Is the Freedom Ship realistic?

by Patri Friedman

This page contains my thoughts on whether the FS project is realistic, as well as a little correspondence I've exchanged with the head of the project. I also have a page containing collected critical comments from other people, which is much more sweeping and covers a lot more concerns:

Collected Criticisms of the Freedom Ship Project

Their comments are a large part of why I believe that the project is unrealistic, and as currently envisioned has huge obstacles in the way of its success.

UPDATE: In early 2008 I was emailed by Colonel Karl Krueger, who said that the US military is interested in mobile offshore bases, and that Norman Nixon and the Freedom Ship team may possibly be involved in a venture.

Note: It seems worth noting that this page was originally written in 2001, and since then nothing substantial has happened with the Freedom Ship project.

My analysis of the project

I wish the project was more realistic, and I would be positively thrilled if I turned out to be wrong and it happened. I think that alternative forms of government are very important, and that the world is lacking in places where libertarians can live freely. In fact I've written a book called Seasteading on that very topic, which outlines what I see as the most realistic path to freedom on the oceans. So I guess I could be considered as a competitor to the Freedom Ship, but really, I'm just an enthusiastic amateur researcher. Because I believe that this area is so important for human development, I think its crucial that money and effort be directed in practical ways down realistic paths by careful people, and not wasted on flim-flam and fantasy.

For a more first-hand report of what sort of project the Freedom Ship is, I highly recommend reading the Who ARE these people? The answer Ship World thread.

Part of the problem appears to be that the project is still in an initial stage, and they don't have a comprehensive design. FSI doesn't have definite answers to some of the suggested problems because they haven't gotten around to solving them yet. However, some of the suggested problems are project-killers - things that, if not addressed, mean that the concept just won't float. While its reasonable for FSI to not have very well thought-out condo layouts yet, it is not reasonable for them to not have detailed answers about the resupply problem, or why the hull won't snap in large waves. I would feel much better about FSI if they publicly admitted some of these problems and discussed their approaches to solving them - indicating that they are being realistic and looking at the project seriously. Instead, they tell the world only the positives, gloss over the problems, and say that all they need is funding to work out the details. This raises bright red flags to my skeptical instincts.

At first, I thought this meant it was probably a con, but since they stopped taking deposits, they are not getting any money from people. The most reasonable explanation I see left which fits the data is that the people behind the project are overenthusiastic visionaries who are more interested in pursuing their fantasy than building a solid basis in reality. Why else would they put effort into designing the healthcare and education systems onboard when they still haven't shown that the ship won't be snapped in two by large waves? Why do they ignore netizens who raise legitimate engineering problems instead of harnessing their expertise? Why do they portray the project as being much more complete than it actually is?

I also feel that the collossal scope of the project is a bad indication. Given that it is an unproven concept, I would expect a realistic business to start small. Instead of making a mile-long city at sea that costs $8B, start out with a cruise ship that costs $200M - $400M. A normal-sized cruise ship might not be quite so seductive a vision, but it could adequately fulfill the goal of Freedom Ship - to provide a seagoing living and working environment for freedom-minded individuals. This is the approach taken by Residensea, which cost $260M, and unlike the Freedom Ship was actually built. (Unfortunately, rumour has it that Residensea only sold half their units, and has lost a lot of money. I'd guess the problem was that they targeted the ultra-luxury market just as the global recession hit. Whatever the reason, if its true that they were a financial failure, that makes it even more unlikely that a much larger project could get funded.) In fact, there are several other cruise ship condo projects happening now (as of 2007), all of them much smaller than the Freedom Ship.

FSI held a seminar/banquet in mid-January 2002 in Florida. Reports from Tom Ledbetter can be found on the collected comments page. I'd love to hear perspectives from any other skeptical folk who attended.

If the Freedom Ship wishes to disprove these claims which I and others are making (which are easy for them to find: my webpages come up at/near the top of a search for "freedom ship scam" on google - currently above the FSI FAQ page :) ), they are welcome to begin presenting independent evidence. For example, they could get their engineering concept audited by an independent agency. If the Honduran government, rather than FSI, issued a press release about a shipyard, that would be nice. Their FAQ could actually contain some of the criticisms leveled at the project, instead of being a puff piece with softball questions

I had a long telephone conversation with a former volunteer director of part of the project. He was clearly a competent individual, extremely successful in his area of business. He contributed a great deal of time and effort because he was excited about the project. Then he made a comment that could have been construed as vaguely critical, and they told him he was no longer welcome. This sort of behavior is a bad sign.

My correspondence with the Freedom Ship International founders

I emailed FSI (12/01) asking about their escrow account. I wanted to verify that it was properly structured and contained deposits on the $50M worth of reservations they claim to have sold. They replied with the following email:

From: Roger M Gooch <freedommkt@juno.com>

Dear Patri:           Thank you for your inquiry! The attorney who has been handling the referenced deposits is Mr. Donald Harrell, with the law firm of Burgess, Harrell and Mancuso in Sarasota, Florida. We have recently amended our reservation/deposit policies and no longer require deposits for the reservation process at this point in time. Pursuant to said policy change, Mr. Harrell was instructed by FSI and has returned previously held deposits.         Again, we thank you for you interest, and we welcome you to attend the Freedom Ship "Meet the Management" Conference January 12, 2002 in Belleair Florida. If you have interest in same, we will glady forward you information and details of same.         Again, thank you for your interest, and we cordially wish you and yours the Happiest of Holidays!    Kindest Regards: Roger M. Gooch- VP-Marketing Freedom Ship International, Inc. email: <mailto:freedommkt@juno.com>freedommkt@juno.com          

If true, this would be substantial evidence against the project being a scam, since the deposits are their revenue stream. In an email to me, Tom Ledbetter wrote:

From: toms-email@charter.net (Thomas Ledbetter)
To: patri@izzy.com
Subject: New info on Ship-world.com
Date: Fri, 18 Jan 2002 08:05:21 GMT

I'm posting my impressions from the "Meet the Management" seminar Jan 12th.
Much more info will follow as I get it typed up.

I'm getting some final info on purchasing ... as you said, things have changed.
I have confirmed that everyone who made a deposit had it returned ... I spoke with several such people.

It's not a scam, it's a dream.

If you are a depositor, please send me an email to confirm or deny that your deposit was returned.


I received the following email from Norm Nixon in January:

X-From_: freedomship@home.com Thu Jan 17 12:35:41 2002
From: "Norman Nixon, PE, CEO" <freedomship@home.com>
To: <patri@izzy.com>
Cc: "Roger Gooch" <freedommkt@juno.com>,
"M. Freeman" <mikeandmarcy@compuserve.com>
Subject: Freedom Ship
Date: Thu, 17 Jan 2002 12:35:33 -0500
MIME-Version: 1.0
X-Priority: 3
X-MSMail-Priority: Normal
X-MimeOLE: Produced By Microsoft MimeOLE V6.00.2600.0000

Dear Patri,   You have no basis for your accusations against our Freedom Ship Project.   We told you how you can check us out as well as our Escrow account. But you either did not check or you are now using statements you know for a fact to be wrong.   We are a Professional Engineering Company, Engineering Solutions, Inc. Incorporated and licensed in the State of Florida. You are welcome to check with the State of Florida and see if we have ever had any complaints registered against us or if we have ever been accused of committing any type of crime.   There are people on Ship-World who are also making statements with no basis to back up these statements.   We have nothing to hide. We are probably the most open organization you will ever find.   Come visit us and I will personally introduce you to our attorneys, our banker, and our accountants.   But if you continue to make the kind of statements you are now making, while refusing to accept my offer to check us out, you are laying the grounds for a law suit, which we will actively pursue.     Norman Nixon,  PE, CEO

And I responded:

Dear Norman.

I clearly expressed on my webpage exactly what the basis for my opinions was, which is not illegal as far as I know. You are correct that you provided me the basis to check out your escrow account, I simply had not gotten around to doing so. Based on reports from other people who have met you in person, I am withdrawing my claim that your project is a scam. If you look at the webpage, you will find that it has been modified. However, I still think you are smoking crack, for the reasons listed on my site. Regardless of your attorneys, bankers, and accountants, or the openness of your organization, you have still failed to publically address a number of significant criticisms of your project - some of them by an experienced marine engineer. You are working on education and healthcare systems when you still haven't shown that your boat won't have its back broken by big waves.

Instead of focusing on the fantasy of the Freedom Ship, why don't you take the time to figure out if its actually practical? And if you have done so already, why don't you make the information public? Your FAQ is practically a PR piece, containing 5 softball questions. I dare you to make your FAQ include the tough questions from many people that are quoted on my webpage. Until you lay these questions to rest and prove that your project is not an impossible dream, I will continue to trumpet its dubiousness to the world.

Don't you find your threatened censorship to be a bit hypocritical, coming from an organization whose name begins with the word "Freedom"?


To which I received the following email:

X-From_: freedomship@home.com Wed Feb 20 12:54:49 2002
From: "Norman Nixon, PE, CEO" <freedomship@home.com>
To: "Patri Friedman" <patri@izzy.com>
Subject: Re: Freedom Ship
Date: Wed, 20 Feb 2002 12:54:42 -0500
MIME-Version: 1.0
X-Priority: 3
X-MSMail-Priority: Normal
X-MIMEOLE: Produced By Microsoft MimeOLE V6.00.2600.0000

Patri,

Just one point and I have other things to do.

I am a Registered Professional Engineer.

I have several Registered Professional Engineers on my staff and we have
discussed Freedom Ship with many other Registered Professional Engineers.

Not only is what we are proposing feasible, but it is quite easy and very
economical.

I have had 3 other serious people ask me about feasibility and I have told
them to hire their own Registered Professional Engineer and have him call
me. In all 3 cases they were very surprised at what their engineer told
them.

I am requesting that you do the same.

I am willing to discuss Freedom Ship with any other Professional Engineer,
but I will not try and explain structural steel design to the millions of
people who claim to be experts. It is a waste of my time.

 

Norman Nixon PE


To which I replied with this email, which bounced, and never got through.

To: "Norman Nixon, PE, CEO" <freedomship@home.com>
From: Patri Friedman <patri@izzy.com>
Subject: Re: Freedom Ship
Cc:
Bcc:
X-Attachments:

>I have had 3 other serious people ask me about feasibility and I have told
>them to hire their own Registered Professional Engineer and have him call
>me. In all 3 cases they were very surprised at what their engineer told
>them.
>
>I am requesting that you do the same.

Do you have the names and phone numbers of those engineers? Why aren't the results of their evaluations listed on your webpage?

Its very easy for you to claim that the design is solid, but why should anyone believe you? And why should *we* pay in order to prove the validity of *your* idea? When "serious people" write business plans, or start ventures, they don't ask other people to believe their claims without proof, and they don't ask other people to pay for the proof. They understand that the burden is on them to prove that their idea is technically feasible.

And if you think I'm unreasonably skeptical, just wait until you talk to a big-money lender. If you want people to lend you billions of dollars, you are going to need detailed plans and independent engineering analyses of those plans. If you continue trying to drum up enthusiasm without having publically proved your basic concept, skeptics like me are going to dismiss you as an impractical visionary, so get used to it.

>I am willing to discuss Freedom Ship with any other Professional Engineer,
>but I will not try and explain structural steel design to the millions of
>people who claim to be experts. It is a waste of my time.

You don't have to. You can pay someone else to analyze your design, and make the results of the analysis and the contact information for the review firm public. That would go a lot farther towards establishing credibility than waving your hands and saying "Trust me, trust me", which appears to be your preferred method.



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