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THE OUTLAW SEA by William Langewiesche


A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime

by William Langewiesche

Pub Date: May 27th, 2004
ISBN: 0-86547-581-4
Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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.