- - Friday, September 27, 2019

“Life on the ocean has long been romanticized as the ultimate expression of freedom — an escape from landlocked life, a chance to explore, to reinvent,” Ian Urbina writes in “The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier.”

Adventurous and romantic tales of going to sea have been told by sailors for centuries, and there are many novels and films that dramatize the excitement and wonder of sailing the seas. And like so many sailors before me, those notions made me enlist in the U.S. Navy when I was just 17 years old.

Unlike the mostly good experiences I encountered at sea, many modern-day sailors suffer the hardships of hunger, disease and brutality while working on fishing boats and other craft around the world. Some are virtual prisoners on boats and ships, and some have been murdered.

Ian Urbina, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, offers a collection of fascinating and often lamentable stories that chronicle how life on the vast oceans of the world is largely ungoverned.

Mr. Urbina offers stories of traffickers, smugglers, pirates and other criminals who take to the sea and ply their criminal trades often beyond the reach of international and national laws.

Often placing himself often in harm’s way, Mr. Urbina for five years gained access to many ships and boats that operated way out to sea off foreign shores. He also embedded with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Mr. Urbina tells us that he was enchanted by the sea and five years into a doctoral program in history and anthropology at the University of Chicago, he left his studies and a cold Chicago and traveled to Singapore for a temporary job as a deckhand and resident anthropologist on a marine research ship. The ship never left port due to paperwork issues, but Mr. Urbina got to know the crews from the ships docked nearby.

“This stranded stint port side in Singapore offered my first real exposure to merchant seafarers and long-haul fishermen, and the experience left me riveted by what seemed like a transient tribe of people,” Mr. Urbina writes. “These workers are largely invisible to anyone leading a landlocked lifestyle. They have their own lingo, etiquette, superstitions, social hierarchy, codes of discipline, and, based on the stories they told me, catalog of crimes and tradition of impunity. Theirs is a world where lore holds as much sway as law.”

Mr. Urbina opens the book with a story of a sea chase in Antarctica in 2014 between the Bob Barker, a ship belonging to Sea Shepard, an international, non-profit marine wildlife conservation organization, and a fishing trawler called the Thunder.

Checking his binder that held Interpol’s Purple Notice list of the world’s worst maritime fishing scofflaws and the telltale silhouettes of the vessels, the captain of the Bob Barker found the profile of the Thunder, a Nigerian-flagged 220-foot fishing trawler.

The captain, Peter Hammarstedt, whom Mr. Urbina noted that he looked more like Howdy Doody than Blackbeard, was a serious young man and calm in a crisis. For Sea Shepard, the pursuit of the Thunder was about adding teeth to the halfhearted policing of laws on the high seas.

“For bad actors like the Thunder, the seas were a vast free-for-all. Largely hidden in the sheer expanse of the world’s ocean, poachers had little reason to look over their shoulders,” Mr. Urbina explains. “Offshore, laws were as murky as the watery boundaries are blurry, and most governments had neither the resources nor the interest to go chasing after them”

At the time, Mr. Urbina notes, Interpol’s Purple List consisted only six rogue ships. The ships had evaded capture for decades and were called the “Bandit 6.” According to Mr. Urbina, Capt. Hammarstedt and his sea-going vigilantes were doing the perilous police work that governments would not. The Bob Barker did not have the authority to arrest anyone, but they pursued the Thunder and reported the ship’s location to Interpol.  

This was the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in nautical history. Over 110 days, across more than 11,550 nautical miles, three oceans and two seas.

“The cat-and-mouse pursuit of the Thunder would take Sea Shepard’s crew through an unforgiving obstacle course of stadium-sized ice sheets, a ferocious storm, violent clashes and a near collision,” Mr. Urbina writes.    

Another interesting story is about a sea-going repo man, who used semi-legal means and trickery to repossess ships, much in the same manner as a repo man repossess cars. But, as one can imagine, repossessing a ship in port or at sea is a good deal more complicated.

“The Outlaw Ocean” is an interesting and illuminating story about crime on the seas around the world.

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

• • •


By Ian Urbina

Knopf, $30, 544 pages

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