It was supposed to be the “first seastead in international waters”—a small white box protruding from the waves off the coast of Phuket, Thailand, occupied by two would-be pioneers who decided to live there in the pursuit of a new life unfettered by national laws.
But now, Chad Elwartowski and Supranee Thepdet (AKA Nadia Summergirl), say they’re on the run.
According to the Bangkok Post, the Royal Thai Navy filed a criminal complaint with police under a section of the criminal code that concerns threats to national sovereignty. Violations of this section of the criminal code are punishable by life in prison or death, the Post noted.
The six-meter wide structure, known as XLII, was supposed to be the first real application of “seasteading,” a libertarian idea that advocates for new societies to form on structures floating in international waters. According to Ocean Builders, the startup behind the project, the structure was allegedly located in international waters, 12 miles off the coast but still within Thailand’s exclusive economic zone.
After it launched in early 2019, Elwartowski and Thepdet—volunteers, according to Ocean Builders—moved in. Elwartowski, a Bitcoin enthusiast, told me he had enough in cryptocurrency holdings to retire and Thepdet posts online as “Bitcoin Girl Thailand.” Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute advocacy group, directed a short documentary series about the pair, titled “The First Seasteaders.”
“We were very enthusiastic about the idea of being able to live on the new frontier,” Elwartowski told me in an email. “It has been my dream for 10 years to live on a seastead. Nothing will take away the fact that I was able to be free for a few moments.”
Trouble started, Elwartowski said, when the couple saw news reports about the government cracking down on their home while celebrating the ongoing Thai holiday of Songkran—which began on Saturday—on land. Fearing the potentially stiff consequences, the pair “bugged out,” Elwartowski told me, a phrase that essentially means fleeing. When I first contacted Elwartowski through Ocean Builders’ site admin email, he said, “We are on the run.”
According to the Bangkok Post, the Royal Thai Navy sent officers to the XLII structure on Saturday and attempted to make radio contact with the occupants, but nobody replied.
Thai officials claim that XLII obstructs a shipping route, the Post reported. Elwartowski disputed this in an email, noting that the structure is small, located in an area rife with fishing boats, and outfitted with a solar anchor light as well as a navigation beacon for nearby ships.
When Motherboard contacted the US embassy in Thailand, an after-hours duty officer did not have any information to share.
The origins of Ocean Builders are murky, apparently intentionally so. Despite Elwartowski and Thepdet arguably being the faces of the XLII project, and Elwartowski responding to the company’s main email account, even while on the run, a company statement described the pair merely as “volunteers excited about the prospect of living free.”
In an email, Elwartowski told me he and Thepdet arrived to the project in September of last year and repeatedly referred to the company’s founder as "Seatoshi," evoking Bitcoin's pseudonymous inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto. Ocean Builders describes itself as a “team of engineering focused entrepreneurs.”
In a statement, Ocean Builders acknowledged that the project team is made up of early Bitcoin adopters, but that Elwartowski didn’t fund the project personally and moved in with his own sheets and dishware.
What is clear is that the modest XLII structure was hardly the end of Ocean Builders’ plans. The company had planned to start a pre-sale on 20 more units on Monday—a sale that is now postponed, according to a statement by Ocean Builders. A minimal, “barebones” structure was to sell for $150,000 USD, according to the company.
According to Elwartowski, Ocean Builders didn’t liaise with the Thai government before the planned sale, and instead intended to wow officials with an impressive lineup of prospective buyers.
“We wanted to see if there was enough interest before going to the Thai government,” he told me. “The key was we needed to show them how much money we planned on bringing in for our project. We couldn't just go to them with the hopes of something happening. So we figured we would do the sale, see if there was enough interest then get started building with the permission of the Thai tourism authority and Board of Investment.”
Elwartowski said that he and Thepdet are now seeking safety and asylum.
“We just want to be alive somewhere not fleeing,” he told me. “I may be able to get to the US embassy but Nadia is Thai. She has to leave her family behind. Her son, her mom.”
If the pair do make it through, they may decide to leave seasteading behind and simply live peacefully in their new location, Elwartowski said.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.
It was supposed to be the “first seastead in international waters”—a small white box protruding from the waves off the coast of Phuket, Thailand, occupied by two would-be […]