Seasteading, the latest of the recurring libertarian attempts to create a freer polity on the ocean, has had its first tangible success. As per a plan discussed in my July Reason magazine feature, in early October Seasteading Institute head Patri Friedman and his team pulled off an experimental gathering of free spirits on the water under the name Ephemerisle.
The water in question was not the wild open ocean. It was, rather, the calm, mucky, grey-green waters of the Sacramento River delta near Stockton. That's where a little over 100 people gathered over the course of a three-day weekend to build floatation, float about, boat and swim and talk and revel and explore, in injury-free and mostly drama-free harmony. About two-thirds of those gathered seemed to be seasteading true believers. The others were just people involved in San Francisco's festival and artistic building communities. The only serious capsize was a pyramid-shaped floating platform built by Patri himself, which he knocked over, as he tells me, by getting a little bored and overeager and clambering up the side of the structure.
The technical, engineering, survival, social, and cultural challenges of an actual fully-functioning seastead on the ocean certainly seem distinct from—and much harder than—the challenges facing Ephemerisle. There, we floated in calm water, mere miles from the nearest marina. We faced no economic task harder than enjoying ourselves, and no social challenges larger than getting along at a tightly packed party with a lot of strangers.
Thus, I found myself wondering what the throughline really was between this small-scale aqua festival and seasteading’s eventual goals. But Ephemerisle did end with a strongly bound, unexpectedly large (to me and the organizers) group of people with a mostly happy experience of free, unstructured water living. While neither the seasteading chieftains nor I could definitively chart the obvious series of steps from plastic barrels (or Home Depot buckets, in the case of attendee Matt Litman, who flew in from the east coast) framed in wood to a permanent home on a rough ocean, Ephemerisle did prove that experimental water living can capture the enthusiastic attention, effort, cash, and imagination of a burgeoning group of libertarians and artists.
Herewith, some notes and observations through a libertarian eye on what might someday turn out to have been day one of the libertarian future. Whether or not that ends up true, Ephemerisle was on its own terms a challenging, exasperating, and very fun weekend.
• My arrival was delightfully anarchistic, in a communal, not market, sense. (Not to encourage commie anarchists who think anarcho-capitalism—anarchism plus private property—means that every human interaction has to be within the cash nexus.) I get to the parking lot of the Paradise Point marina in Stockton at the same time as Jay Kravitz and Natalia Villalobos, two artists I know through the Burning Man world (whose combination of communal camping and art in a harsh setting inspired Patri in conceptualizing Ephemerisle). Villalobos was also a talent wrangler and promoter for the Ephemerisle project, officially their “arts and culture manager.” A phone call to my old comrade Chicken John Rinaldi, a punk showman and builder with whom I’ve shared numerous adventures at Burning Man and beyond, who had been hired as the engineer and builder for the event’s central communal floating platform, informed me a “red speedboat” should arrive soon for me.
Waiting at the dock, we were joined by libertarian tech journalist Declan McCullagh, progressive “co-housing” activist Raines Cohen, and others hoping for a six or so mile lift out to the event site. Declan had heard from Patri that a boat was likely on its way as well; with no pre-planning, and no cash changing hands, fellow Ephemerisler Paul Grasshoff spent hours of his afternoon ferrying bunches of us to the event site, as we shifted body weight and bags to keep the back of the boat from sinking too low into its own wake.
• When I arrived, the festival was not yet a full-service consumer experience. (Tickets ran $50-$100, and though by Saturday they had largely given up on trying to make sure everyone had one, the organizers tell me they are pretty sure 90 percent or more present paid up.) The boat that brought me in zipped to the right side of the river to visit the people of Apocaisle, the only crew who built a self-sufficient living/floating space for a whole group. It was a two-level pirate-style junk boat similar to the one some of Rinaldi’s crew had built, legally registered (amazingly), and sailed (powered by a car engine hanging overboard in the back) over 100 miles down the Sacramento River.
Next to Apocaisle was one-third of the platform Rinaldi and his crew built, filled with tents—riparian refugee camp was the visual vibe, but everyone was cheerful, if harried. On the far bank, the other two-thirds of the platform was undergoing some last minute touches by Rinaldi’s by then near-feral gang of punk-junk builders.
From then on, Saturday was for most attendees a sunny, shiny, and shaky afternoon of moving things, mostly by pushing boat-to-object or dragging things by rope, within the couple of hundred of yard spaces across the river. After all the pieces were moved into place—with Rinaldi’s sharp shouts of “watch legs between boats!” in everyone’s ears—then a squad under Rinaldi’s spontaneous-order command began hours of carpentry on the very foundation beneath us. The platforms were made of old plastic barrels used to transport maraschino cherries framed in wood; Rinaldi had a fair amount of experience in making things float cheaply and imaginatively through his role in various river trips on junk-boats inspired by the New York artist Swoon.
Rinaldi has a way of making even those who resent his rough and shouty teaching methods strive to do what he expects of them—if only to shut him up. Most attendees solved the biggest problem Ephemerisle attendees faced—how to get miles out in a river—by renting houseboats. Nine of those boats slowly moved themselves across the river and lined up near the burgeoning platform. The entire effort was coined an experiment in “constramping” (construction plus camping) by Rinaldi’s crew, and that was about right.
Most of the people not on houseboats spent all afternoon drilling screws into wood, installing tiki torches and ropes around the edges, and anchoring the platforms to trees on shore by ropes. I spent most of the afternoon sailing the Inconvenience (Rinaldi’s engine-powered junk boat) with helmsman Ben Burke, dragging or pushing pieces of platform across the river, and helping rescue a houseboat that had run aground. (To be fair, mooring ourselves to them initially sent them drifting toward shore—anchoring proved trickier in the river than anticipated.)
By the time the sun set the whole gang of Ephemerislers were together on the finished platform for a communal meal. An impromptu ferry made of rows of milkcrates filled with empty plastic bottles ziptied together, attached by rope on one end to the nearest houseboat and on the other to the central platform, united the “suburbs” of the rented houseboats with the “downtown” of the just-built platforms.
• The Irish Times has an apt observation on one of the aspects of the whole Seasteading movement I noted in my Reason feature (one of the very problems Ephemerisle was meant to ameliorate): “There is a distinct lack of pre-existing nautical knowledge. Some of them had not even been on a boat before this week. Certainly, we could all have done with some knowledge of knots. But the attendees are furiously problem-solving, and slowly problems are being solved.” For the first iteration of an obscure and strange idea with 100 or so attendees, the event was quite media saturated. Besides me and the Irish Times there was a representative from a Stanford University-based radio program, a pair of freelance film documentarians, and Will Wilson, representing the conservative magazine First Things’ “Postmodern Conservative” website.
• The play highlight of the night—one long food and drink and conversation party on the main platform, spreading to the houseboats—was various attendees taking short rides in the “zorb,” a giant bubble one inserts oneself in, and flails about trying to “run” around on the water surface until exhaustion overtakes you. As a crowd moved to the platform edge to watch the zorb, Rinaldi, concerned that so much weight on one end could tip them all into the water, took the mic and deadpanned: “If you all stand on the same edge of the platform, something will happen that will be very funny…in a couple of years.”