The Outlaw Sea

William Langewische, who wrote a wonderfully fact-filled and gripping account of the cleanup at Ground Zero as a three-part series in the Atlantic Monthly (later expanded and published as a book), has now written a book on the modern perils of plying the oceans.

“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—roll!” wrote Byron in a comradely salute to the last great romantic wilderness on the planet. “…Man marks the earth with ruin—his control/ Stops with the shore….” In 1818, he could hardly have foreseen that it would not be very long before man would mark the ocean, too, with ruin, poisoning whole seas with his industrial effluent, or fishing them out with vast synthetic nets deployed by immensely powerful hydraulic winches. Yet the sea is still wild: as global warming takes hold, shipwrecking storms are beginning to blow more fiercely, and with greater frequency, than they did in Byron’s time, and the reach of the law of the land over the anarchy of the sea is, if anything, even more tenuous now than it was then. Mankind has always had much to fear from the ungovernable sea, and never more so than in this period of international terrorism, when who knows what abominations may soon arrive on our shores from the lawless terrain of the world’s oceans.

Jonathan Raban reviews The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche, here in the NY Review of Books.