Cartoon from The Independent
After the back-breaking loading of supplies and essentials onto the boat – an unsung and frequently forgotten and vital activity synonymous with the operational success of the Principality – we were soon underway. Once out of harbour limits, the skipper raised the revs to get the ship up to a nose-bleeding speed of around 12 knots. Actually, with some water boiling for an early morning enamel mug of tea and some fish-paste sandwiches at the ready, the scene was set for a most relaxing and well paced voyage into the imminent sunrise.
I would however venture to aver that a degree of anxiety was creeping in on me; that associated to the fact that the diminishing coastline behind me would not be home for some time. Although I was quite familiar with the fortress, I felt I was sailing to the unknown. Sealand’s duty engineer was contacted by radio; affirmative confirmation came back that all was ready for our imminent arrival at around 07.30 UTC. The sun had risen beautifully into a now clear sky.
As usual for any such trip, the goods to be craned upwards were sorted into logical groups and into very heavy-duty ex-rubble sacks with eye hooks. Within two hours of setting sail, we were alongside the fort and the chain was already near the waterline with an eager Sealander up at the controls peering over the edge.
My previous article on this website described in some detail the trials and tribulations of ascending ones self and belongings (and other goods) up on to the fortress, so I won’t go into that again here.
After exchanging the usual arrival pleasantries with those out there who were already awake, I had more tea and more breakfast, this time a cooked one. As I watched my marine taxi burble away towards Holland, I felt an intractable sense of isolation in the knowledge that – this time – the boat would not return that day.
If only to divert my mind from the fact that my family, business and possessions were now 12.2 inaccessible nautical miles away, as the crow flies, on the arable green green grass of home within the horizon still visible, I wanted to crack on with my work there in this place on stilts that magically refused to pitch & roll even in a brisk high sea.
Off “The Row” and down inside the bowels of the south leg, the ubiquitous flashing blue lights of Servers and associated equipment in these still very clinical rooms was at odds with the exterior impression of the Principality. A classic case of, “never judge a book by its cover”. Paperwork connected to my tasks was abundant with headings that underlined the omnipotent hegemony of the hierarchy of Sealand.
My commission involved the garnering and writing of technical and communications modules in furtherance of the Principalities continuous improvement in day-to-day and future operations. Please excuse my being somewhat reticent and secretive on this, but I’ll leave it at that! However, it all had to be done correctly, so as to avoid my being excoriated from a high level later.
With a remit to complete the work sooner rather than later, coupled with my desire to appease Sealand’s Royals in the hope of future land-based commissions, I went flat-out and time flew. The two other guys involved in the project joined me around noon, their excuse for the tardiness of their arrival at the desk being their long hours the previous day on the same engagement, and in pursuit of the same outcome.
There followed a few days of almost symmetrical and rhythmic routine: to rise (with a torch, just in case) from a comfortable bed situated mid way down in the north leg; to the shower for a wash & shave; to the kitchen (some die-hards prefer “galley”) for a self-catering breakfast or brunch; down into the office again for another stint; late lunch back upstairs; further development work into the early evening; then to devour a substantial dinner that my grandmother would have been proud of. After which, time to fall apart in the lounge to watch the news and other stuff on TV; phone or Skype home; and perhaps spend half an hour on the exercise bike down below.
By the third day though, as I gazed at the hazy UK coastline for the probably the 1,000th time I was naturally feeling exceedingly amorous, to the point that even a passing seagull became attractive.
The other two guys beavering away alongside me on this project – an Italian called Guido Lantaccini and a Dutch chap known simply as “Hans De PC” – were both of an introverted disposition yet pleasant enough; probably a reason why we finished more quickly than planned.
If anything though, my bête noir while out there was the isolation from my family and a wide range of other people over time; but this was something I predicted, having been at sea for short periods before, albeit on a ship.
With alcohol officially banned (and therefore out of bounds for this brief article) I found myself starting to smoke more (tobacco that is), especially as the job in hand concluded early. In the previous four or five days, the weather around Sealand was a bit variable but – as far as I know there were no serious storms. If there was bad weather, I didn’t hear about it from the support and security staff; and I wouldn’t necessarily have witnessed any rough weather personally while down in either of the legs anyway. All I could hear when I went to bed was the lapping of the waves against the thick cylindrical wall.
My innate desire to go home soon became quite aggravating. By the ninth day, I was enquiring of the regular Sealanders at nuisance frequency as to the weather forecast for the next 48 hours to gear myself up for the departure home. My family were initially glad I was out of their hair for a while; now they simply wanted me back!
The last day was spent relaxing and being outside as much as possible, although it was too cold to stay out for very long. The last night there for us was celebrated surreptitiously with – dare I say it – some Japanese rice wine and a lovingly prepared Beef Bourguignon with all the trimmings, before retiring to the living room to watch a clutch of “movies”, mostly with blue titles.
The last night was not an easy one for some reason. Sleep didn’t come naturally, even in the quiet of the north leg. As I listened to the “splash splash” of the ocean against the fort and wondering if the weather would suddenly blow up thus preventing a departure back to rustic terra firma, I was anxious about not waking in time for the scheduled 08.00hrs UTC tender departure, in spite of three alarms clocks being set for 06.00 – one on my watch, one on my portable shortwave radio (which obviously didn’t function in the bedroom) and one on my MP4 player.
I drifted into a shallow slumber for what was probably about an hour before the inevitable deafening bleeps of the alarms. I switched on the light. No light. So I turned on the torch, gathered my odds & ends and made my way slowly and carefully upstairs. The galley was already populated with Guido and Hans (who would be coming off with me; plus the ever faithful Michael Barrington and the gorgeous aroma of sausage & eggs he was cooking. A kettle containing bottled water was boiling away on the propane stove as the marine band radio crackled into life with the skipper calling Michael with his position and ETA at the fortress. Following Michael’s brief reply, it became apparent that the boat was situated roughly an hour away to the north of the fort, engaged in the last knockings of an overnight fishing trip, and was waiting for dawn to break before coming alongside to collect the three of us.
Looking outside, the sea was slight, visibility moderate and the wind apparently was a SW 2 or 3; so, not too bad at all.
As dawn broke in earnest, the pleasant yet vociferous banter between us was broken by radio contact from the boat again: “20 minutes!”.
Gathering our belongings and other material and equipment for the UK outside on the “deck” we could soon see the dot that was to be our sea taxi home. And before we knew it, slightly earlier than planned, we were lowered with meticulous accuracy onto the fishing vessel after the goods went down and we turned for port.
After a cursory wave to Mr. Barrington and in feeling very jaded already by this time, I drank the coffee on the voyage back with gusto, a cigarette somehow helping me stay alert. The skipper’s catch was a significant bounty of crab and lobster which would be prepared and attended to on the way home by his small crew. A cellular phone call to home from the North Sea would ensure the arrival of my road transport home.
By the time we arrived into Harwich there was a light drizzle; the quayside was unusually quiet, but then again it was February and it was cold. My car, with my wife at the wheel, met me nearby and we were soon on our way to the pub; well it was nearly 11.00hrs.
Once back in my regular environment, it was time to reflect once more, but this time on what was a very satisfying trip to a place that – if nothing else – teaches the Human Being a respect for the natural elements and to view the stresses of everyday life with a healthy perspective AND from a distance!
“HIGH TIDE AND GREEN GRASS”
It’s all very well taking a day trip to Sealand – with prior permission and vetting of course. A relatively simple and brief day-visit enables one to witness a few hours of marine brouhaha, coupled with a brief (yet often mind-boggling) exploration of this unique man-made micro country and to experience for one’s self what it’s actually like to physically be there - and to ponder over the war time and subsequent dramas that previously blighted the place.
And then, to sail back to a European mainland port to enjoy the “normalities” of the pub, restaurant, transport systems and other home comforts of everyday life.
Yet to stay in Sealand for a longer period presents an altogether different mind-set of challenges and perspectives; indeed, a different paradigm of emotional survival, isolation and communication. For all the down sides of being so remote from the pace of regular life, a longer stay on the fortress can afford one the opportunity to absorb a unique calm that would otherwise not be so readily accessible on terra firma.
While being forever mindful that Sealand is not for everyone and the fact that some wartime personnel serving on the ex-Navy fort actually went berserk very quickly out there, it can also be a time to reflect, introspect and exercise a higher plain of spiritual and other awareness, while getting on with the job in hand without too many distractions.
It’s a place that’s obviously so near yet so far away from the lure of the land. To coin the poignant lyrics of the rock star Alice Cooper in his song about a beautiful lady that was in sight yet out of reach: “You might as well be on Mars”.
Before describing my own personal thrills, fears and challenges about an elongated spell in Sealand, it’s worth mentioning en passant that – following my countless short out and back visits to the Principality from the mid-90’s of the last century to the present day (chiefly assisting in a diverse range of issues to do with communications, promotion and media projects) – as an active Sealander, the time inevitably came for me to be needed there for a longer spell, due to the logistics of what I was specifically needed there for.
At this juncture (and as many official visitors to Sealand will relate to) one of my previous day trips nearly ended in my being stranded there for what would have been at least four days or more: on one particular occasion, not so long ago, after being deposited on the fort, and as the tender boat wallowed impetuously away, the intervening five hours saw a significant change in the behaviour of the natural elements. The ebb wind-over-tide blew up into a swell, with very apparent strong schizophrenic currents.
Further, the wind altered from a SSW 3 to a NE 6 or 7 in what seemed like 15 minutes; the light faded; it started to drizzle; the UK coastline completely disappeared from view; the thick black clouds flashed with a rampant exchange of sheet lightening; and I suddenly wanted my mum! Great. Just what you need when being required in London for an important meeting at 10.00hrs the following morning!
As luck would have it on that occasion though, the regular tender skipper was on his usual top-class form and got wind (no pun intended) of the impending barometric catastrophe early enough (just) and so set sail at blistering speed from his fishing anchorage near Dutch waters in time to pluck me and one other brave soul at that time off the fort before things got too silly.
Soon, while the Bosun’s chair was lowered in what later developed into a suicidal hurricane, it was only the adroit dexterity of the tender skipper and the skill of the Sealander controlling the winch that indubitably saved the day for us in trying to get home, as the boat bobbed fifty feet below us like a champagne cork in a pan of boiling water. It all felt a bit like that 1960’s TV game show “The Golden Shot” with Bob Monkhouse: “left a bit; right a bit; right a bit more; FIRE!” – or JUMP! In this case, it has to be said on to the WRONG place in the boat – but at least it was IN the boat and not the ocean!
Boy, were we glad; but the combination of the stench of diesel fumes from an overworked marine engine, the sea with it’s “white horses” and the reek of freshly caught shellfish didn’t make for the best open air voyage back to Felixstowe (UK) on that rather sinister afternoon.
In fact another half an hour and the weather and sea blew up to such a ghastly pitch that there would have been no way of attempting a Sealand departure that day. It was a Tuesday and the very low pressure and dreadful weather, that came much more quickly than originally expected, lasted until the Saturday.
However, I digress. Yet what I have just written is pertinent in setting the risk-scene (if you like) to the main thrust of this brief article, vis-à-vis the experiences encountered through a longer stay: With a known requirement for me to be in Sealand for between 7 to 10 days one February, also not so very long ago, I set about planning the personal needs for a never-done-before longer stint on this now internationally famous remote man-made fortress.
I had a propensity for a pragmatic approach to this particular venture so as to be as indolent as possible from start to finish, on the basis that I would never know when (or if) I would suddenly need to dip into my personal energy reserves for the sake of shear survival out there - even if this was just my paranoia working overtime.
For example, my luggage and the personal effects contained therein were meticulously planned in order to facilitate travel with the easiest possible load.
Forever mindful of the fact that I was to become part of a small cadre of other communications “specialists” for around a week with a specific set of tasks out there in the North Sea, I still couldn’t help my inner-self nagging that, for example, the pharmacy in Sealand was relatively tiny should I ever need it; and, although in reasonably perky health, common sense ought to prevail in terms of my grabbing the “might need” medication that – short of pestilence or armed invasion – would see me though those uncertain few days with febrile anticipation.
The run up to packing my belongings soon presented a very evident sort of de ja vu though, as I suddenly realised that I’d done this sort of thing before in connection with my very part-time sessions for an offshore pirate radio station in the late 1980’s. Admittedly, that was rather different though, i.e. an officially frowned upon ship with massively cramped and damp quarters, bunk beds and suffocated tendering arrangements, thanks to the political whim of the day.
THIS trip, however, would be relatively untrammelled and certainly “above board” as far as the UK and European authorities were concerned.
So, I suppose the run-up to this mini adventure probably wasn’t as parlous as it might have been without an apprenticeship on a Pirate Radio ship, also positioned in the North Sea. But at least in Sealand sea-sickness would not be an issue.
For my extended visit to Sealand, the initial ghoulish figurine of a small fishing vessel in an equally small UK port seemed to be quite alien at first, when I arrived at the dock-side well before dawn. But the odd seagull sound, the steel yet slight breeze and the open moonlit sky found sanctuary with my soul whilst all alone during that bleak very early mid-week morning.
A few other small vessels shone their way though the harbour wall and out into the open sea with a brave yet cool purpose about each of them. The likely weather determined by yet another barometric fall almost deeming it a somehow punitive voyage through another intolerable seascape.
Standing on the quayside, I felt an almost pleading reach from me to one or two of those tiny little boats for not showing their correct lights whilst heading for a tumultuous voyage to the usual fishing grounds.
Far be it from me to criticise though – I’m no fisherman or boatman – just a weary, nervous would-be passenger, soon to be aboard a small vessel to a unique yonder. “A place where happiness reigns all year round”, etc!
I found the little boat that morning, as prescribed to me by a senior Sealand official two days earlier. The port assumed the usual eerie early morning feel to say the least; normal to some sea-farers though.
However, the NNE breeze caught a chill through my spine that encapsulated a worry that was hard to extinguish; that of a falling barometer, once again, while out on the high seas…….
Part 2 coming next month...
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