At 6:00 a.m. on a cold day in March 2019, a lone figure can be seen on the pier in Harwich, on the coast of Essex, England, in the deep blue of the early morning light. The man in his late 50s wears a taxi driver hat and blue mechanic’s jumpsuit over jeans and a sweater. He takes a puff from a vape pen and blows a substantial cloud into the air as he makes a pile of boxes and bags at the top of a set of stairs that lead straight into the water alongside one of the piers. The man is Joe Hamill, and the pile of luggage is a fortnight’s worth of victuals and clothes for his stay on the Principality of Sealand—the world’s best-known micronation, a naval fort in the North Sea comprised of two large concrete towers that support a metal superstructure. Along with a man named Mike Barrington, Hamill is one of Sealand’s two caretakers, and the pair alternate two-week stints on Sealand as their full-time jobs.
Sealand was established as a manmade state-let—officially unrecognized the world over—in 1967 by Paddy Roy Bates, World War II veteran, raconteur, and pirate radio broadcaster. Today the Bates family pays Hamill and Barrington to keep watch on the fort and attend to its multitude of repairs and chores; the family also covers the costs of supplies and equipment—it takes a surprising amount to maintain what some might consider an outsized hobby. The caretakers have developed a personal relationship with the micronation, and their schedules, well-being, and livelihoods revolve around their duty to the fort.
The night before his shift starts, Hamill drives 150 miles from Basingstoke to Harwich and typically stays in a rented room above a pub. The seaside town full of row houses, stone streets, and ancient churches is juxtaposed with the ports of Felixstowe just across the harbor, which boasts the largest container shipping hub in the United Kingdom. With the enormous cranes and shipping facilities surrounding the bay, the area looks like a historical reenactment surrounded by cyborgs.
Hamill piles his bags on the pier in anticipation of hitching a ride on a small fishing vessel. Looking across the water to the next dock, he hails Dan Griffin, a Harwich fisherman, crabber, and lobsterman in his 30s with a friendly face and equally pleasant demeanor. Griffin and another fisherman, Pecker, are going to pull in that week’s haul a few miles beyond Sealand, and will drop Hammill off on their way out. They rush off a few hundred feet down the pier to fire up a rickety fishing boat and putter over to Hamill’s cargo. The three men make quick work of piling the 15 bags and boxes atop the wooden covering on the boat’s engine.
The boat putters out, steadily leaving behind the enormous erector set cranes of the port. The destination is a little less than seven miles from the shore, but it will take approximately an hour and twenty minutes to get there.
The trio shoots the shit and jokes around as they go. Griffin and Pecker are among the last human beings Hamill will see for at least two weeks. The only other craft on the water is a speedboat that zips by, ferrying a pilot from shore to one of the half-dozen container ships moored in the distance. While the pilots of those massive ships no doubt possess tremendous skill, it takes a specialist to navigate them into Felixstowe’s narrow docks. On the way, Griffin flips a ten pence coin into the sea.
“It’s a bit of superstition—you give something back to the sea that’s given you so much,” he explains.
He leaves the boat on autopilot as he attends to the various chores involved in pulling in the lobster pots, while Hamill starts unfurling a large nylon construction tote that can hold a ton of rubble. He piles his bags and boxes into it, and joins the handles together with a heavy metal clasp that will be attached to a hook at the end of the winch that will take everything—Hamill included—from the surface of the water up to Sealand.
The principality is visible in the distance the whole way. It looks at the same time tiny and gigantic—a vulnerable speck in the vast sea, but its legs seem to extend surprisingly high out of the water. Hamill eyes it with an inscrutable glance and exhales a blast of vapor that smells like Crunch Berries cereal.
The offshore installation that would become the Principality of Sealand began as a naval fort in the North Sea, built to shoot down incoming Nazi bombers: two large, cylindrical concrete towers with a metal platform on top, 60 feet above the water. After the war, the four naval forts erected on this part of the coast were more or less abandoned until the early 1960s, when an enterprising group of DJs took them over to use as offshore pirate radio stations. The BBC was Britain’s only licensed broadcaster at the time, and wouldn’t play the pop music youngsters were eager to hear. Bates, who had his hands in a number of offbeat businesses, took over the one known as Fort Roughs and started Radio Essex, helping usher in a colorful time in broadcasting history, as rival radio stations battled each other and the British government for space on the airwaves.
Bates was known as a “hard bastard of the North Sea,” and he and his early crew were known to defend their fort with fists—and firebombs if need be. The pirate radio era came to an end when the BBC agreed to start playing more rock ‘n’ roll, but Bates knew a good thing when he had it, especially since the fort was in international waters. He christened Fort Roughs “The Principality of Sealand” and declared it to be its own country on September 2, 1967. He had big plans, and statehood could only give the experiment a dose of legitimacy.
A constitution, stamps, passports, and a national anthem followed, with Bates, his wife Joan, and kids Penny and Michael as the first Sealanders. Michael dropped out of school at age 14 to assist, which entailed more fights against would-be invaders and the British government. Documents in the National Archives show official exasperation (and even a bit of humor) when it came to the Sealand situation, as its extraterritorial location meant it was unclear what authority the United Kingdom had over it. Indeed, a technical ruling in 1968 affirmed that British law did not apply on the fort. This, coupled with a few other rulings throughout the years (and a visit from a German diplomat), added further credence to the Sealand’s claims of sovereignty. Today the fort is kitted out with living quarters, a full kitchen, and even a chapel.
Since then, Sealand has been host to an incredible series of escapades, from hostage situations to experiments with offshore data storage to attempts to register ships to the fort. (This excerpt describes the fallout that came from a gang of international scam artists bootlegging Sealand passports.) Maintaining the fort has sometimes been a tremendous financial hardship for the Bates family, but it has also been a way for them to bond with each other and their supporters. Paddy Roy Bates died in 2012, but Michael is still Prince Regent, and his sons now oversee day-to-day operations. Anyone can support the effort by buying official Sealandic titles, and today the fort is able to pay for itself, including the full-time salaries of Hamill and Barrington.
Hamill basically fell into his strange job by mistake, but it was just what he needed. He had worked in the insurance industry for 20 years but was increasingly feeling oppressed by the banal rigors of the nine-to-five lifestyle. A long-term relationship fell apart, leaving him so fed up with humanity that he wouldn’t have minded leaving society entirely. He was in a pub one evening when a friend asked him if he was interested in a weekend’s work doing security out at sea. Sure, he said, what’s the gig? It was running security for the Red Bull skateboarding expo out on Sealand in 2008. Hamill had never heard of the micronation, but the price was right and he agreed. A few days later, he met the boat at the pier in Harwich.
Hamill’s mouth fell open when saw the bosun’s chair being lowered down on the winch for the first time. “I could see it in the distance and I said, ‘Do I get strapped into that?’” he says. The skateboarders went right up to the lip on the edge of the fort—stunts that made Joe’s stomach drop. “I couldn’t even look at them,” he laughs. “I was on that platform acting as security and I was the most frightened person aboard.” It turned out that the next caretaker the Bateses had lined up didn’t have a car and couldn’t transport his stuff to the pier. So Hamill was offered the job.
The first week out on the fort was cold, and the isolation was intense—almost too much for someone who had little experience at sea. But the odd charm of Sealand grew on him, as did the opportunity to have some time to himself. Hamill is now in the middle of his 11th year on the job. He acknowledges the routine isn’t for everybody. “People close to me will say I’m not the same person I used to be,” he says. “Before I’d go out there, I’d go quiet, I wouldn’t speak to anyone, get very serious. My dear old mother would say, ‘You’ve got to get another job. I’m really worried.’ But [the quiet] would only last the night before. Look at me now—I’m fine, and in a way, I’m sort of looking forward to it. Get Mike [Barrington] off, get some stuff done … do whatever I do.”
A few cups of tea after they leave Harwich, Sealand looms enormously out of the water, a black silhouette against gray skies and gray water. Bits of rebar are visible around the towers, and nubs of metal I-beams stick out of the south tower, where a helicopter landing pad was once attached. Barrington waves from 60 feet up, as a generator fires up and hums loudly in the morning quiet. A hook is lowered from a winch above as the boat draws alongside, and Griffin does a delicate dance of angling the back of the boat under the winch—an impressive maritime parallel park.
Barrington later says that Griffin’s skills are unparalleled when it comes to deftly maneuvering around the legs of the fort. The outgoing tide is complicated by the pillars, which makes navigation around the fort fairly dangerous, even for skilled pilots.
“Oh, no, I’ve never been up there,” Griffin says, shaking his head. “You wouldn’t catch me on that chair.”
Hamill’s supplies, slung in the construction bag, go up first. Eventually Barrington pulls a rope that guides the arm of the winch over the solid ground, and the load is gently set down. He then attaches the bosun’s chair to the winch and lowers it back down toward the boat, which by this time has done another lap around the fort and is getting into position again. Hamill quickly hops onto the chair and Barrington waves to the boat as the winch pulls him up. The efficiency of their work is on display, with the boat taking off before Joe is even 10 feet in the air. Hardly more than a minute later, he hops out onto Sealand.
The work on the fort is never done. “It’s a constant battle—it’s like having a boat. The rust comes and you have to stay on top of it,” Liam Bates, one of Michael’s sons, says later. To that end, piles of steel plates line the deck and oxygen tanks line the perimeter, all for the ongoing project of re-steeling the deck. Miscellaneous tools sit in piles with no discernible organization.
Inside, the kettle is already boiling on the country’s gas stove. Griffin and Pecker will be out collecting their marine bounty for approximately four hours, leaving the two caretakers some time to discuss the upcoming work. They drink scalding hot tea as they go over Barrington’s handwritten list of projects and Hamill’s to-do list for the coming two weeks. The kitchen table doubles as Sealand’s customs office, as it is where Barrington tends to stamp passports with the simple Sealand stamp. A guest book with entries dating back almost 15 years is an unofficial register of visitors.
It is approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit and windy, with not a hint of sun, and one can see one’s breath in every room of the principality. But Barrington, 64, is comfortable in jeans and a short-sleeve polo. He has been working on the fort for even longer than Hamill, first coming on board in the late 1980s. He was the perfect man for the job—content being away from society and a jack-of-all-trades: mechanic, truck driver, builder, and rabble-rouser with a distaste authority and a penchant for antagonizing the police for fun. Importantly, he cut his teeth with professional rogues by working on the boat of one of Roy Bates’s pirate radio competitors in the 1970s.
Barrington’s engineering knowledge has been critical to keeping Sealand standing. Approximately 99 percent of the nation’s power comes from wind and solar—the only such nation that can boast these numbers, Liam points out—and the systems were designed and built by Barrington. (In addition to the environmental benefits, it saves a lot of money on diesel.) Mike got thrown out of a hardware superstore for climbing a ladder to get part numbers on a turbine they had for sale; he called the parts maker himself and ordered what he needed to build his own turbines that could sustain conditions on Sealand. The first floor down on the south leg houses the inverters for the wind turbines, which then stores the generated power in a bank of high-quality car batteries arranged in rows on the floor. One of the original World War II–era diesel generators is still in good working order as a backup to the backup generator. The micronation has also been outfitted with LED lights. “You underestimate the impact that has had, because now that means you can have lights on all the time out there,” says James Bates, Michael’s other son.
Detritus from countless other projects sits on deck and in the workspaces of both towers. The server racks from its time as an offshore data haven are still assembled on the second subfloor of the south tower: a museum of turn-of-the-millennium tech. The floor below the server room is lined almost all the way around with tables, which hold all of the technical manuals from the various pieces of machinery in use on Sealand. There are also great stacks of back issues of at least four different amateur radio magazines. Sealand is, in essence, a big clubhouse where Barrington can build and experiment to his heart’s delight. He has brewed beer, read dozens of technical journals, spent “millions” of hours playing darts, and devotes a lot of his time to fixing equipment and inventing things.
“Everything is done in the most cack-handed long way so you don’t get bored. If you’re bored, get a hammer and chisel and start chiseling something or do the washing up,” he says. “Getting a 45-gallon oil drum, filling it up with oxygen and acetylene, and putting a detonator in there—that’s what I call fun.” (He eventually stopped with the explosions after he came close to blowing himself up.)
He regularly buys spools of discontinued wallpaper from thrift stores to add a sense of comfort, and has brought framed pictures and paintings, one by one, to add some color to Sealand’s walls. He even put together a chapel, with an altar and books and reliquaries from many faiths. “It’s all bits and pieces that have gradually come together that makes it inhabitable,” he says. “It’s quite homey.”
Barrington put a lot of care into the design of his north tower bedroom, which is one of three partitioned rooms there but easily the nicest of the bunch. With dark carpets and muted lighting, it looks a lot like a quality hotel room. There are a few other rooms on Sealand to house guests, in addition to an abundance of mattresses in plastic bags stashed for the crews that occasionally come and pitch in en masse. Barrington says his engagement with the fort keeps him physically and mentally active. “When I look at some of the old farts in my village, I think, ‘What, you’re old men!’ I’m just going off and doing stuff and they’re just sitting there in their slippers,” he says.
Barrington’s dedication to the project stems from a deep friendship with Roy Bates, who was both a kindred spirit and mentor. The two bonded over the honest hard work of putting Sealand together, the kind of people who could work all day together, barely speaking, and then agree that it had been a really great day. Barrington sometimes refers to Roy as “Uncle.” This isn’t to say that the pair’s outsized personalities didn’t clash. They had one huge blowout—Barrington can’t even remember what it was over—that escalated to the point that they were both wielding shotguns and yelling at each other from opposite ends of the hallway up top.
“I’ll blow your bollocks off !” Roy yelled. “I’ll blow your brains out!” Mike screamed.
Bollocks and brains intact, Barrington quit Sealand for a while, but he couldn’t stay away. Later in their lives the Bateses paid off his mortgage in gratitude for the time, years earlier, when he had refinanced his old house to help keep Sealand going. Barrington says he promised Roy he would look after the fort. “Roy was a lovely man, but he was a hard man,” Barrington says.
Hamill and Barrington have different management styles aboard the fort, and each generally spends a day or two undoing the other’s organizational foibles and getting things back the way he likes them. Both prefer to be alone, and butt heads when they have to work together. “We’re like chalk and cheese,” Hamill says.
While Barrington holds Sealandic law as the genuine law of the fort when one is aboard—talk of executing invaders was bandied about with apparent seriousness, and he refused to stamp some passports because the passports were out of date—Hamill has no interest in existential politics. “If you think it is [a state], it is, if you think it’s not, it’s not,” he says. “Leave it to official bodies to decide. That’s not what I’m there for.” He has, in fact, only met Michael Bates a handful of times. Both caretakers have the freedom and wherewithal to sculpt the experience the way they see fit.
Still, the prospect of staying on the fort in the middle of winter never gets any easier. It’s like wintertime camping indoors, Hamill says, with cold so fierce that it keeps coats of paint from drying. (Barrington says his personal secret weapon is an electric blanket.) And Hamill’s observations from the fort confirm something quite worrisome on a large scale. Overall, the weather has gotten more unpredictable since he’s has been aboard, with hot and cold snaps all year—a change that he attributes to global warming. This unpredictability has wreaked havoc on his social life, as he has had to miss holidays because the seas were too rough to get him off the fort in time. The longest he’s stayed on the fort at a stretch is over four weeks, and by that point he was worried that even he was succumbing to fort madness. “That’s horrible, that’s really quite horrible,” he says.
Hamill, now safely aboard, is eager to begin his shift. Barrington radios Griffin and Pecker, who say that their boat will arrive within half an hour. They will take him back to Harwich and his waiting car (which hopefully hasn’t been towed) and the 120-year-old home he is renovating. Though he didn’t do it this time, Barrington sometimes takes a few liters of Sealand rainwater home—he says it is especially good in his whiskey.
The fishing boat putters up soon enough, and a few surprisingly clear shouts later, Barrington’s small duffel goes down, followed by him in the bosun’s chair. He waves as the boat slowly motors away. Hamill soon disappears from the edge, a nation to himself.