The Bitcoin billionaires and a boat: a crypto utopia on the sea
In the autumn of 2020, this author spotted an unusual sight: a cruise ship in drydock in Gibraltar. It was rare enough given what the rather rough year it had been for the cruise industry. But this vessel was rarer still. Its hull was emblazoned with the Bitcoin symbol and the name ‘Satoshi’. Could it be that the famously secretive Bitcoin creator had come out of hiding and decided to travel the world in style?
Not quite. Instead, this Bitcoin cruise ship has a fascinating story all of its own, one intimately bound with the philosophy of cryptocurrency and the radical ideas of financial and political freedom behind it.
Have you ever dreamed of starting your own country? Getting away from taxes, bureaucracy and oppressive laws to start anew with a small community of your peers? For a certain type of person, this sounds ideal, but you won’t find much unclaimed land in the modern world to start your new utopia. Then again, most of the planet is covered in water…
The concept of seasteading, or founding independent communities of floating cities — effectively fleets of dwellings that existed outside of countries where homesteads could ‘vote with their house’ whether to belong to the community or join another — became popular among some Silicon Valley libertarians in the last two decades.
This idea of political freedom on the seas always had an economic element. It’s not for nothing that the word ‘offshore’ is a loaded term in financial circles. So, it comes as no surprise that cryptocurrency fans, who venture forth from the same tech-savvy world with a similar desire to escape the overreach of banks and governments, would also become interested in seasteading.
Grant Romundt, Rüdiger Koch and Chad Elwartowski were three crypto investors who had made their fortunes as early tech entrepreneurs. In 2020, they tried to make the seasteading dream come true when they bought the Pacific Dawn, a 245-metre-long cruise ship that the trio snapped up at a relative steal thanks to the decline of the cruise industry during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These enterprising crypto billionaires planned to sail the ship to Panama, where it would form a floating community just off the coastline. This sea society would trade only in cryptocurrencies, pay no tax and become the centre of a new way of life that others could attach their own floating homes to. The founders hoped to attract other tech-savvy digital nomads who were innovators in the tech world: startup founders, remote tech workers, crypto traders, miners, etc.
The Pacific Dawn was renamed the MS Satoshi in tribute to Satoshi Nakamoto, the handle used by Bitcoin’s mysterious inventor. While many nations would be (and have been) hostile to independent tax-evading seasteads near their territory, the government of Panama even welcomed the proposal, with the Ministry of Tourism touting that it would attract visitors to appreciate the country’s coastline.
It’s been almost a year since the plan was set into motion, so what happened? The sad news is that, even if living a tax-free life in the tropics on a permanent cruise ship with fellow crypto traders sounds like paradise, you probably shouldn’t rush to buy a cabin.
Initially, the MS Satoshi attracted considerable interest from libertarian-minded individuals who wished to either contribute to the project or rent one of the ship’s 777 cabins to reside on it. Monthly rent ranged from $570 a month for cabins with no windows to $719 per month for cabins with a balcony. Electricity and connectivity had been arranged and would scale up with individual users so that residents with power-hungry mining rigs would pay their fair share.
However, there are many practicalities of day-to-day life at sea that cause concerns for potential investors. A cruise holiday may be entertaining for a week or so, but every day? There were no personal cooking facilities, just the ship’s restaurant (which offered a 20% discount for residents). Microwaves were not allowed in cabins for safety reasons. Pet regulations were strict and impractical. And that’s to say nothing of seasickness.
Koch and Co. also discovered that even the ocean was not free of legal red tape; efforts to have the ship re-registered as a stationary residence failed, and the costs of properly maintaining a cruise ship month-to-month started to add up. Finally, there was the issue of waste management. Even the indulgent nation of Panama wouldn’t allow the dumping of waste in their blue waters so beloved by tourists. Instead, the Satoshi would have to make a 12-mile journey every 20 days or so to dump the unusable sewage into international waters.
For the complete story of the MS Satoshi, we recommend this longer article in The Guardian that details all the problems and personalities involved. In the end, the hurdles were too many, and the trio realised that the project was just not going to work out. By Christmas 2020, owner Romundt enjoyed a last hurrah on the cruise ship before he and his colleagues sold the vessel.
Although the MS Satoshi project didn’t succeed, the story still inspires crypto enthusiasts who wish to use their wealth to bring to life their radical dreams of independence and new ways of living. It also serves as a cautionary tale for investors to do thorough research before embarking on any enterprise.
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