A gruelling exposé of high crime on the high seas


The Outlaw Ocean
by Ian Urbina
Bodley Head, 560pp, £18.99/$30

Is the sea interesting? Voyages across the waters have inspired great writers from Homer to Herman Melville, but what about the actual ocean? Can we say anything worthwhile about it? The great Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov was uncertain, finding the way other authors used it for poetic expression embarrassing and finally siding with Chekhov, who believed the only useful thing one could say about the sea was that it was large.

Ian Urbina, a journalist on the New York Times, has taken it upon himself to prove Chekhov wrong in his new book, subtitled Crime and Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier. And if measured by the acclaim he’s received, he has undoubtedly succeeded, winning seven major awards for the articles he has written about the sea that make up part of this book. The fact that television and film rights have been optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio (who, of course, has his own interest in the sea) is more evidence of his achievement. Plus, if we were to apply moral judgments to Urbina’s work, it is clear that his reporting has had a positive effect in the world, not only revealing the global criminal networks that emanate from the fishing, shipping and oil industries but also contributing to shutting some of them down.

And yet, brought together into a 400-page book, this is a slog. Urbina is clearly a brilliant journalist, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his reportage. But I’m not convinced of his ability to tell a story in long form. In part, this is in the nature of some works of non-fiction, especially one that requires delivering huge amounts of detail to create a world for the reader. But there does seem to be a structural element missing here which would unite the disparate environments and stories Urbina encounters on his travels.

Throughout the book, Urbina remains a shadowy figure. The overwhelming emotion he feels is one of being an outsider regarded with suspicion, and he repeats this so often that after a while the reader views him this way too. In order to make friends during his travels, he loads himself up with treats for the other sailors, including medications for their ghastly ailments. But he makes being out at sea sound like a terrible experience. While sea captains and pirates are romantic figures in movies and books, he insists on the horrible physical reality of being on a boat. Forget about the (seemingly ever-present) possibility of being murdered. Almost as unappealing is the condition that hits long-term seafarers where the body resets itself, so instead of feeling sea-sick you feel land-sick, unable to get off a boat without feeling nausea. For some sailors this gets so bad that they are stranded at sea forever, unable to leave their ships because they will feel permanently discombobulated.

Anyone not already familiar with the sea and nursing ambitions of escaping on a ship will find little sense of romance here. The overwhelming moods seem to be fear and boredom. When Urbina’s Spotify account malfunctions during a journey, he has a meltdown, and the routine of the security guards on one ship sounds as depressing as it could be: a Latvian guard defecates in the shower because no one is brave enough to stop him, while his companions lift weights, get drunk and play games such as “Bow Riding” (where you have to stay on your feet while waves crash across the deck), “Rodeo” (riding a treadmill at high speed) and “Night Rodeo” (the same thing in the dark).

While it’s a tough read as a whole, it works in small doses. There are many fascinating stories and observations here, and although the contemporary sections can get bogged down in unnecessary detail, Urbina is good on the different ways the sea has been viewed throughout history.

In the Victorian era, he explains, people believed the sea was a terrestrial purgatory. If a man fell overboard and drowned, the depth his body would drop to would depend on “the size of his midriff, the weight of his clothing [and] the density of his accumulated and unrepented sins”. It’s clear that Urbina feels disappointed that this has been exposed as a myth.

Perhaps the best way of expressing the book’s greatest flaw is that, as a prolonged exercise in demystification, Urbina reduces the great expanses of the world’s seas to a battlefield not dissimilar to the one we’re familiar with on land. Throughout the book, he discovers one human depravity after another, and if it’s not people-trafficking, it’s ships deliberately spoiling and despoiling the waters around them.

Towards the end, Urbina notes that his wife has become numb to his stories and travelling; he (or his editor) should have noted that even the keenest reader is likely to share her feelings.