A huge thanks to our client Mike Kendall for the the following write up and photos from his trip to the Principality of Sealand! We hope to run tours here one day, but for now, a trip report…
It’s 8:00am on a Saturday Morning and I’m with 25 of the worlds most traveled people in the unlikeliest venue of all, The Pier Hotel in Harwich. It’s a small port town in Essex in South East England, and from here you can take a ferry to the Netherlands. Local residents are very proud to tell you it’s from here, not Plymouth, that the Mayflower set sail to the new world with the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620.
The room is full of nervous excitement touched with a hint of pessimism. We are all waiting for news that will decide if we are to travel to the most obscure “country” in the world… the Principality of Sealand.
This self-declared Micronation is situated on a British built Maunsell Sea Fort floated out on a barge which was scuppered to form the foundations. Its purpose was to repel German naval forces during World War 2. Several of these towers were built and after the war all were abandoned only to be occupied afterwards by Pirate Radio operators, as they were outside of British territorial waters and the government had no jurisdiction over them.
One of these, Roughs Tower, was taken over by one radio operator Paddy Roy Bates, he declared it an independent nation following British legislation forbidding radio broadcasting from such structures and ships. Clashes soon followed, the Bates family now resident on the fort, had to thwart invasions of the fort from former colleagues (one, a German national, Alexander Achenbach was held hostage), other pirate radio station operators, and there was even a clash with a British Naval patrol. Warning shots were fired at the naval vessel by a member the Bates family, claiming an incursion into Sealand territorial waters. It certainly has a chequered history.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, a little quiet please!” came the announcement from an organiser of our group. “I’m sorry to inform you that there will be no attempt to get to Sealand today”.
It was the news we had been expecting, the flags on the flagpoles outside the hotel were flying rigid in the 40 knot wind, and all ferries to The Netherlands had also been cancelled for the day. The announcement then continued…
“However the weather looks much better tomorrow and there is a small window of opportunity that landings may take place”
This encouraging news did not suit some of our group who had flights booked that evening or early next day. However with fewer people it increased the chances for the remainder of the group, the boat we have for the journey would only need to make 2 return trips and not 3 as was planned originally.
So at 8:00am the next morning we had to reconvene at the same venue, however this time in beautiful sunny conditions, a light breeze and a few scattered clouds in the sky, signs were looking good. A few minutes later two “Princes of Sealand”, Prince James and Prince Liam along with the boat operator appeared in the room to great cheers, we were going.
Firstly we had to apply for a visa, initially I thought this was all a joke but the “royal family” members of Sealand take this very seriously. It took a while for all of us to get our documents in order and pay the appropriate fee for the visa and boat transfer. This was a real privilege for us all, we are the first group tourists who have ever been granted permission to visit. It was to prove a learning experience for the Sealander’s too who have never had to deal with this many persons on an ageing platform with minimal space.
There was also the obvious question on everyone’s lips “how do we all get on?”
About 30 minutes later the group in the first boat were soon to find out, it’s only 7 nautical to Sealand from Ha’penny pier in Harwich. I was on the second rotation of the ship and about 90 minutes later it was our turn to make the crossing. Approaching the platform away in the distance I could see a lone figure dangling on what appeared to be no more than a garden swing. It was Prince James and he was to assist each person from the back of the boat onto what actually is a garden swing attached to a winch on the platform, each person was winched up one by one. This manoeuvre was not exactly easy either. Hard hats were essential as the rope swing would flirt with your head as it was lowered each time in the wind. The boatman too had to negotiate the boat into the correct area, more than once the boat had to abort an attempt to locate the swing and circle back and try again.
It was with a sense of relief when I arrived at platform level I gratefully accepted the helping hand to pull me out of the swing and into the country, without doubt the most bizarre immigration control I have ever encountered. “Welcome to Sealand” was my greeting accompanied by a handshake from another of our group who had declared himself a resident as he had now been there for at least 2 hours before my arrival.
The country itself was a little worse for wear shall I say as would befit a structure almost 80 years old open to all elements in the North Sea. There are areas out of bounds on the open platform and you had to be careful where you put your feet. With all of our second group now winched aboard we did the compulsory group photo and then were given a tour of the country.
We all made our way through a corridor where the radio room, a lounge, kitchen and reading area were located and furnished with a mix of all furnishings from the 1960’s onwards. Our first priority was to meet Prince Michael son of Paddy Roy Bates, the oldest current Sealander, who stamped our passports.
The platform is held up by two cylindrical hollow concrete pillars, it was inside these pillars that the most interesting part of the country tour was to commence. There were several floors within these pillars some below sea level, there were former armaments stores, bedrooms, a gym and a chapel. Most interestingly there is a prison cell used to incarcerate German National Alexander Achenbach following his Coup De’tat with the aid of Dutch and German mercenaries. He was subsequently defeated when Bates, in something reminiscent from a James Bond film, regained control when he abseiled from a helicopter back onto the platform with assault rifles.
It took a German diplomatic visit to ensure Achenbacher’s release and this was a significant event in the history of Sealand and its claim to be a nation state. But Is Sealand an actual country?
The 1933 Montevideo convention requires 4 criteria to be satisfied to declare if a nation state exists.
- A defined territory (Roughs Tower)
- A permanent population (The Bates family, there is always someone resident on Sealand)
- A constitution. The Bates family have a written constitution, along with a flag, national anthem, stamps, passports and a lot more things you would associate with a nation state.
- The ability to enter diplomatic relations with other nations. The Bates family said the visit of the German diplomats to ensure Achenbacher’s release satisfied this criteria.
In reality Sealand has no recognition from any other United Nations member and the UN have reinforced recognition criteria in 1964 by declaring that artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands and have no claim to the sea or underwater area around them. Tell that to Prince Michael!
All that was left to do for us now was to negotiate the winch swing seat back down onto the boat and make our way back to the UK mainland. Yeah simple.
Whatever the status we all agreed that we all had a fun and rewarding day and an experience like no other. For me personally I believe that there is always place in life for characters like Paddy Roy Bates and oddities like Sealand the World is a richer place for them.