The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina

The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier  By Ian Urbina Knopf, 2019

Jamaica Plain’s own Robert Bennet Forbes, while he was still in his 20s and captaining the Niantic, surveyed the vast seas on which he plied his trade and sighed, “So far from land, so far from law.” 

It’s been nearly two centuries since Captain Forbes looked out on those seas, but as Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ian Urbina makes clear in his stunning new book The Outlaw Ocean, the situation hasn’t much changed. Although Urbina’s book chronicles the thriving chaos of the open ocean in manifestations ranging from human trafficking to extra-legal disposition of property or people, the main narrative thread in these pages deals with the many faces of piracy:

Larceny has been a part of maritime life since humans first took to the seas, and though snatching a ship the size of a skyscraper has a ring of absurdity, it happens with surprising frequency. Indeed, piracy does not just involve fast-boat attackers. Buccaneers often wear business suits, hijacking ships in port through opportunism rather than force. “In some ports in the world,” I’d been told many times before, “possession isn’t nine-tenths of the law. It is the law.” 

Urbina spent so much time among pirates, rough salvage crews, witnesses to human trafficking, smugglers, and a wide array of desperate victims that it’s something of a minor miracle he’s still alive to report back on his findings. He crafts very human portraits of all these people and the lawless world they inhabit. He also pauses regularly to step back and appreciate the staggering physical beauty of that world; “That night sky was cloudless, and with flatness all around me, not a visual obstruction anywhere,” he writes, “the sky was as big as it ever gets.” 

The daily rhythms of life at sea is likewise brought to life in all its alterations between violence and tedium:

Through many months of reporting on fishing, I was struck by the age-old consistency of the vocation: the typical workday for a fisherman hasn’t changed since the days of Galilee. It was backbreaking labor punctuated by crushing boredom. You shot your net, cast your line, waited, waited more, then hopefully hoisted or reeled in a catch.

“Impunity is the norm at sea” Urbina writes, and The Outlaw Ocean is the fullest and most lifelike snapshot of that impunity’s variations that the young new century has seen. The enormous and renegade world Urbina describes is one Captain Forbes would have recognized immediately back in the 1820s. The march of technology and the mass of satellites overhead have done little to tame what Urbina calls the last untamed frontier; instead, it remains what it’s always been: a watery No Man’s Land where nations go to do things their land-based laws forbid. 

Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is