The Outlaw Ocean Podcast

Episode 4

From the Sea, Freedom


Metal Clinking

Broadcaster #1: Seven miles out from the English coast in the North Sea stands a man-made island declared the sovereign state of Sealand by Roy Bates, its self-proclaimed Prince. Sealand with a wartime gun fortress. Then, Bates and his family acquired it by the simple expedient of stepping aboard and staying put.

Intense Music

Ian Urbina: On Christmas Eve, 1966, Roy Bates got into a speedboat, and he took the boat seven miles offshore and climbed aboard a World War II gunnery platform called Roughs.

Broadcaster #2: The name of the fort was Roughs Tower, one of several forts built to defend the Thames Estuary during the last war. Two were demolished after the war. Four remain derelict, and Roughs Tower, or Sealand, is alone inhabited.

Ian Urbina: Roy Bates throws a grappling hook up to the platform, forced his way up there and declares it his own. The British government were not so happy with this and told him to vacate the premises, and he essentially replied, “Bugger off.” And thus begins the story of the world's smallest independent nation.

Intense Music

Ian Urbina: Episode four. From the Sea, Freedom.

Water Moving

Ian Urbina: It's an odd quirk of maritime law that once you pass this invisible line and you enter international waters, the local governments, the nearshore governments, have no jurisdiction. And in much of my reporting have been focused on those folks who take advantage of this to go out there and do nefarious things, murder and dump and enslave and steal. But there's this other subgroup of characters that are using the loopholes in maritime law to do other things: to pursue their own political agendas, to address the problems that they see or opportunities that they want that aren't necessarily bad, but they are outside the reach of the law. When Roy Bates foisted himself onto Roughs and named it Sealand, this platform was outside of UK national waters. It was on the high seas. And so that really limited how much the British government could impose their will on him. Roy had the initial plan to operate a pirate radio station.

Roy Bates: Now that you're listening to Radio Caroline. The time is 20 minutes before the hour. The Late Late Show from Radio Caroline 199 on your dial. This is Radio Caroline on 199, England's first commercial radio station. (Indistinct) with you for the next 2 hours.

Rock Music

Ian Urbina: Pirate radio in these years essentially was born of this problem whereby BBC and the other official radio stations were only playing the stuff that young folk really wanted to hear late at night.

Broadcaster #3: By 1966, the pirates were operating 11 stations around the UK, four of them from ports in Britain’s estuary.

Broadcaster #4: Bates claims the station is now running 3o in Essex, for London and 39O and is optimistic about prospects.

Roy Bates: We're doing a job that's needed. The public wants us to do the job. And I think while this demand is here, we'll remain.

Rock Music

Ian Urbina: Bates wasn't joking around. You know, this wasn't a weekend gimmick. He had fought in the Spanish Civil War, having joined when he was just a teenager. He fought in World War II. He had been kidnaped and was a war prisoner for a while. He was among the youngest captains ever in the British military. So he was not someone who was timid about his ambitions. He intended to actually set this place up and stay there. And he did just that. He, you know, stocked it with whiskey and cans of tuna and tea and everything he needed and set up a system where supplies and food would be delivered once a week. And he began living out there and broadcasting his radio station from the platform.

Broadcaster #5: Sealand doesn't really have any land as such. It's a steel platform, standing 60 foot above the water on two hollow, concrete legs. Today, it's far from the rusting hulk the Navy abandoned in 1946. The original generators have been rebuilt, corridors painted, sleeping accommodation has been installed.

Harp Being Played

Ian Urbina: One night, he and some mates were sitting around and drinking and joking, and one of them observes that now Roy's wife, Joan, has her own island and how wonderful that is. And she responds, “It'd be so much better if it had some palm trees and its own flag.” And everyone laughs and continues with the evening. And Bates decides he's going to make real on that. And only weeks later, declares Roughs its own independent principality.

Broadcaster #6: He declared the 120 foot long steel platform, the nation of Sealand. When the British Navy sent a boat close by, Roy Bates' son Michael fired warning shots. Father and son were brought to court, but a judge who referred to this swashbuckling incident ruled that since Sealand lay seven nautical miles outside British waters, British courts had no jurisdiction. Bates took that as recognition. They called Sealand a principality which entailed less paperwork than a kingdom, created a flag, stamps, passports, and currency with Jones' arresting profile and a motto: E Mare Libertas. From the Sea, Freedom.

Harp Being Played

Reporter: Why did you do this?

Roy Bates: Well, I'm not very introspective, really, you know, and I never really looked for the reasons why I do a lot of it. I'm not sure if I was introspective, I wouldn't do anything because of some of the wild ideas I get and the things I do that are a little bit…I'm a, I suppose I'm a maverick. I do the unusual, and I enjoy doing the unusual. And these sort of things don't just tempt me, they attract me like a magnet. And I just have to do it. That’s all.

Mellow Music

Ian Urbina: Roy in personality is a polished and articulate rascal. You know, he's got this playful glint in his eye at all times, and you sense a tongue in cheek element to everything he does. And while he takes this project of his very seriously, he also is having a good time thumbing his nose at British sovereignty and government reach. The British government took it a little bit less in jest. And we know this now from recently declassified documents where you've got military officials worrying that in Sealand you have the potential for a sort of next Cuba, you know, this off coast out of reach nearshore to the UK that could be a launching point for attacks and all sorts of criminal or geopolitically worrisome behavior. Governments really like being in control and they don't like the loss of that control on the high seas. You know, the intellectual history of this idea has deep roots. You know, it goes back at least since 1870 when Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. People have dreamed of going to this offshore realm and colonizing it and making a new world.

Ethereal Music

Broadcaster #7: We have long sailed its surface and fished its deep, but at the very bottom is a land of undreamed of abundance. A whole new dimension of life for people of the future.

Classical Music

Ian Urbina: You've seen in the last 50 years alone, a lot of these types of characters, they're almost always steeped in Ayn Rand and Thomas Hobbes and very frequently are millionaires, are billionaires. And their goal, in some form or another, is to create a new society on the high seas. In the 1970s, you had this real estate baron, Michael Oliver, a millionaire who loaded some barges full of, you know, many tons of sand and transported it from the coast of Australia to Tonga and began building an island that he called the Nation of Minerva. And within months, Tonga sent troops to expel the occupants and remove his flag. Then in 1968, you had a guy named Warner Stifle, a wealthy libertarian. His vision involved a boat off the coast of Bahamas, just across the line in international waters. But the vision didn't last very long. The boat was sunk by a hurricane. More recently, a lot of these millionaires and billionaires have been .com types from Silicon Valley, and a lot of these types of ideologues coalesced into this organization called The Seasteading Institute, which is based in San Francisco and founded by Patri Friedman, who was a software engineer for Google, but also the grandson of Milton Friedman, the famous economist.

Patri Friedman: It would reopen the frontier so that pioneers with new notions for new nations could peacefully put them into practice. We could have evolution without revolution. And I invite you to join us.

Classical Music

Ian Urbina: This institute became a think tank, if you will, for this kind of vision. It got a huge infusion of money, over $1,000,000 from Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal.

Peter Thiel: The specific thing that I, I would hope would come out of it would be more scientific and technological progress that's too heavily regulated by the heavy hand of our existing state.

Ian Urbina: The Seasteading Institute would host annual conferences where they bring a lot of these folks together and trade ideas and fundraise and sort of scheme some new notion of how they might create this new society.


Unknown Man: So for a long time, the ocean has been solving a lot of our problems. It's been feeding civilizations. It's been connecting us one to another across the world. And now, today we ask that it solve one more pressing problem.

Ian Urbina: One of the brainchilds of the Seasteading Institute was startup called Blue Seed, and the idea of Blue Seed was to house immigrants who might otherwise not be able to get visas to work in the U.S.

Spokesperson: Blue Seed is creating a visa free technology incubator for startups 12 miles outside the coast of Silicon Valley on a ship. It is a place where entrepreneurs will be able to come from any part of the world and connect into Silicon Valley's ecosystem and create the companies and create the technologies of tomorrow.

Ian Urbina: Blue Sea didn't ultimately get off the ground. It never raised the capital it needed to succeed. And that's not actually an uncommon outcome to a lot of these schemes.

Water Rushing

Ian Urbina: On the one hand, the, the conditions at sea are brutal. And the salt water and the waves and the wind and the challenges faced just by the nature out there often spell doom for these plans. But then the other huge problem is a sort of modern sociological one, which is the very things that these folks tend to want to escape-taxes and governments and rules-are often very costly to recreate if you don't have a tax base, right? So, who's going to pave for the streets or police crimes or put out fires, bring in Internet and phone and protection and food and clean water and all these things are difficult to manage logistically? You know, taxes serve a purpose, and society has built up around governments for a reason, and that often becomes the fatal flaw of the plans.

Somber Music

Water Rushing

Ian Urbina: You know, Sealand, this platform that became the world's smallest micronation in 1968, still exists today and is a marvel, partially because virtually every other experiment of this sort through history has failed within a matter of years, and nonetheless Sealand is still going strong and still run by the same family.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: When I read about Sealand, I immediately wanted to go there. Who wouldn't? I mean, it was a chance to go through the looking glass and visit a place that had done what no other seasteader had, and so I began chasing the Bates family and begging them to let me visit. And eventually, they gave me permission and promised to take me out there. So, I flew to England to meet them in this tiny port town.

British Man #1: They've got all this fuel. Morning!

British Man #2: Just go out the front if you can.

[00:13:35] Ian Urbina: Michael and James Bates picked me up in this dual outboard motor speedboat one cold morning, and we rode out for a couple of hours in this insanely rough water to Sealand. We approached this strange mechanical dinosaur, looming on the horizon. As I neared it, I was shocked at how rusty everything looked and chipped the concrete pillars were. And you could hear it kind of a whole structure, groaning like a suspension bridge.

British Man #2: If you leave the bag in the boat, I'll come up with it. It's up to you.

Ian Urbina: How you entered the land of Sealand, which, you know, a couple hundred feet up in the sky, was this weird, long necked crane that swung out over the edge and lowered literally a wooden swing. And you climb on board, you sit there, and then the crane hoists you up three stories.

Unknown: Good job.

Ian Urbina: Yeah. All right, let me get…alright. You know, there's no seatbelt. There's no (laughs), I mean, this is the most unsafe and ridiculous way to enter this country imaginable. But it was so apropos to the rest of the experience.

Indistinct Chatter

Ian Urbina: Today, the citizenry of Sealand has dwindled to one. It's this guy named Michael Barrington who sits out there 24/7 by himself and keeps watch. And who, who passes out here? Mostly fishing boats or who?

Michael Barrington: Pilot boats every day.

Ian Urbina: Okay.

Michael Barrington: You got fishing boats as well. Apart from that, not a lot else.

Ian Urbina: Yeah. Barrington is this sort of jolly older guy who seemed happy to have a visitor, and the next thing he did is said, “Let's get you through customs.” And I remember staring at his face, waiting for him to crack a smile or give me any cue that it was safe for me to laugh and I got none.

Michael Barrington Where would you like your stamp? Anywhere?

Ian Urbina: Anywhere. Yeah, yeah. (Indistinct) Yeah. Yeah.

Michael Barrington: There you go.

Ian Urbina: Thank you.

Michael Barrington: Where do you want to go first, have a nice little look around?

Ian Urbina: You guys decide, I'll just follow. The first thing that happened was I was taken on a tour by Barrington around the facility. And, you know, it's important to think about what this place looks like. It's a platform, so think of maybe a helicopter pad that's the size of two tennis courts, and that sits atop two cement cylinders that are about 20 feet in diameter. And most of the rooms at Sealand are in those cylindrical legs, and most of those rooms are below the waterline.

Michael Barrington: So on the lowest of low water, this is underwater. I mean, we're underwater now. DO you want to flip the switch on?

Ian Urbina: We’re headed down.

Michael Barrington: Yeah. Are you going that way?

Ian Urbina: Nope.

Michael Barrington: She has dropped.

Ian Urbina: She's among the rooms are a chapel, which had a Koran and a Bible, and two bedrooms, a brig where people could be arrested with literally jail bars. Did you have these put on?

Michael Barrington: Yeah.

Ian Urbina: That’s great. Fully kitted out kitchen replete with appliances from the 1970s, and overall it just was this very dank, wet and creaky place.

Michael Barrington: If we had a case of treason to deal with, we would use this as a courtroom, as the jail’s down there, and we could have our vicar in there or whatever. So when we execute the bastard…(Ian Laughs)

British Man: Bloody weirder and weirder every floor it’s going down.

Ian Urbina: Yeah. Yeah. Seriously. (Ian Laughs). It was sort of a clubhouse, a tree house, but at sea, it was their special spot. Sure, it was rustic, you know, it was rugged. It was, it was a mess, but it was theirs. We sat down in the kitchen over some coffee, and I began listening to the lore of the place. And it just kept getting weirder and weirder.


Tense Music

Ian Urbina: First up was the story of this German diamond dealer last name Achenbach, who had a grand plan to convert Sealand and build an adjacent platform and create a sort of offshore resort casino, luxury hotel where, you know, they could do whatever they wanted. And Achenbach was very, very eager and serious about his plans, so much so that when he found the Bates family to be moving too slowly, he orchestrated an attempted coup. Achenbach invited Roy Bates to Austria for some sit down meetings to plan out their building ambitions. And while Roy was away from Sealand, Achenbach sent his lawyer by helicopter to Sealand.

Michael Barrington: These guys came up in a helicopter. I was here on my own. They came down the winch, I drove them away. One thing lead to another. I ended up being locked in a room for three or four days with no food or water.

Ian Urbina: So Roy gets back, realizes that Achenbach and the lawyer have taken over Sealand. Roy hires his own crew. A helicopter pilot flies them out. Roy and his crew take Sealand land back by force, and Roy Bates then takes the lawyer, puts him in the brig for two months, and begins this diplomatic standoff with the German government. From here, things only got weirder. You know, in 1997, famous designer Versace is murdered. The person who commits the murder takes over a boat and kills himself on the boat. And the police show up to that boat. They find hundreds of Sealand passports. Later that same year, police in Spain arrest a club owner, charging him with selling diluted gasoline. And in investigating him, they find that he had declared himself the diplomatic console for Sealand, and he produced a Sealand passport for which he was claiming diplomatic immunity. And what had happened was there turned out to be this website that had been selling Sealand passports. You know, it referred to itself as the government in exile of Sealand and servicing this supposed diaspora population of Sealand, citizens of which there were allegedly 160,000 people.

Tense Music

Indistinct Chatter

Ian Urbina: I asked the Bates family about the website and this whole weird chapter, and they said they knew nothing about it, and they had no role, and they took the selling of passports from Sealand very seriously and personally vetted anyone who was given citizenship. All right, so where are we now? Are these the servers?

Michael Barrington: Yes.

Speaker 2 During the tour, Michael became more animated as he talked about the more recent scheme of this century, which was to create this company called Haven Co., essentially meant to be this offshore server farm.

Broadcaster #8: Sealand is embracing a radical new lease of life as a controversial Internet venture. Down in one of the concrete pillars hums a batch of computer servers.

Michael Barrington: But the whole object of the exercise is the people that want to keep their data secure from hackers or commercial intervention or even government intervention can store data, run their businesses without being snooped on, exchange financial information without being snooped on. But I mean, we have to…

Ian Urbina: You know, I asked Bates whether he would take all clients, and he said, quote, “We have our limits.” And he said they, they would not take clients who were engaged in child porn or corporate cyber sabotage.

Prince Michael: So we can't have pedophiles. Can’t have child porn, kiddie porn.

Ian Urbina: Right, right.

Prince Michael: Can’t have terrorism.

Ian Urbina: Right.

Prince Michael: If you want to act, if you want to be a country, you’ve got to act like a country, and acting like a country involves a bit of morale, right?

Ian Urbina: Right. And any fugitives or like Snowden types ever try?

James Bates: Well, we had people who wanted to get Snowden out.

Prince Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ian Urbina: That’s what I was thinking. This would be a perfect place.

Prince Michael: And the other fellow. What’s his name?

Ian Urbina: Yeah, Assange.

Prince Michael: Yeah. Julian Assange.

Ian Urbina: Have they been in touch?

Prince Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Ian Urbina: They were posing the idea of trying to move Julian Assange, the the founder of WikiLeaks, to to sort of protect him extrajudicially, and Bates kindly declined them too, saying that, quote, “They were releasing more than I felt comfortable with.”

Prince Michael: Originally, I thought it was a cool idea. But, but it's not because he left too much information about our own military tactics and everything else. The American and British military tactics. That's, that's, that's treasonous, you know.

James Bates: We've got a duty to the international community.

Prince Michael: We have a duty to the international community.

James Bates: You and I have got some funny memories…

Ian Urbina: The Bates family teamed up with a bunch of tech types who had this elaborate plan to protect the servers so extremely that not only would they have armed guards that would prevent hostile takeovers or governments sending troops, but they would even fill the server room with nitrogen so that no person who didn't have breathing equipment, you know, oxygen tanks, could even enter those rooms. So there was this elaborate sort of marketing campaign around just how secure, safe and out of reach Haven Co. would be. But again, as is the case on so many of these sort of seasteading stories, the reality of running something offshore became overwhelming. You know, the Internet kept dipping in and out because they were so far offshore, and they were having you satellite link ups. They had power problems and fuel shortages because they were relying on generators. Ultimately, the whole thing fell to pieces.

Prince Michael: And then just when the Internet bubble burst and the Russian Federation broke down and kind of killed that.

Mellow Music

Ian Urbina: To the extent that Sealand is financed at all these days, it's a paltry sum that it earns from online sales at its digital shopping mall, where it sells mugs, Sealand mugs, for £9 and titles of nobility for £29. Occasionally, they also rent out the facility for bands that are performing music videos or the occasional wedding out there. But generally speaking, it's, it's sort of a shadow of its former self.

Harp Being Played


Water Moving Gently

Ian Urbina: At this point in reporting, I had been offshore for too many months, you know, almost a year traveling the world. And I was emotionally and otherwise worn out. And I was really hungry for a story with a different sort of emotional valence, something that was a bit more inspiring. I was fascinated by the way the Sealand story embodied this idea that the sea is a metaphor for freedom. But I wanted to find someone who was using the freedom of the seas to escape laws viewed as oppressive and tyrannical, someone who was in their own world view pursuing good. And I found all that in Rebecca Gomperts.

Rebecca Gompert: My name is Rebecca Gomperts. I'm a medical doctor, and I'm the founder of Women on Waves, and Woman on Waves is a Dutch nonprofit organization with the goal to make sure that women around the world have access to safe and legal abortions.

News Reporter #1: Women on Waves has for more than ten years provided abortions and contraception to women who live in countries where terminating pregnancy is illegal or restricted. The organization was set up by Dutch doctor Rebecca Gomperts, who hires a ship registered under Dutch law and sails into international waters to provide abortion.

Rebecca Gomperts: How it works is that Women on Waves will rent a ship, go to a country where abortion is not allowed, where it's illegal. We sail into the harbor There, we can take women on board. We're sailing to international waters, and international waters is 12 miles outside the coast, and in international waters, the local laws don't apply anymore. And it's only the laws of the sea.

Somber Music

Ian Urbina: Once they cross into international waters, this legal switch flips whereby the new jurisdiction, the new laws that apply on the vessel, are the laws of the flag flown by that vessel.

Rebecca Gomperts: When we sailed out the first times, we had a Dutch ship. So it was the Dutch laws that applied to board the Dutch ship. And that meant that women who came with us to international waters, we could safely give them the abortion pills where they swallowed it in the international waters, and then a few hours later we sailed back. So, we were never out more than a few hours. And that was how it worked legally.

Somber Music

Ian Urbina: Women on Waves had been doing this kind of work for nearly a decade. They had gone to Guatemala, Ireland, Poland, Morocco and a half dozen other countries where abortions are illegal and dangerous. They're seeking to use a loophole in maritime law to remove the state from being an intermediary that makes a decision over the woman's body. Because they view this decision as a health decision, not a moral or religious decision. The basic philosophy is harm reduction.

Rebecca Gomperts: When a country makes abortion illegal, it doesn't stop any women from seeking an abortion. Women that have the money, they can always travel to another country where abortion is legal to get a legal, safe abortion. The poor women that don't have these resources, cannot. What it does, it's making her take risk, health risk, and her life risk in order to get it. When I started, Women on Waves, at that time was about 120,000 women per year were dying as a result of unsafe abortion.

Northern Irish Woman: The efforts to legalize abortion here in Northern Ireland, it's a woman's right to protect her health and to choose her life. She is the one that will be putting her life at risk.

Cheering and Clapping

Rebecca Gomperts: The Women on Waves campaign to Poland, which was in 2003, was actually the first time that we were able to help women on board a ship. And it was also the first time that we really encountered fierce opposition.

Aggressive Shouting

Rebecca Gomperts: Watch out! There, there, they can’t go in the back. We have to go back because we don’t want them to jump on. We don’t want them to predict on the ship. Give me the rope.

News Reporter #2: When the abortion boat, as it's called here, first pulled into a Polish port last week, protesters threw paintballs and tomatoes as it motored into what is (indistinct) Saturday from its second run out to international waters. Pro-Life activists yelled “Murderers,” and “Feminism equals Communism” from a jetty across the water.


Rebecca Gomperts: Watch out! Where is the security? Get those guys.

Crowd Chanting: Welcome Nazis!

Ian Urbina: In Ireland, the ship faced bomb threats. And in Morocco, an angry mob accosted Gomperts’ crew. In Spain, some advocates, some anti-abortion advocates attempted to actually tow the boat out of port forcefully until Gomperts cut their rope. So the reaction is quite fierce.

Broadcaster #10: The boat's arrival, about 100 kilometers south of Guatemala's capital, provoked anger among several Christian organizations.

Guatemalan Woman Speaking Spanish

Broadcaster #11: This anti-abortion activist said, “It's a sin. Why don't you go to Holland and kill children over there? Why come to Guatemala? We're already cursed enough.”

Rebecca Gomperts: You know, every time that we sailed out, we were called to the police station and we were questioned by the police. And so what we always said is, “Well, we sailed out. We gave sexual education while we were on the way to international waters. And what happened in international waters, it's none of your business anymore. That's the Dutch government. So if you want to have any questions about it, you will have to discuss this with the Dutch government.”

Ian Urbina: Normally, after running a couple of missions quietly, Women on Waves then holds a press conference and tells the media and the government what they've been doing and, and that they plan on doing it again. And the point there is to raise awareness, to grab attention, to show the inanity of these laws and the sort of human consequences of them. And then also to see if the government is going to attempt to stop them on their next mission out, which often they do.

Rebecca Gomperts: For the strategy of Women on Waves, the media is essential. It's extremely important because it allows the debate in these countries to open up and to show another reality, that it's actually the reality in other countries is different, that it's a human rights, and that making abortion illegal is harming women. And that is a reality that are normally not presented by the mainstream media, and the ship gives the possibility to do that, to reframe the topic. So, for example, during the campaign in Portugal, the abortions boat was stopped by warships. It couldn't enter Portugal because the Minister of Defense had said that we were a threat to national security.

Chatter over Loudspeaker

Rebecca Gomperts: We decided that we had to do something to counter these quite aggressive acts from the Portuguese government. And in Portugal at that time, a medicine called Artotec, which contains misoprostol, which really works very well to induce an abortion as well by itself, was available over the counter in most of the pharmacies, but many people didn't know about it. Actually, nobody knew about it. And so we decided that I will take the box of this medicine, and I will explain on the public television that women can actually go to the pharmacy to buy this medicine and how they can use it.

Man Speaking in Portuguese

Rebecca Gomperts: And what happened is that the next days, the hotlines were overwhelmed with phone calls by women who had seen the talk show, run to the pharmacy, bought the medicines, and said, “Now how do I use it?” So it actually created change public opinion. And two years later, abortion was legalized in Portugal.

Wind Swirling

Birds Chirping

Ian Urbina: What does capacity look like?

Rebecca Gomperts: You cannot come.

Ian Urbina: Okay. We’ll be small in our…

Rebecca Gomperts: Yeah, yeah. Okay. Yeah.

Ian Urbina: I flew down to a place called Ixtapa, Mexico, a small port in the state of Guerrero. And the goal was to quietly go there, to meet up with Rebecca and her team. The vessel would be brought into port. We would wait until the young women who were being assisted were onboarded, and then we would head out for the first stage of the mission to high seas.

Rebecca Gomperts: I think we'd have to take off these banners because there was a guy from the harbor who said we cannot film here without permission. I don't want to have problems now. And he has to stop filming now. Yeah.

Ian Urbina: Rebecca is a fascinating character to meet her in person. She's so mission-focused that the possibility of being killed, being incarcerated, being disappeared doesn't seem to matter a whole lot for her.

Rebecca Gomperts: In Mexico, we were invited by a women's rights organization called RIRE to one of the states that has one of the most restrictive abortion laws. And the women's groups were quite nervous because it's also one of the states where there's a lot of narco traffic. And they were kind of nervous that the narco bosses might turn against the ship or not be supportive. There was quite a lot of nervousness about that. Yeah.


Woman Speaking in Spanish

Rebecca Gomperts: So the first thing we did when the boat was in Mexico, because of our experience in Portugal, we had learned that it's best for the ship to be there already before we announce it in the press conference.

Woman Speaking in Spanish

Ian Urbina: At the press conference, Rebecca did two things. One, she told everyone that she had just the day before engaged in her first mission, taken young women out to sea, and administered an abortion. And number two, she told the public that she planned on doing the same again on the second mission the next day.

Woman Speaking Spanish


Man Speaking Spanish

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: For context here, it's important to remember that Mexico is a Roman Catholic stronghold and has been for centuries. Abortion is illegal throughout most of Mexico and criminally prosecuted, and this prohibition is so aggressively enforced that, you know, hospitals are expected to report suspicious miscarriages to the police just as they might gunshot wounds. You know, think about the reaction here, and you had a foreigner who was a female who under the nose of this police state, essentially Guerrero and all these cops had come into port and done this thing that was deeply offensive. You know, this was an affront on so many different levels and really irked both the state government, the local officials, as well as the federal government.

Ominous Music

I wanted to talk with a local health official to get their reaction after the press conference. So, I called them and their response was, “We think what she's done is illegal, but we're still collecting details.” Hours later, these same officials called Gomperts and the sort of weaponizing of maritime bureaucracy had begun.

Tense Music

Rebecca Gomperts: We were called by the harbor authorities for questioning. And one of the reasons was that they said that the crew had used a tourism visa to come in instead of saying that they were there for a job, doing work visas. So we understood that they were trying to stop the ship from sailing out and coming back. And so we had a huge argument with them about it. And we looked into all the legal documents and in the end, we just agreed to disagree.

Ian Urbina: The bureaucrats then said that, well, she couldn't leave port because of bad weather. She quickly pointed out, quite rightly, that plenty of other ships, including some smaller, were still leaving port unobstructed. And so sure, that jujitsu, hand-to-hand combat went like that until ultimately Rebecca won and was able to leave port on her next mission. But all the while, realizing that there was a ticking clock on her before the next obstacle was thrown in her path.

Tense Music

Indistinct Chatter

Rebecca Gomperts: We're going now, you can go and…

Male Women on Waves Crew Member: We can go now?

Female Women on Waves Crew Member: Yeah. Okay. I'm going to go up to the front.

Male Women on Waves Crew Member: Roll out.

Ian Urbina: On the mission out, there were two young women who had been assisted to get across the country and quietly and anonymously. And they made it to the ship. The ship was then planning on leaving port quickly because there was real worry that local police were going to at any moment figure out what was going on and stop the mission.

Female Women on Waves Crew Member: It's clear back there, right?

Indistinct Chatter

Male Women on Waves Crew Member and Rebecca Gomperts: Let’s go!

Unknown Woman: Goodbye!

Rebecca Gomperts: Hope to see you! Back.

Ian Urbina: At this point, I'm trying to be unusually quiet and invisible because I'm truly an outsider in this context, and I'm trying not to take up much space or attention, but I'm also just fixated on the dynamic of Rebecca and how nervous and intense and driven she is to make sure that they can get these women out to sea. The weather was terrible on that particular day, and so the window to get the ship out was really tight.

Rebecca Gomperts: Can you steer?

Male Women on Waves Crew Member: Yeah.

Rebecca Gomperts: Because you are very tired.

Male Women on Waves Crew Member: Eh.

Rebecca Gomperts: Okay, go, go.

Loud Cracking Noise and Rebecca Gomperts Shouting

Rebecca Gomperts: Wow. Not good. Not good at all. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

Ian Urbina: You know, we nearly ran ashore twice and ran aground once in the effort, but finally we made it out of port. We make it past the waves, and the adrenaline of that began to subside. And with that, descended upon us this silence on the ship.

Boat Engine Humming and Birds Squawking

Rebecca Gomperts: See that? Can you read what's on the GPS for me? Yes? Turn it around? The position on the GPS is 5500949. Okay. I’ll film the GPS again.

Ian Urbina: We crossed the line, and Rebecca quietly came up onto deck and shot a look to one of the two young women we were carrying. And they went to this quiet room below deck. And there Dr. Gomperts did what doctors do.

Rebecca Gomperts Okay. Can you please sit here?

Cabinets Opening, Heels Clicking on Floor, and Tools Clanging

Rebecca Gomperts: My role as the doctor is to make sure that she has an unwanted pregnancy, that she's taking the decision to end the pregnancy, free will. I make an ultrasound to make sure that she's not pregnant too long and that she can still use the pills, which was, of course, the case. And I make sure that she understands how it works. She was fine, and she understood, and she was very relieved to be able to do this. And now she swallowed the pill.

Light Music

Woman Speaking Spanish

Translation of Woman Speaking Spanish: I met Women on Waves because I saw a documentary of them on Netflix called Vessel. I found out on Monday that I was pregnant and yesterday I decided I wanted to come on the boat. I think the boat shows the absurdity of the laws and the absurdity of being lucky to be in one place and not another where you can have access to the rights you deserve.

Rebecca Gomperts: And then we sailed back. And when we enter the harbor again, we said we are here again. And that was it.

Water Flowing and Ethereal Music

Ian Urbina: I asked Rebecca whether she viewed herself as an outlaw, and I expected her to give me an unqualified yes. But that's not what I heard. What she said was, no, she doesn't view herself as an outlaw. She views herself as an artist for whom the art is to find exactly where that loophole is in the law and to gracefully navigate through it, not to break the law, but rather to respect and find its nuances. And that was her art.

Rebecca Gomperts: We are not going into sea to break any laws. It's using the discrepancies between the different legal realities and laws. The interesting thing is that for profit companies around the world, that's all they do. They have all these companies set up in all these islands and different states in order to comply with one law, but not with the tax laws of other countries. And in a sense, Women on Waves is doing the same thing, but to further human rights. So, no, I don't think of myself as an outlaw. I am a legal loophole. That's what I am.

Ethereal Music and Birds Squawking

Upbeat Music

broadcaster #12: Mr. and Mrs. Bates and their teenage son and daughter have great plans for the island fortress. Their notion of an independent state has vast commercial potential. It has been ruled in court that Sealand is outside British territorial waters. So, thumbing a nose at the mainland, each morning, the Sealand flag is raised high above the lonely little land.

Upbeat Music

Thunder, Rain, and a Harp Being Played

Ian Urbina: You can't find two organizations and two people that are more different than Women on Waves and Sealand or Rebecca Gomperts and Roy Bates. I mean, in Women on Waves, you have a mission that is aimed at helping other people. And then in SeaLand, on the other hand, and in Roy Bates, you have a project that is largely self-serving. You know, it's really not making a point to the world. It's really not for the betterment of anyone else. It's just driven by this sort of libertarian individualism and directed by this guy who has lots of charm and ingenuity and daring and also a big ego. But what they have in common is this deeply independent inner voice. And this independent mindedness is something that I've noticed or is unusually common out at sea.

Harp Being Played

Water Flowing

Ian Urbina: There is a long, deep tradition of people viewing the sea as the epitome of freedom and opportunity, and specifically of opportunity to get away from tyrannical governments. You know, the idea of Women on Waves is not unlike the idea that the Bates family had with Sealand, and that was to take advantage of the freedom of the seas to do what they wanted. I don't know whether it's that people are made more independent-minded by being out there or whether independent-minded people end up going out there or both. But it certainly is overrepresented offshore.

Water Rushing and Eerie Music

Ian Urbina: I think one of the most defining features of the experience of being offshore is the grappling with silence and solitude. And if you really want to get a feel for why seafarers talk a certain way or interact a certain way, what is both corrosive and addictive about the sea experience, then you really have to reckon with and experience firsthand that silence.

Water Rushing

Ian Urbina: One mariner said to me, you know, “You get very good at talking to yourself at sea.” Another seafarer described the inner voice that you cultivate at sea as soul whispers. I think that's what causes folks to have to feel less dependent on other people and more invested in their own thoughts. And that fertilizes, if you will, this independent mindedness.

Ominous Music

Rebecca Gomperts: It's absolutely true that people that have been at sea for a long time, they are very different from people that have never been at sea. There will always be this love relationship and longing back to this place. At a boat, in the middle of nowhere. And to find that overwhelming sense of, of nothingness.

Distant Waves Crashing and Birds Squawking

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: There's one quote that really stuck with me from Ernest Shackleton. He wrote, “Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure. Some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others, again, are drawn away from the trodden paths by the lure of little voices: the mysterious fascination of the unknown.”

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: This is the soul whispers that that other mariner had mentioned. It's this inner conversation, these little voices that you allow to speak to you in your head when you're out there. And, and they're really alluring. You go out there pursuing this metaphor of freedom, and I think when you are in the space, you're immersed in the reality of it. You quickly realize it's not just a notion or an idea. It's actually the freedom is a lived experience. I think this instinct for escape and adventure has been in our DNA for millennia, and you don't find it anywhere more on display than on the outlaw ocean.

Intense Music

Wind Whistling

Pensive Music


VO: On the next episode of The Outlaw Ocean…

Speaker 6 We've seen so many vessels chasing so few fish, and these depleted stocks mean that in the future, local fishermen are going to miss out.

Speaker 5 One European vessel fishing off West Africa can take as much in one month as 7000 local fishermen catch in a year.

Speaker 4 In all countries of the world, we have wiped out 90% of the big fish, and that is very hard for people to conceive.

Speaker 4 Basically, industrial fishing is vacuuming the ocean.


From CBC Podcasts and the LA Times, this series is created and produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project.

It’s reported and hosted by me, Ian Urbina. Written and produced by Ryan Ffrench. Editing and sound design by Michael Ward. Sound recording by Tony Fowler. Our associate producer is Margaret Parsons. Additional production by Joe Galvin and Marcella Boehler.

This episode features music by: Himuro Yoshiteru, Patricia Spero, Appleblim, Ben Walter, Smoke Trees, Stoneface & Terminal, Antarctic Wastelands, Good Weather for an Airstrike, Jai-Jagdeesh, Melorman, and Manuel Zito.

Their music is available online at The Outlaw Ocean Music Project website and wherever you stream music. Please check out their work.

Additional music by Skot Coatsworth, Britt Brady, Matthew Stephens, Gammatone, and Fábio Nascimento.