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A Nation for Friend and Faux

More mind-set than country, Sealand has drawn admirers, entrepreneurs and invaders in its brief, colorful history in the North Sea. Its founders remain fiercely free-spirited.


WESTCLIFF-ON-SEA, England — Eager for a challenge, Roy and Joan Bates proclaimed their own country 33 years ago on an abandoned North Sea military platform and appointed themselves prince and princess of Sealand.

They asserted territorial independence six miles off the British coast under a red-white-and-black flag. They issued passports, stamps and coins and successfully beat back British claims in court and German invaders in situ.

But while the couple were defending their borders in a spirit of adventure and tax-free living, the Principality of Sealand was hijacked on the Internet by an alleged international fraud ring with interests in weapons trading, drug smuggling and money laundering.

The rival Sealanders, based in Germany and Spain, sold their own passports, designed uniforms for a phantom army and printed labels for a Sealand-brand whiskey before police raided their "embassy" in Madrid this spring and detained their Spanish "regent." His self-styled government and diplomatic corps are under criminal investigation.

Now, with Roy Bates' blessing, the original Sealand has become a "data haven" managed by his own band of computer rebels. They opened the platform for business Tuesday, seeking international clients who wish to keep e-mail, e-commerce or banking transactions safe from prying governments.

Sealand is just one speck in a postmodern archipelago of real and virtual ministates born of puckish claims by free-spirited pioneers and con artists. One Web site lists more than 50 entities--with names such as Dominion of Melchizedek, Oceanus and Vikingland--that lack diplomatic recognition as countries but issue passports anyway.

But it is Sealand's roguish history of shifting identities that best illustrates the possibilities and pitfalls of such ventures: Once you claim an outpost and declare it sovereign, "You just say, 'I'm the law,' " as Bates put it. But you risk opposition from real-life governments and pesky pirates trying to usurp your name.

When you pretend to be a country, it's hard to stop anyone from pretending to be you.

If ever an old man were to rise up out of the sea, he undoubtedly would look like Roy Bates. The 78-year-old has sea-green eyes and frothy brows that curl like whitecaps in a storm. His face is as red as the setting sun. His voice has the force of the tide when he talks about his offshore passion.

"My husband should have been born 300 years ago," Joan Bates, 70, a former fashion model, said recently at the couple's British pied-a-terre on the Essex coast. "He's an adventurer, an entrepreneur. The challenge is what it's all about. Sealand is hard, and it's kept him interested for nearly 35 years."

Talking to Roy and Joan Bates, you get the sense that what irks them most is that someone ran away with their adventure. The only mischief they like is their own.

Once the youngest major in the British army, Roy Bates fought with the Royal Fusiliers in North Africa and Italy during World War II before returning home to Essex, where he says he made a fortune in factories, a fishing fleet and other businesses.

One of his ventures was a pirate commercial radio station.

He founded Radio Essex in 1965, when Britain still had only state radio, the British Broadcasting Corp. He put his 24-hour radio station on one of Britain's deserted World War II antiaircraft platforms, which he had discovered during fishing excursions beyond the country's territorial waters.

"We weren't breaking the law. The people who were listening to the radio were breaking the law as it was then," Bates recalled with a smile.

Sealand was born over a few pints in a pub. Bates knew there were other platforms in the North Sea, and one evening he and his friends started talking about forming a country on one of them. It was a joke, really. Then everyone went home, and Bates got serious.

He consulted lawbooks and international lawyers and could find no legal obstacles to the project. So in September 1966, Roy and Joan Bates occupied Roughs Tower, a gun and landing platform on two enormous concrete pylons that housed up to 200 soldiers at a time during World War II. They declared it a tax-free "country" and claimed exemption from British income taxes.

"I did it because everyone told me I couldn't do it," Roy Bates said.

British authorities tried to harass them out, the prince and princess claim, by opening all their tins of food during rigorous customs inspections every time they came ashore for provisions.

The government also tried to prosecute their son, Michael, then in his mid-20s, for shooting a gun over the heads of a boatload of unwelcome visitors. However, a High Court judge ruled that the British government had no jurisdiction because Sealand was beyond its three-mile territorial limit.

Britain subsequently extended its territorial limit beyond the platform, but it made no further move against the Bates family.

Instead, an invasion came from Germany.

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