Founding the Free Academy

Reflections from Key West

We arrived after a beautiful sunset on November 11th following a few days of heavy winds, high seas and cloudy skies as we crossed the Gulf Stream. I only mention the clouds because we drained our batteries and couldn't start my engine for the approach. But Sovereignty's a sailboat and we were ready to go ashore, so we sailed in from the South along the main ship channel. Another captain called it the Washing Machine, and I can't think of a better description. We were getting beat up by the wind and waves, fighting to stay in the channel and praying we could make our way to anchor without the motor. Even worse, there was barely any charge left on our only working laptop/chartplotter, so I'm doing my best to navigate based on memory from the one night I spent here in July of 2012. We had enough juice to check our position 3 or 4 times for a few seconds each, and try to memorize the route to our anchorage. We mistook part of Key West for Tank Island at first and checked the computer just in time to pull a quick controlled jibe and avoid running aground, but that was the end of the laptop battery. We finally made it around the SW point and into a protected harbor where the waves died and the wind dropped to a nice 10-15 knots, but we had to fight a 2knot current pushing us back to sea. We sailed close-hauled towards Flemming Key where I planned to anchor, passed the marina I had considered trying to sail into, but ended up hitting the sandy bottom in a shallow anchorage off Wisteria Island. Like my dad used to say parking his car, "We're not there till you feel a bump." We were there.

We had to sleep another night at an angle, but that wasn't hard. A bunch of people dinghied over to help the next day. Eric set our anchor out in deeper water and Taj let us borrow a battery to start the engine. At 6pm we motored off at high tide, but just barely. We had to raise the sails to heel over and reduce the draft, running full throttle on the engine and pulling on the anchor line we slowly made our way out of there. Went into the marina and walked on dry land for the first time since Little Inagua a week earlier.

Key West has been a lot of fun. The people are cool and it feels so good to be eating real food again. We cut it incredibly close on the rations for the voyage. It seemed like we had plenty when we set off, but by the end we were boiling and filtering dirty water from the tank, and sifting through a moldy bag of rice for the good bits, cause there was little else to eat. My last two meals on the boat consisted of tuna in tomato paste. And two days later ate the greatest meal of my life at Blue Heaven, courtesy of Mrs. Magin and Mrs. Ferris. Each of us got the surf and turf, lobster and filet, and the joy it brought us is indescribable.

The last month feels like a year. I couldn't begin to tell all the stories in a blog post, but we captured some incredible footage and I can't wait to share a taste of the adventure with all of you when we release our film. We working on another trailer as I type, and I'm hoping to have the movie ready in about a month.

I hope it lives up to your expectations. I tried to emphasize from the start that this was all improv and we had no idea what was going to happen. We only stayed a week on the island, didn't exactly build what I had imagined, but the real goal was to find out more about ourselves and the Universe, and I don't think I've ever learned more in a month.

I also came to realize it's time to sell Sovereingty. She's treated me well, but she was always a means to an end. A sailboat is a cheap way to explore the islands, but they're slow, expensive to maintain, and have to stay anchored in deep water. I'm looking to downsize. I've learned this boat is more than I need, and this tool I used to free my mind has become a ball and chain.

For my next house, I want to build a canoe with trolling motors on outriggers with a retractable solar panel roof, probably a 17' aluminum Grunman. And I want to be able to tow it behind an electric bike that I can store aboard. That way I can go just about anywhere, land or sea, and carry plenty of supplies and a comfortable place to sleep. A canoe like that would probably beat Sovereignty in a race, plus I could drag her ashore and sleep easier knowing I'll never drift at anchor.

When I told my brother, he couldn't believe it. "What about your donors? Didn't you promise them a sail to the island? Didn't you say you were going back to establish a colony?"

I did, and I still want to, but I figured out a sailboat isn't the best tool for the job. And Little Inagua might not be the best spot, either. I love that island, but it will be difficult to settle. I need more money if I want to make that happen. But in the mean time, I believe I can help people more effectively if I work where they live, and make it easier to participate.

I baby stepped my way up to this lifestyle, so it's difficult to ask people to just dive in. I want to show people how they could take their own baby steps toward greater autonomy, and I'm thinking a river bank might be a better place to start. That's why I'm planning a Free Academy Campout along the Brazos for the weekend of Dec 13. There will be a nice meteor shower that weekend, and a big waxing gibbeous moon. I still need to work out the details so I'll keep y'all posted, but I'm hoping to have the film ready to screen by then. Everyone's welcome, after all, it's not MY river bank. I'm picturing something like what we did on the island, or a Burning Man festival. We build whatever we like, spend a lot of time relaxing and conversing, then leave without a trace.

Update from Puerto Plata

We've made it to Puerto Plata and the ideas about the Free Academy just keep on rolling. I can't wait to capture some of them on film over the next few weeks...

Before we left, I didn't do a very good job of explaining this project. It's hard because I'm doing it for so many reasons, personal and philosophical, and they mix together in a tangled web. But I'm seeing a thread now, so let me see if I can unravel it.

Why am I sailing to an uninhabited island to build a little habitat, just to leave a few weeks later? And why am I calling it "The Free Academy"?

This is freedom propaganda.

I'm trying to show people a perspective. It might be foreign to some, familiar to others, but probably a faded childhood memory for most. It's a way of seeing the world without judgement. Open to everything and sold on nothing. An honest search for truth.

This perspective isn't an answer to anything. Perspectives never are. But my journey has given me the opportunity to peer from a new vantage point, and I'd love to share a glimpse of my vision with you.

I'm trying to help people to think outside the box, but to do that, first I have to get your attention. Sailing to a desert island seemed like a fun way to do that.

But the island works on several levels. Uninhabited islands are intuition pumps. They're aids to the imagination, tools to help us think. It's been in the philosopher's pocket for centuries: the old desert island scenario. People love to speculate about what would happen in a "state of nature", tabula rasa, and often cite speculation as evidence for various claims. But no one ever runs the experiment! Well, I want to experience it first hand, if only for a short while with a few people.

Is this really a "state of nature" though? We're taking all the modern tools and technology we can afford, and enough food and water to last the trip. Not exactly an extreme survival situation (hopefully!)

But that forces us to examine the whole idea of a "state of nature", that elusive foundation for our social contract. If this freshly inhabited island isn't a blank slate, do blank slates really exist? Because what we're doing is exactly how every society, large and small, in the history of humanity has ever been formed: a few people went to a new place (often already claimed by another group), carrying all the tools and supplies they could manage, and simply continued living their lives.

So should we form a government? Should we claim property rights? Should we vote on these issues? How will we resolve disputes? How will we build infrastructure? What do we need to survive and thrive?

These are the sorts of questions I hope to investigate, and hopefully some of you will think about them too.

But why give it a name? Why does sailing to an island and building a hut deserve a name like "The Free Academy"?

The name is another intuition pump. I made it up to help us think about learning. To force us to examine the question: what exactly is a learning institution? Could four guys on a desert island be a college campus?

Well, we'll be thinking a lot, teaching and learning from one another. What else does it take?

It's important to understand: the hut is not the Academy. The Academy lives in our minds. Like all learning institutions, it's made of people, not buildings. Buildings are just tools we use to make our lives more comfortable.

So we'll establish the Free Academy on an uninhabited island and film the entire endeavor, but it sails with us when we leave. Remember, the Academy lives in our minds. I look forward to sharing our adventure with all of you, and building new Free Academy campuses as I continue my journey.

If you're excited about the project, please help us by sharing this post, and consider making a small donation. We're stretching every penny but could really use another external hard drive, another SD card and I'd sleep better with another anchor, but that's getting expensive... but we'll make do with whatever we have and we're grateful for all your support!
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Michael Fielding 
San Juan, PR
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