The Outlaw Sea

Posted on: December 9th, 2011 by
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by William Langewiesche

We think of the ocean as being a lot like the land, only wetter. We can identify ships. They travel in well-established shipping lanes according to well-established timetables. The ships themselves are in good shape, subject to regular port inspections. They fly the flags of recognized countries, which are responsible for their registration, and they have home ports they come back to every so often. We think of ships as big, ocean-going trucks, maybe airplanes, that operate in a well-ordered system.

Not a chance, argues William Langewiesche, in The Outlaw Sea. Order may exist in ports, and the Coast Guard is trying hard to establish control of the coastline. But once you get about 10 miles out, utter chaos. Not only can’t we meaningfully reduce it, we’re King Canute trying to calm it before it sweeps into our ports and coastlines.

The maritime industry hides behind its bureaucracy. Ship owners may flag their ships under another country, whose registry is only an office in a third country. Ships needn’t even visit their home ports. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), publishes impressive-looking rule books for the maintenance and inspection of ships. Without enforcement authority to back them up, the books go pretty much ignored. Because of meaningless inspections, ships with perfect paperwork routinely break up at sea, killing their impoverished crews. Even giving the IMO enforcement powers wouldn’t help. It operates on an all-nations-as-equals system, and the countries that benefit from the current setup, raking in registration fees, finding employment for their people, far outnumber those who want to tidy things up.

The sheer size of the sea makes piracy a fact of life. Most pirates are still small-scale opportunists. But the biggest hauls come from international crime syndicates that put together teams in a few weeks. They scout the target, kill the crew, take the haul, and put into port where people don’t ask too many questions. Whole ships disappear and reappear under new names and flags. Of course, there’s nothing comparable on land, because ships don’t have VINs.

Huge percentages of the world’s shipping go through choke points vulnerable to attack. If some pirates are terrorists, so far it seems to be for profit, but there’s nothing stopping them from taking a floating bomb into a port and pulling a Halifax on New York Harbor. Bureaucrats in civilized countries may dream of putting tamper-proof seals on every ship coming into port. They forget that the sea’s a big, big place. If you want to put a bomb on a ship, you wouldn’t do it in a port. You’d do it at some GPS-enabled rendezvous point in the middle of the South Pacific. You’d bribe government officials to give you containers. You’d forge papers, manifests, or even entire seals.

And you’d blow up New York Harbor without a second thought.

Almost as important, the global economy is so tightly bound together that imposing requirements like that would be the global equivalent of putting a toll booth on the Santa Monica Freeway during rush hour. It’d probably be more efficient to line the ships up, pave over the decks, anddrive the merchandise from Europe to America.

Like Langewiesche’s previous work, it’s well-written, and realistic. He focuses much more on reporting the story than on making presumptuous judgments on the people involved. One particularly detailed and gruesome account of an Estonian ferry accident, and the investigatory aftermath and nightmare takes on all angles, but probably could have been shorter. The descriptions of people waiting to die, of the breakdown of social order, of the utter chaos during a storm are chilling.

And fairly representative of the Lord-of-the-Flies world that the sea is.


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