La Mer

The Outlaw Sea: A  World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime
William Langewiesche


Who remembers this favorite grade school question: Which direction do all rivers run? The answer: to the sea.

Strictly speaking that’s wrong. It’s the word all that messes everything up. But in a more general sense it’s true because no matter how you slice it, this big, blue ball is blue because there’s more water on it than land.

William Langewische wants us to know just how much water that is. While he’s at it, he’d also like us to understand why it is, and probably always will be, a lawless place.

Langewische is a journalist and so this book is really a collection of magazine articles. In fact I recall reading  the last of them–the one only tangentially about the sea–in The Atlantic when it was first published. Though he’s now associated with Vanity Fair it was in that other monthly that I first encountered him.

Storm Ocean The subject of this book. Photo title supplied by guest editor, age 4.

Storm Ocean
The subject of this book. Photo title supplied by guest editor, age 4.

Like many name brand magazine writers Langewische has a specialty. His is extremely technical aspects of transportation. The first article I ever read by him, more than 20 years ago now, was entitled “The Turn.” It remains the clearest explanation of what happens–and what can go wrong– when a plane makes a banked turn that I’ve ever read. I think about it every time I find myself on a plane.

Since then our paths have crossed on occasion. The most recent piece I can remember reading was about the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. Collected in one of those annual science writing anthologies, it was the last piece in the volume which it dominated it by its length, detail and the human loss involved. It was a stunning piece of writing.

Modern day pirates lack the panache of Capt. Jack Sparrow.

Modern day pirates lack the panache
of Capt. Jack Sparrow.

Make no mistake about it, writing about highly technical subjects in plan English is a skill that is not evenly distributed. The more you understand the technologies involved, in fact, the harder it is to convey what’s really happening.

Langewische is a pilot so he understands flight and what’s involved. But he’s not an aeronautical engineer so his explanations aren’t constrained by an agreed-upon, opaque language.

In this volume he deals with a ship floundering, modern-day piracy, ship-breaking and in a long set-piece, a modern maritime disaster. He brings that same pilot’s eye to ships and ship handling which is not as much of a stretch as it may seem. In English, at least, there’s a lot of overlap in language between ships and planes (pilots guide ships through tricky waters, for example). And both require understanding humans–designed for terra firma–in an alien environment.

This is about as formal as shipping regulations get.

This is about as formal as shipping regulations get.

Read these tales and you’ll learn a lot about the rules and regulations that ostensibly govern the international maritime industry. Take just one example, ship registries. That’s the info that appears on the stern under the ship’s name. Where you register matters because that’s the regulatory regime you’ll deal with the most. Register in the  US, Great Britain or a country in  Europe and your boat will at some point be under a microscope. Register in Liberia and it will, too. Someday. Maybe.

Or how about ownership. In the case of one incident he traces a destroyed ship’s ownership through drop boxes, front companies and operating companies and, remarkably, finds the owner employed in the shipping business in London. This shorebound scion of a maritime family shrugs off the accident and the maze he’s hidden his family’s ownership within. ‘I’ve been here all along and the ship was maintained in prime condition,’ is essentially his story even if the facts suggest otherwise.

If that’s ownership you can imagine regulation. Three miles, 12 miles, 200 miles, at some point a nation’s jurisdiction ends and it’s a free-for-all.  Oh, there are agreements and treaties and the Law of the Sea.  All those together and a Metrocard will get you on the subway. But I’ve been convinced there is too much ocean and too few regulatory resources to matter. As the man said, It’s a big ocean.

The MS Estonia As she was meant to be.

The MS Estonia
As she was meant to be.

Most of the book is taken up with the story of a 1994 ferry tragedy. It seems as though in any given year an over-stuffed ferry goes down somewhere in the developing world. What makes this case different is that it took place in the Baltic Sea, between the heart of Northern European civility (Scandinavia) and the wanting-desperately-back-in, former-Hanseatic member-city Tallinn, now in Estonia.

MS Estonia (or a plausible replica) as she will be forevermore.

MS Estonia (or a plausible replica) as she will be forevermore.

As he did with the Columbia, Langwiesche reconstructs the ship’s final voyage. He talks with survivors. He talks with members of the official inquiry commission. He talks with the doubters (who are easily found still). He does a remarkable job portraying what must have happened. I say must  have though the truth is we’ll never really know for certain. The entire truth lies entombed in a smaller one, a ships corpse turned mausoleum on the floor of the Baltic Sea.

The non-ocean piece I mentioned is about ship breaking. That’s the term of art for taking apart a ship after it’s lived its useful life. It would be recycling if it weren’t done on the beach, in India and Pakistan and Bangladesh with little thought to toxins or human safety. The stuff we consume goes somewhere to die. It’s just rare when it’s done on such a larger-than-life scale.

The sea, arguably, is our mother. I enjoy the ocean and the beach as much as anyone–maybe even more so. I’ve also felt its tremendous power firsthand.  There may be chaos  and crime on the sea. There is also great freedom, beauty and danger.

And doesn’t that, in a way, also describe life?




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.