Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

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

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

4.0 1
by William Langewiesche

See All Formats & Editions

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


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

The New Yorker
For Langewiesche, the ocean is still a frontier, a lawless domain where brute economics always trumps moral considerations. His overview ranges from a story of contemporary piracy off the coast of Indonesia to a portrait of the ship-breaking yards of India, where workers die by the dozen. The centerpiece of his exploration is the sinking, in 1994, of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea, in which more than eight hundred and fifty people died. In harrowing detail, Langewiesche describes the chaos—sons abandoning mothers, criminals robbing fellow-passengers amid the confusion—and then follows the botched investigation that ensued. He makes an eloquent case that the ocean’s forgotten corners have become too dangerous to neglect: Al Qaeda has begun to use freighters to smuggle its members across international borders.
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.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Sold by:
File size:
870 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Outlaw Sea

A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime

By William Langewiesche

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2004 William Langewiesche
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5459-4



Since we live on land, and are 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 have been tamed, however temporarily, but beyond the horizon lies a place that refuses to submit. It is 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 planet, but by far its greatest defining feature. By political and social measures it is important too — not merely as a wilderness that has always existed or as a reminder of the world as it was before, but also quite possibly as a harbinger of a larger chaos to come. That is neither a lament nor a cheap forecast of doom, but more simply an observation of modern life in a place that is rarely seen. 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, the ocean is a realm that remains radically free.

Expressing that freedom are more than forty thousand large merchant ships that wander the world with little or no regulation, plying the open ocean among uncountable numbers of smaller coastal craft and carrying nearly the full weight of international trade — almost all the raw materials and finished products on which our land lives are built. The ships are steel behemoths, slow and enormously efficient, and magnificent if only for their mass and functionality. They are crewed from pools of the poor — several million sailors of varying quality, largely now from southern Asia, who bid down for the jobs in a global market and are mixed together without reference to such petty conventions as language and nationality. The sailors do not enjoy the benefit of long stays in exotic ports, as sailors did until recently, but rather they live afloat for twelve months at a stretch, enduring a maritime limbo in the ships' fluorescent-lit quarters, making brief stops to load and unload, and rarely going ashore. They are employed by independent Third World "manning agents," who in turn are paid for the labor they provide by furtive offshore management companies that in many cases work for even more elusive owners — people whose identities are hidden behind the legal structures of corporations so ghostly and unencumbered that they exist only on paper, or maybe as a brass plate on some faraway foreign door. The purpose of such arrangements is not to make philosophical points about the rule of law, but to limit responsibility, maximize profits, and allow for total freedom of action in a highly competitive world. The ships themselves are expressions of this system as it has evolved. 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 proceed as they please.

This is the starting point of understanding the freedom of the sea. No one pretends that a ship must come from the home port painted on its stern, or that it has ever been anywhere near. Panama is the largest maritime nation on earth, 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. Moreover, the registries themselves are rarely based in the countries whose names they carry: Panama is considered to be an old-fashioned "flag" because its consulates handle the paperwork and collect the registration fees, but "Liberia" is run by a company in Virginia, "Cambodia" by another in South Korea, and the proud and independent "Bahamas" by a group in the City of London.

The system in its modern form, generally known as "flags of convenience," began in the early days of World War II as an American invention sanctioned by the United States government to circumvent its own neutrality laws. The idea was to allow American-owned ships to be re-flagged as Panamanian and used to deliver materials to Britain without concern that their action (or loss) would drag the United States unintentionally into war. Afterward, of course, the United States did join the war — only to emerge several years later with the largest ship registry in the world. By then the purely economic benefits of the Panamanian arrangement had become clear: it would allow the industry to escape the high costs of hiring American crews, to reduce the burdens imposed by stringent regulation, to limit the financial consequences of the occasional foundering or loss of a ship. And so an exodus occurred. For the same reasons, a group of American oil companies subsequently created the Liberian registry (based at first in New York) for their tankers, as a "development" or international aid project. Again the scheme was sanctioned by the U.S. government, this time by idealists at the Department of State. For several decades these two quasi-colonial registries, which attracted shipowners from around the world, maintained reasonably high technical standards, perhaps because behind the scenes they were still subject to some control by the "gentlemen's club" of traditional maritime powers — principally Europe and the United States. In the 1980s, however, a slew of other countries woke up to the potential for revenues and began to create their own registries to compete for business. The result was a sudden expansion in flags of convenience, and a corresponding loss of control. This happened in the context of an increasingly strong internationalist democratic ideal, by which all countries were formally considered to be equal. The trend accelerated in the 1990s, and paradoxically in direct reaction to a United Nations effort to impose order by demanding a "genuine link" between a ship and its flag — a vague requirement that, typically, was subverted by the righteous "compliance" of everyone involved.

These developments were seemingly as organic as they were calculated or man-made. For the shipowners, they amounted to a profound liberation. By shopping globally, they found that they could choose the laws that were applied to them, rather than haplessly submitting to the jurisdictions of their native countries. The advantages were so great that even the most conservative and well-established shipowners, who were perhaps not naturally inclined to abandon the confines of the nation-state, found that they had no choice but to do so. What's more, because of the registration fees the shipowners could offer to cash-strapped governments and corrupt officials, the various flags competed for 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, a logic taken to extremes. 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 even more in recent years. 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 and the persistence of huge fleets of dangerous ships, the pollution they cause, the implicit disposability of their crews, and the parallel growth of two particularly resilient pathogens that exist now on the ocean — the first being a modern strain of piracy, and the second its politicized cousin, the maritime form of the new, stateless terrorism. The patterns are strong in part because they fit so well with the long-standing realities of the sea — the ocean's easy disregard for human constructs, its size, the strength of its storms, and the privacy provided by its horizons. Certainly the old maritime traditions of freedom are involved, but something new is happening too. It is not by chance that the more sophisticated pirate groups and terrorists seem to mimic the methods and operational techniques of the shipowners. Their morals and motivations are different, of course, but all have learned to work without the need for a home base and, more significantly, to escape the forces of order not by running away, but by complying with the laws and regulations in order to move about freely and to hide in plain sight.

The result has been to place the oceans increasingly beyond governmental control. To maritime and security officials in administrative capitals like London and Washington, D.C., steeped in their own traditions of national power, these developments have come in recent years as a surprise. For public consumption, the officials still talk bravely about the impact of new regulations and the promise of technology, but in private many admit that it is chaos, not control, that is on the rise. They have learned what future historians may be able to see even more clearly, that our world is an ocean world, and it is wild.

The Kristal was therefore a typical casualty of modern times. It was an all-purpose tanker, 560 feet long, that had been built in Italy in 1974 and for more than a quarter century had restlessly wandered the world, riding the downward spiral of the maritime market under a progression of names, owners, and nationalities. By the winter of 2001, at the advanced age of twenty-seven, it was flying the flag of Malta — a registry of convenience, with a typically shoddy track record and a reputation for allowing owners to operate their vessels nearly as they pleased. The ship belonged to an obscure but law-abiding Italian family whose members had an understandable penchant for privacy. They owned it through the device of a Maltese holding company that existed only on paper, as a mailing address in the capital, Valletta, the home port painted on the ship's stern. There is no evidence that the Kristal ever stopped there, though it did sometimes sail through the Mediterranean and so must occasionally have passed by. It was crewed by manning agents primarily in Karachi, Pakistan, but also in Spain and Croatia. Its business and maintenance were managed through 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 hull before selling it to other operators still lower on the food chain or, if none could be found, directly to a shipbreaker for the scrap value of its steel. They were unable to attract business from the major oil companies, most of which now try to apply stringent standards to the tankers they charter and generally shy away from vessels past the age of twenty because of the risk of breakup, and the expense and negative publicity caused by spills. Nonetheless, there were plenty of other, less exacting customers available, as long as the Kristal could transport their cargoes at a low enough price. Indeed, the Kristal was constantly busy. Throughout the previous year, it had engaged in a regular globe-circling trade, carrying 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 decline: it is the product left over from refined sugar, a low-value cargo carried on the cheap by ships that are typically 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 a trace. It is no small matter in choosing a ship that the same is generally true of Third World crews.

The Kristal's customer in February 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 twenty-eight thousand tons of molasses from two ports on the west coast of India to an unspecified European destination that 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. Such repairs are standard in the industry, and have the double advantage of allowing ships to avoid both costly layups and the prying eyes of inspectors. Aboard the Kristal most of the repairs consisted of chipping with hammers and chisels at heavy rust that had spread like a cancer under the paint, across the main deck and through the hull. There have been reports, difficult to substantiate but entirely plausible, that considerable and illicit welding was also being performed, and that as a result, one of the cargo tanks could not be used — a restriction that may have caused the crew to load the molasses improperly, placing severe strains on the ship's structure. It seems unlikely that this could have occurred without at least the tacit approval of the ship's management company. Be that as it may, the crew certainly knew about the Kristal's precarious condition and were glad for their jobs nonetheless.

The captain was a forty-three-year-old Croatian named Allen Marin — one of many such officers from former Communist states, who are known to be competent and able to live on low salaries and who now constitute something of a global officer caste at service on increasing numbers of ships. Marin was an affable character, and he was well liked by his subordinates aboard, though some of them 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, of course. The Kristal was a molasses ship, but a fairly happy one. The attitude was to let the captain have his fun.

On February 4, 2001, the Kristal set out across the Indian Ocean on a route that would take it 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 they relaxed by playing Ping-Pong or watching films in the messrooms. There were three such messrooms: one for the officers and cadets, who were both Croatian and Pakistani; one for the skilled sailors, who included three Spaniards; and one for the remainder of the crew, the ordinary hands, all of whom were Pakistani. The Pakistanis were fed a native cuisine of spicy foods that conformed to Islamic restrictions. They liked to watch Indian films, full of weddings and dancing. The others preferred the slicker Hollywood fare, with sleek women and guns. The two groups knew each other well, and they mixed, but they were not necessarily pals. 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 main 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 the three Spaniards, 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. The sailor's life was not the adventure he had hoped it would be, but he had stayed with it for lack of choice, and for nearly two decades he endured the steady loss of income and security experienced first by Europeans and Americans and then by all the successive rearguards of whatever nationality on the increasingly anarchic seas. After six months aboard, 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 his destiny. It was easier for him than for his friend Infante Casas, therefore, when, after the Kristal passed through the Suez Canal, word came that the Gibraltar stop 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.


Excerpted from The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche. Copyright © 2004 William Langewiesche. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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.

William Langewiesche is the author of four previous books, including the National Book Critic’s Circle Award finalist American Ground. He is currently the international correspondent for Vanity Fair.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

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.