The Outlaw Sea A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime

William Langewiesche

North Point Press



Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book
Lettre Ulysses Award Finalist

Even if we live within sight of the sea, it is easy to forget that our world is an ocean world. The open ocean—that vast expanse of international waters—begins just a few miles out and spreads across three-fourths of the globe. It is a place of storms and danger, both natural and man-made. At a time when every last patch of land is claimed by one government or another, it is also a place that remains radically free.

With typically understated lyricism, William Langewiesche explores this ocean world, and the enterprises—licit and illicit—that flourish in the privacy afforded by its horizons. Forty-three thousand gargantuan ships ply the open ocean, carrying nearly all the raw materials and products on which our lives are built. Many are owned or managed by one-ship companies so ghostly that they exist only on paper. They are the embodiment of modern global capital, and the most independent objects on earth—many of them without allegiances of any kind, changing identity and nationality at will. Here is free enterprise at its freest, opportunity taken to extremes. But its efficiencies are accompanied by global problems—shipwrecks and pollution, the hard lives and deaths of the crews, and the growth of two perfectly adapted pathogens: a modern and sophisticated strain of piracy and its close cousin, the maritime form of the new stateless terrorism.

This is the outlaw sea—perennially defiant and untamable—that Langewiesche brings startlingly into view. The ocean is our world, he reminds us, and it is wild.


Praise for The Outlaw Sea

"What makes this account eminently readable is Langewiesche's storytelling ability . . . He puts a very human face on what is essentially a story of bureaucracy, commercial pressures, and a seafaring culture that, like the sea, resists the rule of law. It is an important tale, informatively told."—Mike Vogel, The Buffalo News

"Astonishing . . . As [Langewiesche] demonstrates time and time again in this brave, often electrifying book, [the sea] is a world that is both new and very old, and we ignore it at our peril."—Nathaniel Philbrick, The New York Times Book Review

"William Langewiesche's enthralling study of the epidemic disorder of our oceans is hard to put down. His prose flows seamlessly and elegantly, effortlessly integrating investigative reporting, political analysis, travel writing, and even film criticism. After finishing it, it's hard to sleep."—Jesse Berrett, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"[Langewiesche's] nail-biting description is more gripping than The Perfect Storm or Titanic."—Brad Knickerbocker, The Christian Science Monitor

"Langewiesche [offers] riveting reading by presenting his case via a succession of first-hand accounts."—Richard Shelton, The Times Literary Supplement

"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 conclusion might offend."—Bill Gifford, The Washington Post Book World

"In understated prose that highlights the dangers inherent in the freedom of the seas, Mr. Langewiesche points out the helplessness of American officials who believe that a large-scale maritime terrorist attack currently poses the most serious threat to their national security . . . Mr. Langewiesche is especially good on how the ocean, which 'looks tight in print,' can descend into such chaos in practice."—The Economist

"Punctuated with harrowing scenes of shipwrecks, oil spills, and pirate attacks, The Outlaw Sea is impossible to put down."—Alex Abramovich, People

"Langewiesche is that rare magazine writer whose narrative journalism has a shelf life longer than a week or a month . . . A magisterial effort of reporting."—Philip Connors, Newsday

"Langewiesche's prose is always elegant and gripping for its restraint. But there is another pleasure in reading him: the pleasure of witnessing someone quicker and deeper than you tackle a subject worthy of him . . . We're lucky to have Langewiesche's The Outlaw Sea as our map."—Marta Salij, Detroit Free Press

"Eye-opening . . . [Langewiesche] is a master at explaining complex technological subjects for a general audience . . . With a simple and unadorned prose that is elegant in its clarity, Langewiesche . . . lets his astonishing facts tell the story."—Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times

"The Outlaw Sea points out the sea's great influence on our lives, something that is often forgotten, ignored, or taken for granted . . . Langewiesche presents an excellent overall picture of the many problems affecting the world's shipping, for which practical solutions have so far been elusive."—Norman N. Brown, Associated Press

"'Our world is an ocean world, and it is wild,' Langewiesche writes. He then poses a powerful question: have the industrialized nations of the world given up control of the shipping industry to the demands of the free market? And if this free market is indeed the most efficient and profitable system, what price, socially, politically, and environmentally, will it extract from the human beings who use it? From the panic-stricken bridge of a sinking oil tanker to the filth-clogged beaches resulting from a destroyed ship in India, Langewiesche vividly describes a global cabal of unscrupulous ship owners, well-intentioned but overmatched regulators, and poorly trained and poorly paid seamen who risk their lives every day to make this new global economy function . . . Equal parts incisive political harangue and lyrical reflection on the timelessness of the sea, this book brilliantly illuminates a system the world economy depends upon, but will not take responsibility for."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Lest we forget: The ocean is cold, cruel, and unforgiving. Even though the vast majority of the Earth's surface is salt water, as the comparatively small land-mass is increasingly tamed and corralled, it becomes easy to forget that the teeming seas have not and never can be controlled or organized in any meaningful manner. Langewiesche takes it upon himself to remind readers of this in an effective, occasionally savage text . . . Impressive and well-wrought. Adapted from an article he wrote for The Atlantic, a fiery piece of work that speaks from a primal and awesome place."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

William Langewiesche is the author of four previous books, Cutting for Sign, Sahara Unveiled, Inside the Sky, and American Ground. He is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, where this book originated.
Read the full excerpt


  • William Langewiesche

  • William Langewiesche is the author of Cutting for Sign, Sahara Unveiled, Inside the Sky, and American Ground. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.
  • William Langewiesche Copyright Andrew Brucker