Some 13 miles off the coast of Phuket, a brilliant white octagon floating above the water's surface came into view on the horizon as the Thai boats sped towards it.
The navy had been ordered to dismantle the structure and arrest the couple living there, who were to be charged with violating Thailand's sovereignty, a crime punishable by death.
By the time the sailors had boarded, Bitcoin entrepreneur Chad Elwartowski and his girlfriend Supranee Thepdet had fled Thailand, after a tip-off from a military friend.
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The floating two-storey home, complete with a bathroom, dining area, bedroom and solar-panelled sundeck, was promoted as the first ever seastead by Ocean Builders, a business devoted to creating self governed floating communities.
It was only up for a matter of weeks before the navy unceremoniously dragged it back to shore in April 2019.
Seasteading, a portmanteau describing a politically autonomous community built in international waters, has long held an appeal for people in Silicon Valley, a bastion of libertarian values, share an obsession with disrupting the status quo and decentralisation.
The idea is now having a renaissance among the tech elite, thanks to Covid-19, its advocates claim. Tech workers, investors and founders have found themselves untethered now that company headquarters have shut for the long term, and have taken to fantasising about exotic climes with easy living.
"People in tech hubs like Silicon Valley are looking at other places to live that are cheaper, safer and handled better," says Patri Friedman, a former Google employee who founded the Seasteading Institute, a non-profit dedicated to the idea. "Whether that is a single family seastead, or moving to one of the tax-friendly countries and working on building charter cities for founders around the world."
Friedman says he is seeing "a lot" of interest, with peers emailing for advice on where to move in the past month.
Attempting a large, deep ocean floating city is "really hard", he says, but he is in discussions with some "floating city developers" about the potential of a coastal pod community as part of a proposal to build a charter city, the location of which he is "not ready to announce".
Friedman first floated the idea in 2008, when he co-wrote a book Seasteading: Homesteading the High Seas with a Google colleague. It included sketches of a lawless flotilla in the San Francisco Bay, that he described at the time as "Burning Man meets Silicon Valley meets the water".
It was a plan that would have made Friedman's grandfather Milton, the Nobel-prize winning economist, adviser to Margaret Thatcher and libertarian figurehead, proud. The designs fell into the hands of Peter Thiel, a PayPal founder and early Facebook investor, who wrote Friedman a US$500,000 (NZ$771,000) cheque. Friedman quit his job to found the Seasteading Institute, where Thiel took up a board position.
The idea inspired a seprate start-up, BlueSeed, which failed to reach its $18m to create a ship community 12 miles off the coast of northern California in 2014, where tech workers without US visas could work for Silicon Valley companies. BlueSeed claimed to have reached just over $10m.
In 2017, by which time Thiel had quit its board, the Seasteading Institute signed an agreement with French Polynesian officials, who were encouraged by the concept as a mitigation for rising sea levels, that would allow it to build a floating, self-governed city off the coast.
But residents of Tahiti, the most populous of the archipelago, feared the project was an act of "tech colonialism", while local radio host Alexandre Taliercio branded it both "visionary genius" and "megalomania". In January 2018, officials announced that the memorandum was void.
Separately, Elwartowski and Thepdet, after escaping Thailand, are building a community of sea pods and "SeaBnBs" in Linton Bay, Panama, a mile away from a marina and 160 yards from a lush green uninhabited island. This time around, they are using Panama's flag.
"We never wanted to 'create a nation' as Thailand accused us of," says the Bitcoin investor, whose Thai seastead cost US$150,000 in total. Now, they are focused on ecotourism, planning to build 30 pods, which start at US$195,000.
They are looking for tech specialists and engineers to join, and say they have had more than 50 people apply to for a role, with five already flying out to the marina.
"Seasteaders have found out it is probably better to make an agreement with the government, after the Thailand episode," says Titus Gebel, founder of German mining company Deutsche Rohstoff and chief executive of Tipolis, a business developing semi-autonomous cities run by private companies.
The cost per square foot of a floating platform seems too high for the trade-off of sea tax and improved governance from being in international waters. When asked whether Thiel will be buying a seastead, Friedman points out that "they aren't up to billionaire standards yet".
But an ocean utopia might not yet be dead in the water. Cities like Singapore, that are concerned about the impact of rising sea levels are already considering floating platforms as the threat of global warming becomes more apparent.
"If there is investment in floating land, this could drop the price of seasteading in international waters and that could put us, at the bare minimum, a decade away, but most likely three" says Dr Mark Lutter, founder of the non-profit Charter Cities Institute.
Friedman, who says he still has an interest in "starting sovereign cities", has turned his attention to a slightly less ambitious goal of building self-governed cities in developing countries, having been handed $4.5m from Thiel and the same from a number of investors like Marc Andreessen and Bitcoin heavyweights Roger Ver and Balaji Srinivasan.
He is joined by Ryan Rzepecki, who sold his electric bike company Jump to Uber for $200m, and Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, cofounder of Flutterwave, a Nigerian fintech valued at more than $150m, who is looking for people to invest, and move to his Nigerian "Talent City".
Friedman, who accepts earlier criticism of seasteading as "fair", believes charter cities, where a host nation agrees to sign off land to be redeveloped and create a politically autonomous thriving business hub will be embraced by locals.
"I don't care what some woke white person halfway around the world thinks," he says. "I care about whether the people in our cities and the people in those countries believe that the cities have improved their lives".
- Telegraph Media Group