The Struggle Between Civilization and the Sea

In an era when primal instincts are constantly checked by the civilities of modern life, it is easy for the American mind to fall prey to the strong delusion that civilization has no end. From the west coast to the east, laws are made and laws are kept. Yet the coasts which contain the world of laws are also the limits of that world, as William Langeweishe sets out to prove in his startling expose of maritime life, The Outlaw Sea. With an eloquent yet restrained pen in his hand, Langeweische charts his course into a world most “landlubbers” are unfamiliar with – a world in which pirates, ruthless greed, and self-preservation sail unrestrained towards ignoble destinies. Compiled from a series of articles originally published in the Atlantic Monthly, The Outlaw Sea is an impressive showcase for a master writer’s talents, but suffers somewhat from structural flaws. Although this book offers multiple “plot threads” for readers to delight in, Langeweische’s leitmotiv seems to be the struggle between the civilized world on land and the “outlaw sea” which threatens to overtake it. To prove this point, he draws on compelling contemporary accounts of maritime mayhem, ranging from the devastatingly tragic to the ironic. Early in the book, he begins building his theme by turning a critical eye towards the international shipping industry, with a particular focus on the anonymity that “flags of convenience” can provide. Due to the anonymous nature of the sea, Langeweische argues, international maritime law is a mere phantom of society’s principals, too incorporeal to have any real authority. In illustration, he presents a series of harrowing events at sea, including a particularly vivid account of modern piracy onboard a ship called the Alondra Rainbow. Suffice it to say, the Alondra Rainbow account surpasses Pirates of the Caribbean in suspense, but Langeweische’s exploration of the possibility for high-seas terrorism is even more compelling. Of particular note is his skillful uncovering of the freighters owned and operated by Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, which government officials would do well to consider. Halfway through the book, however, Langeweische lifts his lens from issues of international law to turn his attention to the much-publicized tragedy of the passenger ship Estonia. Named for its native country, the Estonia fell prey to poor maintenance and an overly aggressive captain, making it easy sustenance for the mouth of a storm. As the author puts it, “there was civilization onboard the Estonia,” until a faulty car-loading ramp broke open and water gushed in to the ship’s bowels, taking the majority of those onboard to a damp demise. It is with the story of the Estonia, which spans nearly half of the book, that Langeweische displays his greatest skill as a writer. One of his most admirable qualities is his ability to interweave technical detail with thrilling accounts of the events he chronicles, making him both journalist and author at turns. When chronicling the destruction of the Estonia, Langeweische takes readers deep into the post-accident investigations, piling up multiple layers of information for consideration. While this may be a little overwhelming to those looking for a “quick read,” it is also gratifying that this author respects the intelligence of his audience and is not afraid to initiate us into his world of knowledge. Standing counter to this bevy of beauracratic paperwork, conspiracies, and international relations, however, are the gut-wrenching stories of the Estonia’s actual survivors. Culled from his extensive first-person interviews, Langeweische does more than simply reiterate the stories he collected – he grabs the reader by the arm and drags them deep into the chilling waters of the Baltic sea, giving us the opportunity to slosh through life rafts, tumble down tilting corridors, and gasp for precious air; all without getting soggy, of course. Unfortunately, the Estonia chapters also reveal the book’s major weakness, which is its lack of structural unity. Granted, the story does a fine job of illustrating the conflict of civilization and the “outlaw sea,” but its sudden intrusion into the book seems somewhat unruly. For one thing, this particular account is only marginally related to the chapters preceding it, which had dealt primarily with crime on the high seas. The length of Langeweische’s record of the Estonia also stands out, as it is nearly three times the length of any other story in the book. From a structural standpoint, this would be fine if the Estonia account were the centerpiece of Langeweische’s argument, but it does not appear to be. From an objective standpoint, the book seems primarily to argue for an increase of responsibility in international shipping. The Estonia illustrates this point well, but it is by no means the best example used in the book. Consider, for example, that the investigations Langeweische records were not even able to come to a consensus on the cause of the ship’s death, thus rendering the entire story open to debate. Yet it may be that Langeweische’s intent in writing this piece was not primarily to argue for an increase in maritime regulation. If one takes the book as a working whole, then it could be said that his point is simply that the sea is adverse to the niceties of organized society, making adequate regulation virtually impossible. This makes the Estonia story fit better with the larger picture, but nonetheless, its length and lack of cohesion with previous chapters makes the book seem slightly disjointed. Further aggravating this problem is Langeweische’s apolitical attitude. While many readers will find it a breath of fresh air to read an author who is neither concretely conservative nor concretely liberal, it seems to me that The Outlaw Sea suffers from a general lack of opinion. How should readers respond to the startling information Langeweische reveals? He does not tell us. His last chapter, “On the Beach,” is not so much a summation of a coherent argument as it is one more surprising account on a pile of surprising accounts. There is enough erudition displayed by this point that the reader recognizes Langeweische as a knowledgeable expert in this field. Naturally, by the last chapter we are practically begging him to offer a plausible solution to the problems he has outlined – yet it never comes. Without a doubt, this author has strong opinions, or he would not have been driven to write this book and uncover things that most readers will not have been aware of prior to reading The Outlaw Sea. To refrain from fully expressing those opinions is largely a matter of taste, but this reader would have liked to see the journalistic viewpoint dropped just enough to let us share in the author’s personal insight. These shortcomings are only visible when one realizes what a fine writer Langeweische is. Without being sentimental towards the lives he chronicles, this author is capable of evoking instant identification between scene and reader. One does not merely read the events of this book – one takes part in them, through the clear-minded but artful prose. Where Langeweische does offer an opinion, his arguments are always sharp and thought-provoking. His prose is accessible to readers of all backgrounds, although I suspect that he had a moderately-educated audience in mind for this book. Based on this, I would strongly recommend this book to college-level or adult readers, although more literate high school students might also enjoy it. The Outlaw Sea is the perfect entry-level book for neophytes of the maritime world, but those with a strong background in international law or shipping might find it blasé. Overall, it is an impressive compilation of some of Langeweische’s best journalism, but its lack of an argumentative raison d’etre will leave readers guessing as to what comes next – and ultimately, Langeweische might retort, what comes next is based solely on how we respond to the startling information he presents us with.