The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche -- Book Review

Book Classification : Nonfiction - Current Events - Maritime History - Shipping Industry - Merchant Marine Transportation -
Sea Piracy - Terrorism - International Relations


The Outlaw Sea : A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche
Please select a book edition to check the price and shipping information ...
Hardcover
Published by North Point Press,
May 2004, 256 Pages
Audio Book on Cassette Tapes - Unabridged
Published by Audio Renaissance, May 2004
Audio Book on Audio CD - Unabridged
Published by Audio Renaissance, May 2004
Hardcover - 256 pages
First Edition, May 12, 2004
Published by North Point Press
A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 0-86547-581-4 / ISBN 0865475814

Book Review

In The Outlaw Sea, William Langewiesche refers to maritime lawlessness in several senses of the word. One of these, which often intersects with the other meanings, is the common practice of ships flying "flags of convenience." Acquire a post office box in nearly any country in the world, and then you can say that your business is located there. This may not be sufficient for most legal purposes, but it's sufficient for displaying that nation's flag when you transport cargo by sea. National governments, viewing this practice as a method to raise revenue, charge these "virtual" shipping companies small fees for the privilege of flying their flags.

Buy the book The Outlaw Sea : A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche

One problem this presents is that the legal authorities of each country, wishing to intercept the flow of drugs, stolen ships or stolen cargo, or terrorist weapons, are inhibited from searching the ships of other countries. For example, this tactic was used by al Qaeda in 1998 to deliver the explosives that were used in the August 7, 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For months prior to the attacks, to provide a cover while rehearsing the steps for the operation, al Qaeda operated a flag-of-convenience business which delivered agricultural and construction products.

About the Author

William Langewiesche is the author of four previous books, Cutting for Sign , Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert , Inside the Sky : A Meditation on Flight and American Ground : Unbuilding the World Trade Center . He is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly magazine, where this book originated.

-- From the Publisher

In 2002, President Bush, frustrated by the situation, signed an executive order increasing the authority of the U.S. Navy to board and search ships in international waters. NATO has increased its interceptions as well. The author also discusses the activities of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs Service, both of which are now part of the Department of Homeland Security. However, the large number of ships packed tightly with tall stacks of containers makes it impractical for anyone to search more than a very small percentage of the possible hiding places.

Another form of lawlessness is that,, while each ship is required by international agreement to maintain a log book, its owner is the only party responsible for the accuracy of it. If it's a stolen ship that was seized by armed pirates, a new paint job to replace the ship's markings, and a fabricated history inserted into the log book, are usually sufficient to conceal the crime. Between 1998 and 2002 there were 1,228 reported cases of sea piracy. The author describes the 1999 hijacking of the Alondra Rainbow by a gang of pirates taking orders from "an anonymous figure known simply as 'the Boss' ... a disembodied voice on a throwaway phone."

In 1994, the United Nations adopted a treaty called the Law of the Sea to promote the apprehension of pirates. India, one of the parties to the treaty, has been active in opposing pirates, as when India responded to a call from the captain of a Kuwaiti frighter who spotted a ship on which the name seemed to have been recently repainted. The ship wouldn't slow and stop until the Indian battleships aimed their cannons at it. Fifteen pirates surrendered. The ship turned out to be the Alondra Rainbow. (The United States has not signed the treaty and does not participate in this enforcement effort.)

The author also mentions hazards to workers' safety. Some gangster investors have known that they were using ships that were so rusted that they could crumble and sink at any time, but covered the rust with paint, and then hired desperate job seekers to cross the oceans with them. The book includes a 19-page account of the 2001 disaster aboard the Krystal, a tanker whose owners, Langewiesche writes, had "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...." The vessel had flown numerous flags of convenience in the past, but at the time of the tragedy, the author writes, it was "nominally Maltese."

The book includes a few highlights about the way international politics works, or fails to work. In 1959 the United Nations established the International Maritime Organization to regulate sea traffic. At this time there are 162 countries participating in the IMO. The organization has no enforcement authority, and the participating countries don't have much either. Instead, numerous independent organizations of ship owners are permitted to "enforce" the regulations. Langewiesche observes, "The fact that this is a conflict of interest is not allowed to intrude."

The Outlaw Sea is recommended to nonfiction readers who enjoy maritime adventures, true crime accounts, and descriptions of the current condition of international law.

Book review by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

The audio book editions are read by the author.

The Outlaw Sea : A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche
Please select a book edition to check the price and shipping information ...
Hardcover
Published by North Point Press,
May 2004, 256 Pages
Audio Book on Cassette Tapes - Unabridged
Published by Audio Renaissance, May 2004
Audio Book on Audio CD - Unabridged
Published by Audio Renaissance, May 2004

Book Description from the Back Cover

Even if we live within sight of the sea, it is easy to forget that our world is an ocean world.

The open ocean -- that vast expanse of international waters -- begins just a few miles out and 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. Forty-three thousand gargantuan ships ply the open ocean, carrying nearly all the raw materials and products on which our lives are built. Many are owned or managed by one-ship companies so ghostly that they exist only on paper. They are the embodiment of modern global capital and the most independent objects on earth -- many of them without allegiances of any kind, changing identity and nationality at will. Here is free enterprise at it freest, opportunity taken to extremes. But its efficiencies are accompanied by global problems -- shipwrecks and pollution, the hard lives and deaths of the crews, and the growth of two perfectly adapted 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 -- perennially defiant and untamable -- that Langewiesche brings startlingly into view. The ocean is our world, he reminds us, and it is wild.