artificial landmass on its own—a way, perhaps, to demand legitimacy from those unwilling to see ships or barges as proper countries. Recast in the language of the start-up economy, the spectacular failures of DIY countries become noble enterprises. And, like start-up companies, they just might succeed in changing the way we see the world—and make a few people very, very rich. “The country’s running on an operating system from 1778,” Patri told me. “If cars did that, we’d be riding horses.”
As he spoke, Patri gestured toward the great beyond. The view was breathtaking: wall-to-wall windows overlooked the Bay Bridge, and the water looked like an inky, peaceful swimming pool. “Look—that’s a container ship coming out of the Port of Oakland, going out to the bridge,” he said, pointing to a large vessel with the giddy enthusiasm of a small child. It was easy, from three hundred feet up, to imagine a seastead in its place.
After I met my cabin-mates on Ephemerisle’s South Island, I kayaked back to the North to catch the senior director of the Seasteading Institute introducing a series of lectures on the main platform “The state of Seasteading is strong!” declared Randy Hencken, a ropey man with dragon tattoos covering his chest and back. Hencken, who had recently left a job at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, explained that a dearth of employment and freedom on land would precipitate the development of seasteads over the next two decades. The Institute had already made progress: an anonymous donor had given them a 275-foot cruise ship, and a general-audience book about Seasteading will be published by Simon & Schuster later this year.
The first presentation showcased the “jellypus,” an iPad-controlled luminescent jellyfish that sat about a foot under water, pulsing with light to the rhythm of whatever song was on. Then Michael Hartl, a bald, affable physicist who told me he writes off Ephemerisle as a business expense in his taxes (“networking”) led a pirate shanty sing-along in a pitch-perfect baritone. Hartl embodies what tech entrepreneurs call “creative disruption”: he made a name for himself by pressing mathematicians to stop using Pi as a constant and instead rely on the more elegant Tau, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius. Hartl has also taught astrophysics at Caltech and mentored Thiel Fellows—college students whom Peter Thiel, perhaps the world’s most famous “disrupter,” paid $100,000 to drop out of school and start companies. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to be a pirate,” Hartl beamed. “And now I’m doing it!”
A young man named Kevin then went on at length about how large doses of electrolytes—the equivalent of twenty Gatorades—can make you smarter.
“What about Creatine?” asked an audience member. “Does Creatine make you smarter?
“Only if you’re a vegetarian,” replied Kevin. “Creatine only makes you smarter if you don’t eat meat.”
In addition to seeing government as just another problem that technology can overcome, Seasteaders try to “hack” every aspect of their existence down to their self-care regimens. Many participate in health and fitness regimes like the Paleo Diet and Crossfit—lifestyles that dovetail nicely with more mainstream libertarian retro-futurism, which argues humans ought to live more like they did before their “freedom” was impinged upon by large state governments, all while enjoying the enhancements of technological innovation forged in the free market. It wasn’t just Charlie from the boat cruise who proselytized the health benefits of butter: the unofficial beverage of Ephemerisle was “Bulletproof Coffee”—black coffee with half a stick of butter mixed in—which advocates claim increases their mental acuity and helps them stay trim. The inventor of the concoction claims to have increased his IQ by twenty points and lost 100 pounds as a result of his experiments “hacking” his biology. He was at Ephemerisle, too and later, in an email, told me he’d had a great time.
This tendency toward engineering everything spills into the social sphere. To supplement real or perceived romantic shortcomings, some Seasteaders dabble in pickup artistry, a method of seducing women that’s been likened to an algorithm and self-legitimized by handpicked data and bunk theories about evolution. The male vanity coursing under all this life-hacking may explain why so few women participate in projects like these. While there’s little overt sexism in the gay-friendly, drug-happy Seasteading community, there’s nothing preventing a hypothetical start-up country from regressing into a patriarchal, Paleo-Futuristic state. If anything, the movement’s reverence for caveman essentialism suggests the latter—that real goal is to remake civilization, starting from a primal, “natural” condition that they can revive in the modern world thanks to new technologies.
Or maybe the goal is to build Facebook, the country. Seasteading rhetoric echoes early visions of the Internet, recalling John Perry Barlow’s web manifesto, “The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Perry liberally employs the metaphor of a seamless, timeless, borderless ocean to describe the web, and his vehement resistance to any form of Internet regulation has a real-life parallel in the no-countries, no-rules ethos that Seasteaders embrace. “We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks,” wrote Barlow, on behalf of Cyberspace, in 1996. “I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.” The idea of the Internet promised an impossible libertarian dream: a way to be alone, together.
The actual Internet has largely failed to live up to Barlow’s ideal of fluid, seamless space. But that hasn’t stopped Seasteading from attempting to recreate his vision IRL. At Ephemerisle, Internet piracy manifested in hacked radio stations and in the shanties of actual pirates. Memes—bacon, cuddling, BFFLs—were acted out offline. There was even a rumor that someone had brought a cat onto one of the houseboats. The festival was conceived of and organized almost entirely online; it has its own Facebook page, a Twitter, a detailed wiki with planning notes, evaluations, and a postmortem for the past few events.
It’s no coincidence that members of the online Reddit community, all male, made plans independently of the Seasteaders to take over an island in the Caribbean. The project failed.
On Saturday morning, I woke up at sunrise after having slept on a foldout bench in the front section of our houseboat. The wind had picked up dramatically overnight, and when I stepped onto the deck for some fresh air I nearly lost my balance. Over the next four hours, the gusts proceeded to tear the floating cities apart. The platforms rocked on the water and the inflatable rafts tied to out boat now blew violently onto our deck, knocking over chairs and crashing into the doorframe.
I watched from my boat as the islands deteriorated in slow motion. First, the North side rotated 90 degrees; then, it began to lose chunks of its main platform, one by one. The South began to wobble precariously, and a few rugged types who’d taken charge of the situation were yelling orders at each other from their decks and frantically Tweeting alerts to other islands. The turquoise toenail polish the men had applied the day before sparkled on their bloodied feet as they attempted to untangle rogue anchors from the riverbed and fold up the Cuddle Gallery, which was on the verge of blowing away.
Ephemerisle had entered a state of emergency, and its residents were more than ready to declare martial law. “The North is floating toward us!” barked a young man from outside. “Stay in your houseboats!” When I tried to escape my stuffy cabin and climb up to the roof, a second young man gave me a brusque lecture on safety.
By mid-morning, the two main cities had fractured into a half dozen stranded units floating alone in the turbulent waters. The West had vanished entirely—one of the boats had drifted off and gotten stuck by a nearby levee, while most of the others took off to other parts of the river. There was no reliable form of communication between the boats. A few people had radios. Some yelled. The rest of us had half-charged phones with weak Internet connections. Transport, as always, was limited.
Confined to a few square feet with a leaky trash bag and too many bodies in one cabin, my cabin-mates and I showered with tepid river water and nursed hangovers with our dwindling supply of store-bought liquids. Dirty, smelly, and bored, we sat around and tried to make small talk. We had nothing to talk about; aquatic life had grown tiresome.
“Sorry it didn’t work out quite as planned, you guys,” said Cyprien. “It’s not so fun being isolated.” The Chinese engineers napped, and Cyprien’s relatives hung out at the back of the boat looking bored. On the other end, some people just took off and went home. “I’m done with this. Goodbye!” yelled Michael Hartl from his deck.
As Hartl’s boat rumbled away into the distance, a sense of relief washed over the South. We remembered that nothing bound us to this place—we could leave. No countries, no rules: when I’d asked Patri what would happen if a seastead turned into a dictatorship, or the Scientologists’ Freewinds ship, he’d advocated for “the right of exit.” It is this right—ultimately, the right to choose one’s neighbors—was what made Seasteading so desirable in the first place. You could build a utopia, but you had no obligation to stick with it. After all, one quality of utopia, at least libertarian utopia, was that you could leave anytime. So we did.
Ephemerisle, though, went on through Sunday, and ended on a happy note. Those who persevered pieced what was left of the two remaining neighborhoods back together when the wind died down, and continued their revelry late into the night with just one notable incident. At around 5 PM a young man decided to go skinny-dipping in the river. He had dropped acid earlier in the day, so a fellow Ephemerisler, worried about his safety, coaxed him out and called the Coast Guard over to the islands for guidance. The man was standing on a houseboat wearing nothing but his blanket when the officers arrived; when he saw them, he dropped the sheet, jumped in the water again, and swam away. He reached a levee, scrambled out of the water, and took off running through the reeds—a free man living a free life, in the radical wilderness of the American West.
But the law was onto him, and the law won: within minutes, the naked white male was caught, cuffed, and escorted back to dry land. The Ephemerislers watched from their boats.