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The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime

The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime

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by William Langewiesche

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The open ocean--that vast expanse of international waters--spreads across three-fourths of the globe. It is a place of storms and danger, both natural and manmade. And at a time when every last patch of land is claimed by one government or another, it is a place that remains radically free.

With typically understated lyricism, William Langewiesche explores this


The open ocean--that vast expanse of international waters--spreads across three-fourths of the globe. It is a place of storms and danger, both natural and manmade. And at a time when every last patch of land is claimed by one government or another, it is a place that remains radically free.

With typically understated lyricism, William Langewiesche explores this ocean world and the enterprises--licit and illicit--that flourish in the privacy afforded by its horizons. But its efficiencies are accompanied by global problems--shipwrecks and pollution, the hard lives and deaths of the crews of the gargantuan ships, and the growth of two pathogens: a modern and sophisticated strain of piracy and its close cousin, the maritime form of the new stateless terrorism.

This is the outlaw sea that Langewiesche brings startlingly into view. The ocean is our world, he reminds us, and it is wild.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Astonishing . . . Langeweische's narrative achieves an almost operatic grandeur . . . As [he] demonstrates time and time again in this brave, often electrifying book, [the sea] is a world that is both new and very old, and we ignore it at our own peril.” —Nathaniel Philbrick, The New York Times Book Review

The Outlaw Sea is impossible to put down.” —People

The New York Times
The book ends in a place called Alang on the Gulf of Cambay in the Arabian Sea, where worn-out ships are driven onto the beach and cut into scrap by Indian laborers who are primitively equipped and in almost constant danger...Watching the mammoth metal corpse of a ship being carved into pieces, he cannot help seeing the eviscerated wreck as "a monument to the forces of a new world." As he demonstrates time and time again in this brave, often electrifying book, it is a world that is both new and very old, and we ignore it at our peril.—Nathaniel Philbrick
Publishers Weekly
"Our world is an ocean world, and it is wild," Langewiesche writes. He then poses a powerful question: have the industrialized nations of the world given up control of the shipping industry to the demands of the free market? And if this free market is indeed the most efficient and profitable system, what price, socially, politically and environmentally will it extract from the human beings who use it? From the panic-stricken bridge of a sinking oil tanker to the filth-clogged beaches resulting from a destroyed ship in India, Langewiesche (American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center) vividly describes a global cabal of unscrupulous ship owners, well-intentioned but overmatched regulators, and poorly trained and poorly paid seamen who risk their lives every day to make this new global economy function. "It is not exactly a criminal industry," Langewiesche explains, "but it is an amoral and stubbornly anarchic one." Accidents happen with alarming regularity. A sobering account of the 1994 sinking of the passenger ferry Estonia in the Baltic is the centerpiece of this book. Brutally handled, poorly maintained and perhaps fatally flawed in design, the ship capsized and sank in a raging gale, taking 852 unsuspecting people to a watery grave. Langewiesche painstakingly details the botched accident investigation-complete with bureaucratic incompetence, backpedaling elected officials and the persistent efforts of a German journalist with conspiracy on her mind. In the end, no conclusion was drawn, and the Estonia sits at the bottom of the Baltic, a silent monument to the cost of a free market gone awry. Equal parts incisive political harangue and lyrical reflection on the timelessness of the sea, this book brilliantly illuminates a system the world economy depends upon, but will not take responsibility for. Agent, Chuck Verrill. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This latest work from the prolific Atlantic Monthly investigative reporter is a genuine page-turner, but it suffers from an amorphousness common to books expanded from several separate stories into a narrative less significant than its disturbing parts. Over a third of the text is taken up with recounting the avoidable 1994 sinking of the Estonia in a storm on a routine run to Sweden and the spin-controlled aftermath. This was a sad and terrifying incident, but the dissection of the competing legal proceedings that followed are inconclusive, and the sheer volume of attention assigned this disaster diminishes far shorter anecdotes on contemporary piracy and the South Asian ship-breaking industry. Langewiesche's thesis-that the seas are as anarchic and ruthless as they are vast-would have been better served by a lengthier narrative. Langewiesche's American Ground, a report on the Ground Zero cleanup, was praised generally but denounced bitterly by New York City firefighters; his efforts here are evenhanded to the point of not offering a memorable argument. Yet given that each chapter is masterly by itself and that the Estonia episode did not appear on its own in the Atlantic, this is worthy of acquisition by a range of pubic libraries and inclusion in maritime/criminology academic collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Lest we forget: The ocean is cold, cruel, and unforgiving. Even though the vast majority of the Earth's surface is salt water, as the comparatively small landmass is increasingly tamed and corralled, it becomes easy to forget that the teeming seas have not and never can be controlled or organized in any meaningful manner. Langewiesche (American Ground, 2002, etc.) takes it upon himself to remind readers of this in an effective, occasionally savage text. Although the author spends some time discussing one of the open sea's more modern threats, terrorism (Osama bin Laden purportedly owns a small fleet of ghost freighters), he first deals with a problem so old many probably thought it gone for good: piracy. "Naval patrols hardly matter at all," notes Langewiesche in typically dry, dour fashion: 1,200 pirate attacks were recorded between 1998 and 2002. He deals in depth with one: the Alondra Rainbow, hijacked in the Strait of Malacca in 1999 by a highly coordinated band who tossed its crew into the sea in a life raft. The castaways were rescued ten days later, but the ship itself, worth some $20 million with its cargo, simply disappeared. Whether discussing hijacking, the black market in dismantled ships, or the horrors of ferry accidents, Langewiesche again and again beats home the point that the sea is uncontrollable. This fact of nature is exacerbated by the shadowy man-made rules of ship registration: a vessel can sail under one nation's flag, be registered by another, and claim as "owners" a murky network of companies that are often no more than brass nameplates on a door. There are times when one wishes to tie Langewiesche down and make him follow his streams of thought more thoroughly;this work could well have been a third longer, but what is here is nevertheless impressive and well-wrought. Adapted from an article he wrote for the Atlantic, a fiery piece of work that speaks from a primal and awesome place.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.57(d)

Read an Excerpt


A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime

North Point Press

Copyright © 2003 William Langewiesche
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-86547-581-4

Chapter One

Since we live on land, and usually beyond sight of the sea, it is easy to forget that our world is an ocean world, and to ignore what in practice that means. Some shores perhaps can be tamed, but beyond the horizon lies the wave-maker, an anarchic expanse, the open ocean of the high seas. Under its many names, and with variations in color and mood, this single ocean spreads across three fourths of the globe. Geographically it is not the exception to our world but by far its greatest defining feature. By social measures it is important too. At a time when every last patch of land is claimed by one government or another, and when citizenship is treated as an absolute condition of human existence, it is a place that remains radically free. Expressing that freedom are more than 40,000 large merchant ships that ply the open ocean, among uncountable numbers of smaller coastal craft, and between them carry nearly the full weight of international trade-almost all the raw materials and finished products on which our lives are built. These ships are crewed by mariners of varying quality drawn from the poor worldwide, and mixed together without reference to language or nationality. In many cases they are owned or managed by secretive one-ship companies so ghostly and unencumbered that they exist only on paper, or maybe as a brass plate on some faraway foreign door. But it is the ships themselves that truly embody the anarchy of the open ocean: they are possibly the most independent objects on earth, many of them without allegiances of any kind, frequently changing their identity, and assuming whatever nationality, or "flag," allows them to sail as they please.

No one pretends that a ship comes from the home port painted on its stern, or that it has ever been anywhere near. Panama is the largest maritime nation on earth, and is followed by bloody Liberia, which hardly exists. No coastline is required either. There are ships that hail from La Paz, in landlocked Bolivia. There are ships that hail from the Mongolian desert. The registries themselves are rarely based in the countries whose name they carry: Panama is considered to be an old-fashioned "flag," because its consulates collect the registration fees, but "Liberia" is run by a company in Virginia, "Cambodia" by another in South Korea, and the proud "Bahamas" by a group in the City of London. The system, generally known as "flags of convenience," began around World War II, but its big expansion occurred only in the 1990s-and in direct reaction to an international attempt to impose controls. By shopping globally, shipowners found that they could choose the laws that were applied to them rather than haplessly submitting as ordinary citizens must to the arbitrary jurisdictions of their native states. The effect was to lower operating costs-for crews and upkeep-and to limit the financial consequences of the occasional foundering or loss of a ship. The advantages were so great that even the most conservative and well-established shipowners, who were perhaps not naturally inclined to play along, found that they had no choice but to do so. What's more, because of the registration fees that the shipowners could offer to cash-strapped governments, the various flags competed for the business, and the deals kept getting better.

The resulting arrangement, though deeply subversive, has an undeniably elegant design. It constitutes an exact reversal of sovereignty's intent, and a perfect mockery of national conceits. It is free enterprise at its freest. And it is by no means always a bad thing. I've been told, for example, that the cost of transporting tea to England has fallen a hundredfold since the days of sail, and that there are similar efficiencies across the board. But the efficiencies are accompanied by global problems, too, including the playing of the poor against the poor, the persistence of huge fleets of dangerous ships, the pollution they cause, the implicit disposability of the crews who work aboard, and the parallel growth of two particularly resilient pathogens that exist now on the ocean-the first being a modern and sophisticated strain of piracy, and the second its politicized cousin, the maritime form of the new stateless terrorism.

These patterns are strong in part because they fit so well with certain unchanging realities of the sea-the ocean's easy disregard for human constructs, its size, the terrible strength of its storms, and the privacy provided by its horizons. They are not, however, vestiges of a swashbuckling past-though maritime traditions are involved but rather seem to be rooted in a new and particularly calculated form of chaos. Though the morals and motivations are not the same, there are striking similarities between the methods of shipowners, al Qaeda-style terrorists, and certain pirate groups-all of whom have learned to operate without the need for a home base and, more significantly, to escape the forces of law and order not by running away but by complying with existing laws and regulations in order to hide in plain sight. The result has been to place the oceans increasingly beyond government control. For public consumption in cities like London and Washington, D.C., there are still brave words about the promise of technology and the taming of the sea. Privately, though, the officials who are charged with doing the work-whether imposing navigational and safety standards on ships, or fighting seaborne terrorism and criminality-now admit that unlike land or air, the sea is a domain that can barely be policed. This is neither a lament nor a forecast of doom, but a close observation of the ocean in our time. The ocean is our world, and it is wild.

The Kristal was a typical casualty of the anarchic sea. It was an all-purpose tanker, a steel behemoth 560 feet long. It had been built in Italy in 1974, and for years had ridden the downward spiral of the maritime market under a progression of names, owners, and nationalities. By the winter of 2001, at the age of twenty-seven, it was nominally Maltese. The ship belonged to an obscure Italian family who owned it through a Maltese company that existed only on paper, and that operated through several layers of other companies, variously of Switzerland and Monaco.

Though the Kristal was well painted, and regularly passed inspections, it was at least five years beyond the ideal retirement age, and had grown decrepit and difficult to maintain. Its owners kept it sailing anyway, apparently with the intention of squeezing a final few years of profitability from the ship before selling it to other operators still lower down the food chain or, if none could be found, directly to a shipbreaker for the scrap-metal value of the hull. They were unable to attract business from the major oil companies, most of which try to apply stringent standards to the tankers they charter and generally shy away from vessels past the age of twenty, but there were other customers and cargoes available. Throughout the previous year the Kristal had engaged in a globe-circling trade, by which it carried molasses from India to Western Europe, kerosene from Latvia to Argentina, and soy oil from Argentina around Cape Horn to India again. The molasses was a sign of the Kristal's final decline: it is the product left over from refined sugar, a cargo carried on the cheap by ships that tend to be one step removed from the grave. There is little risk to the principals involved-the customers and shipping companies-because the hulls and cargoes are insured, and in the event of an accident and a spill, molasses disperses easily and disappears without causing much trouble. It is no small matter in choosing a ship that the same is true of Third World crews.

The Kristal's customer in February of 2001 was a subsidiary of the big British sugar company Tate & Lyle, which had contracted with the ship's owners to bring a full, heavy load of 28,000 tons of molasses from two ports on the west coast of India to an as yet unspecified European destination, which would be decided en route on the basis of the market. The crew consisted of thirty-five men of various nationalities, mostly Pakistani-about ten men more than usual for a ship of this type, because they would need to carry out repairs while under way. Most of the repairs consisted of chipping away at rust that, under the paint, spread like a cancer across the main deck and through the hull; there is evidence that important welding was also being done. The crew knew about the Kristal's condition, but were glad for their jobs. The captain was a forty-three-year-old Croatian named Allen Marin-one of many such officers from formerly Communist states, who are known to be competent and able to live on low salaries. He was well liked by his subordinates, though some thought that he seemed strangely uninterested in the technical aspects of running the ship. It was noticed, for instance, that during the important final loading of the molasses in India, he and the chief mate, another Croatian, went ashore overnight, leaving supervision of the work to a junior officer. No one objected. The attitude was to let the captain have his fun. The Kristal was a run-down ship, but a fairly happy one.

On February 4, 2001, it set out across the Indian Ocean on a route that would go through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Gibraltar. The days passed in monotonous succession, broken by the routine of alternating six-hour watches, the anticipation of work and of rest. During their time off the men ate and slept, and relaxed by playing Ping-Pong or watching movies in the messrooms. They called the superstructure where they lived the "iron house," because it was made of metal and hemmed them in. It stood aft on the hull, and rose five levels above the main deck to the bridge. It was not uncomfortable, but after a while it seemed small. The crew's conversations there were almost exclusively about the ship, because after many months together it provided all that was left to be said.

The Indian Ocean was calm. Word came that the destination would be Amsterdam. There was a period of concern partway to the Red Sea, when a portion of the deck suddenly bulged upward, breaking some welds. Captain Marin reported the problem to the management company, and received a private reply, presumably to carry on. Only one crewman expressed grave concern. He was one of three Spaniards on board, a bearish, bearded forty-one-year-old pumpman named Juan Carlos Infante Casas, who despite his enormous physical strength had a reputation as a worrier. Infante Casas's duties included operating the valves and cargo pumps, and sounding the tanks from overhead on the deck. Like the other Spaniards, both of whom were mechanics, he came from Galicia, along La Costa del Morte, Spain's western Atlantic shore. He had gone to sea out of restlessness as a young man, and had never married, and still lived with his mother, to whom he was close. After six months aboard now, he was looking forward to leaving the ship just a few days ahead, at a scheduled fueling stop and partial crew change in Gibraltar. In messroom conversation he said that he knew the Kristal too well to trust it on the winter Atlantic. The other Spaniards felt more equable, though they, too, were scheduled to leave at Gibraltar. The older of them was a lean, graying man, nearly sixty, named José Manuel Castineiras, who said that he neither regretted nor enjoyed his life at sea but considered it to be his destiny. It was easier for him than for his friend Infante Casas, therefore, when word came after the Kristal passed through the Suez Canal that the stop in Gibraltar had been eliminated: the ship would fuel instead at Ceuta, on the Moroccan side of the strait, and the crew change would be delayed until Amsterdam. That, too, was destiny.

The passage through the Mediterranean was uneventful. To keep to schedule, Captain Marin maintained the full engine speed of 88 rpm, driving the heavy ship westward at 11 knots through six-foot waves that were typically steep for that sea. The hull shuddered sometimes, but it barely pitched, and it rolled side-to-side by only 5 degrees-not enough even to spill coffee. Spray wetted the forward deck. The crew chipped rust. Life in the iron house continued normally.

The Kristal arrived at Ceuta on February 24. A storm was forecast for the Atlantic ahead, along the Portuguese and Spanish coasts, and gale warnings were in effect farther to the north, for the Bay of Biscay. Marin ordered 400 tons of bunker fuel, enough for another twelve days. While the ship took on the fuel, Juan Carlos Infante Casas went ashore and called his mother. When she answered the phone, he said, "Hola España!," which is what he always said. He told her that he was calling from Ceuta, and that his return to Galicia had been delayed. He said he was worried about the ship. He asked about the weather in Galicia. His mother reported that it was very nice.

But her view was limited, as land views are, to the orderly little neighborhood that surrounded her, and to the sky immediately overhead. At most she might have seen on television a simplified prediction that tomorrow the sun would hide behind clouds. While fueling in Ceuta, Captain Marin had access to more-sophisticated forecasts, as well as to reports of troubles existing ahead-there were ships out there having a hard go of it off Spain and France. In earlier times he might have been expected to go gently on his aging ship, and to wait in port until the weather had passed. But on the modern free-market sea, where profit margins are slim, delays of even a few hours seem unacceptably costly, and a captain who develops a reputation for timidity will soon find that someone has taken his place. As soon as the fueling was finished, Captain Marin ordered the ship to get under way, and in the last hours before midnight of February 24 he sent the Kristal sailing fast past Gibraltar and on into the Atlantic night.

At once the ride grew rough. The swells at first were about twelve feet high, black masses more felt than seen, through which the ship bashed and rolled. The conditions as of yet were not worrisome: the local winds remained light, and in technical terms the sea state seemed to be only about Force 5, on a scale of twelve. Nonetheless, the swells were evidence of a significant disturbance ahead, and the barometer was falling, and it was clear that worse was yet to come. Captain Marin maintained full engine speed. The weather's resistance slowed the ship by about two knots as it fought northwestward to round the Cape of São Vicente, on the Portuguese coast.

At 2:00 a.m. a twenty-five-year-old Pakistani deck cadet named Naeem Uddin joined the officers on the bridge to begin his regular six-hour watch.


Excerpted from THE OUTLAW SEA by WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE Copyright ©2003 by William Langewiesche. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

William Langewiesche is the author of four previous books, Cutting for Sign, Sahara Unveiled, Inside the Sky, and American Ground. He is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, where The Outlaw Sea originated.

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The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author covers a lot of terrority in the first third of the book, gripping the reader with harrowing tales of terrorism, modern day pirates, and neglectful owners running their ships until they deteriorate and are lost at sea. His coverage of the 'wild west' frontier of the byzantine world of ship registry is particularly eye opening. But it's when he delves into several ship sinkings that the book bogs down. Incredibly, a full third of the book is taken up with the exhaustive coverage of the 1994 sinking of the auto ferry Estonia in the Baltic. The reader comes away wondering why such detail over one tragedy since he otherwise adequately covers the topic pretty well. He regains his footing when he takes us to the largely unregulated world of salvage of hundreds of commercial vessels each year, raising important environmental and social issues and which is fully in keeping with the book's main theme. For all that the book is an interesting if shallow (pun intended) coverage of a watery world filled with real life villians and heroes, a domain covering 3/4 of our planet but rarely given much thought. The author should consider a second book, taking up where he leaves the reader on the beach.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Willam Langewiesche's book, The Outlaw Sea, begins at page eight with a riveting account of the sinking of the tanker Kristal. He covers the history and happenings of human life on our earth's oceans like, well, an ocean. The two hundred and thirty-nine page book ends with these mammoth iron arks being purposely given a full head of steam and then run aground on an Arabian Sea beach named Alang. There, over many months, hundreds of thousands of Indian's methodically rip these hulks apart like an army of brown ants ravaging a fallen gray elephant. Also uncovered are the shadowy corporations who own so many of these liability-ridden ships and the individuals they hire to ply the watery vastness of our planet from within these vessels. The threat of shipboard WMD-terrorism and modern day machine-gun-wielding pirates are also given ink. A far too long chapter about the sinking of the ferry Estonia (in which 852 Europeans died in the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea) gives the American reader a taste of how Hindenburg-like this 1994 disaster was to our brethren who remained on the Continent. While not a razzle-dazzle best selling gripping account of life on the oceans, Mr. Langewiesche's does manage to make a seemingly bland subject a very readable and sometimes exciting affair.