Read Recently — October 2014 — The Outlaw Sea

The Outlaw Sea: a world of freedom, chaos, and crime by William Langewiesche

Surprisingly, despite the title, this is non-fiction. I was made aware of it by a comment on a thread for a let’s play of Uncharted 3, which featured some scenes in a shipping graveyard.

Langewiesche looks at, as you might expect from the title, the lawless conditions at sea despite the best efforts–well, efforts, anyway) of the land-nations.

Chapter one starts by defining the problems and issues, and then tells the tale of the sinking of the Krystal, a tanker well-past its sell-by date, carrying molasses from India to Europe, which broke up in a bad storm (those two conditions–a ship that shouldn’t have been there in weather that could sink better vessels– will turn up again in the book).

Chapter two discusses security problems involving shipping and terrorists, segueing into pirates capturing the Alondra Rainbow, a general cargo ship running from Sumatra to Japan.

Chapter three examines the problem of tankers leaking/breaking up and the resulting pollution. No long example this time; just lots of short ones, and chapter three is the shortest in the book.

Chapter four and five are a long examination of the sinking of the ferry Estonia, running between ex-soviet nation Estonia (funny, that) and Sweden. It sank during a bad storm in the Baltic, and much of the chapter is spent on the various efforts to figure out why. Langewiesche goes out of his way to be fair to all sides in the conflict of blame assignment: the government investigators, the German lawyer hired by the shipyard that built the vessel, and even the conspiracy nut who makes films to sell the idea that the ship was sunk by US and/or Russian commandos. This is probably the longest single section of the book, and the survivors’ tales of escape from the boat are both mesmerizing and frightening.

Chapter six is about wrecking and disposing of old ships. This is the legal process, not like the Wreckers of shipping history, who would lure innocent ships onto rocks, killing everyone aboard and making the vessel and its contents into salvage. This is what happens to ships when they are too old to be useful to anyone any more (they become rebar). The main focus of the chapter is Alang beach, India. Again, Langewiesche is fair to everyone, the average working wrecker, the men who grow rich off them, the European Greenpeace organisers who want the whole pollutive business shut down.

Overall, the book is an interesting read. Its main problem is that it came out in 2004 and is thus a decade out of date, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff to think about in here. Recommended.

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