The Weekender, January 25, 2019

1) “The Plot Against the Principality of Sealand” (Narratively, 88 minutes, January 2019). If I had to make a top ten list of facts which prompted me to really invest, early on, in Now I Know, the Principality of Sealand would easily crack it. It’s one of the few crazy little things I knew a good deal about before I started writing this more than eight years ago; it’s one of the few things which never ceases to amaze me, even a decade after learning about it. This is a very long read, but it’s also the most comprehensive look at Sealand I’ve seen. (My article on Sealand, from July 2010, here, is maybe a 3-minute read if you need a primer on the “island” “nation”.)

Michael Bates was caught off guard by a newspaper item he read in late July 1997. He and his parents, a retired couple residing in the seaside county of Essex in southeastern England, were being connected to the murder of Italian fashion icon Gianni Versace.

Michael, then 44, is a stocky man with close-cropped hair and a tough demeanor. He runs a business harvesting cockles, an edible mollusk found in the North Sea near where he grew up. He squinted at the paper and continued to read.

It turned out that a passport issued by the Principality of Sealand, a micronation his family founded on an old naval platform, and over which Michael happens to reign as prince, was found on the houseboat where Versace’s murderer had committed suicide.

The newspaper laid out the puzzling circumstances of the case. On July 15, 1997, Versace was leaving his opulent Miami Beach mansion when he was gunned down on his front steps by 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan. Allegedly distraught that a rich benefactor had cut him off, Cunanan embarked on a kill rampage across four states, murdering four people before coming back to Miami and shooting Versace for seemingly no reason. When police finally tracked him down eight days later, Cunanan led them on a chase, broke into a houseboat, and shot himself.

Investigators learned that the owner of the houseboat was a German citizen named Torsten Reineck, described by some acquaintances as well-spoken and polite but by others as “obnoxious, unpleasant, disgusting.” He also owned a Las Vegas health spa where orgies allegedly took place. Reineck was a socialite who loved showing off his Sealand passport and was said to have diplomatic plates from Sealand on his car. Consequently, authorities began looking into the micronation to see what role it may have played in Versace’s murder.

The Principality of Sealand, standing on two massive pillars in the roiling waters of the North Sea, was declared a sovereign nation by Michael’s father, Roy Bates, in 1967. Located in international waters and technically outside of the control of Britain, or any other nation, the country straddles a line between eccentric experiment and legal entity of uncertain definition. Authorities investigating Versace’s murder soon realized that the rulers of Sealand were not joking about their claims of sovereignty and had on many occasions taken up arms to defend their micronation.

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3) “Inside the Story of John Allen Chau’s Ill-Fated Trip to a Remote Island” (Smithsonian, 23 minutes, January 2019). The story of North Sentinel Island is one of my favorites and I covered it years ago. A few months ago, someone tried to visit the island — and the results were awful. This is that story.

4) The Now I Know Week in Review:

Monday: I took the day off for MLK Day.

TuesdayHarry Potter and the Uniform of Temporal Distortion — How to avoid the paparazzi.

WednesdayA Fine Way to Encourage Reading — I really liked this one; a nice, positive way libraries keep making change for good.

Thursday: Die Hard — the man who wouldn’t.


5) “Can a California town move back from the sea?” (High County News, 18 minutes, October 2018). There is no way this is going to work, except that it might.

At the start of each year, Southern California gets a glimpse into a future of rising seas, through an annual event called the king tide. On that day, the sun, moon and Earth align to create a heavy gravitational pull, leading to the highest tides of the year. If “king tide” sounds ominous, that’s because it is, particularly for a city like Imperial Beach, a small coastal town near the Mexican border surrounded by water on three sides: San Diego Bay to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Tijuana River Delta to the south.

In 2010, a powerful El Niño storm hurled the king tide over Imperial Beach’s sand berms and onto Seacoast Drive, where the city’s higher-priced condos are located. In 2015, another El Niño year, the king tide raised the surf from 3 to 7 feet, tearing sand away from the beach and flooding the city with salt water that soaked the streets for days.

Currently an anomaly, the king tide is a portent of things to come. Researchers warn that, due to myriad factors including the Earth’s rotation, California will deal with even higher sea-level rise than other locations, as the atmosphere and oceans warm. The oceans are now rising at a faster rate than any time since the last Ice Age, about half an inch or more per decade. While much of this is understood by researchers and informed readers, very little has been done by coastal cities to confront this slow-moving catastrophe. That is what makes Imperial Beach so interesting. Here, at the southernmost beach town in California, in an obscure corner of the United States, one small city is asking: What if we just got out of nature’s way?

6) “The economics of streaming is making songs shorter” (QZ, 5 minutes, January 2019). Huh, neat.

Have a great weekend!