Cover image for The outlaw sea : a world of freedom, chaos, and crime
The outlaw sea : a world of freedom, chaos, and crime
Langewiesche, William.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : North Point Press, 2004.
Physical Description:
239 pages : maps; 22 cm
General Note:
Maps on lining papers.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to The Atlantic Monthly, where portions of this book originated.
Format :


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HE571 .L36 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
HE571 .L36 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HE571 .L36 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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With typically understated lyricism, Langewiesche explores international waters--the last radically free place on Earth--and the licit and illicit enterprises that flourish in the privacy afforded by its horizons. (Transportation)

Author Notes

William Langewiesche is an American author and journalist, and was a professional airplane pilot for many years. He is currently the international correspondent for the magazine Vanity Fair, but made his name as a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly magazine. He has written articles covering events such as the World Trade Center cleanup, a three-part series which was published as the book American Ground.

Langewiesche was a finalist for the 2004 Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage for American Ground. Unbuilding the World Trade Center and 2005 for The Outlaw Sea. He was a finalist for the 2007 Michael Kelly Award.

He currently lives in France. (Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Journalist Langewiesche, author of four previous books, including American Ground (2002), a controversial account of New York's Ground Zero, is drawn to extreme situations and writes with high drama, vigorous description, and some bombast. In his latest foray into a realm most readers would prefer never to experience firsthand, he depicts the ocean as a place of overwhelming natural forces and human chaos. Langewiesche's thrillerlike narrative includes a harrowing tale of modern-day piracy, an overview of what the Department of Homeland Security is up against in attempting to monitor 95,000 miles of coast, and an exhaustive account of the 1994 sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea in which 850 people drowned. Langewiesche also details the much protested practice of shipbreaking as carried out on India's western shore, a dangerous and barely profitable undertaking rife with environmental, economic, and political complexities. Rich in eye-opening disclosures and as subtly compassionate as it is overtly sensational, Langewiesche's seething report on the state of the high seas is compelling indeed and will hopefully inspire further investigations. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

"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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt from The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche. Copyright (c) 2004 by William Langewiesche. To be published in May, 2004 by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. One AN OCEAN WORLD 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 f0shipowners 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. Excerpted from The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime by William Langewiesche All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 An Ocean Worldp. 3
2 The Wave Makersp. 35
3 To the Rampartsp. 85
4 On a Captive Seap. 101
5 The Ocean's Wayp. 127
6 On the Beachp. 197