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The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime - William Langewiesche "The Outlaw Sea" is a real page-turner about a wild, lawless frontier that affects all of us. With so much of the raw materials of civilization shipped by freighter -- machinery, vehicles, food, oil -- you'd think shipping would be more closely regulated and better protected. But the author shows us how it's in the best interests of those who own the shipping lanes for there NOT to be much regulation. Ships, crews, and cargos are all, ultimately, expendable. It's more profitable to lose a ship here and there than for the navies and marine authorities of the world to get serious about policing the waves. Hence, we learn that inspections, even in ports where the authorities are relatively uncorrupt (which is rare) mean very little, and piracy is surprisingly common in the 21st century. You also get a look at the lives of mercantile sailors, which are not at all romantic or glamorous, but dirty, dangerous, grueling, and underpaid.

You'll be particularly appalled at how easily a ship can be taken, and the possibilities for terrorism are chilling as well...

This isn't really a single book, though, or at least it doesn't read like one. It's a collection of several different marine-related themes. First, Langewiesche talks about the law of the sea, or rather, the lack thereof. He covers regulation, naval enforcement, the shadowy, mutable world of ship owners and registries, and why the world depends on shipping and why shipping remains "a world of freedom, chaos, and crime."

Then he spends a huge chunk of the book talking about a single disaster, the sinking of the ferry Estonia. This is practically a minute-by-minute account, complete with descriptions of crew and passengers, survivors and non-survivors, and plenty of after-the-fact analysis of exactly what went wrong and the legal and political ramifications.

Finally, Langewiesche describes the ship-breaking yards in India, "hell on Earth," where the poorest of the poor break apart condemned vessels for low pay, crawling over shards of metal and puddles of toxic waste.

This book started out as several different essays, but each one holds up on its own, and the complete work is an eye-opening expose of both life on the high seas and the people who work to keep the world's shipping afloat.