Originally published in The Australian, 10 November 2007. All photography by Simon Sellars.
THE room has no windows. It’s dank, pitch-black and deathly still. I’ve lost all spatial co-ordinates. I hear a distant, dull hissing, like soil leaking through a coffin lid. Before the lights went out, I noticed the ram’s skull above my bed. It looks occult, sacrificial.
I fall asleep, letting the blackness suffocate me. The dark is so heavy, it’s like I’m buried alive. Then it’s morning and I’m awake. Perception returns. I’m not six-feet under, I’m below sea level, lying on a hard bed inside a tubular concrete tower moored to the seabed. That gentle hissing is the sea lapping against the exterior.
The light comes on and a bearded man enters, dressed in filthy blue overalls.
“Sleep well?” he asks, offering me tea. “You get the odd person who can’t take it down here but you didn’t scream, so you must be OK.”
Welcome to the world’s smallest and weirdest “country”: Sealand, a self-proclaimed independent state in the North Sea, 11km off England’s Suffolk coast. Sealand consists of two towers 10m in diameter and protruding 20m above sea level with seven levels containing living quarters, a brig, a chapel, a gym and a so-called data haven filled with computer mainframes. A platform with a lounge, kitchen, post office and helipad links the towers. There are generators, oil drums, splintered wood, mechanical parts everywhere. It’s ramshackle, rusting, a scrap heap.
Call it “adventure travel”. On deck I have to constantly watch my step, avoiding the holes where I can see the water below.
Sealand was a Royal Navy fort during World War II, then known as HM Fort Roughs. About 120 naval personnel were stationed there, crammed 12 to a room, going spare from boredom, isolation and living like tinned sardines. Post-war, the British abandoned the platform and it lay unused until 1967 when Radio Caroline, the pirate station, occupied it. Caroline planned to broadcast with impunity, as the platform was 11km outside Britain’s territorial limit. But Roy Bates, a rival broadcaster, had other ideas. With his son Michael and three other men, he hustled on board, taking the platform by force.
Soon after, Bates declared Fort Roughs to be the Principality of Sealand and himself as Prince Roy, ruling monarch. It wasn’t a smooth transition. In the 1970s Sealand endured a violent coup involving petrol bombs, guns and Michael Bates as hostage. Undeterred, Prince Roy assembled a group of hard-bitten mercenaries and retook the platform. Later, a fake Sealand passport turned up in the investigation into Gianni Versace’s murder. It’s no wonder Sealand’s bizarre history is being turned into a Hollywood film.
For decades all anyone knew about Sealand was the coup and the violence. Its occupants had a reputation for shooting at anything that moved, even government boats. When Bates was summoned to court on firearms charges, it was ruled that as Sealand was beyond British waters it was also beyond British law. Sealand has never embraced tourism or outsiders, enhancing the mystique. So when I learnt they were accepting applications for tourist visas, I was amazed. As co-author of Lonely Planet’s recent guide to homemade nations, this, for me, was the grail: a chance to visit the world’s most notorious micronation.
I have just left the port town of Harwich. It’s 6am and I’m on a little boat piloted by a fisherman called Gary. I’m bilious but after 40 minutes and the first sight of Sealand’s iconic twin towers, the seasickness subsides into keen anticipation. I look up: the landing deck is high, to deter invaders, and there are no ladders. The only way up is a winch. I ask Gary if he has ever been up.
“You’d never get me on that bloody thing,” he laughs.
As he steadies the boat, a young chap fearlessly descends on the winch, sitting on a plank of wood barely wider than my arm, attached to a swaying rope pulley. Casually smoking a cigarette, he jumps on to the boat and introduces himself as Chris.
He gestures towards the plank, and I sit on it, closing my eyes, waiting. Up I go. And then I stop. I open my eyes and I’m suspended above the North Sea, 20m high. I can’t breathe for fear and I’m still not moving.
“Hang on, mate,” shouts the winch operator, Mike. “I’ve just got to turn it around.”
He pulls on another rope for what seems an eternity until I finally swivel over the deck.
“Welcome to Sealand,” he says.
After a cup of tea, my passport is stamped and we’re off on a tour. I’m escorted into the bowels of the north tower (the south – the “data haven” – is off limits), passing Prince Michael’s bedroom, filled, for some reason, with kendo armour (the royals no longer live here, just a roster of caretakers). The tower is cold and the drop is continuous. The walls are black and scorched from a recent, devastating fire and I ask Mike how it was before the blaze. His eyes glaze over as he tells me everything used to be gleaming, freshly painted. It’s like he has lost a limb. But they are working hard on the refurbishing, he tells me.
Mike’s an old sea dog. The longest he has spent on board is six months.
“I like being on my own,” he says, “but one couple spent a few weeks out here and went mad, leaving suicide notes all over the place.”
Is he joking?
We descend further and I pose for photographs in the war-era brig. It’s cramped, oppressive, and I wonder what kind of indiscretion would have got a chap locked up here, given that a wartime assignment to Fort Roughs probably meant you were a loose cannon to begin with.
I don’t think Mike is joking…
Back on deck, Chris pours me nasty cask wine before wandering off with Mike to attend to chores, arguing about repairs like an old married couple. I move towards the helipad.
“Oi!” Chris shouts. “Watch the turbine.”
I see the wind generator inconveniently located over the stairway, and duck. Chris chuckles, telling me birds sometimes get beheaded in the blades. Having negotiated that obstacle, I’m now up top, where the view is awesome. We’re alone for miles around. I see distant oil tankers. England is over there somewhere and the sky is wonderfully clear, the air crisp. Chris and Mike join me as a luxury motorboat passes nearby.
“Boats always take a spin around the towers,” Chris says, “to take a look at us nutters on top.”
Meanwhile, I’m mulling over the notion that this rusting heap of junk is considered by its occupants to be a “country”. I like the idea in principle, but in reality I just can’t accept it.
“But we meet all the criteria,” Mike insists. “We have stamps, passports, a flag. When we came here, everywhere in the world was owned by someone, some country, except this fort.”
“But the UK could retake it,” I said, “if they really wanted to.”
Sealand is left alone because it poses no economic threat. When Chris tells me he plans to build a second platform joined to the original — an “entertainment complex” of some kind — I wonder if the British authorities will be so tolerant. After all, Sealand’s already run into problems starting up an online casino.
Mike points to the big spike on the helipad.
“That’s to stop unauthorised helicopters. You’ve got to have a deterrent. Can’t possibly let ’em land. It’s game over, then.”
OK, it is a big spike but it seems pitiful compared with RAF muscle, and yet it represents a valuable lesson for any start-up nation: you will be at the mercy of predators so you’d best get tooled up. Sealand, in theory, understands this.
That night, I sleep below the sea, in the tubular tower, in total darkness. The next day, waiting for Gary to take me back to England, I wonder if tourists really will come to Sealand. Yes, there’s the novelty value, but it’s dangerous. You have to sign a waiver absolving the royals of all responsibility should you injure yourself, or worse. There are no lifeboats. The Sealanders tell me that if I fall overboard, or through one of those treacherous holes in the deck, I’m on my own. The North Sea is rough and no one will be diving in after me. And those 20m stairwells? Better not get drunk on that cask wine they hand out to visitors.
Still, so-called “dark tourism” is an emerging trend. If travellers can make a virtue out of Auschwitz, why not visit a decrepit hulk in the North Sea where men once feared to tread?