| How Two Seasteaders Wound Up Marked for Death | ocean.builders | Chad Elwartowski | Seasteading | Thai | Navy |
There they were, sweethearts Chad and Nadia, bedding down in a cozy floating home more than 12 miles off the coast of Thailand. Like any other vacationing couple, they shot videos to share with friends online. They had a 360-degree oceanfront view, with calm, sparkling blue water stretching out as far as the eye could see. Popping champagne, they were delighted by the “thousand million stars” they felt they could see at night.
But the pleasure of those views of sea and stars had an unexpectedly high cost: In April, the Thai navy hit them with threats of arrest for a capital crime. That moment of rare communion with the setting sun, from a 6-square-meter octagonal hut attached to a 20-meter-tall spar anchored in the Andaman Sea, seriously threatened the sovereignty of Thailand—or so that nation claimed. At a likely cost of about $1 million, three Royal Thai Navy boats dragged the hut back to shore.
As the Bangkok Post reported, the Thai navy insisted that Chad and Nadia’s small floating part-time home violated Section 119 of the Criminal Code, which “concerns any acts that cause the country or parts of it to fall under the sovereignty of a foreign state or deterioration of the state’s independence.” Worse still: “It is punishable by death or life imprisonment.”
For Chad Elwartowski and his now-wife Nadia Summergirl (her chosen name; the Thai native was previously Supranee Thepdet), the problem wasn’t their tiny hut with the glorious view per se. It wasn’t really about the specific thing they did. The problem was the idea motivating the otherwise generally untroubling act of dwelling atop the ocean, something that the fishing boats they often saw from their floating home do every day. They wanted to be pioneers in an experiment combining political independence, self-sufficiency, space travel, and personal liberty.
That dream was what brought down the wrath of the Thai navy and sent them into hiding, fleeing in fear for their lives.
The Elusive Dream of Seasteading
In a world where every bit of existing land (and a lot of water, too, as it turns out) is claimed by some government as its sovereign territory, seasteading posits that the only way to find freedom, experiment with new forms of governance, or launch fascinating businesses, from medical tech to tourism to aquaculture, without being unduly strangled by government edicts, is to create new places to live floating on the ocean. Those places could be as humble as that two-person lovenest.
Elwartowski had become a seasteading enthusiast after a decade or more of Libertarian Party activism, including an attempt to run for Congress in Georgia (where he failed to gather enough signatures to actually be on the ballot), a dalliance with the Free State Project (a call for libertarians to congregate in New Hampshire, so as to maximize their political power on the state and local level), and promoting Ron Paul’s presidential runs.
On a Ron Paul online forum, Elwartowski first encountered the ideas of Patri Friedman, who co-founded the Seasteading Institute in 2008. Bitcoin also first came to his attention on such a website. Those two passions eventually came together to make him a fugitive from Thai justice.
Elwartowski’s larking about with schemes to make the world freer or to find a freer space in an unfree world moved alongside his career as a defense contractor, mostly as a software engineer. He hopped from company to company, stationed at times in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That experience magnified his desire for some sort of escape to total freedom.
While working in war zones, he says, “We were allowed to leave if we wanted to, but I never left, because I was protected on the base.” He put in “12-hour days, seven days a week, 365 days a year, with bombs going off and gunfire. It was very stressful as a libertarian on a military base. Most of the people there had [military experience] and knew all the stupid rules.”
Once, a fire marshal freaked when Elwartowski and his roommate in their tiny room in Afghanistan dared to hang a blanket between their spaces for privacy. The tiny, harmless attempt at a more human existence was torn down as a rules violation. Another requirement—that he take off his hat when entering the cafeteria after a 12-hour shift, when he was worrying about “whether people are dying because your code might have an extra line”—also irked him. It was, he concludes, a “tough environment.” He was ready to take to the open seas.
Randy Hencken, a former managing director of the Seasteading Institute, came across Elwartowski while doing market research about the needs and desires of his community. “What stood out about Chad,” Hencken recalls, “is he was the guy who was like, ‘You can just put me down on a box in the middle of the ocean, and I would be happy there.’ Even that would be a kind of freedom to him, since he’d been a military contractor basically in a box in Afghanistan, so whatever meant being out from under the foot of regulatory controls, the guy was happy to do that.”
Elwartowski had been an early accumulator of bitcoin thanks to his passion for Ron Paul (though the goldbug in him made him resistant at first to the charms of this nonphysical online currency). He initially bought in around $17. The price eventually rose to the point where he was making more from owning bitcoin than he was from his job. “I had no motivation to work at that point,” he says.
Like many early adopters, he’s done a lot of trading and selling and churn along the way, and the bitcoins he’s owned more recently were purchased at a much higher price point. Still, he’d enjoyed enough appreciation to be able to “retire in Thailand at age 45.”
So when a company called Blue Frontiers in 2017 confidently announced it would soon float a seastead in a Tahitian lagoon, Elwartowski relocated to French Polynesia as a sort of ambassador without portfolio for seasteading. He was eyes on the ground on a volunteer basis for Blue Frontiers, promoting the concept, checking out potential sites, and keeping himself in the mix. He was already eager to be “the first seasteader.”
His ability to do advance work was somewhat stymied by his inability to speak the language. Yet Elwartowski noticed a simmering disquiet from many locals. The bad feelings were based, he perceived, on a “xenophobic” feeling that “these outsiders are coming to take over our lagoons, maybe destroy our lagoons.” Many Polynesians were frightened, he thinks, by inaccurate visions of giant cruise ship–sized behemoths damaging their coral reefs and inhibiting their fishing.
During a contentious election in 2018, local and national political support for building a seastead in French Polynesia seemed to evaporate. Elwartowski and his new girlfriend, Nadia, who had been staying with him in Polynesia, needed to figure out their next step on the path to total freedom.
From Space Launch to Seastead
In addition to his in-person duties, Elwartowski was also administering a web forum for the Seasteading Institute. There, in March 2018, a 50-something German software engineer named Rudiger Koch began pushing a concept that became Ocean Builders, an operation to design, build, and sell small seasteads. According to Koch, the Andaman Sea in the eastern Indian Ocean had historically calm waters generally free of threatening storms, making it an ideal location for floating experiments.
Koch showed Elwartowski a picture of a concrete spar he’d helped build, though “I really had no idea what he was actually doing,” Elwartowski recalled a year later. When they first met in Bangkok around September 2018, Koch seemed more excited about building a “launch loop” in the style of Keith Lofstrom, an electrical engineer and space enthusiast who has long hyped designs for a cable loop system that could propel payloads into space without rockets.
As Elwartowski explains it, Koch wanted to “launch things with electromagnets up in space” and thought the smartest place to build a launch loop would be out on the open seas, since Lofstrom’s design is more than 1,000 miles from end to end.
Elwartowski is no aerospace engineer, and lots of the technical details were hazy to him, despite plenty of listening to Koch “talking technically like an engineer” with his “very heavy German accent.” But Elwartowski says the ocean was important to Koch as a gateway to space; seasteading was just a way to ensure the engineers and workers needed to build his launch loop would have a place to live in the deep ocean.
“This initial phase was definitely not the end goal,” Elwartowski says. For one thing, the water where he and Summergirl so briefly floated was too shallow for the space launch, and while their temporary home floated on an anchored spar, Koch eventually wanted “floating homes with dynamic mooring, motors that can move them.”
Koch hired Thai locals to build a steel spar to replace the initial concrete one, which had cracked and sunk. Watching metal cylinders get welded together, Elwartowski and Summergirl decided they could help promote the project by occupying and publicizing this first seastead. The Ocean Builders website tried to gin up customers to buy their own houses-on-a-spar, creating a small seasteading village. It would be parked safely, they all thought, outside the 12 nautical miles that generally defines an ocean-bordering nation’s sovereignty. But as they would soon learn, governments often try to enforce their will on a “contiguous zone” twice as extensive.
Remembering the local discontent in Tahiti, the Ocean Builders team thought it better to keep things under the radar until it had demonstrated that its one small houseboat could withstand the rigors of the water, that this whole crazy dream could actually be true. The group totally intended, Elwartowski says, to work with whatever Thai authorities might actually care, especially if Ocean Builders got real clients with real money on the line to add to the community of small seasteads. (While hundreds expressed some interest in doing business with Ocean Builders, no actual cash was laid down before the Thai crackdown, though Elwartowski says big money interested in underwater restaurants and Airbnbs was sniffing around.)
But they weren’t stressing too much about making things official. They figured no government would freak out over “one little small floating house in the water,” Elwartowski says. The total cost of the project would be a mere $150,000. “How can they be afraid of that?”
The Seasteading Life
The original target date to be floating free off the Thai coast was January 3, 2019, the 10th anniversary of the mining of the first bitcoin. Joe Quirk, co-author with Friedman of the 2017 book Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity From Politicians (Free Press) and the leading “seavangelist” for the Seasteading Institute, had sent a video crew to document the launching of that first family seastead.
“The thing was basically built and ready to launch right about the time I was finding out about it,” Quirk says, remembering the process as gritty and DIY. “The spar had to be moved from sand to water, which was its own thing, requiring a trench to be dug and filled with water, with the spar rolled into the trench,” then slid to the open water, “and then sailed out.” The videos he made include a scene of “Nadia jumping in the water” to get the spar moving once when it was stuck. Hired Thai fishing boats finally towed it and the house out to sea.
Summergirl points out the irony that everything they did right offshore—including having the house bobbing around in the water for weeks—was done in front of the eyes of Thai naval vessels. “We took [parts of the seastead] out in front of the Thai navy three times,” she says, “and they [did] not say anything.”
They missed the bitcoin anniversary deadline because an unusually huge storm for the season was rolling in then. But by the start of March they had been at sea for a month, and Quirk premiered the first part of his four-part video series documenting the seastead. He didn’t overglamorize things, showing many of the tensions and crises, small and large, inherent in the experiment.
Elwartowski and Summergirl were dependent on Koch’s boat to get themselves and their supplies out to the seastead. But the engineer didn’t like hanging out on his monohull sailboat overnight and would only occasionally dump them for multiday stays on their own.
While the seastead technically lasted two and a half months—from February 2 until they got the news that they were potentially marked for death around April 12—Elwartowski recalls spending no more than a cumulative couple of weeks actually living on it.
That time was full of both sweet moments and frustrations. “It wasn’t until that last week we finally got our water maker to work,” he says. Lots of nicer boats have a similar setup for turning ocean water potable, he explains, but because the system was gravity-fed, they had to pull water up two meters to the platform before directing it into the machine. At first they didn’t have the proper-sized hoses or the right pumps. “After a lot of work,” he recalls, “we finally figured out a bucket system” to get the water where it needed to go.
That experience, among others, makes Elwartowski shake his head at those who blithely discuss plans to float 200 nautical miles out in order to really get away from Earth’s governments. That kind of seastead would have to be “like a Mars mission,” he says, “with everything planned months in advance” and with backup parts for everything ready to hand.
For the first few days, there was more to do than enjoy the dazzling sunsets over the ocean. “It was hard to get barrels out full of water,” Elwartowski remembers. (The barrels were used, alternately filled with water or air, as part of the process of getting the spar properly buoyant and getting the platform in place atop it.) He would clamber down from his perch to the ocean, with “waves crashing against me, trying to empty water from these barrels tied to the spar, getting exhausted.” But they didn’t want the big blue barrels floating away or sinking or continuing to bounce noisily and annoyingly against the spar. Besides, they might need them later.
Doing anything underneath the platform or in the water was troublesome, and any task off the platform was exhausting. Elwartowski made a rule to go down only “once a day, because I’d be tired the rest of the day.” Summergirl was more likely to be cooking in the house, and “she would hang out more on the deck [atop the living quarters], because she can take the sun better than I, while I usually had a project. The water maker was my nemesis for quite a while, trying to do everything this little MacGyver way, working with duct tape on every little thing you can think of.”
They also attached the platform to the spar in the wrong orientation at first, because “we had to make quick decisions while the sun was going down as to which arm goes through which hole.” That left a couple of the jutting “arms” longer than they should have been and the others shorter. The remedy required “jacking up one side to put wooden boards in” and cutting the longer arms down. Koch, who was often nearby on his sailboat, performed much of this labor.
The sea was beautiful, but it could also be scary. “One night there were 25-knot winds,” Elwartowski recalls. “At least three nights [there were] waves very high, so that every time a wave crashed we could sure feel it. Not that the feeling was unpleasant , but it was all so new. We remembered we were sitting on a prototype no one [had] lived on before.”
They weren’t really in danger of being toppled. The waves “didn’t even come close to splashing the bottom of the platform,” he explains. But once, one of the spar’s anchor ropes detached, and “we would turn with the current. With the combination of the waves hitting and then spinning us,” it was a disconcerting experience.
Mostly, though, Elwartowski felt they had a good thing going. “We had a queen-sized bed, a normal one like you’d have in a house, [and] a refrigerator like you’d have in a house.” They could send garbage back with the videographers who came out to document them or with Koch, and food and water were brought the same way. Elwartowski and Summergirl insist that no physical waste of theirs entered the ocean. They had a propane gas grill in their kitchen, which they never had to refill. They even had, with a repeater, good access to a cell tower on the closest island, and they could use Wi-Fi hotspots from their cellphones on their computers. The pair started with 20 Mbps downloading but shifted to a cheaper 5 Mbps plan. The seastead was powered, according to Ocean Builders’ website, by “six 200 Watt solar panels above the deck with six heavy duty 24V batteries along with a 2.5 kW inverter.”
Despite the various petty frustrations, Elwartowski remembers his time seasteading as awesome: “You could compare it to living in a log cabin, getting away from it all, very peaceful. We loved the views; you couldn’t get those views any other way.” Back in Thailand, especially when they found themselves standing in line or stuck in traffic, the couple wanted nothing more than to get back afloat.
It may have seemed idyllic while it lasted, but it didn’t last long. They were in Phuket when friends drew their attention to a news article accusing them, as Summergirl says, of “wanting to create their own nation.” They couldn’t help but be alarmed, as Elwartowski remembers it, by the phrase “threat to national security” in the press coverage.
Summergirl seems more openly upset about it than Elwartowski does. “All these things that happen to destroy my life and family—they took everything from me even though I never do anything wrong,” she laments. “They come out saying I such a bad person.”
“They attacked us hard in Thai news,” Elwartowski confirms. “This propaganda that makes the navy guys look like heroes who saved [Thailand] from evil people. They called Nadia a ‘rent-a-wife.’”
The couple quickly grew to understand that Thai media were a mouthpiece for the government, so they’d better take what they read there seriously. Elwartowski’s contractor work gives him some insight into how military intelligence works, he says, and after the Thai navy grabbed his home in April he wasn’t eager to say exactly where he and Summergirl were, though he says they got themselves out of the country within about 24 hours of learning the Thai navy’s intentions. They got married in July while in exile.
The Idea Is Worse Than the Reality
Intention trumped reality in the worst way for Elwartowski and Summergirl. The action they performed—living on top of an anchored spar more than 12 miles off the coast—would likely not, per se, have been judged a danger to the Thai republic worthy of calling out the navy and threatening a death sentence. On its own, it likely would never have been noticed at all.
But Elwartowski and Summergirl’s actions were publicly and repeatedly linked to the concept of seasteading. It was the intention, then, not the action, that led the Thai government to interpret two people floating around—presenting no more of a danger than your run-of-the-mill fishing boat—as a rival sovereignty in the Andaman Sea. The intention sent the couple running from the country.
Elwartowski now says that his floating home was not about “seastead nations or bitcoin banks” but about experimental engineering to set the stage for Koch’s eventual space launch.
Before the Thai government took it to the death threat level, Koch preferred not being a public figure. He was referred to cheekily as “Seatoshi,” after Satoshi, the pseudonymous inventor of bitcoin. He had come into enough wealth, he tells me—double-digit millions—to be able to mess around with launch loops and seasteads through a combination of cryptocurrency investments, smart German real estate buys, and bets he made on Donald Trump winning the 2016 U.S. election (though he says he’s not a Trump fan himself).
Koch too has fled Thailand. After he was warned by sources within the country not to go back to the seastead, he loaded up his boat with provisions and sailed to Singapore.
Since several outlets, including Reason , have reported that Elwartowski has his own retirement-level chunk of bitcoin bucks, and since the wallets behind Ocean Builders were initially anonymous, Elwartowski finds many people presuming that he secretly self-financed his seastead. But now that he’s on the run, he’s forceful in stressing that he and Summergirl were merely showroom models for the concept, not the people responsible for funding, making, and launching it.
Lessons for Seasteaders and Sovereigns
Patri Friedman, who still sits on the Seasteading Institute’s board of directors, appreciates what Elwartowski and Summergirl were trying to do. At the same time, “countries, especially in that part of the world, tend to be very jealous of their sovereignty,” he says. Would-be seasteaders in the future need to “be careful to register our vessels and make clear to countries [nearby] what we are doing.”
The basic spar-platform design concept used by Ocean Builders had been part of seasteaders’ dreams from the beginning, and everyone was impressed at how well it actually worked. Everyone—even those who might have advised Elwartowski and Summergirl to communicate better with the relevant authorities—was also surprised that “the kind of things they were doing should result in someone being possibly charged with a capital crime,” Friedman says. “The community was understandably shocked and spooked by that.”
Nearly everyone involved in the promotion of seasteading had cheered them on, even if they didn’t agree with every step they took. If nothing else, the community was pleased to see someone taking real action after the disappointment in French Polynesia. So the question today is: What comes after Thailand?
“How, 20 years from now, does a seastead outside of territorial waters apply to join the club of nations?” Friedman asks. “That’s something we need to start working on now, to set a precedent, because it may take 20 years of work.”
The very attempt to use the Thai experiment to buoy the seasteading community with positive publicity likely brought it to its ignominious end. Friedman admits there’s something to be said for more stealthy approaches to seasteading experiments; he intimates he has a hand in things he can’t be public about just yet. But because of his core commitment to letting a thousand flowers bloom—the same commitment that inspired him to start the Seasteading Institute in the first place—he won’t reject “leveraging the coolness and excitement of seasteading” via publicity the way Elwartowski and Summergirl tried to do.
“If my friends end up imprisoned,” Quirk says, there will be “no controlling my regret” for the part he played in drawing attention to them. But given that they’re free as of now, he hopes their story can offer a “stark morality play in front of the world of two people in love who did something romantic….They didn’t do anybody any harm, and I think it inclines people to support them.”
Even beyond the “fugitives from Thai justice” angle, he says, “people may look at it and say it’s just a little floating log cabin in the middle of nowhere”—something few would want to live on, no great advance. “But that’s missing the point. It was a showcase of a minimal viable product. If seasteaders can build a single family seastead for less than the cost of an average American home, and this simple small thing works [in real-world ocean conditions], then seasteading has taken a real step forward.”
Tom W. Bell is a professor at Chapman University and has been a legal adviser to various projects attempting to craft new sovereignties. He’s a proponent of cloaking nascent seasteads with the protective cover of some willing sovereign. He wasn’t consulted on the Ocean Builders project, he says, “but if asked I would have said, ‘No, it’s a very bad idea to put a structure even in international waters without a flag.’”
Yet a more hopeful way to look at this experience, Bell says, is not as a cautionary tale for the Kochs and Elwartowskis and Summergirls of the world but as a cautionary tale for sovereign nations. “Other countries might see Thailand chasing away rich [Westerners] who wanted to build in an impoverished area, to bring skills and capital to a region that would result in jobs. They scared off what every country in the world wants.”
Seasteaders on the Run
In early July, the Phuket News reported that Thai officials intended to press charges in the seastead case against nine other people, including seven unnamed Thai citizens (presumably the locals Koch hired to build and transport the seastead) and Koch himself.
Koch has a Thai wife and children and, he says, a special spousal visa status. But even before the news about the charges allegedly pending against him, he said he was warned it wouldn’t be smart to hang out in Thailand. He characterizes the Thai government as Stasi-like and refers me to a May Los Angeles Times story regarding “a wave of exiles who have been arrested, abducted, disappeared or killed in recent months in a shadowy crackdown against critics of the twin pillars of Thailand’s establishment: the monarchy and military.”
In June, Koch revealed he had been in Malaysia and alluded to an effort to get something seasteading-related going off its coast. After the July story broke, he emailed that “up to now we were very appeasing towards the Thais. This is changing now as this did not get us anywhere. It just encouraged the bully. We will start with a social media campaign to let Thai people know what happened and what we are really all about.” He hopes to get them wondering, “Why are investors who could help [with] diversifying the Phuket economy [being] driven away with a fatwa on their heels?”
In August, Koch referred me to a Facebook thread on the Ocean Builders page where he was even saltier about the Thai government, writing that he has legitimate fears he’ll be captured and tortured if he dares set foot in Thailand right now. “We are unable to contribute to the ‘investigation’ because the investigators refuse any attempts on our side to contact them and help them set the case straight,” he wrote, further fretting that “the press is orchestrating a witch hunt” and “the official stance of the state attorney is that scientific research in a station in international waters constitutes a breach of article 119 and that we should receive ‘swift justice.’”
“We certainly do not feel safe popping up in Thailand,” Elwartowski emailed after the July story broke. “Nadia and I are still staying low though we feel safe enough to move on with our lives cautiously.”
After this scare, does the couple expect to be involved in any way with seasteading in the future? Elwartowski recognizes that, like it or not, they are now the poster children for the cause. The fact that “Nadia and I lived through this” makes them “the foregone experts on seasteading,” he says.
He adds that there are potential seasteading-related projects bubbling up in other places, but negotiations are still too sensitive for him to want to name them yet. “How can I give up on freedom after experiencing a small taste of it?” he says. “I still think seasteading is the way forward for that. It’s not like the U.S. government is going to turn libertarian all of a sudden, [nor is any other] country. So unless I see a better solution, this is still the path forward.”