Visiting Principality Sealand. How many countries are there in the world? Well, it depends on who you ask. If you are standing in the General Assembly, they will inform you there are 193 sovereign countries as recognized by the UN. But the debate is just getting heated. There is another group of countries that walk and talk like a country but are not recognized by the UN. There are affiliate links in this post.
Two of the best known in this category are Taiwan and Kosovo. They have all the trappings of a sovereign nation; like borders, currency, national anthems, armies, and visas, but mostly due to political issues are not recognized by the UN. Some lesser known countries in this category also include Abkhazia, Transnistria, and Somaliland. There is another category of micro-nations that fall somewhere between striving for legitimacy and novelty. The Free Republic of Liberland was founded by a libertarian in 2015 in a patch of uninhabited and unclaimed land between Croatia and Serbia. There is the new micronation that is in the process of birthing, the Principality of Islandia. There are novelty micronations like Austenasia where you can meet with Emperor Jonathan the First. Austenasia is located in England and is simply someone’s house in a British neighborhood with the flag of Austenasia in Jonathan’s home window.
And then there is the Principality of Sealand.
During WWII a series of forts were built known as a Maunsell Sea Forts in the North Sea. The fort was a small platform propped up by two metal tubes and adorned with weaponry to protect the shipping lanes and the port of Harwich from the Nazis. Over 150 soldiers were stationed on this Lilliputian platform that measures less than .004 square km, that equates to 51 by 27 meters. The two supporting pillars were 18 meters tall, which were anchored to a sandbar known as Rough Sands with a large, heavy pontoon. HM Fort Roughs, one of the Maunsell Sea Forts, nicknamed Rough Tower was placed 12 kilometers off the coast of Suffolk. That means the fort was constructed in international waters. These forts were later decommissioned in the 1950s, when personnel finally departed in 1956.
Rough Towers would have found itself as a small insignificant military asterisk in the history books, except along came Paddy Roy Bates, a Brit and a former army Major. Paddy had founded a pirate radio station so he could avoid the limiting broadcasting laws of the UK. Speaking with his lawyers, they devised a plan to overcome this challenge. In 1967, Roy and his family boarded and occupied Rough Towers declaring it to be the Principality of Sealand, a sliver of land built in international waters that is Terra Nullius, Nobody’s Land. A flag was raised, and this independent nation was born.
Over the past 50 years, The Principality of Sealand has packed in a tremendous amount of history, worthy of a film. Over the years, Sealand has been subject to coups, counter-attacks, kidnappings, imprisonments, diplomatic incidents, fires, rescues, lawsuits, and much more. Calling Steven Spielberg. I need to see this film.
Besides the flag, the Principality of Sealand looks like many other countries in some respects. Sealand has a constitution that was instituted in 1974 with a preamble and seven articles. This micronation has issued passports, currency, and stamps. Sealand has a national anthem, which was even recorded by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. The country participates in many international sporting events from football to fencing. Sealand won the 2008 championship in an international egg throwing contest. The Sealand flag has been planted on top of Mt Everest and Red Bull hosted a skateboarding event on Sealand.
And like its bigger neighbor to the west, Sealand is ruled by a royal family. The founding Prince and Princess were Paddy and his wife Joan. Upon his passing, the crown was passed onto his son, Michael. Prince Michael has two royal sons, James and Liam. The fourth generation is also ready to partake in royal duties as Prince James has four children who one day might sit on the throne. And for those who want to be part of Sealand and the royal family it is possible to earn the title of Lord, Countess, Duke, or Dame.
Today, there are many ways to interact and participate with the Principality of Sealand. But one way that is nearly impossible is via tourism. Sealand does not want or encourage tourism. Speaking with Princes James and Liam, they shared with me the challenges from both a logistical and expectation perspective. Weather and rough seas can make any visit a non-possibility. From their perspective, it simply is not worth it.
But where this is a will, there is a way. Last year, I received an invite from Kolja Spori, an accomplished traveler and the founder of ETIC better known as the Extreme Traveler International Congress. ETIC holds international meetings in such far-flung places like Grozny, Mogadishu, and Baghdad. The 2019 Congress was to be held in Sealand. I saw this as a great opportunity, two-fold. I would get to rub shoulders with some of the most accomplished travelers (many who were e-friends) in the world, and I would get to visit one of the most exotic and difficult places, the Principality of Sealand.
The participants, 25 people strong, of the 2019 ETIC gathered in Harwich, a small port town on the English Channel. For those historians, you might know Harwich as the launching point of the Mayflower. It was also going to be the launching point for our visit to Sealand.
The group gathered at The Pier at Harwich hotel (I stayed at the nearby Alma Inn and Dining Rooms), overlooking the harbor from the lobby lounge early Saturday morning. Our hopes were abruptly dashed. Our trip had been canceled. Winds were at over 40 nautical miles. It was too dangerous to travel to Sealand. For those who could extend their trip, there was going to be an attempted landing the following day.
The group minus a few who had previous travel commitments gathered again in the lobby lounge. I nervously had been checking my weather app on my phone. The wind icon from the previous day had transitioned into a less threatening cloudy icon. I felt hopeful. The organizer entered the room and beamed a smile. The trip was on! We were going to Sealand.
Within moments, both Prince James and Prince Liam (learn more about my conversation with the Princes) entered the room. The third generation of royalty greeted the group warmly. The princelings took a seat as the group queued. The princes began to overview our visa applications. I would receive my visa stamp at Sealand, but the applications were approved on the UK soil.
Prince James overviewing visa applications
Our group was divided into two as we made our way to the pier, just a gang plank away from the hotel.
I was to be on the first outing being accompanied by the two princes. Captain Gary revved the boat, and we departed for international waters.
The sun was warm and the waters calm. The ride was approximately 30 minutes and halfway there, I spotted the superstructure of Sealand. My anticipation increased the closer I neared the Principality. We circled around the platform, it stood tall, propped up on two circular towers. Two men on the platform, stared down and waved to us.
I immediately realized the challenge with boarding Sealand. Sealand stood 18 meters tall … there is no elevator, there is no staircase. There is a winch and a swing. If the waters are rough, it would be impossible to scale Sealand. The seat would be lowered down via the winch, the boat would twist around, Prince James would grab the swing as we passed, and the one of us would hastily plop themselves onto the seat, and the boat would depart, circling around for the next visitor. If the waters were rough or choppy, you would not be able to navigate the swing.
Prince James beckoned me over and I stood a ready at the stern of the boat. The boat circled around, Prince James grabbed the swing, I sat down, the boat gunned its engines, as I lifted my legs high to avoid being knocked off the swing by being hit by the boat’s guardrails. I heard the engine of the winch puff and grind, and I began to steadily rise into the air being held by a single rope. If you are scared of heights, you would not be happy. I was eventually level to the platform and Prince Liam swung me over. I was officially on Sealand.
There is a one-story structure in the center of Sealand, with an open deck on either side. On top of the structure is the helipad, which was used in the counterattack in 1978 by Prince Paddy and Michael after the coup.
I made my way to the helipad to survey my surroundings. I stared into the horizon as I spied passing boats and stared back, surveying the United Kingdom’s coast.
Standing on the helipad
And there is always time for at least one photo. Need to prove I was there.
Next I entered the structure and visited the kitchen/communications room.
The living room. The furniture looked a bit dated, but comfy. A large Red Bull painting memorialized the event that they held on Sealand.
An office. I noted the map with the accompanying Sealand flag, with some nearby flags from sporting events which Sealand participated in.
The head. Enough said.
I was introduced to Mike, who is the Director of Homeland Security. He is one of two caretakers of Sealand. The Royal Family currently resides in the UK with business commitments keeping them away from fulltime residency at Sealand. Sealand is protected by two caretakers, who take multi-week shifts on Sealand and then are replaced by their peer.
I was unaware and a bit surprised when I learned that the towers supporting the platform are also habitable spaces. Mike guided me through the tower, some of which fell below the waterline. The hundred plus soldiers found their homes on cramped bunkbeds in these steel tubes. We scampered down steep narrow ladders, as we explored the deeper chambers. It was a bit musky in the tube. And I felt a slight shiver when I thought of being crammed down there with 100 other soldiers. A bit claustrophobic.
I visited the multi-faith church.
There was even a gym, not exactly Gold’s Gym, but good for a couple of reps.
We got to visit Mike’s quarters which were tastefully appointed.
We even got to visit Prince James’s room which recognized his engagement celebration with Princess Charley.
The first boatload of travelers departed, but I was able to stay on. I had the run of the Principality and was able to explore on my own. I then spent some time with the princes enjoying some hot tea, relaxing on the deck.
The next boatload of the ETIC participants arrived after an hour or so, and I watched as each one was inched up and arrived with a giant smile. A group photo took place on the helipad.
Afterwards, we were invited into the Director of Homeland Security’s office to process our visas. Mike overviewed our passports. Mike scanned my passport and skillfully placed my Sealand visa in my passport.
I thanked the Director for his time and attention.
There was a slight change in the weather. The wind was picking up and you could see the difference in the choppiness of the waves. Our group now began the process of departing, which each one of us being lowered one at a time. I noted it took Captain Gary more time to line up the boat so Prince James would be able to grab the person being lowered down in the swing.
Eventually, we were all loaded up in the boat and headed back to the United Kingdom. I stared back, as I watched Sealand disappear in the horizon, satisfied with this unique experience as I clutched my passport with my newest visa stamp. As the say … E Mare Libertas, meaning From the Sea, Freedom.
Visiting Principality Sealand.
Want to learn more? Listen to my conversation with Prince James and Liam of the Principality of Sealand.