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The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime Paperback – May 12, 2005
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From The New Yorker
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
Top Customer Reviews
Two high points for came early on. The author does a superb job of describing the vast expanse of the ungovernable ocean, three quarters of the globes surface, carrying 40,000 wandering merchant ships on any given day, and completely beyond the reach of sovereign states. The author does a fine job of demonstrating how most regulations and documentation are a complete facade, to the point of being both authentic, and irrelevant.
The author's second big point for me came early on as he explored the utility of the large ocean to both pirates and terrorists seeking to rest within its bosom, and I am quite convinced, based on this book, that one of the next several 9-11's will be a large merchant ship exploding toxically in a close in port situation--on page 43 he describes a French munitions ship colliding with a Norwegian freighter in Halifax. "Witnesses say that the sky erupted in a cubic mile of flame, and for the blink of an eye the harbor bottom went dry. More than 1,630 buildings were completely destroyed, another 12,000 were damaged, and more than 1,900 people died."
There is no question but that the maritime industry is much more threatening to Western ports than is the aviation industry in the aftermath of 9-11, and we appear to be substituting paperwork instead of profound changes in how we track ships--instead of another secret satellite, for example, we should redirect funds to a maritime security satellite, and demand that ships have both transponders and an easy to understand chain of ownership. There is no question that we are caught in a trap: on the one hand, a major maritime disaster will make 9-11 look like a tea party; on the other the costs--in all forms--of actually securing the oceans is formidable.
Having previously written about the urgent need for a 450-ship Navy that includes brown water and deep water intercept ships (at the Defense Daily site, under Reports, GONAVY), I secure the fourth star for the author, despite my disappointment over the middle of the book, by giving him credit for doing a tremendous job of defining the challenges that we face in the combination of a vast sea and ruthless individual stateless terrorists, pirates, and crime gangs collaborating without regard to any sovereign state.
I do have to say, as a reader of Atlantic Monthly, I am getting a little tired of finding their stuff recycled into books without any warning as to the origin. Certainly I am happy to buy Jim Fallows and Robert Kaplan, to name just two that I admire, but it may be that books which consist of articles thrown together, without any additional research or cohesive elements added (such as a bibliography or index), should come with a warning. I for one will be more alert to this prospect in the future.
Having said that, I will end with the third reason I went up to four stars: the third and final story, on the poisonous manner in which we export our dead ships to be taken apart by hand in South Asia, with hundreds of deaths and truly gruesome working conditions for all concerned, is not one of the stories I have seen in article form before, it is a very valuable story, and for this unanticipated benefit, I put the book down a happy reader, well satisfied with the over-all afternoon.
See also, with reviews:
Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy
Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource
Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America's Ocean Wilderness
Langewiesche's gloomy, albeit accurate, portrayal of life at sea for the `low-end' portion of the ocean shipping industry is marked by excellent research and even better writing. The book has some of the hallmarks of the best fiction. It unfolds dramatically and keeps the reader's attention. Langewiesche's portrayal of the passenger ferry Estonia is heartbreaking. The author pulls no punches. At one point, Langewiesche discusses the horror of the loss of 852 lives on the Estonia, notes the worldwide outpouring of grief (particularly in Northern Europe) but then pauses to mention that ferry accidents such as this are a routine way of life in the third world (in Asia and Africa in particular) and yet these accidents barely attract our attention. The terse, matter-of-fact fashion in which Langewiesche imparts this information has a greater impact than it would have if set out in a dogmatic fashion.
Last, Langewiesche turns his eye to the ship breaking business in India. Vessels that have reached the end of their useful life (and as set out in the book a ship owner's definition of useful life is far longer than may be prudent for safe operation) are run onto beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan where they are dismantled in a manner that endangers everyone involved. Life for these ship breakers is nasty, brutal and short. Langewiesche's portrayal is so well written that one can almost smell the befouled air that lingers over the work area. The author also sets out the political confrontation between the ship breakers and Greenpeace. It is an excellent overview of the conflict that arises between first-world political activists and third world throngs struggling to make a life for their families.
I only take two minor issues with the author. First, in discussing the sinking of the oil tanker Prestige off the coast of Spain, I think the author did not pay sufficient attention to the horrible decision of the Spanish government to deny safe harbor to the damaged vessel. It is mentioned in passing. The decision to force the Prestige out to sea, before she was damaged beyond repair and before there was a major loss of oil, into stormy and unsafe seas was as much, if not more, to blame for the environmental disaster that followed as the general condition of the vessel before the accident. The actions of the Spanish government in this regard were reprehensible. Second, Langewiesche makes much (rightfully) of the negative impact on foreign flag registration, specifically flags of convenience, in terms of vessel safety, poorly trained seamen, etc. However, it would have been useful to point out as a counterbalance the fact that the Exxon Valdez, the vessel responsible for one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history, was a U.S. flag vessel, built to U.S. flag standards, fully accountable to all U.S. maritime laws and regulations with U.S. officers and crew.
This book is well written, informative, and interesting, whether or not one happens to be in this business. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in first rate, well researched and written non fiction.