How Two Seasteaders Wound Up Marked For Death
Reason magazine|November 2019
If a tiny floating cottage brought down the wrath of the thai navy, is there any hope for stateless life at sea?
Brian Doherty

There they were, sweethearts Chad and Nadia, bedding down in a cozy floating home more than 12 miles off the coast of Thailand. Like any other vacationing couple, they shot videos to share with friends online. They had a 360-degree oceanfront view, with calm, sparkling blue water stretching out as far as the eye could see. Popping champagne, they were delighted by the “thousand million stars” they felt they could see at night.

But the pleasure of those views of sea and stars had an unexpectedly high cost: In April, the Thai navy hit them with threats of arrest for a capital crime. That moment of rare communion with the setting sun, from a 6-square-meter octagonal hut attached to a 20-meter-tall spar anchored in the Andaman Sea, seriously threatened the sovereignty of Thailand—or so that nation claimed. At a likely cost of about $1 million, three Royal Thai Navy boats dragged the hut back to shore.

As the Bangkok Post reported, the Thai navy insisted that Chad and Nadia’s small floating part-time home violated Section 119 of the Criminal Code, which “concerns any acts that cause the country or parts of it to fall under the sovereignty of a foreign state or deterioration of the state’s independence.” Worse still: “It is punishable by death or life imprisonment.”

For Chad Elwartowski and his now-wife Nadia Summergirl (her chosen name; the Thai native was previously Supranee Thepdet), the problem wasn’t their tiny hut with the glorious view per se. It wasn’t really about the specific thing they did. The problem was the idea motivating the otherwise generally untroubling act of dwelling atop the ocean, something that the fishing boats they often saw from their floating home do every day. They wanted to be pioneers in an experiment combining political independence, self-sufficiency, space travel, and personal liberty.

That dream was what brought down the wrath of the Thai navy and sent them into hiding, fleeing in fear for their lives.

THE ELUSIVE DREAM OF SEASTEADING IN A WORLD where every bit of existing land (and a lot of water, too, as it turns out) is claimed by some government as its sovereign territory, seasteading posits that the only way to find freedom, experiment with new forms of governance, or launch fascinating businesses, from medical tech to tourism to aquaculture, without being unduly strangled by government edicts, is to create new places to live floating on the ocean. Those places could be as humble as that two-person lovenest.

Elwartowski had become a seasteading enthusiast after a decade or more of Libertarian Party activism, including an attempt to run for Congress in Georgia (where he failed to gather enough signatures to actually be on the ballot), a dalliance with the Free State Project (a call for libertarians to congregate in New Hampshire, so as to maximize their political power on the state and local level), and promoting Ron Paul’s presidential runs.

On a Ron Paul online forum, Elwartowski first encountered the ideas of Patri Friedman, who co-founded the Seasteading Institute in 2008. Bitcoin also first came to his attention on such a website. Those two passions eventually came together to make him a fugitive from Thai justice.

Elwartowski’s larking about with schemes to make the world freer or to find a freer space in an unfree world moved alongside his career as a defense contractor, mostly as a software engineer. He hopped from company to company, stationed at times in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That experience magnified his desire for some sort of escape to total freedom.

While working in war zones, he says, “We were allowed to leave if we wanted to, but I never left, because I was protected on the base.” He put in “12-hour days, seven days a week, 365 days a year, with bombs going off and gunfire. It was very stressful as a libertarian on a military base. Most of the people there had [military experience] and knew all the stupid rules.”

Once, a fire marshal freaked when Elwartowski and his roommate in their tiny room in Afghanistan dared to hang a blanket between their spaces for privacy. The tiny, harmless attempt at a more human existence was torn down as a rules violation. Another requirement—that he take off his hat when entering the cafeteria after a 12-hour shift, when he was worrying about “whether people are dying because your code might have an extra line”—also irked him. It was, he concludes, a “tough environment.” He was ready to take to the open seas.

Randy Hencken, a former managing director of the Seasteading Institute, came across Elwartowski while doing market research about the needs and desires of his community. “What stood out about Chad,” Hencken recalls, “is he was the guy who was like, ‘You can just put me down on a box in the middle of the ocean, and I would be happy there.’ Even that would be a kind of freedom to him, since he’d been a military contractor basically in a box in Afghanistan, so whatever meant being out from under the foot of regulatory controls, the guy was happy to do that.”

Elwartowski had been an early accumulator of bitcoin thanks to his passion for Ron Paul (though the goldbug in him made him resistant at first to the charms of this nonphysical online currency). He initially bought in around $17. The price eventually rose to the point where he was making more from owning bitcoin than he was from his job. “I had no motivation to work at that point,” he says.

Like many early adopters, he’s done a lot of trading and selling and churn along the way, and the bitcoins he’s owned more recently were purchased at a much higher price point. Still, he’d enjoyed enough appreciation to be able to “retire in Thailand at age 45.”

So when a company called Blue Frontiers in 2017 confidently announced it would soon float a seastead in a Tahitian lagoon, Elwartowski relocated to French Polynesia as a sort of ambassador without portfolio for seasteading. He was eyes on the ground on a volunteer basis for Blue Frontiers, promoting the concept, checking out potential sites, and keeping himself in the mix. He was already eager to be “the first seasteader.”

His ability to do advance work was somewhat stymied by his inability to speak the language. Yet Elwartowski noticed a simmering disquiet from many locals. The bad feelings were based, he perceived, on a “xenophobic” feeling that “these outsiders are coming to take over our lagoons, maybe destroy our lagoons.” Many Polynesians were frightened, he thinks, by inaccurate visions of giant cruise ship–sized behemoths damaging their coral reefs and inhibiting their fishing.

During a contentious election in 2018, local and national political support for building a seastead in French Polynesia seemed to evaporate. Elwartowski and his new girlfriend, Nadia, who had been staying with him in Polynesia, needed to figure out their next step on the path to total freedom.

FROM SPACE LAUNCH TO SEASTEAD IN ADDITION TO his in-person duties, Elwartowski was also administering a web forum for the Seasteading Institute. There, in March 2018, a 50-something German software engineer named Rudiger Koch began pushing a concept that became Ocean Builders, an operation to design, build, and sell small seasteads. According to Koch, the Andaman Sea in the eastern Indian Ocean had historically calm waters generally free of threatening storms, making it an ideal location for floating experiments.

Koch showed Elwartowski a picture of a concrete spar he’d helped build, though “I really had no idea what he was actually doing,” Elwartowski recalled a year later. When they first met in Bangkok around September 2018, Koch seemed more excited about building a “launch loop” in the style of Keith Lofstrom, an electrical engineer and space enthusiast who has long hyped designs for a cable loop system that could propel payloads into space without rockets.

As Elwartowski explains it, Koch wanted to “launch things with electromagnets up in space” and thought the smartest place to build a launch loop would be out on the open seas, since Lofstrom’s design is more than 1,000 miles from end to end.

Elwartowski is no aerospace engineer, and lots of the technical details were hazy to him, despite plenty of listening to Koch “talking technically like an engineer” with his “very heavy German accent.” But Elwartowski says the ocean was important to Koch as a gateway to space; seasteading was just a way to ensure the engineers and workers needed to build his launch loop would have a place to live in the deep ocean.

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