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I am thinking of a sub society that formed from 10's to 100's (maybe 1000's) of ships docked together. They would be on the high seas, outside the control of any nation. Could they form their own nation? Could several of these mini nations form? Could people move from one mini nation to another?

If so, could I get a boat, sail to the ocean and declare myself an independent nation? Could Bill Gates (or substitute any billionaire)?

Why does this not happen now?

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What would have to happen to create a society of “floating” islands of ships?

Since there seems to be some uncertainty as to whether this question is legit, I'm going to treat it in generic worldbuilding terms.

I definitely think this is a helpful topic. I really like that it goes beyond the question of ships afloat assembled into rafts, and explicitly asks about a society founded on such.

The concept of ships rafted - whether inadvertently à la the old Sargasso Sea legends (see especially William Hope Hodgson's brilliant and haunting novel The Boats of the Glen Carrig: Hodgson was a working seaman, so he got that side of things very right) or intentionally, as in most of the discussion to date on these Worldbuilding.SE posts - makes for a fascinating and rich imagined world element.

To answer the posted question in those terms, here are some extended prerequisites and moves to make. Scenarios with actual suggestions that answer the question come after that, way at the end; skip ahead if you eat dessert first or turn on the cheat mode in games. :-)

The worldbuilding that has to be considered in advance

  1. Your world's oceanic systems. (If this is intended to be an alternate-history or reasonably near future SF setting, you simply have some research to do. Otherwise, features of your invented world will govern the whole concept of floating cities.) This includes questions such as:

    • How large are the oceans? Both in absolute terms of kilometers/miles, and in relative terms such as percent of planetary surface.
    • What are the storms like?
    • What are the sea conditions like? (Note that there's a great discussion, in comments on the Building giant Ship-cities post mentioned by @SerbanTanasa in comments, between @PeterMaisar and @jamesqf regarding storms, fetches, latitude-dependent prevailing winds. That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about here.)
    • What kinds of climates does your world have?
    • What circulating oceanic currents will carry your floating community around, and where will they carry it?
  2. Your world's technology and resources. Duh. We do this all the time in Worldbuilding. But, specially important to this question are things like

    • Naval architecture. What kinds of vessels will you be joining up? What kinds of hull designs and materials? By extension, what sorts of rope, cordage, cables, windlasses, etc. would be available on those kinds of vessels? What kinds of practical seamanship would be developed by the sailors who work those vessels? Does repair/refit work need carpenters, or welders, or... thaumaturges?
    • Energy sources. Is this a world with classical sun/wind energy? Coal? Petroleum? Fusion reactors? Solar collectors? Arcane sources? This question is crucial, because one of the characteristics of a floating ship community is its comparative isolation from the rest of the world. If, for example, you want coal-fired boilers for electrical and mechanical power, you need lots of ocean-capable coal carriers bringing it out to you, wherever you have drifted.
    • Communications. Does your world have faster-than-ship communication and location technologies, such as radio or telepathy? This makes an enormous difference in coordinating deliveries of supplies, and in guiding ships to a rendezvous with the floating ship-city.
    • Is there aviation? An established air travel capability would have an enormous effect on the viability of the floating "islands".


OK, given the above, we get to the next prerequisite:

What's a reasonable way to physically construct the floating ship city or group?

This question has been addressed well, but not yet comprehensively (and certainly not generically), in the building giant ship-cities post. Given the worldbuilding factors above, you can extend the construction how-to analysis begun in the post.

  • How do you build a "floating island" in your world, given its ship types, technologies, and resources?

  • Consider the floating island from the standpoint of overall viability, considering energy types, means of construction, supply, and support.

For this part of the assessment, focus on feasibility:

  • How much will it cost to build?

  • How much will it cost to sustain?

  • What are the risks?


So far, we're looking at the physical, material aspects of creating the floating islands. The next part, then is:

How can the islands form the "society" referenced in the question title?

This becomes very huge and very general, so I will not attempt to dig into it to the same level of detail as that used in the subtopics above. (You're all very welcome.)

However, it is worth mentioning some basic concepts that pertain to the establishment of a society of floating islands.

  • Do the vessels that have rafted up with a floating island lose their autonomy? What about the mariners? Traditionally, at sea, the Captain is the supreme legal authority, whether it's aboard a small sailboat or a huge military vessel. This creates a presumption that a vessel is a separate and independent legal entity. So... how will you play it? Answers - social, legal, financial, and cultural - could range from a floating island as a temporary (although perhaps longlived) cooperative association of vessels whose original authority has not been diminished; through an "All your boat are belong to us" commune of property; to the "You will be assimilated; resistance is futile" situation in which the act of joining the floating island is to surrender not only your vessel, but yourself, accepting citizenship (if such it can be called) in an organization that recognizes no prior claims.

  • What are the terms of association between different islands? This is an interesting one. These floating islands, composed mainly of boats and ships, very possibly won't have any effective means of stationkeeping; so they will circulate with the ocean currents, taking years to complete some of the grand tours (e.g. circumnavigating the Pacific). So, for these places of inconstant location, some very important questions arise:

    • What reasons would different islands have for interacting? Trade? Mutual assistance?
    • Would there be actual political structures that bind the islands together, or merely general diplomatic relations?
    • What would be the political situation if a floating island drifted into a land nation's maritime Exclusive Economic Zone, or even its Territorial Waters proper?
    • What would be the situation if a floating island sat in a shipping lane for a good part of a year, imposing higher steaming costs on ships that had to detour??

The kinds of social, political, and cultural forms that a society of floating ship-islands would take could be a fascinating arena for creative worldbuilding.


Now that we've considered the society, let's look at the final piece:

OK, actual scenarios: what would have to happen?

@user2622762, if you've read down this far, here is where we can finally look at the generic stuff above and come up with answers. :-)

I'll infer from some of the references in your question that you want to look at whether such a thing could be done in our contemporary world, as it is. That may not be fully legit "Worldbuilding", but it does meet the criteria in the sense that the establishment of such floating communities would constitute a significant change in the reality of our world; so the question "what would that be like?" seems to clear the bar.

[If I'm rules lawyering, my apologies. But at least you've all read this far, MUAHAHAHA...]

So, to get on with it, here are some scenarios that could answer the original question.

Scenario #1: A refuge for the 0.01% in a general economic collapse

Yes, @user2622762, you anticipated this by throwing out Bill Gates's name. But it's a pretty believable scenario.

Suppose there's a general collapse. We talk about possible reasons for them on Worldbuilding.SE, so I won't discuss the exact cause and nature, just posit that it has happened, or that it's easy to see that it will happen soon. Quite a few of the world's wealthy and powerful will be looking for their bug-out location; deliberately facilitating a set of waterborne communities of this sort would have significant advantages.

  • The wealthy can get to this remote location on very short notice via plane and helicopter.

  • The floating communities are not in the line of fire for any of the normal perils attendant on breakdown of civil order.

  • Governments under stress would probably not waste ordnance and resources on blowing up a floating island. And, even if they did feel the need, it's a peculiarly hard task to sink all of the boats and ships, if they are rafted by easily detachable means. Every vessel is a potential survivor of any kind of strike.

  • Somali-pirate level threats (which are mostly littoral anyway) can be readily repulsed by a few deepwater-capable patrol boats and some decent radar.

  • If the floating islands were set up in the first place with an eye to supporting Rich Folks Flight, the communities on the islands would probably be reasonably cooperative and loyal.

Scenario #2: Intentional communities at sea

Intentional communities have a fairly poor history of success, but that doesn't seem to stop people from starting them.

If you can figure out a plausible means of funding such a startup, the island of boats makes a lot of sense. Especially if you could sail out, join up, and then leave if you didn't like the way things were going.

For hard-working and optimistic people, the idea might just work out.

Scenario #3: Exotic option: so, there's telepathy...

...and the telepaths have to get away. A reliably long physical distance away from masses of nontelepaths, so they don't psychologically collapse from mental static that they can't shut out.

This could be a lot of fun as a story device. Especially if the telepaths' vulnerability to mental interference is only a developmental stage: that would mean that the floating island would be a place where newbie telepaths could learn to be fully mature/operational without going nuts. A floating island of telepaths could also be peopled by some friendly nontelepaths who had learned not to SHOUT THEIR JUMBLED AND OFTEN EMBARRASSING THOUGHTS.

Scenario #4: Some breakthrough that makes things easier

There are lots of reasons why these floating islands would have a hard way to go. If you posit some kind of sudden change in the cost & risk profiles, suddenly you might see these floating islands happening spontaneously. For example:

  • Materials science makes it possible to build a superstrong, superflexible submerged grid of only moderate negative buoyancy, coupled with surface bumpers and docks whose positive buoyancy is more than enough to keep the whole thing afloat, and to let it ride even Rogue Waves in safety. Building such grids in modular form could create a cost-effective means of building a permanent presence with lighter craft such as cruising sailboats.

  • Bioengineering creates a version of the above structure, only made out of something self-repairing like kelp. (How you'd keep it from growing round your boats and trapping them is an open question. :-)


One final thought: you can make a mashup of the above "What would have to happen" scenarios.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your extensive answer. I wonder, why did you question if the question is "legit"? $\endgroup$ – iLWR Feb 5 '15 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ Simply, some people were questioning whether it was a duplicate. I sort of didn't care... :-) I felt that, as a worldbuilding question, it was well worth answering. $\endgroup$ – Bill Blondeau Feb 5 '15 at 16:15

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