The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche

To most of us, the oceans are about romance, not shipping logistics. Violent thirty-foot waves and gripping piracy tales are conspicuously missing from The Box, the first shipping-themed book I reviewed. While that story (see my post the epic story of container shipping) had all the passion and high drama of a business thriller, it was essentially a human and technology story. The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime tells a parallel tale, one focusing on the realities of the oceans themselves . There are plenty of waves and pirates here, and this is easily the most absorbing maritime-themed book I’ve read since Treasure Island, which is saying a lot, since it is non-fiction.


The "Alondra Rainbow", pirated and renamed "Mega Rama" (picture from Indian Coast Guard site)

Old Mankind and the Sea

Unlike deep space, the oceans seem just within reach of the grasping, civilizing instincts of humanity. On land, especially as consumers who can safely ignore the question of how their stuff gets to them from China, it can seem as if the oceans have been tamed by the Amazonian one-click. After all, we get our iPods and Wii consoles delivered pretty reliably, don’t we?

The good news for us romantic landlubbers is that despite steel hulls, GPS and diesel engines, the oceans remain untamed. The bad news is that despite steel hulls, GPS and diesel engines, the oceans remain untamed. As Katrina reminded us, the oceans can still take a casually violent swipe at us and wreak havoc. The reliability of modern shipping does not imply that we have domesticated the oceans. The big and believable suggestion in the book is that we never will.

Langewiesche’s is a near-flawless modern, global voice. I bought the book because I was enthralled by an extract in The Atlantic a few years ago.  The book tells the stories of a bewildering cast of characters: Eastern European captains, Pakistani crews, Malaysian pirates, Indian shipbreaking yards, bleeding-heart European Greenpeace activists, and Alaskan oil-spill investigators. In less competent hands, this could have ended up as a sea-cowboy story for overgrown boys (think Deadliest Catch), a self-absorbed tale of human-scale tragedies (think Perfect Storm), an overwrought tale of environmentalism (think Whale Wars) or a random leftist screed about the exploitation of third world humans by Western mega-corporations.

Fortunately Langewiesche avoids all those temptations. With precise strokes, he first humanizes, and then dehumanizes, both first and third world nations and peoples, gently getting you to  focus on the grandeur of the oceans themselves. Whether he is forcing you to vicariously experience the chilling horror of being in a sinking ferry (the Estonia) in a violent Baltic storm, or presenting the farcical aftermath of the tragedy within the  byzantine world of European maritime politics, he brings a sort of ironic compassion to every story.

The raw material is almost too rich for a single book. There are oil spills and shipwrecks, the chaos of international “flags of convenience” and tales of  tradeoffs between avoiding expensive delays and foolhardy storm-defying navigation. There are pirates haunting the Straits of Malacca, terrorists and dirty bombs hiding in containers, and desperate navies and coast-guards trying hopelessly to catch them all. Above it all looms a single theme: the cluelessness of us landlubbers about the medieval anarchy that your Chinese-made iPod navigates, in the process of getting to you somewhere else on the planet. The people dealing with the oceans come across as the last true frontier folk, the last adults protecting the rest of us children from a universe that is far wilder than we think.

Though it is about modern shipping, the whole book has a timeless quality to it. You could be reading The Odyssey, the tales of Sinbad the Sailor or Treasure Island. A particularly eerie bit of timelessness is in the briefly-sketched story of the trial and execution, in China, of the pirates who hijacked the Cheung Son and murdered its crew in 1998:

On the way to the execution ground, a group of them, who were drunk on rice wine, defiantly sang, “Go, go, go! Ale, ale, ale!,” the chorus from a pop song called “Cup of Life.”

No wonder Eric Cartman went off to Somalia to become a modern-day pirate. My own fascination with the sea began when my dad introduced me to Treasure Island. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Stevenson wrote that book in 1883. It wasn’t until after I turned thirty though, that I managed to experience the ocean first-hand, on a cruise to the Caribbean. It did not disappoint; the oceans lived up to all my romantic expectations, and even the crassness of cruise-ship buffets could not ruin it for me. There is nothing quite like being on the deck of a ship in the open ocean, out of sight of land.

Blue Planet

A series of stories of tragedies at sea forms the backbone narrative. The book opens with the story of a rusty tanker, on its last legs, the Kristal, making its way from India to Europe with a load of molasses, with a Ukranian captain and a Spanish-Pakistani crew. The Kristal broke in half in stormy seas and killed most of its crew, and this opening anecdote serves to shatter your notions of the the ocean as a benign place. The book then moves on to the Exxon Valdez and other tales of oil spills, and finally to a detailed telling of the story of the sinking of the passenger ferry, Estonia. There are other vignettes scattered throughout.

This is more than a collection of “exciting tales of the sea.”  A bigger picture emerges through the stories. We learn that there are really no governing authorities at sea, besides a near-toothless IMO working through obscure trans-national certification companies. We learn that ships mature and gradually get downcycled, as they age and rust. In the story of the Kristal, we are informed, as an aside, that molasses tends to be the sort of cargo carried by tankers on their last legs, since spills don’t cause much damage. In the oil spills section, we learn that European nations selfishly maneuver to direct oil spills to their neighbors’ shores.

The point of this wreck-to-wreck tale is not to focus on how unsafe ships can be. It is to highlight the fact that human technology is much flimsier than we think, when faced with an environment that routinely unleashes earthquake-level forces. The Titanic is not a tale of isolated hubris: the ocean still retains the capacity to destroy our best efforts at ship-building if we are not properly respectful. I found myself wondering: what would land technology be like if trucks and cars had to deal with roads that routinely bucked and swayed like demonically-possessed mountains?

This core narrative is about our fundamental limitations when it comes to dealing with the oceans. The logic of the other narratives flows from this basic one.

One key supporting story illustrates the failure of the human political imagination to really comprehend the oceans. This is the story of how we ended up with today’s bizarre state, which can contain a ship built in Japan flying the flag of Malta, owned by a holding company in Italy, but really owned by somebody else altogether, certified seaworthy by a French company, being captained by a Ukranian and crewed by Pakistanis. Far from being a situation of heartwarming  international cooperation,  it is a dangerous, nearly ungovernable, stateless mess. The most we’ve been able to extend the logic of landbound nation-states is twelve nautical miles, the extent of territorial waters, which are still too much for most navies and coastguards to deal with.

There are plenty of other themes, but I’ll highlight just two more, piracy and shipbreaking, since they highlight the limits of the idea of the nation state, and provide an unusual perspective on globalization.

Nation and Ocean

The piracy and ship-breaking stories in the book both involve India, which was particularly illuminating for me, since I have never thought about my identity as an Indian citizen being derived from my more basic identity as a land-based primate.  Barring the doings of one 11th century emperor, India itself has very little of note in its maritime history, compared to say, the European nations or Japan.  Despite its 7000 km coastline, India’s national self-perception is primarily a land-based and isolationist one. So the view from the oceans, which connect the world physically,  is rather unsettling.

Like the legal business of shipping, the structure of modern piracy too is the outcome of the confused stateless anarchy of the seas (unlike the older epoch of Caribbean piracy, much of which was state-sponsored).  The Straits of Malacca are where much of the action takes place  (not Somalia, as most Americans imagine). What makes piracy in this region so surprising is that it is a very narrow, massively busy seaway that would seem like the most civilized part of the oceans. Over 50,000 vessels pass through every year, through the 2.8 kilometer wide chokepoint near Singapore. All around are the industrialized and heavily populated shipping-dependent countries of South East Asia. This is as close as you can get to oceanic bumper-to-bumper highway traffic. Yet, pirates routinely vanish with entire ships, with millions of dollars worth of cargo.

The big piracy story in the book involves the Alondra Rainbow (the picture at the top of this article), which was hijacked in a carefully planned and coordinated attack by a group of Malaysian and Indonesian pirates in 1999, while carrying a cargo of aluminum ingots worth around $10 million. The ship vanished and the Filipino crew, along with their Japanese captain, were cast adrift in the Indian ocean (they were rescued).  The ship managed to transfer half of its booty to another ship, and then apparently got rechristened the Global Venture before fleeing across the Indian ocean, eluding searchers. Most such stories apparently end there, with a vanished ghost ship, but in this case the story had a non-ghostly ending.  It was spotted, sailing under the name Mega Rama, by the captain of a Kuwaiti freighter, the al-Shuhadaa, who alerted the nearest country, which happened to be India. The Indian coast guard patrol boat Tarabai responded and chased the ship down, and with the help of a Navy missile corvette, the Prahar, finally managed to arrest it as it was attempting to flee into Pakistani waters.

The Indian Navy and coast guard apparently had a good deal of fun with the exercise, and were rather proud of having actually caught a pirated vessel for once, and enjoyed quite a bit of media attention as they shepherded the stolen ship into Mumbai harbor. The Mumbai courts and police, however, were decidedly less happy about having a high-profile international piracy case being dropped into their already overburdened laps.

What followed was a piece of international silliness, as a country with no stake in the ship, crew, pirates or victims, ended up having to use taxpayer money to prosecute a complex precedent-setting piracy case. The case worked its way slowly through the Indian courts as the world figured out how to apply nation-state level laws to a crime that obviously transcended the very concept of a nation. Langewiesche reports a particularly revealing conversation with a Mumbai police officer, about why they were reluctant to accept the captured ship:

What would happen, he asked, if India convicted and imprisoned them, but after their release Indonesia refused to accept them?… “What did you conclude?” I asked. “That they would become stateless people.”  Then the problem for India, he said, would be where to send them. I suggested that they could be repatriated to their natural environment at sea. He smiled wanly.

The leading maritime attorney in India prosecuted the case pro bono, and easily outmaneuvered the poor public defender assigned to the pirates by the court. The pirates were found guilty, and imprisoned. They were mostly the underlings, not the kingpins, and some seemed to have no idea they’d been recruited into a piracy plot by a manning agent. The real culprits remained mysterious citizens of the oceans.

If this story puts the nations involved in the background and the ocean itself into the foreground, the next story, also involving India, is even weirder, and involves all the oceans of the world.

The center of the action here is Alang, the coastal city in Gujarat which is home to nearly half the shipbreaking trade in the world. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh among them handle nearly the entire international trade of scrapping old ships for steel, a dangerous business involving explosions, toxic chemicals and awful conditions. The trade ended up in the region over the course of half a century, as both the labor costs and safety issues made it politically impossible to conduct in other parts of the world.

View of Alang (from

View of Alang (from Google Images turns up many more fascinating pictures.

Through the late nineties and early 2000s, controversy erupted, spearheaded by Greenpeace, over the idea that rich shipping companies were exploiting the developing world and not paying the true lifecycle costs of disposing off  their floating, toxic deathtraps safely. As you might expect, the workers in the industry (escaping worse relative poverty) were entirely hostile to European do-gooders acting on their behalf, arguing with grim pragmatism that death from toxic chemicals was rather better than death by starvation. Langewiesche tells the various versions of this story with an unsparing eye, but the tale of this activism, framed by ideas of nationhood, ends on a surreal note, which underlines the meaninglessness of ideas like “Western” and “Developing” land-worlds where the oceans are concerned.

But others in the business told me that the more likely effect of such reforms… would simply be a new and less direct route to Asia: ships would pass through more hands, would maybe live longer plying faraway waters under new names and flags, and would still end up dying on some filthy beach. Already, there was evidence that European shippers had begun to find new foreign  buyers for vessels that they would normally have sold directly to scrappers.

In fact the whole story is surreal. Lyrical descriptions of the careful orchestration of the ship-breaking process (which made me itch to visit Alang) are interspersed with unsentimental indictments of all parties. Included is a drive-by shooting at people like me, alongside a spirited defense of the shipbreaking merchants:

They were direct men, who walked willingly among the laborers; and though they had grown wealthy on the backs of the poor, they maintained a connection to them nonetheless. The alternative seemed to be the disengagement I had witnessed in New Delhi and Mumbai, where the upper levels of society were floating free of the ground, aided by the the airlines and the Internet, as if the poverty of India were a geographic inconvenience. [His] own daughter had graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in computer science… but standing beside him on the beach, in the midst of his piles of scrap, I suspected he knew that shipbreakers were unfashionable among the Indian elites…Alang was becoming an embarrassment.

Guilty as charged, though I think the charge applies to the entire global elite, studiously ignoring the problem of disposing off the biggest physical artifacts humans build. My first thought was that the Internet is to “free floating” people like me what the oceans are to the impoverished thousands living off it: a stateless anarchy (we are not yet at the stage where anyone can claim to be a “global citizen,” a phrase I detest for its vacuousness). My next thought was that this is a self-serving view. The Internet is nothing like the oceans.

Between the Nation-State and the Globe

As it happens, some of the other reading I am doing right now deals with rarefied subjects, far removed from messy things like ship-breaking, like the rise of global financial integration through bond markets,  the history of the first true multi-national corporation, the British East India company and yes, undersea Internet cables. Within all these tales, spanning several centuries, there is a constant subtext of assumptions about the oceans.

The Outlaw Sea precisely nails the big point about oceans: they are the physical manifestation of the “stuff” between the global system of nation-states and the abstraction of the “globalized” world, which really only exists on the Internet today. But we forget that the transnational anarchy that is the Internet could be rapidly and comprehensively fragmented and shoehorned into nation-state boundaries by the flipping of a few key router switches, and the reconfiguring of a handful of satellites.

The ocean though is not, never has been, and (it seems) never can be subsumed within the nation-state system. It will always form a gray zone of anarchy sandwiched between global and national contexts. Despite its grim implications, in an odd way it is an uplifting thought that the oceans will never be within our control. Looking back, I think I realized this point, and grew fascinated by it, very early. I have always been fascinated by maps, but as a schoolkid, one set of maps in particular, fascinated me. This was a series of maps included with special issues of the National Geographic, that presented the world with the oceans in the foreground. There were maps for each of the major oceans, with finely detailed depictions of mid-ocean ridges, mountain ranges, volcanoes and currents. The oceanic areas of the maps were a riot of blues. Landmasses on those maps were shown in background-white, with barely any annotation. This, I thought, is a better way of looking at Planet Earth.

My friendly librarian allowed me to steal the maps from the library’s copies of the National Geographic. For a while I had a couple tacked to my bedroom walls, but for many years, I just had them folded away. I would frequently take them out to look at; meditate upon.

I think what fascinated me back then was the same thing that fascinates me today: the incredible richness and complexity hidden behind a simple statistic: our world’s surface is 70% water. Land is a sideshow.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. as before, enjoy and admire your writing style and content…enough here to chew on for weeks !

  2. Venkat,

    I am sure the book itself is great but your review makes it such a scintillating tale that I feel like getting around to a bookstore right away.

    Thanks for the wonderful read…

  3. Compelling review. Have you read Neal Stephenson’s account of the undersea cable laying business? Pretty good.

    I revere the moon landings as the greatest engineering accomplishment of man, but the colonization of the Pacific islands (and Madagascar) with stone age technology is perhaps the greatest bang for buck ever. Not just random drifting but organized expeditions and sustained trade. I idly spin my globe from time to time… just look at the sheer expanse of water between Hawaii and everything else, or Indonesia and Madagascar and consider the effrontery of setting in double outrigger canoes with empty, heaving horizons week after week…

  4. I am a huge fan of William Langewiesche, having read most of his Atlantic articles (I can’t recommend The Atlantic highly enough). He also did an amazing job covering the cleanup of the 911 site, which I believe he also turned into a book.

  5. I read “The Outlaw Sea” AFTER i had volunteered for 14 months in an old WWII ship (94-95). If I had read it BEFORE, perhaps I would have stayed on land in California! I traveled 24,000 nautical miles, from Seattle, WA to Stockholm, Sweden (we were there when The Estonia went down); to Athens, Greece, to Sochi, Russia, and finally to Haifa, Israel. His writing about the oceans wrath, piracy, and ship-breaking (where our ship ended its lovely life), was very real to me. I loved William’s book and have it in my library to re-read as a reminder that we have no control over what happens at sea. Faith compelled me to leave my safe harbor to discover new oceans.
    p.s. Do you know how I can contact William Langewiesche to obtain his approval of the maps in his book? They are perfect for my upcoming book, “Lady and the Sea.” Thank you, and oceans of blessings, Sharon Leaf

  6. Isaac Lewis says

    I dug up this article after recently re-encountering the “seasteading” idea (the plan to create nice little floating ocean micronations, advocated by the usual libertarian suspects). Although it seems crazy at first, I can’t actually see many practical obstacles – people already go on cruises, they just need to start making permanent cruises. And having recently enjoyed the kerfuffle of trying to organize work visas for foreign lands – I can see the appeal of starting anew on the biggest and closest frontier available. Still, the whole idea comes across as science-fiction. Thoughts?

    Anyway, looks like I’ll have to look up this book for my summer reading… sounds like its full of the kind of non-fiction yarns I enjoy.

    • I also think this is doable, but the danger is slipping into micronation silliness and pointless socio-political experimentation. The practical way I think is to still possess a “powerful” passport (like US or EU) to give you land mobility without visa hassles, but enjoy the sea, and divide your time as you like between them, and keep relatively open/porous borders between the two.

      The real problems are going to be operational/logistical (need a paid crew of sailing experts and a governance model for deciding such fun things as “where to sail next.”) Another issue will be handling the unique economic opportunities of being outside the normal global political system (some will want to use a ship as a base for participating in the regular economy with lower transaction costs, but others will want to basically start outlaw economics).

      There will also be the standard social problem of “island fever” that continental types suffer in very small and geographically-limited spaces.

      Finally, there are likely to be gender differences. When we went on a cruise, I liked the days on the open sea the best, while my wife liked the port-visit days the best. Making a totally unfair generalization from this one data point, I suspect men will like being on the sea a lot more than women.