On the evening of 7 December 2010, in a hushed San Francisco auditorium, former Google engineer Patri Friedman sketched out the future of humanity. The event was hosted by the Thiel Foundation, established four years earlier by the arch-libertarian PayPal founder Peter Thiel to “defend and promote freedom in all its dimensions”. From behind a large lectern, Friedman – grandson of Milton Friedman, one of the most influential free-market economists of the last century – laid out his plan. He wanted to transform how and where we live, to abandon life on land and all our decrepit assumptions about the nature of society. He wanted, quite simply, to start a new city in the middle of the ocean.
Friedman called it seasteading: “Homesteading the high seas,” a phrase borrowed from Wayne Gramlich, a software engineer with whom he’d founded the Seasteading Institute in 2008, helped by a $500,000 donation from Thiel. In a four-minute vision-dump, Friedman explained his rationale. Why, he asked, in one of the most advanced countries in the world, were they still using systems of government from 1787? (“If you drove a car from 1787, it would be a horse,” he pointed out.) Government, he believed, needed an upgrade, like a software update for a phone. “Let’s think of government as an industry, where countries are firms and citizens are customers!” he declared.
The difficulty in starting a new form of government, said Friedman, was simply a lack of space. All the land on Earth was taken. What they needed was a new frontier, and that frontier was the ocean. “Let a thousand nations bloom on the high seas,” he proclaimed, with Maoish zeal. He wanted seasteading experiments to start as soon as possible. Within three to six years, he imagined ships being repurposed as floating medical clinics. Within 10 years, he predicted, small communities would be permanently based on platforms out at sea. In a few decades, he hoped there would be floating cities “with millions of people pioneering different ways of living together”.
Politics would be rewritten. The beauty of seasteading was that it offered its inhabitants total freedom and choice. In 2017, Friedman and the “seavangelist” Joe Quirk wrote a book, Seasteading, in which they described how a seasteading community could constantly rearrange itself according to the choices of those who owned the individual floating units. (Quirk now runs the Seasteading Institute; Friedman remains chair of the board.) “Democracy,” the two men wrote, “would be upgraded to a system whereby the smallest minorities, including the individual, could vote with their houses.”
In the decade following Friedman’s talk, a variety of attempts to realise his seasteading vision were all thwarted. “Seavilization,” to use his phrase, remained a fantasy. Then, in October 2020, it seemed his dream might finally come true, when three seasteading enthusiasts bought a 245-metre-long cruise ship called the Pacific Dawn. Grant Romundt, Rüdiger Koch and Chad Elwartowski planned to sail the ship to Panama, where they were based, and park it permanently off the coastline as the centrepiece of a new society trading only in cryptocurrencies. In homage to Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym of bitcoin’s mysterious inventor (or inventors), they renamed the ship the MS Satoshi. They hoped it would become home to people just like them: digital nomads, startup founders and early bitcoin adopters.
Their vision was utopian, if your idea of utopia is a floating crypto-community in the Caribbean Sea. No longer was seasteading a futuristic ideal; it was, said Romundt, “an actual ship”. The Satoshi also offered a chance to marry two movements, of crypto-devotees and seasteaders, united by their desire for freedom – from convention, regulation, tax. Freedom from the state in all its forms. But converting a cruise ship into a new society proved more challenging than envisaged. The high seas, while appearing borderless and free, are, in fact, some of the most tightly regulated places on Earth. The cruise ship industry in particular is bound by intricate rules. As Romundt put it: “We were like, ‘This is just so hard.’”
* * *
As with many stories about techno-libertarian fantasies, the tale of the Satoshi begins in an all-male, quasi-frat house in San Francisco in the late 90s. Romundt – a softly spoken Canadian with the optimistic, healthy glow of someone who combines entrepreneurial success with water sports – was living with a bunch of software engineers, all of whom shared an intense dedication to personal improvement. “I was a huge Tony Robbins fan,” Romundt told me in one of several Zoom calls from his office in Panama. (Robbins’ themes of individual freedom, self-mastery and the accrual of significant wealth are evident from the titles of his books from that time: Unlimited Power; Lessons in Mastery; Unleash the Power Within; The Power to Shape Your Destiny, and, next level, Awaken the Giant Within.)
After his San Francisco stint, Romundt, the son of a hairdresser, created ScissorBoy in 2009, a popular online TV series on hairdressing, and then ScheduleBox, a website which offered a digital receptionist service for hairstylists to book in their clients. (Always digitally inclined, he had, according to his website, the world’s “most advanced mobile paperless office in 1995”.) “I used to work 17 hours a day, so I didn’t have a lot of freedom,” he told me. He did, however, make enough money to semi-retire in 2016 and then spent “no more than five hours a month” running his business. The giant fully awakened, he moved back to Canada, where he lived on a houseboat on Lake Ontario and went kayaking in the mornings as the sun came up. Enraptured by his lifestyle, Romundt wondered why everyone wasn’t living this way. On a flight one day, he saw a man wearing a T-shirt with “Stop arguing. Start seasteading” printed on it. Romundt was curious, they got talking, and the man turned out to be Joe Quirk, who was by this time running the Seasteading Institute.
So far, the Seasteading Institute had experienced variable, or zero, success with its projects. Early ideas for a “Baystead” and “Coaststead” off the coast of San Francisco and a “Clubstead”, a resort off the coast of California, never made the leap to reality. An attempt to create a floating island prototype in French Polynesia in 2017 met with fairly fierce resistance from the people of French Polynesia and collapsed a year later when the government pulled out of the scheme.
After meeting Quirk, Romundt decided he wanted to try again. Quirk introduced him to two other aspiring seasteaders, the passionately libertarian American Elwartowski and the bitcoin-wealthy German engineer Koch. Together, the trio founded a company, Ocean Builders. Using their own money, they funded the first attempt at a single residential seastead, in the form of a floating white octagonal box 12 nautical miles off the coast of Thailand. Elwartowski and his girlfriend, Nadia Summergirl, lived there for two months in early 2018, until the Thai government discovered the seastead’s existence and declared it a threat to the country’s independence, possibly punishable by life imprisonment or death. Elwartowski and Summergirl had to flee the country before the Thai navy dispatched three ships to dismantle the floating box.
The seasteading movement did not die there. In 2019, Romundt, Koch and Elwartowski moved their company to Panama, where they had found a government willing to back their next project: the SeaPod. These would be individual floating homes held 3 metres above the water by a single column and a tripod-shaped base beneath the ocean. The man responsible for their design, Koen Olthuis, is a Dutch “aquatect”, an architect specialising in water-based schemes. In rendered drawings, the SeaPods look fantastical, like a giant’s white helmet emerging monstrously from the waves. Inside, every surface is curved, as if you were living within the smooth, colourless confines of a peppermint. Romundt compared the SeaPods to the architecture in The Jetsons, the 60s cartoon where the characters lived in glassy orbs in the sky. “It’s like that,” he told me, “but on water.” The team built a factory from scratch in Linton Bay, a marina on the north coast of Panama, hired a team of about 30 engineers and mechanics, and, in early 2020, began building the first SeaPod prototype.
Progress was slow. Even once they had a successful prototype, Romundt predicted the factory would only make two SeaPods a month. They’d had the idea before of buying a cruise ship – a quick way of scaling up the community – but the cost had always been prohibitive. By autumn 2020, though, the situation had changed. Like many parts of the travel industry, the cruise ship business was collapsing because of the pandemic: multiple cruise lines were going into administration, empty ships filling up ports like abandoned cars in a scrubby field, or being sent to the scrapyard. Cruise ships, the Ocean Builders trio realised, would be going cheap.
Sure enough, they found a bargain. In October 2020, Romundt, Koch and Elwartowski bought the ex-P&O cruise ship Pacific Dawn for a reported $9.5m. (Built in 1991 for $280m, the ship could have sold pre-pandemic for more than $100m, one industry insider told me.) They instructed Olthuis to draw up the plans, placing the ship at the heart of a floating community surrounded by SeaPods. “We had a kind of funny idea,” Olthuis told me. In his scheme, the Satoshi would connect, via two looping tunnels on the water, to human-made floating platforms designated for agriculture, manufacturing and parkland. From the air, the whole community would form the shape of the bitcoin B.
The scheme had the support of the Panama government. In fact, the Ministry of Tourism hoped that a new ocean community would be a draw for visitors. In a page-long statement, the ministry told me how a floating development fitted in with its Sustainable Tourism Masterplan 2020-2025, by highlighting the country’s biodiversity and “the blue heritage of Panama”. It didn’t seem to mind the idea of a load of crypto-investors floating off their coastline, not paying any tax.
* * *
“Out of adversity comes opportunity, so they say,” wrote Elwartowski, on 10 October 2020, introducing Viva Vivas, the new company that he had created to run the Satoshi. Its name was adapted from the Latin phrase, “vive ut vivas”, meaning “live so that you may live”.
Ten days later, he announced the venture on Reddit: “So, I am buying a cruise ship and naming it MS Satoshi … AMA.” The responses were quick (“Need an apprentice aviation mechanic?” “I know how to use a yo-yo! Any room for me??”) and included the inevitable sceptics. (“Anyone remember the good old days of the Fyre festival?”) But plenty took the proposition seriously and wanted to go over the small print. (“Where is power coming from? Gas? Internet? Food? Water? Toiletries? What taxes will she be subject to?”)
Elwartowski answered every question with grave attention to detail. There would be generators at first, followed quickly by solar power. This would be an eco-friendly crypto-ship. High-speed wireless internet would come from land; utilities would be included in the fees at first, but would be metered when the systems were upgraded: “You don’t want to have pay for someone else’s mining rig in their cabin,” he wrote, referring to the resource-intensive computational process that introduces new crypto “coins” into the system. As for tax, you would not pay any on earnings made from ventures based in territory beyond Panama. You would be free to make, or mine, as much money as you liked. It would be a remote worker’s regulatory paradise.
But as the Reddit Q&A continued, Elwartowski’s meticulous responses revealed some of the more knotty practicalities of life on board. It turned out that the only cooking facilities would be in the restaurant. For safety reasons, no one was allowed to have a microwave in their rooms – though some cabins had mini-fridges, noted Elwartowski, determinedly sidestepping the point. He offered residents a 20% discount at the restaurant and mentioned that some interested cruisers had already talked about renting part of the restaurant kitchen so they could make their own food. “We want entrepreneurs to come up with solutions and try them out,” he wrote, in a valiant attempt to convert a fairly fundamental stumbling block into wild startup energy. “This is your place to try new things.” Not all the Redditors were convinced. “No microwave but mining rig. Incoherent scam.”
Marketing of the Satoshi soon began in earnest. Her 777 cabins were to be auctioned off between 5 and 28 November, while the ship was crossing the Atlantic towards Panama. Viva Vivas listed the options, including cabins with no windows ($570 a month), an ocean view ($629), or a balcony ($719). Ocean Builders held a series of live video calls for potential customers which attracted 200 people at a time, Olthuis told me, with Romundt, an expert steward of the multilateral video call, at the helm.
On the Viva Vivas website, a Frequently Asked Questions page covered the basics of the cabin auction process, fees and logistics. Specially trained staff would be hired to keep the ship Covid-free and through a partnership with a platform called coinpayments.net, multiple cryptocurrencies would be supported for payment, including bitcoin, ethereum, digibyte, bitcoin cash, litecoin, dai, dash, ethereum classic, trueUSD, USD coin, tether, bitcoin SV, electroneum, cloak, doge, eureka coin, xem and monero.
The final entry on the FAQ page, regarding the possibility of having pets on board, gave a bracing insight into the tension between the idea of freedom and the reality of hundreds of people closely cohabiting on a cruise ship. The answer linked to a separate document, containing a 14-point list of conditions including one that declared no animal should exceed 20lbs in weight, and any barking or loud noises could not last for longer than 10 minutes. If a pet repeatedly disturbed the peace – more than three times a month or five times in a year – it would no longer be allowed to live on board. “Any pet related conflict,” instructed point 13, “shall be resolved in accordance with Section V (F) of the Satoshi Purchase Agreement or Section IV (F) of the Satoshi Master Lease, where applicable.” Dogs would only be permitted in balcony cabins, and it was advised that owners buy a specific brand of “porch potty”, a basket of fake grass where your pet could relieve itself. (Pet waste thrown overboard would result in a $200 fine.)
One Reddit respondent – maxcoiner on Reddit, Luke Parker in real life – was as close to the target market of the Satoshi as it was possible to imagine. A longtime follower of the seasteading movement, he was also such an early and successful bitcoin adopter that he and his wife were able to retire early thanks to their investments. The Satoshi was the most plausible idea for a seastead he’d ever heard. “I did not buy a room during the Satoshi’s sale window,” he told me over email, “but it was hard to keep my hand off that button.”
A variety of considerations held him back. “The wife,” as he put it, had her doubts. He wasn’t sure about the “ginormous leap down in luxury” from living in deep residential comfort on land in the US midwest to living in a very small cabin on board a 30-year-old cruise ship. He was worried, too, by the limited facilities – “No kitchen of my own? Tiny bathrooms? Tiny everything?” Also, the constant rocking of the ship on the water: “I just can’t stomach that life around the clock.” He preferred the idea of the SeaPods. If Parker was going to live on a boat, he concluded, he’d prefer to buy his own luxury catamaran.
On 29 November, Elwartowski published another post on the Viva Vivas website, announcing the official opening of the Satoshi in January 2021. “This will be a new experience for all of us so we must manage your expectations,” he warned. The novelty was too much for Parker. “It takes a rare kind of person indeed to move your life on to a deserted cruise ship in Central America with so little information up front,” he told me. If Parker, part of that highly select, freedom-seeking, system-abandoning, overlapping community of seasteaders and bitcoiners, wasn’t going to buy, it was hard to imagine who would. As he put it: “This may have been the smallest sales demographic in history.”
* * *
Over 30 years of service, the Satoshi herself had seen enough of the world to know every permutation of life at sea – apart, perhaps from what it might be like to be a permanent home to 2,000 crypto-investors. Built in 1991 in the Fincantieri shipyard in Trieste, Italy, she is one of only two cruise ships designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. (The other, the Crown Princess, was sent to the scrapyard last year, a Covid casualty.) Her first incarnation was as the Regal Princess (owned by Princess Cruises), after which she became the Pacific Dawn (P&O Australia). Throughout her life, she has been admired for her distinctive features: a domed roof rising above the navigation bridge, water slides that curl round her funnel and a stern whose elegantly rounded form is in marked contrast to the blunt, sawn-off rears of some giant cruise liners. Those who prefer an understated cruising experience also appreciate her discreet size: compared to the largest cruise ship in the world, The Symphony of the Seas (18 decks, 23 swimming pools) she is a modest vessel (11 decks, two swimming pools).
For many years, the Pacific Dawn cruised the south Pacific, enjoying a serene phase of life, interrupted only by an onboard swine flu outbreak in 2009 and the time she lost power and came within 70 metres of crashing into the Gateway Bridge on the Brisbane River. In 2011, a devoted Facebook group was established by fans. “Dawnie was the party ship,” remembered one. “I fell in love with my wife all over again,” added another, crediting the ship for his romantic renewal. Then, in 2020, it briefly looked as though Dawnie was set to join her sister on the scrapyard, after her sale to British cruise company, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, collapsed in the pandemic. Her fans were grief-stricken, weeping emojis piling up on the Facebook group. (“Well 2020 just became even shittier,” said Kathie.) When it was revealed that the ship had been rescued by Ocean Builders, there was a wave of relief, if a little mystification at her new name. “She’ll always be Dawn to me.”
On 29 October 2020, Dawn began her journey to Panama, sailing from Limassol, Cyprus to Piraeus, Greece. A week later, she was handed over to her new owners Ocean Builders and officially became the Satoshi. Koch flew over from Panama to cross the Atlantic aboard their new purchase. The team hired a management company, Columbia Cruise Services, to run the ship and provide a minimum crew of about 40 people, mostly Ukrainian, including a cook, engineers and cleaning staff. A seasoned British cruise captain, Peter Harris, arrived to take charge. “We didn’t know anything about running a cruise,” Romundt told me, “so it was like, we didn’t want to have to figure all this stuff out.”
As soon as Capt Harris joined the ship and met Koch on board, he realised there would be challenges ahead. “I was thinking a week into the job, I can see I’m going to be resigning,” Harris told me, immaculate in a striped shirt on a video call from his home in Kent. Koch, he said, was admirable in his ambition, and a likable, law-abiding man, but he was naive about how shipping worked and had an abhorrence of rules. “He didn’t understand the industry,” said Harris, who has the frank, upbeat air of a born leader for whom hierarchy is a kind of creed. “He just thought he could treat it like his own yacht.”
To sail anywhere, Harris explained, a ship requires certificates of seaworthiness. These expired on the day the deal with P&O was completed. Usually, a new buyer would ensure they lasted a couple of months to cover any onward journey, but no one on the Ocean Builders side had checked. By the time Columbia Cruise Services came on board and informed the team of the situation, the contracts had all been signed. Before the Satoshi could cross the Atlantic, the team were obliged to sail the ship to Gibraltar and have her removed from the water, a process known as dry-docking, to perform essential repairs and renew the certificates.
The Atlantic crossing began on 3 December. Harris – who didn’t resign, grateful for the four-month contract mid-pandemic – found it oddly lovely. With only 40 or so people on board, rather than the usual 2,000-odd, the atmosphere was relaxed, if a little surreal. Among other things, P&O had left about 5,000 bottles of wine and 2,000 bottles of spirits on board. Harris asked Koch if he wanted to charge the crew for drinks, but Koch, generous by nature, said no. “Obviously, we restricted them to three drinks a day,” said Harris. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a crew.”
* * *
As the crossing continued, questions about how the project would actually work once the Satoshi arrived in Panama grew more pressing. According to Harris, Elwartowski thought he could convince the Panamanian authorities to let the ship anchor permanently in its waters and de-register as a ship, becoming a floating residence instead, so as to avoid some of the more exacting requirements of maritime law. But while Panama was happy to have the ship moored off its coast, it specified that the ship had to remain officially designated as a ship. Which led to another difficulty: the discharge of sewage. Though the ship had an advanced wastewater management system, which could turn sewage into drinking-quality water, they were not permitted to discharge this wastewater into Panamanian waters, and so would have had to sail 12 miles out every 20 days or so to empty tanks into international waters.
Such obstacles made the ship an off-putting proposition for insurers. No one would agree to cover them. “They wouldn’t even tell us why we weren’t insurable, they just kept saying no,” Romundt said. “It’s kind of hard to remedy something if you don’t know what the problem is.” Of the several insurance experts I asked about this, none were willing to comment on the case, citing a lack of expertise, presumably because no one had ever tried to insure a cruise ship turned floating crypto-community before. Harris, however, had his theories: that a risk-averse insurance industry was wary of both a bitcoin business and a ship that would presumably be mostly populated by quick-to-litigate Americans.
After trying multiple insurers and brokers, Romundt began to realise that the cruise ship industry was, as he put it, “plagued by over-regulation”. (Along with airlines and nuclear power, according to Harris, it’s in “the top three”.) The Ocean Builders’ great freedom project, whose intrinsic purpose was to offer an escape from oppressive rules and bureaucracy, was being hobbled by oppressive rules and bureaucracy. As Elwartowski would reflect a few months later on Reddit: “A cruise ship is not very good for people who want to be free.”
To Romundt, the whole cruise ship business began to seem like an impenetrable old boys’ network. He estimated that, given six months, they could have hired a crack marine legal team and navigated a way through the loopholes. But by mid-December, the Satoshi was already halfway across the Atlantic, burning through gallons of diesel, with a 40-person crew they’d have to keep on board even when she was stationary in Panama because a cruise ship requires constant maintenance. A ship can cost, even when docked, up to $1m a month to run. “Because, you know,” said Romundt, “it’s huge.”
Fuel alone was costing the Ocean Builders trio about $12,000 a day. According to Harris, Koch wanted to try to make the ship more fuel-efficient by installing a smaller engine, which he thought he could do while the ship was at anchor. “We were like, how are you going to cut a hole in the ship’s side big enough to get the engine out, which is below water level, and not sink the ship?” Harris shook his head, his memories of Koch clearly fond, if perplexed. “I was forever saying, ‘No, Rudi you can’t do this; no, Rudi you can’t do that.’”
Before the Satoshi hove into view of the white sands of a Panama beach, Romundt, Koch and Elwartowski had to make a call. They couldn’t afford to keep the ship moored and empty for months on end while they tried to solve the insurance problem, a problem they weren’t even sure they’d be able to solve. They were insured to sail her, and they could go on sailing her, but they didn’t want to run a travel company. They wanted to run a floating society of like-minded freedom-lovers arranged in the shape of the bitcoin B. It wasn’t even clear that there were enough people who wanted to do that. Koch admitted to Harris that the cabins weren’t selling.
“It was almost like a fantasy, James Bond-ish,” said one cruise industry insider. “But to their credit they believed in it.”
* * *
The dream was over, they realised, before it had even begun. The project was dead, except it wasn’t quite, as they still owned the ship, which was still steaming across the Atlantic with Koch, Harris and the crew on board. The Satoshi, already thousands of miles into a 5,500-nautical-mile voyage, had travelled too far to be turned around mid-ocean, so on she sailed. They’d have to sell her, the Ocean Builders realised, but who was going to be crazy enough to buy a cruise ship in the middle of a pandemic? Only a company who wanted to tear her apart. On 18 December, while she was still at sea, the team announced the sale of the Satoshi to a scrapyard in Alang, India. The Satoshi was once again destined for dismemberment.
On 19 December, Elwartowski announced on the Viva Vivas website that the Satoshi’s journey was coming to an end. “We have lost this round. The New Normal, Great Reset gains another victim,” he wrote, looping in the collapse of the Satoshi with a popular Covid conspiracy theory that the pandemic and its response had been stage-managed by a global elite. (Over subsequent months, Elwartowski’s activity on Reddit would include other Covid themes, including suspicion of government vaccination programmes.) Romundt emailed their list of potential customers to let them know the ship’s fate. Deposits for cabins would be refunded.
The Satoshi arrived in Balboa, Panama on 22 December. On Christmas Eve, she anchored off the coast of Colon. There, Romundt joined Koch and the crew on the ship. Elwartowski, meanwhile, stayed in Panama City. “He didn’t want to get on board,” said Romundt. Koch spoke to Joe Quirk one evening on the phone while he was sitting in the ship’s cafe drinking a bottle of wine, feeling regretful that the onboard hospital he’d planned to open to medical entrepreneurs would never come to life. Even so, Koch was “utterly unbowed”, reported Quirk in a Seasteading Institute blog post entitled How the Grinch Stole the Cruise Ship.
Romundt, a man more driven by the practical issues at hand than the romantic symbolism of his endeavours, realised that, though the entire plan had fallen apart, he was still the part-owner of a massive cruise ship. He decided to spend Christmas on board, along with the crew. Master key in hand, he wandered around the Satoshi, making sure to enter every room that said Do Not Enter. He toured the engine room, and sat on the sun deck. He worked, because he can’t help working, even at Christmas, but he also went on all the water slides, alone. (Harris told me he’d turned them on specially for Christmas Day.) Though Romundt doesn’t usually drink, he had a glass of wine and called all his friends saying, “I’m on my own cruise ship for Christmas!” He had the kind of good time it is perhaps only possible to have when you have just made an unbelievably expensive mistake born of a desire to invent an entirely new way of living and involving the purchase of a huge floating vessel. “I was king of the ship!” he said, still delighted.
* * *
Even scrapping the Satoshi proved to be a debacle. After a deal had been done with the Indian scrapyard, the Ocean Builders team realised that according to the Basel Convention, which covers the disposal of hazardous waste, they weren’t allowed to send the ship from a signatory country (Panama) to a non-signatory country (India). The contract with the scrapyard had to be cancelled.
All was not completely lost, at least for the Satoshi herself. The cruise ship industry is a compact ecosystem. The grapevine did its thing. A ship broker heard about the plight of the Satoshi, realised it was precisely the kind of ship a new client of his was looking for, and did a quick deal.
The client was Ambassador Cruise Line, the first British cruise company to launch for 10 years. According to Ambassador’s ebullient, red-sweatered chair, Gordon Wilson, the company’s name is intended to reflect the highly optimistic idea that ambassadors, like cruise ships, take the best of their own culture with them wherever they go. The Satoshi would be the first ship in the company’s new fleet, which would offer cruises to the over-50s. Many of the new team at Ambassador had come over from Cruise and Maritime Voyages, who had nearly bought the Satoshi before it went bust in 2020. As such, they knew the ship well, which sped up the sale. Wilson wouldn’t confirm the amount – “they thought it was a good price” – but the trade press reported that Ocean Builders sold her for $12m, more than they paid for her, though possibly not quite enough to cover the elaborate costs of running an empty cruise ship for three months.
On 23 February 2021, the Satoshi set sail from Panama, heading all the way back across the ocean she’d just crossed. She arrived in Bar, Montenegro on 27 March. Wilson went over to visit her, and, like Romundt, relished the experience of climbing aboard his new asset. Exploring the engine rooms of an empty cruise ship seemed to give these men a particular sensation: perhaps just the buzz of owning something so vast and powerful; a mechanical, proprietary thrill.
The Ocean Builders team, meanwhile, returned to their own private missions. Elwartowski was on sabbatical, Romundt told me. He did not want to talk to me for this story. Koch, who also declined to be interviewed, was building his own boat in Panama, and working with Romundt on the SeaPods. Over Zoom, Romundt gave me a tour of the SeaPod factory, and showed off the hulking sheets of fibreglass that would form the structure’s mould. “It feels like touching a UFO,” he said, stroking his invention.
Seeing the pod’s nascent form, I felt a boringly pragmatic urge to ask Romundt what happened if, once afloat, you needed to buy a pint of milk. My question seemed to miss the point, too wedded to old-fashioned notions of locality and human connection. The Pods had been designed to have a hatch in the roof, Romundt said. He was talking to some drone creators and imagined people flying to their pods independently, landing on the roof and entering through the hatch. Perhaps that’s how you’d get your milk.
At her new home in Montenegro, meanwhile, the Satoshi needed some sprucing up. For the fourth time in her three decades on the water, she had been renamed. “We thought Ambience a lovely name for a ship,” said Wilson, pronouncing it in the French style, Ambi-ence. “This is a very elegant ship,” he added, proudly. “She looks like a cruise liner; she does not look like a floating block of flats.”
When Ambience finally sets sail on her maiden voyage, from the industrial dock of Tilbury across the North Sea to Hamburg in April 2022, she will offer a more traditional experience to her passengers. “Back to what cruising is all about,” said Wilson. The atmosphere will be refined. There will be promenading on deck and plentiful opportunities for photography as the horizon swallows the evening sun. There will be cocktails at the bar, a five-course dinner and a glittery show. It is unlikely bitcoin will be accepted as currency. The water slides will be removed.
• This article was amended on 8 September 2021 to include the full name of Ambassador Cruise Line, and to clarify that the Ambience’s dinners will have five courses, not three.