The Outlaw Sea

September 7, 2011

In a world that's never before been so civilized, there remains something deeply wild about the sea.

The next time you go to the beach, look out at the water. The horizon–the farthest you can see on a clear day–is about 14 miles away. This distance is, perhaps not coincidentally, the extent of your country’s territorial waters. Beyond that lies anarchy, both literally and figuratively. The Outlaw Sea labors persuasively to show just how true this is, and does so through the lens of shipping. The book is a catalog of tragedies–of ships sinking, oil spilling, pirates plundering, bureaucracies failing–but with the surprising effect of saving something awesome, something romantic about our world. In the twenty-first century, you might imagine we’d tamed the sea with technology, mapped it into submission with satellites, and lassoed it with trade lanes. But you’d be wrong. As Langewiesche handily illustrates, “ours is an ocean world, and it is wild.”

The ocean’s anarchy is both natural and political. It’s natural for the obvious reason: even without the human failings of hubris, corruption, and incompetence, the ocean still sinks ships. Lots of them. Still. And the anarchy is political because nobody has jurisdiction over the ocean except for an obscure and largely powerless International Maritime Organization. What’s more, even though ships are built, owned, registered, captained, and crewed by people who are all citizens of (often different) nations, it’s a tangled mess sorting this out. Some of this confusion is thanks to something called “flags of convenience,” which is interesting, and bizarre, enough to bear explanation.

Flags of Convenience

Before the U.S. got involved in World War II, things weren’t going spectacularly well for our friends the Brits. But neutrality laws prevented the U.S. from directly aiding them in the war effort since we hadn’t yet declared war. So we got Panama to create a ship registry, under which a ship built and owned by the U.S. could be sailed under the Panamanian flag to help England, in order to circumvent our own neutrality laws. This system, bizarre as it sounds, is now the modern standard.

And for obvious economic reasons: First World shipping companies have to compete in the global marketplace, and it would be burdensome to require them to adhere to First World laws, standards, and regulations when faced with more desperate competition. So a ship, no matter where it’s built or who owns it, can, for a small fee, sail under the flag of its choosing (even, oddly enough, landlocked Mongolia) and only be required to adhere to the laws of that country. This has led to an inevitable race to the bottom with poorer countries in need of money offering to register ships under increasingly lower standards.

This creates a moral hazard whereby a ship’s owner can demand that his Bulgarian captain and crew of Filipinos and Indonesians sail through storms and under life-threatening conditions. For even if the ship sinks, the owner collects the insurance, and since most container ships are crewed by Third World citizens, there are rarely repercussions for the ship’s First World owners. Langewiesche illustrates:

The [cargo of] molasses was a sign of the Kristal’s decline…there is little risk to the principals involved–the customers and the companies–because the hulls and cargoes are insured, and in the event of an accident and a spill, molasses disperses easily and disappears without a trace. It is no small matter in choosing a ship that the same is generally true of Third World crews. (9)

Where Ships Go to Die

Langewiesche ends the book in the same place most ships end their lives: at the shipbreaker’s. This is an industry I never consciously realized existed, but which seems obviously necessary upon a moment’s reflection. When ships reach the end of their roughly 25-year life cycle–if they’re lucky enough not to sink–they’re sent to the scrapper’s to be torn apart, their parts and steel cut up and sold. This trade, called shipbreaking, used to have a foothold in the U.S., but was quickly outsourced to the Third World when First World wages and regulations against the toxic and hazardous work environment raised the cost of scrapping beyond the market price of a ship’s steel.

We sail to Alang, India, the largest shipbreaking zone in the world. But far from the advanced dry-docks from which ships are born, Alang is just a beach in which old ships are run aground and savagely, skillfully torn apart. Greenpeace has fought to make shipbreaking safer, but safer means more expensive, and perhaps too expensive. If the price of safe disposal rises above that of a ship’s scrap value, ships’ owners will have a strong incentive to simply (and of course, “accidentally”) sink their oldest ships and collect the insurance. For many of India’s poorest who take to the trade, doing dangerous work in a poisonous environment is preferable to starvation.


The Outlaw Sea is many things: a captivating collection of tales about piracy, shipwrecks, and other tragedies at sea; a compelling reminder that even in our modern world, the two-thirds of the planet covered by ocean remains uncivilized, and perhaps always will; and finally an education in the ways of the sea. For example, we learn in the chapter on oil spills that European tankers about to sink will selfishly head for a neighboring country’s shores so as not to sully their own beaches with their filthy payload. We learn as well that outside the largest ports, the U.S. Coast Guard has no national coastal radar system–nothing to stop our enemies from delivering weapons, soldiers, or even a nuclear device to our shores so long as they come through North Carolina’s Outer Banks, say, instead of New York Harbor.

And thanks to The Outlaw Sea, as I write this on a laptop which was manufactured in China and got to me via container ship, its journey seems a little more miraculous.