It's Sea for Two as Britain's Roy and Joan Bates Rule Their Own Do-It-Yourself Little Island
06/18/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
Establishing his own country on an abandoned, utterly charmless rig in the turbulent North Sea wasn't the craziest idea that brash British entrepreneur Roy Bates ever had. After all, here is a man who once sold British seaweed (at a profit!) to New York florists. Then there was the time he suggested to his wife, Joan, that they uproot their two children from their home in England, move to Kenya and buy a farm. Never mind the fact that there was a Mau Mau uprising going on there at the time. "These things attract me like a madman," admits Roy, 62, who made his fortune by more conventional means, as a fishing fleet owner.
If behind every madman there is a madwoman, Roy is no exception. So when he told his wife in 1966 that they were proprietors of their own island—actually a platform that had served as protection from German gunboats in World War II—she merely shrugged and asked, "What about my own flag and palm trees?" Joan is like that. Except for nixing Roy's Kenya scheme, she has stood behind him and his offbeat notions for all of their 35 married years. "I had seen him make things work that others said wouldn't," says Joan, 54. "It was only crazy to people who didn't understand Roy."
Nearly 18 years later the platform, which is slightly larger than a basketball court and rests on two hollow concrete cylinders seven miles off England's coast, is known as Sealand. It doesn't have any palm trees, but it does have a flag (red, white and black), stamps, currency, a constitution and 2,000 "citizens," most of them lawyers, painters, electricians and others who live elsewhere but have rendered service to Sealand. The tiny outpost is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's smallest sovereign territory. It also provides Roy with a tax haven; as an independent sovereign territory in international waters Sealand is exempt from taxes by other nations. "I think entrepreneurs need a place to go without being taxed out of their minds," he says. Oh, and there's one other fringe benefit. What good is a principality without a prince? Or a princess, for that matter? On Joan's 38th birthday in 1969 Roy bestowed upon his wife the title of Princess Joan, but not without proclaiming himself Prince Roy. "I got my title the hard way," insists Princess Joan. "I had to earn it." So far the title hasn't gone to her head. "I don't have a crown. I think they're a bit outdated," she says. "It's what you are that's important, not what you have."
What the Bateses have is Sealand, and acquiring their rusting paradise was the easy part. Roy had infuriated the British government in the mid-1960s by operating a 24-hour pirate radio station that beamed popular music into Britain from another abandoned World War II rig in the Thames estuary. After the government objected and other pirate operators tried to claim the sea fort, Roy abandoned his tower and moved to another one, proclaiming himself the owner.
Keeping Sealand proved a little more difficult. The British, worried that the rig might be used to launch an enemy invasion or as a haven for drug smugglers, began a two-year battle with the Bateses over ownership. They were harassed by British customs officials and marine patrols. Once, while Roy tended to business matters, Joan was forced to ride shotgun on Sealand for a 14-month stretch with only son Michael, then 15, for company. "I like all things luxurious," says Joan, who is fur-draped whether on Sealand or on the mainland. "But luxury is security and being able to do your own thing at your own time."
During those lonely months she carried a .38 pistol by day and slept with it under her pillow by night, a habit she has yet to break. "She has bottomless courage," observes Roy. Says Joan: "It was very hard. But the thing that made me do it is that I'm just as determined as Roy is." The territorial dispute was settled in 1968 when a British court ruled that Sealand was outside the three-mile limit and the British therefore had no jurisdiction over it. Now the couple occasionally engages in figurative battle with business types who want to take over Sealand for their own tax dodging purposes.
Considering Sealand's size and location, Roy's plans seem as grandiose now as they did when he moved there. Still, he and Joan have pumped some $2.25 million into refurbishing the place they call home six months of the year. The rest of the time they live in a two-story home in Southend-on-Sea, a 20-minute helicopter commute from Sealand. Roy hopes someday to turn Sealand into a three-mile-long, man-made island (without changing the name to Three Mile Island, one presumes) complete with airport, hotel, casinos and banks. "What I'm doing is the original American dream," he says proudly. "It's for free enterprise and all that."
Sealand's accommodations are anything but royal. On the main deck are four cold, clammy rooms equipped with space heaters, faucetless basins and a shower, and permeated by a distinctly moldy aroma. Still, one woman's ugh! is another's palace. "It's sheer luxury compared to what it was," says Joan, who remembers when Sealand was just "dead seagulls, dust, rust, no light, no doors and no windows." Joan's ability to rough it has not gone unnoticed by her devoted husband. "No other woman would have stuck with me," he says admiringly. That Joan would ever have considered staying in England while Roy pursued his vision of Sealand alone is unthinkable. The two are so close that they even go to the hairdresser together.
The son of a London meat broker, Roy grew up in Southend, where he attended private schools. He chose to fight in the Spanish Civil War rather than attend college. "I fought for both sides," he claims. "I didn't care, I just wanted to fight." He served as a major in the Royal Fusiliers in World War II.
Not surprisingly, Roy found postwar life tame. He started a poultry exporting business but gave it up one day when he looked around at his fellow London commuters all wearing identical bowler hats and carrying briefcases. "I got out at the station, threw away my hat and briefcase and bought myself a fishing boat," he says. He went on to set up a chain of butcher shops, a real estate agency and a host of other short-lived businesses he ultimately sold out of boredom. "When things are going smoothly," he confesses, "I lose interest." The only exceptions were an oil export firm and a decorative air fern company that he handed over to his son, Prince Michael, 32. (The Bateses also have a daughter, Penny, 34.)
Roy's wife, the former Joan Collins, is the daughter of a British Army officer who settled in Essex. A striking blonde, she worked as a fashion model as a teenager and was a local carnival queen when she met Roy at a dance at 19. "I went to the dance to drink," says Roy. "Then I asked her to dance. I don't know what hit me." Remembers Joan of their first meeting: "It was stunning, like what you read in a book. He was tall, dark and handsome. There was no question in my mind that we would always be together from the first minute." It took Roy three days to propose, "and I thought he was taking a helluva long time," says Joan.
Roy's derring-do helps keep their marriage fresh. "After all these years we never need anyone else around," says Joan. "We're never bored together." Joan also acts as Roy's conscience. "She puts a little caution into me and makes me think about things," he says. "She taught me so much with patience and understanding."
The Bateses are determined to plow ahead with their Sealand dream, fending off "con men" who want Sealand to deal illegal arms and drugs. Once taken seriously by practically nobody, the Bateses claim to command the respect of former skeptics, including the British government. "I think the British take some pride in us now," says Roy. That might be wishful thinking. "We don't recognize Sealand as anything," says a British official. Whatever lies ahead for their little bungalow on the briny, the Bateses will sink or swim together. "I think what I like best about Sealand is the fact they tried to stop me," says Roy. The thing he likes best about Joan, it seems, is that she did not.