Answers to some basic seasteading questions about strategy

On the floating-festival mailing-list – now turned mostly to a marine hackerspace / bay area seasteading community list – Matt Bell asks some basic questions. Really, all these questions should be answered in a book, or a “How To Seastead” guide, but our versions of those are about 8 years old and badly in need of update. Which will be my major project for the rest of the year – it’s really quite unfortunate that while we have communicated our core vision widely and well, the strategic details have mainly been restricted to internal discussions. Which is why it’s now a top priority to create that “missing manual”.

I understand TSI’s desire to push for efforts toward seasteading and permanent ocean communities in particular. However, it would be useful for the group to understand some of the specifics of how TSI wants to create a permanent ocean community.

For example: Is physical modularity important? I’ve heard the vision of people being able to sail off with their homes to a different seastead if they don’t like the government. That means your home has to be sea-worthy. Could the bar be lower? What if your home is a shipping container on a decommisioned aircraft carrier, and you can hire movers to pluck you and take you somewhere else?

Physical modularity is important but not primary. Roughly speaking, there are 2 main political benefits: lowering the barrier to entry (being able to start new countries, which you basically can’t do now), and making those countries more physically dynamic through modularity. The former is more important because the latter is limited – physical modularity only gets you increased competition in a limited way because a) people can already move themselves and their stuff without moving buildings, b) people are tied by social networks much more than they are by their buildings being locked into place. There are still many advantages to physical modularity, though.

I imagine there will be a minority of nomadic seasteaders who travel frequently. For the majority, it should be like moving your house – something that happens every few years, maybe less, in which case requiring a moving service (ie a crane to pick up your shipping container house) is just fine. The unit itself doesn’t have to be seaworthy. This is important because engineering considerations will likely make the module size for seasteads large – hundreds of thousands of square feet or more – just because of considerations of dealing with the waves and being safe and comfortable. Given this large module size, we’d love to have smaller modules on top so we still get home-level modularity even when the base modules are big. And a number of those interested in seasteading (like Brazilian architect Anthony Ling, one of the design contest winners) are really interested in modular housing.

Damn, need to give shorter answers 🙂

What’s the smallest/cheapest truly all-weather ocean-worthy vessel? If seasteads are truly going to be modular, the minimum “atomic” size for a boat will have to be that size. The culture will be very different if it’s an 1000 person vessel vs a 10 person vessel.

You can have a small, cheap, safe tiny vessel. Small structures do the best in large waves because they track them perfectly – imagine a leaf floating in the ocean. Very safe. Bad things happen when waves cause stresses across a large structure, or break over a large structure. Unfortunately, tied to that safety for small structures is lack of comfort – they are save because they track the waves, but tracking the waves, in anything but small waves, is pretty uncomfortable and makes it hard to get any work done. Professional sailors manage, but they are a selected group, have time to acclimatize, and are only trying to do a limited range of things during bad weather.

The comfort of a larger vessel or an oil rig is based on not tracking the waves – on moving less than the waves move. And that takes size in various dimensions depending on your scheme and what motions you want to reduce. Depth (hundreds of feet) helps protect against heave motions by getting below the waves (wave motion continues well below the trough of the wave, to a depth proportional to wavelength, not wave height!). Length, when facing into the waves, makes you like a moving average, which smooths the wave – but requires a strong hull to handle the stresses. Width helps smooth the waves if they happen to be coming from the sides (“beam seas”), which may be unavoidable if you have a particular direction to go, or if waves are coming from multiple directions at once (which they can do – what with being waves, they can have an arbitrary composition of phases, frequences, and directions – they are far from uniform).

So we really don’t know the answer – professional ocean engineers tell us you have to be big to be comfortable, but people like Vince & Wayne think you may be able to design a clever new type of small structure which sacrifices something (like mobility) and meets the requirements. This is, obviously, one of our core engineering questions for our new DirEng to research.

Is engineering important? A seastead could just consist of a bunch of people buying rooms on a cruise ship floating in deep water. That’s known technology. Is there a reason to innovate? Maybe there’s a modular design or an artificial deep-water harbor that would reduce the minimum vessel size.

Engineering is definitely important in the long-run, ships are optimized for speed, not for being modularly assemblable into a city. However, it is not important for the short-run, except for PR & marketing reasons. We have talked extensively about starting by just buying a used cruise ship so that we could innovate on the business and legal side while engineering research progresses. I find that route very attractive, but our new DirEng is concerned about the PR implications and would rather design something new and start there. I told him it depends on how much extra time & money the newness costs :). I have always thought that an artificial deep water harbor is what big seastead cities will look like, but with no engineering behind the idea it must be considered speculative for now.

How important is it to have a small group of dedicated proto-seasteaders vs a broad cultural awareness of seasteading in general? (Update: It will likely be a while before a DIY community puts an agglomerated seastead in international waters. This is a high hurdle, so what do you feel is an exciting shorter-term goal?)

I have always felt strongly that we need a small group of dedicated people far more than broad awareness, but it is fuzzy because broad awareness is often what gets you the attention of those few committed individuals. But I would take 1 person ready to seastead, with a business that will work there, over 1000 people who have heard of seasteading and think it is cool, any day. It is inherent in the nature of our incremental, “Just Do It”, “Be the solution” approach that what we need most is to get out there and seastead.

An exciting short-term goal would be to solve any single challenge of real seasteading, even as a one-shot. For example, to connect two structures together in the waves outside the Golden Gate (doesn’t need to be international waters) and have their link survive in a storm without damaging either vessel. Or to take one structure into international waters and do, as a PR stunt, something illegal in the US but legal on a liberian-flagged vessel (which would require your vessel to be liberian-flagged, and a careful examination of how to comply with all relevant laws so that your stunt is truly legal according to the laws of everywhere but Liberia). Or to start a business that uses international waters, even on a temporary basis, as it’s competitive advantage (breaking some bad law the US doesn’t enforce outside its territory). Any of those would represent a substantial milestone along engineering, legal, and business, which I currently consider the key axes.

In general I’d be interested in a clearer picture of TSI’s community vision in the short and long term. Maybe it’s on the website somewhere and you could just point us to it.

Well, a seastead will be a giant intentional community, so we want to form a community. The question of what that community should do is much trickier :). I don’t think we have a clear vision beyond: a bunch of people who like seasteading, are learning about it, bonding with each other, developing relevant skills, advising TSI, spreading the word, and (for the most committed) preparing their lives for seasteading (telecommutable jobs, etc.).

Something related is that TSI is currently doing a marketing/branding/communications revamp (our first, and badly needed), and the question of “What do you need from your audience” came up. Our current answer is:

  1. Money
  2. Seasteaders
  3. Volunteers & job candidates w/ specialized skills (oceanography, fundraising, engineering, maritime law, Drupal coding…)
  4. Anyone who can connect us with 1,2,3.

There are other things we need, and that list will change in the future, but I think we need those things way more than anything else. I see developing a local community of people interested in seasteading as a way to potentially get all of these – for example, we’ve received $10K donations from two different people who came to our Bay Area socials, and we just saw someone post on the floating festival list that she’d love a timeshare on a cruise ship – which is our current proposed business model – so obviously the local community is developing some people ready to seastead.


4 thoughts on “Answers to some basic seasteading questions about strategy”

  1. To pitch in on the engineering side of things:

    Indeed it is possible now to safely live on the oceans: any bathtub will do. As has been noted however, this will be uncomfortable in the extreme. Its not just about throwing up, but also about not being crushed by your fridge. I dont know of anyone making living on a small boat in the open ocean a permanent livestyle, but im open to being proven wrong. Part of the problem is that it doesnt matter much wether you are talking about a 10ft or 100ft boat: they are both small as far as open-ocean waves are concerned, and will get tossed around basically the same trajectory. To anyone intent on trying this, my advice would be: cut the fancy features, and focus on where you can compete with existing designs: cost and ruggedness. A beefed up sausalitto houseboat would probably be the best way to go about this: an unbreakable concrete hull that will go 200 years without maintenance, and ballasted such that it is impossible to capsize.

    The only way to combine truely small scale with comfort is to go submarine. That might work, but there are several hurdels I can think of, and who knows how many more; we consider it too experimental to put much effort into it; but again im open to solid plans as to how to overcome the difficulties associateed with it.

    Then there are FLIP-like spars; they could give you comfort at around a $1M budget and a reasonable per-unit area price, which isnt too bad. But you need a place to anchor them because trying to move these things around using active propulsion is guaranteed to drain your wallet at a faster rate than you could possibly refill it. Thats a bummer, because shallow and politically unclaimed waters are rare to begin with, and that is before filtering them on pleasant weather and good economical opportunites.

    In order to get both comfort and mobility, you are looking at displacement hulls of at least 200m long or semi-subs. And a hull cost of $10M and upwards; well out of DIY range, but within TSI’s fundraising-fu, we think.

    Thats a short summary of what ive been able to conclude over the past year or so, leaving out a bunch of nuances. And im excited that we have George now, so he can help us push forward on the many fronts I got stuck.

    Trying to figure out what capital investment we need to get a platform that is comfortable enough is one of our #1 research priorities right now. Im working on building a case as to why we could get away with a simple and relatively inexpensive 200m mono-hull, given unidirectional seas, rather than something resembling clubstead, with a $60M hull cost (and far higher per-area cost and mobility costs). But I might be wrong. Either way, George and I will get to the bottom of this; George has a lot of experience specifically comparing the merits of semi-subs and mono-hulls.

    As for using used ships: I think it could be a good idea for a first seastead, to prototype many aspects of seasteading. But there are many drawbacks too; we want to optimize for different things; internal volume over low drag and a higher emphasis on low maintenance and comfort, all of which have implications for hull design. But most importantly, we wouldnt be adressing the problem of modularity. Making it easier to move between platforms than the massive pain in the ass it is today would be great, if not a requirement. For instance, it would be possible to couple monohulls together; but only if their load-bearing structure was designed with this in mind. Until we actually have converged on a concept of what we consider an optimal design, it is impossible to say how close a second hand boat might come to approaching that optimum.

  2.  Depth (hundreds of feet) helps protect against heave motions by getting below the waves (wave motion continues well below the trough of the wave, to a depth proportional to wavelength, not wave height!)

    Actually, wave disturbance scale proportionally with wave height, and exponentially decay with the product of depth and wavelength inverse (A*e^(-z/labda)).

    My rough calculations say that 100ft, or 30ish meters, will make you perfectly comfortable under any circumstances; so the pressure offects of the required depth will not at all be the problem.

  3. It seems that “Build it and they will Come” is the fundumental “doctrine” for seasteading so far. Not only for TSI, but for most of us interested in the subject, including myself. The assumption is that upon coming up with the “right” design, the money will roll in to build it and upon completion, a lots of people will “jump” on it and we will all live happily ever after.

    But what if we are all wrong? What if the BIATWC “doctrine” is pushing our actions, dictated by our strategies, in the wrong direction? And maybe we are becoming inceptualy self-indoctrinated by our drive to see seasteading happening ?….  

    It is often said, “Time will tell”. I have been “dwelling” around for 1 year and 30 weeks and what this time is telling me is that there is no seastead so far. Not only for TSI, but for most of us interested in the subject of seasteading, including myself. This is not criticism, but the realization that the “business of selling a seastead” (the actual strategy) needs to be changed.

    So, personally I think that the new strategy should be “selling seasteading as a business”, which will mean changing priorities in terms of what is required from the audience:

    1. Seasteading volunteers as future investors with proven seasteading businesses related skills and proven financial resources.
    2. A comprehensive seastead design and an incremental, step by step, detailed seasteading business-social-political plan.
    3. Anyone who can connect us to 1. and 2.  

    Reality seems to be a matter of perception and perception is a matter of personal impression. Therefore relative. So,…. feel free to comment according to your impression. I am just sharing mine with you.




  4. The dilemma between ensuring comfort, by being unresponsive to waves, and survivability by moving in phase with waves is well known. It seems like most commentators think you can only have one at the expense of the other.

    A potentially more optimal solution that occurs me is to use a variable geometry structure. So in modetare wave situations, the structure could be confirgured to be unresponsive to waves, ensuring that people on board are able to function normally.

    When a major storm is expected however, (something which probably occurs rarely, transiently and predictably) the configuration could be changed to be highly survivable. There will be extreme discomfort during this period, but it’s preferable to the alternative.

    Or else how about a structure which has a water-tight profile that can be over-topped by waves without sinking??

    I’d be particularly interested in Eelco’s thoughts about these possibilities.

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