'The Outlaw Sea': William Langewiesche on the growing anarchy at sea

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After bringing back eye-opening reports from the Mexican-American border ("Cutting for Sign"), the interior of the Sahara Desert ("Sahara Unveiled") and the ruins of the World Trade Center ("American Ground"), William Langewiesche has turned his investigative eye to what's happening — piracy, pollution, possible terrorism-in-the-making — on our oceans.

It seems a logical move, and the premise of the book is promising: that the ocean is a wilderness beyond our regulatory control and we had better be aware of it. "The Outlaw Sea" is written, for the most part, with the cool, dispassionate elegance we've come to expect from Langewiesche. The "action" scenes — the sinking of an oil tanker off the coast of Spain, the conquest of a cargo ship by pirates off the waters of Sumatra — are crisply and intelligibly drawn. The background to contemporary piracy and international shipping regulation of oil tankers (and other cargo ships) is just as lucidly handled. Safety goals are weighed against economic realities. A frightening litany of oil-spilling shipwrecks off our coasts and, especially, the coasts of Europe is recited.

But — and this is a big "but" — a disproportionate amount of "The Outlaw Sea" (almost 100 of its 239 pages) is devoted to the sinking of the ferryboat Estonia in the Baltic Sea on a stormy night in September 1994. And it just doesn't mesh with the rest of book.

There is still some ambiguity about the causes of the Estonia disaster, which killed at least 852 passengers. The ferry seems to have been poorly designed, and Langewiesche argues persuasively that it was "poorly maintained and recklessly sailed." Whatever the cause, the boat's end was horrific.

The problem with devoting so many pages to it, however, is that it seems a story of hubris as old as humanity (or at least the Titanic), whereas the rest of "The Outlaw Sea" is focused instead on the new and dangerous ways ocean shipping is slipping beyond regulatory control. Langewiesche strains to connect the terrors of the Estonia's sinking with his "outlaw sea" theme. But his rhetoric can get awfully inflated in the process: "There was no God to run to for mercy. There was no government to provide order. Civilization was ancient history, Europe a faint and faraway place."

Langewiesche exerts firmer and more informative authorial control elsewhere in "The Outlaw Sea." His succinct history of the emergence of complex shell-company arrangements, whereby disintegrating countries (Liberia) and even landlocked countries (Bolivia, Mongolia) can play "homeport" to dilapidated shipping fleets, is very useful. The scoop on how ships are brazenly repainted, renamed and hidden in plain sight in harbors around the world is a key part of the piracy story. Langewiesche offers full details on the economic sense and sophistication behind these shady activities.

A fascinating closing chapter on how the U.S. and Europe lost the scrap-yard business to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan in the 1980s highlights the difference between environmental-protection regulations and economic realities in East and West. Langewiesche's on-the-ground observations in the Indian state of Gujarat, where ships are deliberately grounded and dismantled for scrap right on the beach, have a nice particularity to them. This is reportage at its best.

A vaunted selling point of the book — that it exposes the nature of our peril from sea-borne terrorism — is a little less satisfying. Langewiesche cites rumors that Osama bin Laden "is said to own or control up to twenty aging freighters," and he mentions the arrest of suspected terrorists, including a stowaway known as "Container Bob," arrested in October 2001 in a southern Italian port when he was discovered drilling ventilation holes from inside his container.

Inspectors are able to inspect only a fraction of the cargoes coming into ports around the world. The formidable cost of inspections and the economic damage that inspection-caused delays would do to international trade thwart these security efforts.

If you've read the two paragraphs above, you've read most of what Langewiesche has to say on the subject. Still, short of his infiltrating al-Qaida, it's difficult to see how he could have obtained any further hard information.

A final caveat: the book offers no notes or bibliography. Yes, this is reportage rather than an academic study. But the topics addressed seem important enough to merit more reader-friendly identification of the sources Langewiesche consulted.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Author appearance

William Langewiesche will read from "The Outlaw Sea" at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com); and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle (206-634-3400 or www.bookstore.washington.edu).
"The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime"

by William Langewiesche
North Point Press, 239 pp., $23