Greed, Piracy, and Murder at Sea in Ian Urbina’s ‘Outlaw Ocean’

Lee Polevoi


The Outlaw Ocean:  Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier

By Ian Urbina


542 pages


Judging by his deep research and personal experience, when New York Times investigative reporter Ian Urbina writes, “The ocean is not the place to go hunting for good-guy-versus-bad-guy narratives,” we believe him.


But as his new book, The Outlaw Ocean, makes abundantly clear, there are a lot of bad guys out on the high seas:


“The culprits were a diverse cast of characters: rubber-skiff pirates armed with rocket-propelled grenades, night-stalking fuel thieves, and slash-and-dash bandits wielding machetes. Others used deception. Hijackers masqueraded as marine police, human traffickers posed as fishermen, and security guards moonlighted as arm dealers.”


Our oceans are the last “Wild West” regions left on the planet. The rule of maritime law only goes so far in international waters, and even “in this era of drones and GPS, of big data and crowdsourcing,” nautical-related crimes go unreported and victims neglected in shocking numbers.



Urbina’s accounts of piracy, greed, and murder at sea range from the waters of Antarctica and New Guinea to Indonesia and Sealand in the North Sea, “the world’s tiniest maritime nation” with “its own passport, coat of arms, and flag.”


In addition to this global range, Urbina inserts himself into various narratives in a way that illuminates the nuts-and-bolts of conducting investigative journalism on the high seas, without distracting from the subject at hand:


“When I had the option, I almost always carried the same staples: My low-weight, high-caloric sustenance was peanut butter and dried fruit. I usually brought lots of chewing gum, mixed nuts, and sometimes cigarettes to hand out and break the ice with the crew. Powered lemonade helped mask the rusty taste of the water on most ships. M&Ms were durable treats, relatively safe from the heat, that I could dole out to myself slowly, a few each day.”


The scope of reporting in The Outlaw Ocean is remarkable. Urbina covers a wide swath of oceangoing banditry and mayhem, and delivers his findings in clear, transparent prose that brings this sordid activity to life.



Often the conditions in which he’s present are serious, if not potentially life-threatening. On a Ghanaian port police boat, for example, “the waves swelled to fifteen feet high, and I sensed that the men, not without reason, were getting scared.” At another time, he’s aboard an Indonesian patrol boat when it becomes embroiled in a potentially violent confrontation with a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship:


“At 262 feet long and nearly three thousand tons, the ship was over twice the size of our vessel. Samson immediately ordered his men to get the 12.7 mm machine gun from storage and set it on its mount on the forward deck. As we raced toward the Vietnamese cutter, Samson radioed his officers piloting the other four seized blue boats. ‘Turn off your AIS now,’ he said, referring to the device that transmits their location publicly, a step he hoped would help avoid the Vietnamese taking more of his men captive.”


On oceans where the concept of law and order are irrelevant at best, shooting wars over precious resources break out all the time.


But “the thing about danger is you become desensitized to it the more you experience it and emerge unscathed.” Urbina says he doesn’t experience danger “as a drug, nor do I seek it out simply for the thrill, but you become somewhat inured to fear.” Most readers will happily accept his word.



Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, recently completed a Cold War thriller, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.


For Highbrow Magazine


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