Paddy Roy Bates, the self-proclaimed prince of Sealand, was almost 80 when I met him in the summer of 2000. He was silvery and straight-backed — very much the model of a modern major, which he was in the British Army during World War II, when he survived frostbite, malaria, snakebites and a German bomb that shattered his jaw so badly a surgeon told him no woman would ever love him. So he married a former beauty queen named Joan and made her the princess of Sealand.
Let me explain.
Bates hustled after the war, running boats that brought meat, rubber and fish into a Britain that was broke and weary. He saw that the government hadn't torn down some of the stout stone and steel gunnery towers that had guarded the Thames.
So in 1965, Bates and a crew boarded one — in the international waters of the North Sea — and began Radio Essex, a "pirate" station, to broadcast 24 hours a day the music — the Beatles, the Kinks and Rolling Stones — that the BBC doled out only in discreet hours. He declared the 120-foot-long steel platform the nation of Sealand. And when the British navy sent a boat close by, Bates' son, Michael, fired warning shots.
Father and son were brought to court. But a judge who referred to "this swashbuckling incident" ruled that since Sealand lay seven nautical miles outside British waters, British courts had no jurisdiction.
The Bates took that as recognition. They called Sealand a principality, which entailed less paperwork than a kingdom, created a national flag, stamps, passports, currency with Joan's arresting profile and a motto — "E Mare Libertas," or "From the Sea, Freedom."
The Bates moved aboard Sealand, probably the rustiest, creaky, tiny and precarious country in the world. Bates had ambitions to make his platform principality a tax-free, rule-free international banking center. A buccaneer of a German businessman once captured the platform while Sealand's royal family was buying groceries onshore. But Bates hired a helicopter, came down a rope and took back his dominion at gunpoint.
Bates died this week at the age of 91. His wife, Joan, survives him. I remember them in the summer of 2000, trading memories and smiles about all their close calls, big dreams and improbable adventures. They seemed to have a kingdom with each other.
"I like a bit of adventure," Prince Roy told us. "It's the old British tradition."