A grim reality

“The Outlaw Ocean”
by Ian Urbana; Alfred A. Knopf, 2019; 544 pp.; $16.53.

Book review by Sandy Marsters

A decade ago, on a voyage from the Chesapeake to St. Thomas, on a very dark night, the watch spotted the lights of a ship. It was not a crossing situation, but it was curious and it became even more so when the big ship altered course and steered in our direction. Our crew of three gathered in the cockpit (any distraction from the endless ocean was a welcome diversion).

As the ship approached, we radioed to ascertain the skipper’s intentions. “Who are you and where are you going?” came the gruff reply. We answered. The ship, apparently a freighter, then steamed away on her previous course with no further radio contact.

Over the ensuing years, I’ve wondered what was going on aboard the ship on that dark night. Boredom? Concern? Something more nefarious?

Recently, reading Ian Urbina’s superb work of investigative journalism, “The Outlaw Ocean,” I began to develop some theories, and they weren’t pretty.

Urbina is a reporter for the “New York Times,” which first published portions of this book in 2015. Urbina had convinced his editors that, despite the very serious danger and huge expense that the project would involve, there was a story to be told about the lawlessness abroad on the vast oceans that cover most of the planet.

The result is a fascinating, often deeply dark and disturbing, tale of a territory where the unimaginable can and does happen because there is no one, and usually no laws, to stop it.

There is nothing romantic about Urbina’s sea story, other than the powerful journalism it produced. His time at sea was arduous and terrifying, and the characters and criminals he encounters are among the most depraved that mankind can offer. The suffering of the victims is unimaginable.

Urbina is well aware that his discomfort is meaningless compared to what it means to be a kidnapped Thai or Cambodian fisherman, trapped aboard a disgusting, crowded fishing boat for as long as three years, subject to beatings and sexual assaults. At least Urbina can go home.

Still, the fact that he is there as a witness is what makes his writing so compelling. The reason that such lawlessness can exist on the oceans is that there is no neutral observer to witness it. Being there, coupled with the writer’s skillful and colorful descriptions, is what makes it real.

Here we are on a fishing boat far at sea, where Cambodian boys make up the forced labor crew. Sleep comes in two-hour snatches, when it comes at all. Urbina beds down with the crew.

“I was practiced at tolerating pungent odors,” he writes, “but this room was unusually challenging. Squeeze the fluids out of some old football pads, add urine and puréed fish to the liquid, and boil it: such was the steamy aroma in that nook.”

Still, exhausted, he slept. Until the rats appeared. “The floor was teeming with dozens of rats. Some were cleaning the crew’s half-empty dinner bowls; others looked like rioters looting stores, darting in and out of the boys’ duffel bags.”

Still, there are heroes, like the fisheries police in Palau or Indonesia who are committed to protecting their waters from invading fishermen.

And there are those who take advantage of the lawlessness of the oceans to try and do good, like the crew of the yacht Adelaide, an ocean-going clinic that offers women reproductive choice in countries that forbid such choice. Racing 12 miles to international waters, the crew does its work legally.

And there is raw adventure, like descending deep into the sea off Brazil in a tiny submarine to check out the assertion by oil companies that no reefs would be endangered by drilling (clearly, through the sub’s windows, there were reefs).

Or chasing renegade fishing ships for months across oceans peppered with icebergs and roiled by storms. Or visiting a repurposed offshore fishing platform just outside British waters that’s its own crazy, rusty kingdom.

Clearly, Urbina has included some of these chapters to lighten the load of this very heavy book, to distract us from the dismal story that is written across the oceans by those who take advantage of the lack of laws, or the refusal of countries to enforce laws, or the logistical challenges of governing an ungovernable and trackless territory.

Is there a solution? That is not the job of the journalist. Urbina has been there and told the story. Now others must take up the equally hard work of finding a solution, if there is a will.

Sandy Marsters, along with Bernie Wideman, is one of the founders of Points East, and was its editor for many years.

Comments are closed.