Daily Republic file 2012

Building Delta City

The frontier is near; the ocean is far

Back to the Future: Seasteading 1.0

This July, an eclectic mix of sailboats, DIY platforms, repurposed barges and tugboats will converge on the Sacramento—San Joaquin river delta for the 10th annual “Ephemerisle” festival. What began as a small-scale experiment in floating, autonomous living, aka “seasteading,” was supposed to give rise to more permanent communities and businesses that would carry the torch into deeper waters. Yet a decade later, it hasn’t happened.

The event has evolved, but perhaps the most significant development has been the closure of both of the large houseboat rental marinas in the area. That means that the core of the “islands” —formerly anchored houseboats, lashed together with ropes— has to be replaced.

A glimpse at the creativity, innovation, and fun of the first Ephemerisle floating festival, held in 2009 in the Sacramento River Delta. Shot, directed, and edited by Jason Sussberg.

Elysium, a large archipelago known for its raging parties, will be back this year with a large barge. DIYIsland has added some new platforms, and is bringing back the “Pontunery” — an acoustic jam space. That’s all fine and good, but I think it’s time to start envisioning what Ephemerisle could be beyond a temporary festival. As Brian Doherty notes in the mini-documentary above, there’s no real through-line from the consumption-based Ephemerisle to economically productive seasteads. I want to see a small outpost — a “Do Tank” — with potential to inch towards a future city.

They say that competition breeds excellence. Toward that end, I’m planning an island with an emphasis on production over consumption, reconnecting to the original incremental “seasteading 1.0” strategy of moving from the delta, to the Bay, and beyond.

May the best island win.


After Ephemerisle

I’m almost surprised that more people don’t opt for a simple, low-cost lifestyle along the banks of the Sacramento–San Joaquin. The Delta is one of California’s splendors. Life slows down on the meandering waterways, and you quickly forget the stresses of the city.

I guess I can’t be too surprised that others haven’t done so, since I’m a prime candidate for such a move and have never seriously considered it. The main limitation is the culture in the delta, or lack thereof. This keeps people like me from ditching the cities while a blank canvas lies just an hour away. Even though cities grate at our nerves with traffic and noise, and extract a high cost financially, they are hubs of convenience, culture, and fraternity.

Creating a new culture takes work. It requires a compelling vision for what the dominant culture lacks, a narrative to supply meaning to the difficult early stages, and a physical space to demonstrate the missing values. Mandeville Point, the location for the event, provides the space. I believe the Ephemerisle community needs less partying and more pioneering. The pioneer looks at his milieu and says, “this rots!” But he also takes responsibility for his share of the rot, and sets out to build a stronger (and more water-resilient) foundation — it’s seasteading as an act of political repentance, as well as a commitment to help build each other up into better humans. That’s the culture I want to build.

My first few years at Ephemerisle, I felt like I was helping to found a new culture of practical dreamers — people who were living their ideals. The plywood decks and wobbly walkways seemed like a stepping stone to something sturdier, but subsequent years achieved little more than minor variations on the same “technology.”

Much of what felt original about Ephemerisle is in fact copied-and-pasted from Burning Man. There is the modern-day wild west ethos and culture of experimentation, all born of a rebellious spirit. This explains why most people can only sustain it for a week or two at the most. Although I respect the achievement (some of my closest friends are Burners), it’s not my scene. I’m wary of the pyrotechnics, the electronic dance music, and blanket rejection of norms, including sound ones.

A pervasive short-termism is the chief low trait of both Burning Man and Ephemerisle. The last year I attended (2016) felt more like Waterworld than Buckminster Fuller’s optimistic visions of an ocean future. But it also still has the seeds of a more stabilizing impulse: to create from the ground up in the relative wilderness, without the constraints of land-locked urban density. The chief high trait of Burning Man, mirrored at Ephemerisle, is the outpouring of creativity required to make voluntarism work.

Cooperation, yes. Coercion, no.

Channeling GMU economist Robin Hanson, I think construal level theory can shed some light on the problem of seasteading. Hanson would say that the ocean is far. When you try to imagine a seastead as a floating house or platform in the middle of the ocean, your mind goes into a different mode than everyday problem-solving. You begin to think of oil rigs, artist’s renderings of fancy man-made islands, and eccentric billionaires. It doesn’t seem likely, nor particularly desirable to most people. And that’s okay — the beauty of seasteading is that you don’t need to convince everyone.

In contrast, however, houseboat living on a river is near. Many people already live this way full-time, and we don’t consider it exceptional (although perhaps still a bit eccentric). I propose building on a concept which is still near, but which incorporates elements of the long-term vision that will elevate the appeal of floating cities through the pioneering identity that comes with owning and operating one. These elements are 1) the frontier spirit, 2) modularity, and 3) distributed but individual ownership. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, “The problem with Capitalism is not that there are too many capitalists, but that there are too few.”

The conestoga wagon was the single technology that did the most to open up the Western United States for settlement. It wasn’t a major innovation, but rather a new configuration of existing technologies and materials — lightweight, sturdy, and big enough for a family to get from point A to point B.

In order for Ephemerisle to make the leap to more permanent aqua firma, it needs the equivalent of the conestoga wagon. I plan to build it.

I am determined to demonstrate a proof-of-concept “Delta wagon”— something I can strap to the side of my sailboat and operate as an autonomous island, offering a peaceful alternative to the noisy archipelagos.

The Nuts and Bolts

“This is a fun sport: to build a houseboat, but to do it quickly and on the cheap.” — Handmade Houseboats: Independent Living Afloat, by Russell Conder

The minimum viable product is a semi-hexagon made up of three triangles.

The foundation is simple:

Wood, barrels, and bolts. It works!

The sides of each triangle will be 12 feet, for a length of 24 feet, and a width of 10.4 feet. Each triangle will be bolted at the ends, and joined to each other by two sturdy joists, which fulfill the dual functions of connecting the triangles and supporting the flotation.

Parts list for the full-size raft, and a 1:6 scale model, using jars for “flotation” instead of barrels.

The flotation consists of nine 55-gallon drums (purchased from Urban Ore for $20/each). That provides an ample 4,000 pounds of displacement for the topside structure — much more than is necessary. The dual forces of gravity pushing the platform down on the barrels, and buoyancy of the water pushing up will keep the barrels resting in the slots made by the joists — the width of the slots is just less than 2 feet, and the barrels are 2' x 3'.

From *Handmade Houseboats: Autonomous Living Afloat*

Each triangle will be bolted together at the points with 1/2" x 8 in. galvanized hex bolts. These can be assembled on the beach at the Berkeley Basin, and towed individually to the event.

The deck’s base structure will be plywood, covered by finer materials. The main rectangular core of the deck will be astroturf, while the isosceles triangles on the wings will topped with smooth, hard cedar. The floor is the most expensive part, but it’s also the part that people will be seeing and touching. It must be beautiful, grounding, and comfortable, because foundations matter.

Architect Darrell Caraway draws the original concept for the Deltastead. My drawings are less exact, but build on the fundamental idea.

The awning will be made of a used sail, suspended from a wooden truss that doubles as a pull-up bar (seasteaders have to stay in shape). The whole thing assembles and disassembles easily, but is sturdy enough to be deployed year round.

What’s it For?

The Delta wagon can turn any sailboat into an island campsite. At just under 400 square feet, the platform can be used for resting, fishing, praying, stretching, “MovNat”, diving, cooking, and sleeping. That’s one small step for seasteading and one modest-sized leap for mankind.

My island will be home to the “Ketosis Cafe,” a small kitchen open to the public, and offering delicious high-fat meals. I will also use it to teach and learn natural movement, and other seasteading-related embodied practices (knot tying, dingy operation, etc.).

Lastly, my island will be a place of prayer — specifically, intercessory prayer. As mentioned, the last couple Ephemerisles I’ve been to have felt like they were on the verge of going bad. The mix of over-indulgence and simultaneous senses of entitlement and irresponsibility is a dangerous one, but I believe there’s something worth saving at the core. Hence, intercession — i.e., praying on behalf of others.

After that, who knows what other activities — social, economic, and liturgical — will emerge as the most enjoyable, the most profitable, and the most venerable?

Who will show up? How long will they stay?

Will the wagons give rise to larger constructions, or band together in modular homesteads?

Even these questions are too far in the future to answer.

Pioneering campers and interceders who want a quiet place to eat, pray, love, move, swim, etc. can contact me at chdeist@gmail.com.