The Outlaw Sea

Bookshelf: The Outlaw Sea

The Outlaw Sea – William Langewiesche

The Outlaw Sea
The Outlaw Sea

William Langewiesche is an American journalist (and pilot). He has written on a variety of subjects. This is the only one of his books I’ve read. I looked for it after reading an excerpt from its first chapter in The Penguin Book of the Ocean.

Langewiesche’s interest here is the wild, unregulated nature of the majority of the planet’s oceans (which, indeed, comprises the majority of the planet, covering 75% of the earth’s surface). Some measure of control – and even this is illusory – may be exercised by governments within their own territorial waters and close to shore. The size and privacy offered by the expanse of waters lying just over the horizon, however, is conducive to unchecked piracy, unregulated shipping activities (near-derelict vessels flying flags of convenience, transporting unexamined cargoes) and an atmosphere of lawlessness reminiscent of America’s Wild West.

Published in 2004, at a time when terrorism was front and centre in the minds of Americans in particular, the book also deals with the possibility of a ship-borne terrorist attack at one of the world’s harbours. The impossibility of scrutinising every container’s contents on the massive container ships that move from harbour to harbour across the globe means that this is a very plausible threat.

Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of vessels foundering, most notably a nondescript cargo vessel called the Kristal and the passenger ferry called the Estonia. These sections are absolutely gripping. Langewiesche’s command of language and ability to explain sequences of events using the testimony of witnesses – whose recollections are coloured by the highly stressful nature of a shipwreck – is supreme. Very little further motivation is required, in addition to these narratives, to convince one of the lawless and unregulated nature of worldwide marine transportation activities.

The final chapter of the book is about Alang, an Indian town in the state of Gujarat that is home to a shipbreaking operation of incredible proportions. Enormous vessels are driven up the beach at high tide, and once lodged on the sand they are systematically stripped and dismantled by thousands of workers. More than half the vessels scrapped worldwide are broken down at Alang. There is almost no regulation of activities there, and there is heavy criticism of the western nations that send derelict vessels across the world to pollute a distant Indian coast, and to sicken underpaid, desperately poor workers with their toxic effluents and fumes. This article and this one describe what happens at Alang. For a visual sense of what Alang is like, you can look at these, these or these photos. Langewiesche’s description of a ship being run aground at Alang is haunting, as is his description of a stripped vessel’s interior as being like a cathedral to modern industry. For an idea of what working conditions are like in these shipbreaking yards, this article has some amazing photographs.

The Outlaw Sea grew out of two articles Langewiesche wrote for The Atlantic. The first one concerns the sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic sea (now chapter four of The Outlaw Sea), and the other deals with shipbreaking in Alang (this particular article is now the sixth and final chapter of The Outlaw Sea). I’d suggest you bookmark both articles and read them; they are fascinating, give a good idea of Langewiesche’s readable and clear style, and will probably make you want to read the remainder of this book.

You can buy a copy here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Published by


Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

Leave a Reply