Building Ephemerisle

Can a party on a river lead to liberty on the sea?


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."

• The play highlight of the next day for me was being taken in a speedboat along with Patri and the documentary crew another mile or so down river to a magnificent wrecked, crumbling, rusted, rotted—yet still grand—steamboat. We clambered aboard and around its many cracking levels gingerly, as the filmmakers shot some interview footage with Patri.  

• The one event closest to an "incident" was a perfect fable of libertarian communalism (trying to run an improvised society without lots of rules) versus libertarian propertarianism. A swing-set boat was drifting in the waterway and had to be dragged in. The boat that volunteered to do so was sinking; the people stuck on the swing set were shouting for help, the last thing any of us wanted to hear.

So the nearest boat, a rented speed boat, was taken out by a Samaritan, against the wishes of the people who had rented it. I witnessed a tense, repetitive, and ultimately inconclusive debate between the boat owners and Rinaldi, as they took the stance of paying customers wondering why the event didn't have a better plan for such eventualities than just grabbing the nearest boat. Rinaldi argued that they did have a designated rescue boat, it was just blocked by the complainers' boat. So this ruleless community had to improvise the best solution to the emergency that arose. In Rinaldi's view, the boat renters were really demanding that Ephemerisle have a government to take care of them. But if they were unwilling to pitch in and help, maybe they'd be better off not participating in a ruleless community. No one budged; the conversation wound down with Rinaldi assuring them that, even as they complained to him, if he heard someone shouting "help" and their boat was still the quickest means at hand, he'd temporarily commandeer it again.  

• The music running thru the P.A. was mostly Rinaldi's favored mix of early '80s new wave and punk, heavy on the XTC, Elvis Costello, and Misfits. The houseboat DJs favored modern electronic dance music, and the occasional spin of the almost too-appropriate-to-be-funny "I'm on a Boat" rap parody by Lonely Island.  

But the most spiritually appropriate music for Ephemerisle would be jazz—that American improvisational form most closely analogous to the improvisational approach to life and organization that Ephemerisle, with its last-minute recruiting of paying customers for the communal build, represents, and that Seasteading will represent as well, if it becomes anything at all.  

• Here's the most absurd moment of an experiment that most of the outside world would have found inherently absurd: disassembling Apocaisle while a bunch of us were floating on it while being pushed by the Inconvenience to the far marina after the owners of the nearer one chased us away. The owner was annoyed that final construction work on Apocaisle had been done near their dock very early in the morning the day before. Rinaldi wanted to make sure that Apocaisle looked like less of a problem to the other marina when it got there, so we knocked down its second level while in motion on the river, which proved to be unhelpful to the structural stability of the entire boat. I'd never destroyed a boat I was floating on before; it was a bracing experience.  

• Will Wilson found that the "whole thing was at times creepily non-political." I didn't think there was a single thing creepy about the event's lacking any aura of proselytizing about politics. It was, ultimately, a party, a place to enjoy the ethereal eye candy of Matt Bell's "Ripple Theater" (projecting light patterns off the water onto a screen), to talk and joke about whatever you wanted to talk and joke about—which definitely included a fair amount of politics, including one gentleman who assured me that he could explain how a political system based purely on "ethics and transparency" would transform the world, as well as such abstruse topics that tend to come up when hanging with world-traveling computer world intellectuals (who made up a lot of the crowd), such as the relative difficulties of various Chinese dialects, and troubles with software startups.   

• The real-world politics of Ephemerisle were surprisingly easy. The organizers found a place that nearby marinas told them often played host to lots of aquatic partying, as Patri and Seasteading's director of operations, James Hogan, explained. The Coast Guard gave them verbal approval, though actually issuing the paper permit they wanted (to be able to show the local sheriff) was such a low priority for the Coast Guard that the organizers had to bug them to make them do it. Hogan and Rinaldi explained the event to the sheriff, and a police boat cruised by a few times when I was there without ever stopping. The only tense point with the cops, I was told, was when a heavy officer cracked a plank on the still-in-construction platform when he put too much pressure on it.  

Patri expects that Ephemerisle will happen again in a similar place and in a similar fashion next year before they eventually move to the more difficult waters of San Francisco Bay—and then, maybe, towards an Ephemerisle in the open ocean that will be the prospective home for libertarian seasteads.

"As long as we position it from the beginning as a festival about trying to go to the ocean, we'll build up a community who love working and playing on the water, and who are interested in it even if we know there will be brand new problems once we get to the ocean," Patri says, linking the play of Ephemerisle, difficult as it was, with the work of permanent seasteads. "Even if we haven't built knowledge, we will have built community. We'll have a group of smart, creative people who have been there riding along with the vision and willing to step up when we need to make that next step, to think and test about how to move seasteading to the next stage."  

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).