The Outlaw Ocean - Five Notorious Characters on the High Seas

Chris Schluep on November 11, 2019


The subtitle to Ian Urbina's The Outlaw Ocean is "Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier," and while the vastness of the ocean is the unifying setting, it is a book made up of individual stories.

When Amazon Senior Editor Jon Foro reviewed The Outlaw Ocean as our spotlight pick of August 2019, he wrote: "It’s becoming harder to disappear on this increasingly connected, overpopulated planet, so if you're feeling hemmed in, maybe you should buy a boat. Three-fifths of the planet is covered in water, an expanse so vast that anyone can seemingly get away with anything without consequence. The high seas have always been where the illicit action is, and Ian Urbina—a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist—took to the waves to find it. And did he ever. Urbina traveled the globe on a risky mission, hopping boats to amass a catalog of just about every contemptible human activity imaginable. Smugglers, traffickers, pirates, poachers, stowaways, mercenaries, and polluters fill The Outlaw Ocean’s more than 400 pages, and the theme is overwhelming, often catastrophic degradation: of people, the environment, borders, and the rule of law (or at least its illusion)."

Many of the people in Urbina's book are indeed contemptible; but there are also those doing good, whether for others or just themselves. The sea can be dark or light, and in between are many shades of grey. To highlight that point, we asked Urbina to catalog a few of the people in his book. Because, although it's called The Outlaw Ocean, in the end this is a book about the people who were drawn to it.

George Mndolwa

In May 2011, two Tanzanian men—David George Mndolwa and his friend Jocktan Francis Kobelo—snuck aboard a 370-foot cargo ship in Cape Town called the Dona Liberta, a Greek-owned refrigeration ship. After finding Mndolwa and Kobelo, the crew built a rickety raft made of empty oil drums and a wooden tabletop. Wielding a knife, one of the crewmen fetched the stowaways and marched them up to the deck, where a rope stretched down to the raft bobbing on the waves. The crewman then ordered Mndolwa and Kobelo over the railing. “Go down!” the man with the knife yelled. “Go!” As they climbed onto the slick raft, the Tanzanians, neither of whom knew how to swim, nearly slid into the ocean. The Dona Liberta steadily shrank in the distance before dipping below the horizon. After days of storms and trying to stay alive, they experienced an extraordinary stroke of luck; hope appeared as a speck on the horizon. Before long, a ten-foot wooden boat with a loud outboard motor pulled alongside the Tanzanians. “Why are you there?” a fisherman yelled at them in English as he tossed a rope to the raft. “I don’t know,” Mndolwa replied. Half a day later, the fishing boat deposited the rafted stowaways at a pier several miles outside the port city of Buchanan, Liberia, where Liberian immigration officials detained them for being undocumented.

After Mndolwa’s experience on the Dona Liberta in 2011, the immigration officials in Liberia jailed him for five months as an undocumented immigrant. He was then flown to Tanzania and eventually made his way back to the encampment near the Cape Town port. Asked why he had stowed away aboard the Dona Liberta, Mndolwa simply said, “I wanted a new life.” He told me that Kobelo had stowed away on ships three times before—bound for Singapore, Angola, and Senegal. Mndolwa described a meager existence in Cape Town, roaming the sidewalks near South Africa’s Table Bay, selling knockoff watches and soccer jerseys during the day and sleeping in a makeshift lean-to under a bridge at night. To make ends meet, Mndolwa sold packs of gum and hair ties to drivers waiting at a nearby stoplight. His tenuous existence helped explain the risks he was willing to take to stow away, which he told me he planned to do again and as soon as possible. “I just believe the ship is going to change my life,” he said. “I believe that.”

My New York Times story about him was published in 2015. In the two years after that, he stowed away from Cape Town three more times, ending up twice in Senegal and once in Madagascar. He told me that each time captains discovered him on board, the shipowners paid him $1,000 to get off their vessels. This sum was enough to keep him afloat for half a year, he added. Each time, Mndolwa then made his way back to his destitute life in the shantytown alongside the Cape Town port, hoping to launch anew.

Max Hardberger

In 1990, Hardberger was working odd jobs on ships when a shipowner friend called and asked him for an unusual favor. A corrupt port manager was holding his ship in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, waiting for a hefty bribe. The shipowner, who happened to know Hardberger as an adventurous and slick guy, asked him to fly down there and sneak the ship out of port. Hardberger took the job with glee, and his escapade was eventually covered in the maritime press, after which his phone started ringing with similar requests.

When the phone rang in Hardberger’s dilapidated double-wide trailer deep in the woods of Lumberton, Mississippi, it usually meant that someone, somewhere was in an especially tight bind. Hardberger was a person whom nobody liked to call. The most seasoned maritime repo man in the business, he only took the toughest jobs. His company was called Vessel Extractions, and its specialty was sneaking—some might call it stealing—ships out of foreign harbors, usually under the cover of night, and moving them to jurisdictions where his clients might have a fighting chance of taking legal ownership of them. On a plane to meet Hardberger, I plowed through reams of court records, news clips, and police documents to get my bearings.

I learned that over the prior two decades Hardberger had seized more than two dozen ships, and he had a reputation for taking on the toughest of grab-and-dash jobs, usually on behalf of banks, insurers, or shipowners.

Despite his muscle-bound name, Hardberger lacked the casting-call looks one might expect for someone in his bruising line of work. At five feet eight and 150 pounds, he had the build of a marathoner and the beard of a homesteader. He wore glasses with durable frames and recounted his stories in a fast, high-pitched voice, as if a record player had been sped up. Traces of his Cajun upbringing remained in his accent, which turned “well” to “wull” and “because” to “becawse.” Upping his twang at will, he could play the naive provincial for effect, despite usually being the best traveled person in the room. His bookish air contrasted sharply with his decades-old blue jeans. At one point, he recited lines from The Rubáiyát, an eleventh-century Persian poem written by a scholar named Omar Khayyám. Irrepressibly curious, Hardberger always kept a small black spiral notebook close at hand to jot down thoughts and observations. He was raised Methodist but is now an avowed atheist, and as he recounted past adventures and described future schemes, he usually wore the impish grin of a man continually on the verge of stealing third base. None of the repo men I’d met suffered from a lack of self-regard. All of them to varying degrees were self-mythologizing showmen. An impatient raconteur, Hardberger listened as if he were eager for you to finish your story so he could start telling his (which was invariably better).

Peter Hammarstedt

Born in Stockholm, Hammarstedt joined Sea Shepherd at eighteen, shortly after high school. Lanky and baby-faced, he looked more like Howdy Doody than Blackbeard. He was stiffer and more formal than one might expect from a thirty-year-old who’d spent over a decade at sea. Even his one-paragraph emails had proper punctuation and indentation. Prone to meticulously arranging his pencils and pens before starting work at his desk, he was an orderly man in a disorderly line of work. Hammarstedt had been on almost all of Sea Shepherd’s major campaigns since 2003, including ten missions chasing Japanese whalers in Antarctica. In his stern countenance, his crew saw a young man who took his job seriously and was always calm under fire.

I met Captain Hammarstedt in the middle of what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in nautical history. Over 110 days, across more than 11,550 nautical miles, three oceans, and two seas, the cat-and-mouse pursuit of the Thunder would take Sea Shepherd’s crew through an unforgiving obstacle course of stadium-sized ice sheets, a ferocious storm, violent clashes, and a near collision. This was a chance for Sea Shepherd to remake itself with new targets and tactics. The group had decided, for example, that rather than ramming any of the Bandit 6, they would instead try to stay within the bounds of the law, shadowing while harassing them to the point of stopping. “Loud hailers” is how Hammarstedt described his group’s role. Unlike other missions, Sea Shepherd was also collaborating with Interpol this time rather than defying it..

Rebecca Gomperts

Few people are as adept at capitalizing on such loopholes in maritime law as Rebecca Gomperts. The Dutch doctor and founder of Women on Waves traverses the globe in a converted medical ship carrying an international team of volunteer doctors that provides abortions in places where it has been criminalized. Running these often-clandestine missions since the early years of the 21st century, Gomperts has repeatedly visited the coasts of Guatemala, Ireland, Poland, Morocco, and a half dozen other countries, dangerously skating the edge of federal and international law.

Where a country’s federal law may forbid abortions, the jurisdiction of that law only reaches the limits of national waters—or twelve miles from shore. At the thirteen-mile mark, where international waters begin, abortion is legal on Gompert’s ship, because it flies the flag of Austria, where the procedure is permitted. The ocean, and the opportunistic quirk in maritime law, allowed Gomperts, in her words, to help women “give themselves the license” to induce a miscarriage. More broadly, Women on Waves aims to “demedicalize” an issue that, for Gomperts and many other women, is a matter of personal health. By taking her passengers offshore, Gomperts said she was trying to remove doctors (including herself) and the state as intermediaries between women and control over their own bodies. As one observer described it, Gomperts’s approach is to use the oceans to move women “past land, past law, past permission.”

Lang Long

“I wish I had never seen it,” said the security guard Som Nang, describing what he had witnessed hundreds of miles from shore. In late 2013, Som Nang embarked on his maiden voyage on a boat that resupplied fishing vessels in the South China Sea. After four days on the water, Som Nang’s ship pulled up alongside a dilapidated Thai-flagged trawler. At the front of the trawler, a shirtless, emaciated man huddled with a rusty metal shackle around his bruised neck and a three-foot chain anchoring the collar to a post on the deck. The man had tried to escape the boat, the captain of the fishing vessel later explained, so he locked the metal collar on the man and chained him up every time another ship drew near.

The name of the shackled man was Lang Long, and like thousands of other men and boys in the Thai fishing fleet, he was trafficked across the border from Cambodia into Thailand. Long had never intended to go to sea. Near his village outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, he met a man at a Buddhist festival who offered him a construction job in Thailand and help getting into the country. Long, who was thirty, saw it as his chance to start over; he was tired of watching his younger siblings go hungry because their family’s rice paddy back home could not provide for everyone. So, Long traveled by night to a port city on the gulf coast of Thailand over bumpy dirt roads in the back of a flatbed truck. When he arrived, he waited for days in a room guarded by armed men near the port at Samut Prakan, more than a dozen miles southeast of Bangkok. The trafficker then sold Long to a boat captain for about $530, less than the going price for a water buffalo. He was then herded with six other migrants up a gangway onto a shoddy wooden ship. It was the start of three brutal years of captivity at sea, during which Long was resold twice between fishing boats. I met Long in Songkhla, on Thailand’s southeast coast in September 2014 while I was reporting on forced labor. Long had been rescued seven months earlier by a Catholic charity called the Stella Maris International Seafarers’ Center, which paid a captain for his release.

—Ian Urbina

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