seastead_12

Image by DFF_Design_Evelyn A. Kamilaki via Flickr

How would you like to live on the high seas, in a community of fellow-minded travellers? The oceans are the last uninhabited and unexplored frontier on Earth, and for good reason — living on the seas is not easy, nor is it cheap!. However, recent decades have seen an explosion of cruise-based travel, and more and more people are spending more of their lives at sea. The time could soon be ripe for the colonization of the oceans.

The Seasteading Institute has recently published a report on the costs of living on the high seas. First, let’s look at what you would get on an “entry-level” seastead with a capacity of about 300 people:

Your condo at sea

Residential unit: Fully-furnished 600 sq. ft. with the following features:

  • Entry foyer with closet
  • Galley-style kitchen with attached dining area
    • Fridge with icemaker, stove & oven, stainless steel sink, microwave oven, built-in cabinets, pantry, etc…
  • Open-air patio
  • Living room
    • Convertible sleeper sofa, 48″ HDTV, etc…
  • Master bedroom with walk-in closet
  • Bathroom
    • Full-size tub, linen closet, etc…

So, quite similar to a modern single-bedroom condo found in the downtown area of your typical city. The final costs would also include:

  • Hull & deckhouse
  • Accommodations support (HVAC, electrical, etc…)
  • Mechanical systems
  • Engineering
  • Mooring, propulsion, and electrical generation

And then you have operating expenses:

  • Crew
  • Maintenance & insurance
  • Fuel

How much does it all cost?

So, how much would you pay for all of this?

Fixed cost: $379,000 per unit.
Operating cost: $16,000/year.

This most certainly is not cheap! However, it’s actually not as horrible as it seems. Let’s take a look at the costs for a typical 850 sq. ft single-bedroom condo in a downtown area (yes, I’m not exactly comparing apples to apples here, but living at sea has its own exclusivity and allure).

Fixed cost: $350,000 per unit.
Operating cost: $6,000 tax + $4,200 HOA fees + $2,500 insurance and utilities = $12,700/year.

Add it all up, and there isn’t that big of a price difference between your downtown condo and your seastead condo. If they can actually manufacture seasteads at this price level, it could be attractive for some members of the upper class with the capital to purchase a second home, and it can even be attractive for enterprising and adventurous entrepreneurs with some cash to spare (I assume that banks will probably not be providing cheap credit for these homes at the outset).

As time goes on, the expenditures will decrease through economies of scale and economies of lessons learned over time. As the industry moves past the early-adopter phase, access to credit should also become easier.

What are the benefits of living at sea?

Advantages
  • Experience more freedom. International law is lax compared to national laws and regulations. Prohibitions against murder, theft, and rape remain, of course, but “moral” laws such as prohibitions against gambling, etc…. are relaxed. This is why many cruise ships wait until they are 12 miles offshore before you are allowed to use the casino. At sea, you won’t need to worry about committing most victimless crimes.
  • Live on the frontier. The oceans are the last unexplored and uncivilized frontier on the planet. The notion of a frontier is a romantic one to me, conveying images of pioneers and ancient settlers struggling against the elements and spreading civilization. As a bonus, unlike old frontiers such as the Wild West, there is nobody already inhabiting the oceans, so there is no need for the atrocities that occurred during these earlier expansions of one civilization contra another.
  • Experiment with new societies and systems. On the ocean, everything is a blank slate ready to be written from scratch. Like the Americas did for Europeans centuries ago, looking to escape absolutism and tyrannical monarchies, the oceans can offer a huge space for experimentation for new legal systems and ideas.
Disadvantages
  • It’s expensive. This is relative, of course, considering how much of gross income is lost to taxes and fees in a modern Western democracy, but living at sea will not be cheap with all of that maintenance and fuel use. Although taxes are high on land, so are the opportunities to make income, and you receive at least some services for those taxes and fees. It’s a little more difficult to see how someone could acquire resources and make a living at sea unless they had a clear path to external trade with those on land. There would need to be a clear advantage to operating at sea, such as a medical services business or some sort of online business (assuming there’s a good satellite connection, of course!)
  • It could be tiring. Watching an endless sea, day after day after day, could get tiring. Unlike a sea-side resort, there are no beaches nor are there any nice coral reefs or other interesting things to see. It would definitely not be a vacation in the same way as a cruise or a stay at a sea-side resort would be.
  • It could be dangerous. Most parts of the sea are relatively safe, but there are hot spots like the Gulf of Aden that seasteads will want to steer far clear of. Also, irrespective of what is actually legally permitted on the high seas, seasteads will want to avoid antagonizing superpowers such as the US. Engaging in behavior such as setting up meth labs and exporting drugs may be profitable, but it’s also a sure route to a SWAT team intervention and possibly lives being lost.

    Aside from the risk from other humans, there are also risks that come from Mother Nature herself, such as hurricanes and rogue waves.

Living on the high seas

We’re probably still some time away before the first seastead is built, but we are getting closer and the idea is exciting. Seasteading could provide opportunity to thousands of people around with world with new and novel business ideas, and provide a fertile ground for innovation and progress. As the most versatile species on the planet, it’s only a matter of time before humans tame the high seas.

At the same time, there are the environmental costs to consider. A few seasteads burning diesel fuel may be acceptable, but renewable energies will be preferable for lowered reliance on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. The question is the cost — real estate is at a premium on a seastead, so energy sources will have to be dense and reliable. Some level of reliance on fossil fuels will probably be required.

Then there is the question of waste disposal and the proper management of ocean resources. Perhaps seasteading could provide a key to avoiding tragedy of the commons by creating property where none existed before.

Finally, with the vast amount of experimentation afforded by seasteads, some are bound to run afoul of some people’s set of sensibilities. Like the frontiers of old, this new frontier will also push the limits of our understanding of law, ethics, and morality. It will also greatly further our knowledge, technical understanding, and our civilization as a whole, and possibly even bring a new degree of freedom to this world.

Further reading

So, reader, what do you think? Could you ever see yourself living at sea on a permanent or semi-permanent basis someday? A seastead of 250 people or less would be a tight-knit community, but would also be too small to offer many amenities. A larger seastead in the range of 5,000 and more would be more interesting and dynamic, like a small city, but likely further in the making. This could definitely be an interesting environment, especially if you could convince family or friends to go along with you.

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About

Kevin has left the office, and he is currently fighting the rat race by working on his own business. He enjoys exploring unvisited places around the world and gaining new experiences. He believes that by properly managing our energy and time, we can learn to invest our lives wisely.

37 Comments Kevin on Jul 21st 2011

37 Responses to “Living on the High Seas”

  1. This may work for the wealthy or retired (those who do not work) but most of us have to work to pay for the accommodations!

    • Kevin says:

      It’s expensive, I agree. The target is not people who don’t work, though. It can work for plenty of people who do work, as the unique setting can offer a niche legal and business environment.

      With time and economies of scale, the costs will come down. The first mobile phones were expensive heaps of junk that only the rich could afford, compared to what’s available for almost free today. Transport on the sea is cheap when you have the scale, and the price of land is non-existent!

  2. That’s quite expensive. If you’re willing to pay that much, why don’t you pay for a cabin on a residential cruise ship instead? One of these docked in town a couple of years ago and we were fascinated by the lifestyle. It would be great to be able to travel around the world and stop at exotic ports. It’s probably more expensive than the seastead though. I assume the seastead can’t move…

    • Kevin says:

      There is ResidenSea, but the fees there are $20,000 a month if not more…

      One of the goals of the Seasteading project is to bring the costs down to a point where many people could afford it. Like any technology, it’s always more expensive at the beginning, but if the costs are like they estimated then plenty of entrepreneurs and other people would be able to afford that. ~$400K + a couple K a month is not cheap for me and you, but for many people it’s not that expensive. If they can bring this down by 30% to 50% it could become affordable for many people in the middle class.

  3. Kevin, I do not want to live at sea!!! Keep me on land and an occasional swim in the ocean or pool. I’m not even a fan of cruises, too crowded and too many “up charges.”

    • Kevin says:

      Haha. If they got to the point of large floating communities of 5000+ I think I could spend significant time there, but less than that and I doubt it; maybe for a short time but not on a permanent basis. Cruises can be a good deal if you get a special! You’re right though, they are crowded.

  4. I’ll pass. I’d prefer a tropical house to one on the sea.

    I recall watching a documentary talking about how some very low elevation places in the world are having issues with flooding, and how if the ocean rises by a meter or three, much of their area could be underwater. Some solutions included floating houses that stayed basically on land, except they floated permanently so that they could go up and down with waters.

    • Kevin says:

      In some areas of Southeast Asia many of the houses are up on stilts, or even floating directly on the water. It’s not a luxurious way to live, but maybe they can build more modern homes with the same concept.

  5. This would be great for those who don’t get seasick. Hmm, interesting post. This is definitely a form of living which requires a lot of dough. Pricey, pricey.

    • Kevin says:

      Definitely not cheap at the outset, though it wouldn’t be as expensive as say, ResidenSea. I’m interested in seeing what happens if they manage to raise the funds to build the first seastead!

  6. Sounds like a great alternative for those that can’t afford the million dollar yacht all by themselves. I can actually see this idea taking off! I’d really prefer a boat all to myself though, except for an occasional cruise.

    • Kevin says:

      Right now it’s all about costs. If they could offer something like the largest cruise ships, with maybe a few less amenities, more comfortable cabins but all at a decent cost, I think that could be attractive to quite a few people. It will be a while before they get there, and I personally see the fixed location of a seastead as being a downside for the recreational type of resident, but it may be an upside for entrepreneurs trying out different business models and want to be close to trade ports.

      • Kevin says:

        Oh, just to be clear they are not required to be permanently fixed — they are just a heck of a lot slower than a ship.

  7. SophieW says:

    Ok, I’m going to speak from experience here… I’ve been in the Navy for 20+ years, at times living for extended periods in a ship that is 300m long and 50m wide, with ~250 people. Yes our ships are not luxury accomodations, and yes we are jam packed in there with little to do but work, watch tv, surf the internet or workout, but I just can’t see most people able to stand it for extended periods of time – even if it came packed with wonderful amenities.

    Also, it’s a fact that ocean areas that have the nicest weather and calmest seas are also the areas that experience some of the worst storms and seas… All those luxuries become possible flying projectiles in rough weather and something as small as you described would not be able to sail comfortably through such storms.

    Of course, my dream vacation is a nice long cruise in the Caribbean (the idea of sailing without being the one doing all the work would be heaven!) so I’m not against the concept of enjoying life at sea; I just can’t see it happening any time soon, or at least as the Seastead concept anyway.

    When I retire (only a few years now!) I will be retiring to dry land with the occasional foray on a cruise ship :)

    • Kevin says:

      Hey Sophie,

      I agree completely with this and that’s why I think in the beginning you’re likely to see it more populated with entrepreneurs trying out different business models and other people like that willing to be adventurous and live a bit of a rough life. It won’t be for everyone, not until they can scale up.

      The Seasteading Institute could use the experience of people like you! Check out http://seasteading.org/ and see if the site and the ideas attract your interest, and how they could benefit from your expertise.

  8. Melissa says:

    OK, maybe it’s just that I’m getting sick of living in a swelteringly hot city, but this sounds incredible! Did you ever see that kids TV show, Breaker High (starring a young Ryan Gosling!) about the high school on a cruise ship. That was totally my dream in middle school. And kind of still is.

    • Kevin says:

      Heh that must have been fun ;) It is sweltering where I am, too with temps in mid 30s before humidex! We need a cool breeze…

  9. My longest experience ‘at sea’ was a whale watching tour out of Bar Harbor Maine, and I think I was green most of the time.

    However, this is a very interesting concept. Obviously you would need to be a very healthy person to live at sea, but I would think you would get sick of it? But for some, it really might be a dream come true!

    • Kevin says:

      I think one day they will be large enough or designed that they won’t roll, so you won’t get literally sea sick… but until there are large communities and such I think you could still get cabin fever! It will only be a matter of time though…

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  11. JT says:

    This is a great article, Kevin.

    Would there be an additional benefit in being international? Maybe some tax avoidance? :D

    • Kevin says:

      Thanks, JT! The tax issue is a great point. With all of this sovereign debt the land tax is only going to go up, so the sea could be a great place to escape to… that is, until the sovereigns claim it for themselves.

      Just leave it to a few bad apples to give them an excuse. ;) However, for the majority of good apples there should be no reason to bother them so long as they are trading peacefully and not causing trouble.

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  13. 101 Centavos says:

    It’s an interesting concept, but one that will take a lot of experimentation. To protect against the risk of piracy, the community will have to be well defended by its own security force. 5,000 rich folks in a relatively small area will make a tempting target. Concept sounds similar to Freedom Ship…

    • Kevin says:

      I agree, they will need a lot of trial and error to determine what works and what doesn’t work. Freedom Ship aimed too high, but it would have been a nice concept if it could have been realized…

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  15. I’d pass on this one.

    Eventually the ship will depreciate to zero (or scrap value) as all ships do.

    At least the condo has some chance of holding its value.

    There are some other differences as well.

    • Kevin says:

      You raise a good point; ships are notorious for becoming rusting hulks of floating metal after a while.

      However, based on engineering research and practice it seems that concrete-based seasteads could last for 200 years. That’s as least as long if not longer than any recent construction on land for sure.

  16. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece!

    Yours,
    Randy

    Communication Director for The Seasteading Institute

  17. KR says:

    Lovely post here; I’ve taken a look at quite a bit of the Seasteading Institute things myself, and I find it a nice target to aim for. Not cheap, but will be there someday; and better than living on land (or, let’s say, more exclusive/cooler).

    • Kevin says:

      I think it has the potential to become cheaper than land at some point. The monthly maintenance fees on the initial seasteads is insane right now, but this is something that could be driven down over time with experience and economies of scale. Also, with much smaller governance and a society that is more likely to be based on fees rather than tax there would be a significantly smaller overhead as compared to living on land. This may more than make up for the physical disadvantages and expenses.

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  21. Edmund Peh says:

    This is truly an interesting alternative retirement place idea. If I got a model-like wife, I wouldn’t mind spending romantic time on the seas everyday :)

    • Kevin says:

      I’d like to try it one day. I don’t know if I could be a permanent sea-steader, and probably not in the submarine version for sure. Still one day I can expect sea-based living to get to the point of a comfortable condo or small city with a few thousand people. That wouldn’t be bad at all, and I wouldn’t mind living in a place like that. Put a few hundred of these together and you have a sea-based metropolis. Maybe this is 30 years out for the full-blown scenario but I am optimistic that it’s not much more than that… things can move fast once they get going!