THE OUTLAW SEA

A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime

By William Langewiesche. North Point. 239 pp. $23

It's somehow fitting that the author of this book was himself a sort of literary castaway, who washed in over the transom of the stately Atlantic Monthly almost 15 years ago with a pair of unsolicited manuscripts that became a single, luminous essay on the enchantment and danger of the Sahara desert.

Since then, William Langewiesche (lang-ah-VEESH-ah) has carved out a niche as a bard of the empty spaces of desert and sky (he's a lifelong pilot). More recently, in his detailed dissections of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, the poisoning of Butte, Mont., and the cleanup of the World Trade Center, Langewiesche has evolved into perhaps our leading forensic journalist, a voracious student of all that can go wrong.

Like a literary-minded accident investigator, he digs for every shred of evidence, without worrying about whom his conclusions might offend. This sort of dispassionate and rigorous reporting has earned him a National Magazine Award for his EgyptAir article, as well as the wrath of New York City firefighters and police, who showed up at his readings of his book American Ground last year in angry, intimidating mobs after he wrote that rescue workers had apparently lifted merchandise from stores at the World Trade Center. (He replied, weakly, that he was merely describing a perception on the site that firefighters and police had engaged in such activities.) Now he takes leave of dry land to report on the chaos and anarchy that prevail on the high seas.

According to Langewiesche, some 40,000 merchant ships ply the world's oceans, subject to few controls of any kind. These ships, even those transporting dangerous cargoes of petroleum and chemicals, are manned by least-common-denominator crews, hired mostly from places like Pakistan and Indonesia, and driven hard by ghostly owners until the ships quite literally fall apart, as happened to the 560-foot tanker Kristal off the coast of Spain in February 2001. Eleven of her crewmen drowned that night, as their rusty ship broke in half and spewed its cargo into the waves.

Luckily she was carrying only molasses, not crude oil, but as Langewiesche notes, oil tanker sinkings off Europe are an almost routine occurrence, and the responsible parties generally hide behind multiple corporate shells and meaningless "flags of convenience." Few merchant vessels undergo any sort of inspection, perhaps because in the days of sail the sea itself winnowed out the unsound ships. Nature isn't the only menace. Entire cargo ships have simply disappeared without a trace, the victims of sophisticated pirates who forge some paperwork and paint a new name on the hull (and in most cases, murder or maroon the crew). "Our world is an ocean world, and it is wild," he writes.

Langewiesche, though, is far more worried about the alarming threat of ship-borne terrorism. Even now, in Western ports, only a tiny percentage of the millions of incoming containers are inspected at all. "If you want to send a bomb through, it's so simple!" a Dutch maritime official tells him. "The chances of it being filtered out are almost nil!"

The federal government has proposed a brilliant solution to this problem: paperwork, in the form of formal "Security Assessments" for ships and background checks of crewmembers, who would be issued "biometric" IDs, a notion that strikes Langewiesche as "so disconnected from reality that it might raise questions about the sanity of the United States."

Who's going to issue the identification cards? Liberia, where a large percentage of the world's ships are registered, hardly even exists as a country -- although it does generate a formidable amount of paper as a ships' registry. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden is said to maintain a "navy" of rogue freighters, which ply the seas transporting ordinary cargoes, until called to duty (one of them reportedly delivered the explosives used to blow up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998).

Langewiesche is clearly a man for whom Sept. 11th represented not an end, but a terrible beginning. But just as he has raised this scary topic on the radar, Capt. Langewiesche changes course, switches on the autopilot and heads below, leaving us to plow through a thickly detailed account of the sinking of the ferry Estonia in 1993, with the loss of more than 850 lives. While this was tragic and (as Langewiesche shows) preventable, it's not clear what the Baltic disaster has to do with anarchy on the high seas; rather, it seems like a case of fatal incompetence, which ultimately went unpunished.

Standing on its own (as it does in a recent issue of the Atlantic), the Estonia saga makes a horrifying read, but, occupying nearly 100 pages of this book, it draws the reader into a narrative Sargasso Sea. Oddly, despite spending so much time on one faraway ferry disaster, Langewiesche doesn't even mention the burgeoning cruise ship industry, whose vessels are little-regulated, sewage-spewing sweatshops (not to mention the softest, fattest terrorist targets imaginable).

Which brings us to the basic problem here. This is not a unified, coherent work of nonfiction, but rather a collection of magazine pieces, somewhat loosely strung together. Bits of it are first-rate -- even the Estonia section is a great piece of reportage -- but there's little "connective tissue," as editors like to say. Langewiesche spent months traveling around the world by tanker, but there are no scenes from his travels and little to give us the flavor of life aboard one of these ships (at least not until it sinks); there are no recurring characters, nothing to tie things together. The terrorism section is the scariest but also the weakest, as maddeningly vague as a Tom Ridge briefing.

The book ends on a better note, with a fascinating account of "shipbreaking," the messy and controversial process of dismantling large ships for their scrap metal and fittings. The author stands on a beach in India, where most of this work is done, and watches low-paid workers take blowtorches to a beached ship's carcass, and the scene becomes almost poignant -- the global economy's ultimate graveyard.

Greenpeace objects to the practice of shipbreaking, denouncing Western companies that "export their shit to the developing world," in the words of an Amsterdam-based activist quoted here. But the joke's on them: Those Western companies have long since disavowed these rotten hulks, and the scavengers are more than happy to take them, toxins and all. One of them asks Langewiesche if he would like to "die first of starvation or of pollution."

And so Langewiesche's metaphor comes full circle. To regulate shipbreaking, as he shows, would not bring it to a halt, but merely drive it underground; likewise, when one port tightens inspections, the business simply migrates to others. And to inspect every single container on every single ship would slow the global economy, which depends utterly on sea-borne freight, to a complete stop. For every rule imposed on the shipping industries, somebody will find a way to get around it. The anarchy on the seas is not merely entropy, in his view, but "a harbinger of a larger chaos to come," an unpoliceable world where the ship steaming over the horizon might be carrying a dirty nuclear bomb, bin Laden himself or just a load of molasses. *

Bill Gifford is a correspondent for Outside magazine.