For every dozen published hot takes and news peg-centric articles, there’s at least one or two pieces that seemingly appear out of the ether, the destined-to-go-viral expose on a small town gone rogue or a diamond-smuggling mafioso turned beloved middle school teacher. This series, Behind The Story, will unveil the origins of some of the more surprising or outlandish stories featured in The Sunday Long Read.
In this week’s Behind the Story, award-winning journalist Sophie Elmhirst shares how a quarantine-induced obsession with the quixotic human—a few of them, at least—desire to create a floating utopia turned into the epic tale of one expensive nautical dream that was destined to fail. This piece was first published by The Guardian and featured in the Sept. 12 edition of Sunday Long Reads.
Sonia Weiser: How did you first hear about Satoshi? What was your initial entry point into the story and how did you navigate where to go from there?
Sophie Elmhirst: I came across the Satoshi ship while researching a bunch of man-made floating island schemes. For some reason I’d become slightly obsessed by the admittedly small trend of people trying to create new communities in the middle of the ocean. (This was back in deep lockdown, when such an idea might have seemed more appealing).) When I started talking to Grant Romundt – one of the trio of entrepreneurs behind the Satoshi – we mostly chatted about his SeaPods scheme which is still ongoing. The Satoshi was just part of the background. But once I spoke to my editor – David Wolf at the Guardian – we realised that even though the idea fell at pretty much the first hurdle, the Satoshi was this wonderful stand-alone parable that deserved its own story. I mean, a lot of these floating utopias never get close to leaving the drawing board, but these guys had actually gone out and bought a cruise ship.
SW: What about the event in 2010 made it seem like the most compelling way to start off the article? Were you toying around with starting the piece any other scenes before settling on this one?
SE: Yes, my first draft didn’t start that way, but just went straight in with purchase of the ship. My editor felt we needed to understand where these guys were coming from right from the start, and give the reader a little more sense of their intellectual / political roots and influences. Originally, I’d had a lot of this further down in the piece, but he figured that once you were off and away on the cruise ship you wouldn’t want to leave it or slow down to explain its background, so you should get the back story out of the way first. I think he was right (as usual).
SW: What was the hardest part of reporting and writing this from a purely technical standpoint?
SE: I guess like a lot of people reporting international stories over the last 18 months – not going anywhere, or meeting any of the protagonists face to face. Mostly, I just really wanted to get on that ship. So there was just a lot of gathering material and colour in bits and pieces from wherever I could, and stitching it together. It was a shame that two of the three main subjects (Elwartowski and Koch) didn’t want to talk to me, and I know that their perspective would have given the piece different dimensions and a greater and probably more complicated depth. But they committed so much to the internet – Reddit / Facebook / the YouTube documentary series about the Thai seastead – that I felt I could be pretty confident in my account.
SW: How long were you working on this for?
SE: It’s always on and off, but I think I was first researching floating ideas in February and spoke to Grant for the first time then, too. So in total about 6/7 months, but with plenty of gaps and other projects along the way. I was still interviewing people in August – it took a while to track down Captain Harris, who was worth the wait.
SW: What was the initial pitch? Was the Guardian the first publication you pitched it to and if not, how many others said no? (if you could include the original pitch, that would be amazing. If not, no worries.)
SE: I didn’t really have an initial pitch – I’ve worked with my editor at the Guardian for a long time, so I guess ideas tend to come out of conversations now. And I didn’t take it anywhere else – he’d already heard about the Satoshi, so was on board (sorry) from the start.
SW: Throughout the piece, there are hints of your amusement and incredulousness. How do you find the right ratio of journalistic detachment and winking at the audience?
SE: I hope I never push it too far – that’s a fear. Especially as I find that even when I’m writing about people doing absurd or even objectionable things, there’s usually still something I’m drawn to about them, or am at least fascinated by. I find it very hard not to develop some degree of fondness for nearly everyone I write about. (I realise that’s not necessarily a good thing, or at least not something I should admit to?) But I mean, bar a few real horror shows, they’re usually just a person trying to do something they think is a good idea – and I’ve done enough idiotic things to know that you don’t usually set out to mess up. It’s too easy as a writer to look in from the outside, when you already know the end of the story, and judge or mock. But of course it would be disingenuous to say I wasn’t both amused and incredulous in this piece. And also that there wasn’t an element of relish at having some fun at the expense of an idea whose foundational politics I find pretty challenging. I just hope it didn’t come across as snark for snark’s sake, which I’m not a fan of. After all, there were moments – Romundt zooming down the water slides by himself – that I found unambiguously delightful.