THE OUTLAW SEA A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime
By WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE
North Point Press Copyright © 2003 William Langewiesche
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-86547-581-4
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.
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