Michael Bates is the self-proclaimed prince of an abandoned military platform called Roughs Tower – aka Sealand – which stands six miles into the North Sea off the English coast.
His father Roy claimed the tower in 1966 in an attempt to start a pirate radio station that would be beyond the UK’s jurisdiction. And Michael was there from the start, while on holiday from his boarding school.
That’s all very fine, but what does it have to do with the new economy?
Last year, Michael leased Sealand, as the Bates family calls the platform they have occupied for three decades, to HavenCo.
This Angola-registered firm, run by husband and wife team Sean and Jo Hastings, wanted to set up a secure data facility which no legislation could touch – and Sealand claims to be a sovereign nation.
Although the UK Home Office doesn’t think so, the Bates family believes it has a good case for de facto recognition. Bates senior was given an exemption from paying national insurance contributions while on the platform, and a German ambassador once came to talk directly to the family after the UK government said it had nothing to do with Sealand.
Furthermore, people on the well-defended, 60-foot high platform can simply tell visiting officials to go away. And if they came back with a gunboat, HavenCo says it would destroy data rather than hand it over.
The firm, which recently opened its doors for business, expects to specialise in selling capacity to financial institutions – organisations rich enough to afford its sky-high data-transfer rates.
But where does this leave Prince Michael of Sealand, to give him his royal title, in his capacity as chief operating officer, handling logistics and the UK side of HavenCo’s operations?
Uk.internet.com, a sister site to accountancyage.com, spoke to him at his home in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, during which he took a call to arrange the return of a 22-foot, ex-military, 140-horsepower RIB (rigid inflatable boat), which had been in for repairs.
What was your first visit to Sealand like?
It was Christmas eve, 1966. I was only 14. It was a funny old setup: very scruffy, with candles and hurricane lamps. I went there in the spring of 1967, on holiday from boarding school, and I ended up not going back (to school). I thought it was a six-week adventure, not 34 years.
We understand you were kidnapped from Sealand in 1977. What happened?
My father was in Austria to sign a contract. The people concerned had other plans: they sent a KLM helicopter, which couldn’t land. Instead, the occupants climbed down ropes to occupy the island. I ended up in a steel room on Sealand, which I couldn’t get out of, and was there for three or four days. They let me out with my hands tied, then they got me to the ground, tied me up, picked me up and said they would throw me over the side.
Instead, they sent me to Holland by boat with no identification papers.
I managed to get back to the UK and found my father, who had returned from the fake business meeting in Austria.
After you escaped and met up with your father, how did you re-take your ‘kingdom?’
We planned to go in by boat. But then we phoned a friend who owned a helicopter. He’d performed in James Bond films, but this was the first time he’d done it for real. I descended from the helicopter to the platform with a gun, fired a shot (and said): ‘Everyone put their hands up!’ and that was that.
Of the five people taken hostage, all but one were released. The other had a Sealand passport. We kept him for about six weeks. We had a little trial, convicted him of treason and charged him 40,000 Deutschmarks, which we never got. Then we got bored, took him to Harwich, and gave him some money to get home. And my jacket, too.
Sean Hastings, chief executive of HavenCo, described you as “a hacker” as a result of how you found a way around regulations on cockle fishing in 1993.
I have a Thames Estuary cockle licence – there’s only 14. Cockles are little round shellfish, and we catch them in 20-ton loads. The only people who were allowed to cook them were in Leigh-on-Sea (according to Port of London regulations). I brought in a Dutch factory ship which cooked them at sea – it had a European factory permit.
(Michael explains that this meant he was importing cooked cockles rather than raw ones, which had to be cooked in Leigh-on-Sea, thus avoiding the high charges of the UK cookers.)
They weren’t very happy about the whole thing – no end of political problems.
Somewhere along the line, my boat got sunk. But I got another, and carried on regardless.
HavenCo contacted you last year. What attracted you to its idea?
I thought it sounded like an exciting project. I’m not a technophobe.
Sean Hastings approached me over the internet. It’s a freedom thing, which is what we’ve always tried to do. Press reports of $250,000 in stock and cash for the lease are not quite right, but I can’t discuss exact terms.
How has Sealand changed with HavenCo’s leasing?
I don’t spend a lot of time there myself. There’s tens of people there now – I won’t say how many for security reasons.
We’ve put in a desalination plant, more generators, lots of computers, the NOC (Network Operations Centre), and we’ve got a female cook.
It’s not so laidback now, sorting out accommodation and the catering – it’s a place of work.
I’ve read that you see yourselves as British patriots. How do you justify Sealand’s avoidance of UK law?
Sealand poses no threat to the UK, and musn’t do. We’re not despots, but we don’t necessarily agree with some laws. I’m sure there’s some laws you don’t agree with.
Do you plan to reduce your involvement?
I think I’ll stay with it, and my children too. They’ve already been several times. My oldest son is really into computers – he’s 14 now, a few months younger than when I first went to Sealand.
– Steven Mathieson writes for uk.internet.com
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