SEALAND (AFP) – This is a massive metal and concrete platform in the North Sea that has been run as an independent micronation in defiance of the UK government for the past 54 years.
But even in Sealand, about 7 miles off the coast of southeast England, visitors must test negative for Covid-19 before being winched on deck.
“We have no cases of Covid-19,” says Mr Liam Bates, one of Sealand’s self-proclaimed “princes” proudly.
“At the moment, I think we are one of the only countries in the world that can say that,” he told AFP.
Sealand, an old anti-aircraft platform built on top of two hollow concrete towers, was due to be demolished after WWII because it was outside British waters.
But when that did not happen, Mr Bates’ grandfather Roy, a businessman with businesses in fishing and pirate radio, took over and declared independence.
The Principality of Sealand – motto “E Mare Libertas” (Of the sea, freedom) – was born in 1967, with its own Constitution, a national flag and even a national anthem.
Since then, the ancient windswept fortification has survived an attempted “coup”, a collapsed data storage company, and a catastrophic fire.
With his black-red and white flag fluttering, Sealand still looks like a pirate.
Engineer Joe Hamill, 58, winches visitors in a wooden swing as they grip the ropes tightly.
On board, the first formality is a Sealand passport stamp.
Up close, Sealand looks reassuring with a new patio and neatly stored tools, paints, and boxes of hot dogs.
The kitchen has potted plants and porcelain plates while the bedrooms are decorated with wallpaper, rugs, and classic books, including Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.
Mr. Liam Bates, now 33, has been visiting since he was three and jumps on the swing seat with convenient ease.
He focuses on day-to-day operations, while his older brother, Mr. James Bates, runs the family-owned cockle fishing and canning business.
Their father, Prince Michael, is recovering from surgery and “slowing down a bit,” he says.
Since he has an American fiancee and an older brother, Mr. Liam Bates jokes that he is “Prince Harry” of Sealand.
Sealand keeps afloat by selling titles through their website: you can become a Lord of Sealand for £ 29.99 (S $ 54) or a Duke for £ 499.99.
They sell “quite a few of them,” Bates said.
“Enough to support Sealand now, which is just huge.”
Sealand doesn’t pay UK tax and “the main thing … is freedom from whatever you want, really: like religion, expression, any kind of guidance,” he said. added.
While the Bates only visit the platform, the platform is maintained by two men in two-week shifts: Mr. Hamill and Michael Barrington, 66, chief homeland security.
During the lockdown, Mr Hamill said he volunteered to spend two 11-week shifts here on his own, winching supplies from a boat.
In the end, “I think my mental state was actually going a bit,” said the Londoner, who worked in insurance. “It was pure isolation.”
At least Sealand is a lot more comfortable than when it started, the men say.
Wind turbines and solar panels replaced the old diesel generators, one of which caught fire in 2012, causing extensive damage.
Rooms inside the concrete towers include a multi-faith chapel, a recreation room with a pool table and gym equipment, and a meeting room with a whiteboard.
Some are below the waterline and there is a constant sound of lapping water.
Mr Barrington, who first arrived in Sealand 33 years ago after working on pirate radio stations, calls it “a big cave”.
There is little evidence of Sealand’s origins in WWII beyond a painted sign on the pumps.
Mr Bates said most were ripped off in the early 2000s, when US contractors attempted to set up a data haven in the towers.
He has become “a victim of the dot.com bubble,” he says, while the servers remain in a room “as part of our national history.”
He still sees Sealand’s future as digital, with plans to launch a cryptocurrency, although he gives few details.
A small prison cell with an iron bed once housed the state’s only prisoner in 1978 during the “Great Sealand Coup”.
After a dispute with Mr. Roy Bates, a German businessman sent mercenaries to storm the platform while he was away.
Mr Roy Bates and his son Michael recaptured Sealand in a dawn helicopter raid and freed the mercenaries, but withheld the businessman’s lawyer, accusing him of treason.
He was eventually released after a German diplomat came out to investigate.
This isn’t the only violent episode in Sealand’s history: In 1967, the Bates fought off a boarding party from Radio Caroline, a popular pirate radio station, by throwing Molotov cocktails.
In 1968, Mr Roy Bates and Michael were tried for weapons-related offenses after shooting at passing ships, but the court ruled that the fort was outside British jurisdiction.
“My dad (Michael) taught us how to shoot guns and all that stuff,” says Liam Bates, who wonders if there are guns on board now.
“We are equipped to protect ourselves because we have obviously been attacked in the past,” he said.
Since 1987 the rig has been legally in British waters, although Britain is not actively trying to retrieve it.
“I think they like to pretend we don’t exist and just hope that one day we pack our bags and go,” Bates said.
“Which, of course, will never happen.”