Anarchy at Sea*

William Langewiesche**


The sea is a domain increasingly beyond government control, vast and wild,
where laws of nations mean little and secretive shipowners do as they please -
and where the resilient pathogens of piracy and terrorism flourish.

 

Since we live on land, and usually beyond sight of the sea, it is easy to forget that our world is an ocean world, and to ignore what in practice that means. Some shores perhaps can be tamed, but beyond the horizon lies the wave-maker, an anarchic expanse, the open ocean of the high seas. Under its many names, and with variations in color and mood, this single ocean spreads across three fourths of the globe. Geographically it is not the exception to our world but by far its greatest defining feature. By social measures it is important too. At a time when every last patch of land is claimed by one government or another, and when citizenship is treated as an absolute condition of human existence, it is a place that remains radically free. Expressing that freedom are more than 40,000 large merchant ships that ply the open ocean among uncountable numbers of smaller coastal craft, and between them carry nearly the full weight of international trade - almost all the raw materials and finished products on which our lives are built. These ships are crewed by mariners of varying quality drawn from the poor worldwide, and mixed together without reference to language or nationality. In many cases they are owned or managed by secretive one-ship companies so ghostly and unencumbered that they exist only on paper, or maybe as a brass plate on some faraway foreign door. But it is the ships themselves that truly embody the anarchy of the open ocean: they are possibly the most independent objects on earth, many of them without allegiances of any kind, frequently changing their identity, and assuming whatever nationality, or "flag," allows them to sail as they please.

No one pretends that a ship comes from the home port painted on its stern, or that it has ever been anywhere near. Panama is the largest maritime nation on earth, and is followed by bloody Liberia, which hardly exists. No coastline is required either. There are ships that hail from La Paz, in landlocked Bolivia. There are ships that hail from the Mongolian desert. The registries themselves are rarely based in the countries whose name they carry: Panama is considered to be an old-fashioned "flag," because its consulates collect the registration fees, but "Liberia" is run by a company in Virginia, "Cambodia" by another in South Korea, and the proud "Bahamas" by a group in the City of London. The system, generally known as "flags of convenience," began around World War II, but its big expansion occurred only in the 1990s - and in direct reaction to an international attempt to impose controls. By shopping globally, shipowners found that they could choose the laws that were applied to them rather than haplessly submitting as ordinary citizens must to the arbitrary jurisdictions of their native states. The effect was to lower operating costs - for crews and upkeep - and to limit the financial consequences of the occasional foundering or loss of a ship. The advantages were so great that even the most conservative and well-established shipowners, who were perhaps not naturally inclined to play along, found that they had no choice but to do so. What's more, because of the registration fees that the shipowners could offer to cash-strapped governments, the various flags competed for the business, and the deals kept getting better.

The resulting arrangement, though deeply subversive, has an undeniably elegant design. It constitutes an exact reversal of sovereignty's intent, and a perfect mockery of national conceits. It is free enterprise at its freest. And it is by no means always a bad thing. I've been told, for example, that the cost of transporting tea to England has fallen a hundredfold since the days of sail, and that there are similar efficiencies across the board. But the efficiencies are accompanied by global problems, too, including the playing of the poor against the poor, the persistence of huge fleets of dangerous ships, the pollution they cause, the implicit disposability of the crews who work aboard, and the parallel growth of two particularly resilient pathogens that exist now on the ocean - the first being a modern and sophisticated strain of piracy, and the second its politicized cousin, the maritime form of the new stateless terrorism.

These patterns are strong in part because they fit so well with certain unchanging realities of the sea - the ocean's easy disregard for human constructs, its size, the terrible strength of its storms, and the privacy provided by its horizons. They are not, however, vestiges of a swashbuckling past - though maritime traditions are involved - but rather seem to be rooted in a new and particularly calculated form of chaos. Though the morals and motivations are not the same, there are striking similarities between the methods of shipowners, al Qaeda-style terrorists, and certain pirate groups - all of whom have learned to operate without the need for a home base and more significantly, to escape the forces of law and order not by running away but by complying with existing laws and regulations in order to hide in plain sight The result has been to place the oceans increasingly beyond government control. For public consumption in cities like London and Washington, D.C., there are still brave words about the promise of technology and the taming of the sea. Privately, though, the officials who are charged with doing the work - whether imposing navigational and safety standards on ships, or fighting seaborne terrorism and criminality - now admit that unlike land or air, the sea is a domain that can barely be policed. This is neither a lament nor a forecast of doom, but a close observation of the ocean in our time . The ocean is our world, and it is wild .

1. A SEA STORY

The Kristal was a typical casualty of the anarchic sea. It was an all-purpose tanker, a steel behemoth 560 feet long. It had been built in Italy in 1974, and for years had ridden the downward spiral of the maritime market under a progression of names, owners, and nationalities. By the winter of 2001, at the age of twenty-seven, it was nominally Maltese. The ship belonged to an obscure Italian family who owned it through a Maltese company that existed only on paper, and that operated through several layers of other companies, variously of Switzerland and Monaco.

Though the Kristal was well painted, and regularly passed inspections, it was at least five years beyond the ideal retirement age, and had grown decrepit and difficult to maintain. Its owners kept it sailing anyway, apparently with the intention of squeezing a final few years of profitability from the ship before selling it to other operators still lower down the food chain or, if none could be found, directly to a shipbreaker for the scrap-metal value of the hull. They were unable to attract business from the major oil companies, most of which try to apply stringent standards to the tankers they charter and generally shy away from vessels past the age of twenty, but there were other customers and cargoes available. Throughout the previous year the Kristal had engaged in a globe-circling trade, by which it carried molasses from India to Western Europe, kerosene from Latvia to Argentina, and soy oil from Argentina around Cape Horn to India again. The molasses was a sign of the Kristal's final decline: it is the product left over from refined sugar, a cargo carried on the cheap by ships that tend to be one step removed from the grave. There is little risk to the principals involved - the customers and shipping companies - because the hulls and cargoes are insured, and in the event of an accident and a spill molasses disperses easily and disappears without causing much trouble. It is no small matter in choosing a ship that the same is true of Third World crews.

The Kristal's customer in February of 2001 was a subsidiary of the big British sugar company Tate & Lyle, which had contracted with the ship's owners to bring a full, heavy load of 28,000 tons of molasses from two ports on the west coast of India to an as yet unspecified European destination, which would be decided en route on the basis of the market. The crew consisted of thirty-five men of various nationalities, mostly Pakistani -about ten men more than usual for a ship of this type, because they would need to carry out repairs while under way. Most of the repairs consisted of chipping away at rust that, under the paint, spread like a cancer across the main deck and through the hull; there is evidence that important welding was also being done. The crew knew about the Kristal's condition, but were glad for their jobs. The captain was a forty-three-year-old Croatian named Allen Marin - one of many such officers from formerly Communist states, who are known to be competent and able to live on low salaries. He was well liked by his subordinates, though some thought that he seemed strangely uninterested in the technical aspects of running the ship. It was noticed, for instance, that during the important final loading of the molasses in India, he and the chief mate, another Croatian, went ashore overnight, leaving supervision of the work to a junior officer. No one objected. The attitude was to let the captain have his fun. The Kristal was a run-down ship, but a fairly happy one.

On February 4, 2001, it set out across the Indian Ocean on a route that would go through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Gibraltar. The days passed in monotonous succession, broken by the routine of alternating six-hour watches, the anticipation of work and of rest. During their time off the men ate and slept, and relaxed by playing ping-pong or watching movies in the messrooms. They called the super-structure where they lived the "iron house," because it was made of metal and hemmed them in. It stood aft on the hull and rose five levels above the main deck to the bridge. It was not uncomfortable, but after a while it seemed small. The crew's conversations there were almost exclusively about the ship, because after many months together it provided all that was left to be said.

The Indian Ocean was calm. Word came that the destination would be Amsterdam. There was a period of concern partway to the Red Sea, when a portion of the deck suddenly bulged upward, breaking some welds. Captain Marin reported the problem to the management company, and received a private reply, presumably to carry on. Only one crewman expressed grave concern. He was one of three Spaniards on board, a bearish, bearded forty-one-year-old pumpman named Juan Carlos Infante Casas, who despite his enormous physical strength had a reputation as a worrier. Infante Casas's duties included operating the valves and cargo pumps, and sounding the tanks from overhead on the deck. Like the other Spaniards, both of whom were mechanics, he came from Galicia, along La Costa del Morte, Spain's western Atlantic shore. He had gone to sea out of restlessness as a young man, and had never married, and still lived with his mother, to whom he was close. After six months aboard now, he was looking forward to leaving the ship just a few days ahead, at a scheduled fueling stop and partial crew change in Gibraltar. In messroom conversation he said that he knew the Kristal too well to trust it on the winter Atlantic. The other Spaniards felt more equable, though they, too, were scheduled to leave at Gibraltar. The older of them was a lean, graying man nearly sixty, named Jose Manuel Castineiras, who said that he neither regretted nor enjoyed his life at sea but considered it to be his destiny. It was easier for him than for his friend Infante Casas, therefore, when word came after the Kristal passed through the Suez Canal that the stop in Gibraltar had been eliminated: the ship would fuel instead at Ceuta, on the Moroccan side of the strait, and the crew change would be delayed until Amsterdam. That, too, was destiny.

The passage through the Mediterranean was uneventful. To keep to schedule, Captain Marin maintained the full engine speed of 88 rpm, driving the heavy ship westward at 11 knots through six-foot waves that were typically steep for that sea. The hull shuddered sometimes, but it barely pitched, and it rolled side-to-side by only 5 degrees - not enough even to spill coffee. Spray wetted the forward deck. The crew chipped rust. Life in the iron house continued normally.

The Kristal arrived at Ceuta on February 24. A storm was forecast for the Atlantic ahead, along the Portuguese and Spanish coasts, and gale warnings were in effect farther to the north, for the Bay of Biscay. Marin ordered 400 tons of bunker fuel, enough for another twelve days. While the ship took on the fuel, Juan Carlos Infante Casas went ashore and called his mother. When she answered the phone, he said, "Hola España!" which is what he always said. He told her that he was calling from Ceuta, and that his return to Galicia had been delayed. He said he was worried about the ship. He asked about the weather in Galicia. His mother reported that it was very nice.

But her view was limited, as land views are, to the orderly little neighborhood that surrounded her, and to the sky immediately overhead. At most she might have seen on television a simplified prediction that tomorrow the sun would hide behind clouds. While fueling in Ceuta, Captain Marin had access to more-sophisticated forecasts, as well as to reports of troubles existing ahead - there were ships out there having a hard go of it off Spain and France. In earlier times he might have been expected to go gently on his aging ship, and to wait in port until the weather had passed. But on the modern free-market sea, where profit margins are slim, delays of even a few hours seem unacceptably costly, and a captain who develops a reputation for timidity will soon find that someone has taken his place. As soon as the fueling was finished, Captain Marin ordered the ship to get under way, and in the last hours before midnight of February 24 he sent the Kristal sailing fast past Gibraltar and on into the Atlantic night.

At once the ride grew rough. The swells at first were about twelve feet high, black masses more felt than seen, through which the ship bashed and rolled. The conditions as of yet were not worrisome: the local winds remained light, and in technical terms the sea state seemed to be only about Force 5, on a scale of twelve. Nonetheless, the swells were evidence of a significant disturbance ahead, and the barometer was falling, and it was clear that worse was yet to come. Captain Marin maintained full engine speed. The weather's resistance slowed the ship by about two knots as it fought northwestward to round the Cape of Sao Vicente, on the Portuguese coast.

At 2:00 A.M. a twenty-five-year-old Pakistani deck cadet named Naeem Uddin joined the officers on the bridge to begin his regular six-hour watch. Uddin was a tall docile man who had grown up in northern Pakistan, on the border with China, as the son of a security guard. Under the mistaken impression that the merchant marine would provide some of the discipline and pride of a naval career, he had trained to become a deck officer at an academy in Karachi. After three years aboard working ships he knew better now, but with debts piled up behind him, and only three months of required sea time remaining before he would qualify for his first license, he felt committed to the life. To make the best of it, he provided the discipline for himself, working hard without complaint and never commenting on the wisdom of his superiors. He was not, however, without judgment. When Uddin came onto the bridge, the second officer, whose watch it was, told him that the autopilot was being overwhelmed, and that he should take the helm and steer. This was one of Uddin's standard duties, and of course he complied, carefully holding the headings as commanded, but not without wondering, as the hours went by, whether there wasn't some better way to handle the coming storm than busting straight through.

Steadily over the next two days the weather grew worse. The Kristal struggled northward in the open ocean off the Portuguese coast, headed for a point abeam Spain's Cape Finisterre, where it would be able to turn slightly eastward and take a straight line across the outer Bay of Biscay for the entrance to the English Channel. The sea was so rough that all work on the deck had stopped. Sleep was difficult, movie watching nauseating, ping-pong a dangerous contact sport. Ships coming from the north warned of still rougher stuff ahead.

By late afternoon on February 26 the Kristal was off-shore of Galicia, in the vicinity of Cape Finisterre, and conditions by any standard had grown severe. The sea state by now was at least Force 9. To the men on the bridge, the ocean seemed to be coming apart. The wind was howling out of the north, and there was a constant roar of crashing water. Sheets of heavy spray rose to smash against the bridge's wings. The waves were steep and breaking, and as high as thirty feet. They regularly buried the bow, and sometimes swept across the entire deck, engulfing the ship to the superstructure and filling the aft passageways faster than they could drain. The view from a ship of such conditions is in some ways a privileged one - a rare display of the ocean's awesome power that may seem exhilarating even to a crew engaged in the fight for survival. There is a home video of a violent storm in the Mediterranean off Spain that was shot in December of 2000 from the bridge of a Greek-owned gasoline tanker named the Castor, in which waves are seen burying the deck, and in the background the Polish crew can be heard laughing and whooping with delight. That crew proved foolish, because the Castor then cracked severely and, threatening at any moment to sink or explode, embarked on what became an epic voyage under tow as a "leper ship" that for six weeks was refused entry by every port of refuge. Nonetheless, there is no denying the abstract beauty of a heavy storm at sea.

But the crew of the Kristal knew their ship too well to indulge in abstraction. At 2:00 A.M., when Naeem Uddin entered the bridge for his watch, he found not only the scheduled second officer on duty there but the chief mate and the third officer as well, both of whom had stayed on past the end of their normal watches. To Uddin they looked afraid, as was he. The blackness of the night was streaked with the white of breaking waves. The ship was rolling and pitching violently. Through the spinning clear-screens on the bridge's windows he could see the familiar bow light moving wildly as the ship plunged deeply into oncoming waves. It was just possible to make out the masses of water boiling across the deck. When Uddin took the helm, he found the ship difficult to steer. It was hogging over the crests, surfing down the watery slopes, sagging and staggering through the troughs, and slewing left and right by 20 degrees. There was no chance of keeping the Kristal exactly on heading. Uddin fought back with large rudder movements, trying to average the swings.

It was not Uddin's first experience with the Kristal in a storm. The previous winter he had steered through similar waves while bound for Ireland with another load of molasses, and he had watched the ship rolling to 25 degrees, which was uncomfortably close to the capsize threshold. On that occasion, however, the captain had been another man, a Spaniard, who had ordered Uddin to turn the Kristal into the waves and slow it to its minimum maneuvering speed, easing the ship's motion at the cost of a delay. This time, in contrast, the captain was below in his cabin, and probably asleep. Captain Marin had stood duty on the bridge for much of the time since leaving Ceuta, and undoubtedly he needed to rest. Meanwhile, the helm's instrumentation showed that the engine speed was still set at the full 88 rpm - as if before retiring the captain had given an order to maintain speed at all costs. Uddin was always aware of his low rank as a cadet, and he continued to steer without comment, but this ride felt more dangerous to him than any that had come before. Though the Kristal was rolling less steeply than it had during the previous year's storm, initially to only about 15 degrees, it was shaking, slamming, and pitching severely through the waves. From the changes in vibration it seemed that the propeller at times was cavitating, or perhaps coming partially out of the water. In combination the motions were complex. The ship would roll three or four times, bury its bow, and while struggling upward oscillate more rapidly. Uddin realized that enormous strains were being placed on a weak and rusty hull.

The officers on the bridge realized it too. They were openly anxious about the ship's fate, and repeatedly asked each other, "What's going to happen? What should we do?" The second officer radioed another vessel that was out that night, running downwind from the north. He asked about the ocean ahead. The answer came back that it was very, very rough, with really high seas - meaning worse even than these. The chief mate and the second officer discussed running for shelter on the Spanish or Portuguese coast, but perhaps because this would have involved gambling with a dangerous lee shore, they did not pursue the idea. On several occasions when the slamming grew most intense the chief mate asked Uddin to alter the course off-wind, 10 or 20 degrees to the west, but each time the rolling grew so severe that he hastily remanded the order and had the ship brought back to face the storm. The best compromise seemed to lie among compass headings slightly to the left of the weather, by which the ship took the waves on the starboard bow. It wasn't much of a solution. The Kristal continued to pitch and slam, and at the extremes rolled past 25 degrees, making it impossible for the officers to stand without holding on, and causing loose objects in the bridge to crash. Significantly, the chief mate did not rouse the captain, or take it upon himself to break the schedule and reduce the engine speed.

Uddin's watch was shortened that night in recognition of the fight he had put up to maintain control. He went below before dawn, had a cold meal, and retreated to his cabin to rest. His cabin was on the galley deck at mid-level in the superstructure, overlooking the main deck and beyond it, the bow. It had a bunk a cabinet with drawers, and a porthole covered by a curtain. Uddin undressed, put on nightclothes, and lay in his bunk as usual with his head toward the bow and his feet toward the back of the boat. By wedging himself against the bunk's preventer-board he managed to sleep.

Uddin woke up to a series of severe jerks, accompanied by the crash of crockery in the galley and the shouts of men. It was 12:30 in the afternoon. He felt groggy and disoriented, and assumed at first that the weather had turned worse, and that the ship must have rolled even more heavily than before. But then he noticed that his feet were higher than his head, and indeed that the floor of the cabin was steeply slanted. The engine had stopped; there were no vibrations; Uddin heard the splashing of water. He scrambled out of the bunk went to the porthole, and drew aside the curtain. The scene outside sent a jolt of terror through him: the hull had broken nearly in two from below, and had folded down at the midpoint into a V that was awash and flexing, hanging together merely by the skin of the deck. The ship was dead in the water. Storm waves surged through the breach.

It was a confusing time aboard the Kristal. The men on duty up on the bridge saw a cloud of steam rising from rupturing pipes as the break occurred. Some of the crew later said that the Spanish pumpman Juan Carlos Infante Casas was on a catwalk directly above the break, despite the conditions at the time, and that he ran for his life up-slope toward the superstructure, barely keeping ahead of the advancing water. His friend, the lean, graying mechanic Jose Manuel Castineiras, was in the messroom, finishing a lunch of chicken and soup, when he felt a shock and heard the ship rupture. It made a sharp crack like a cannon shot, and within seconds the deck pitched down. He rushed outside onto a passageway, and clambered hand over hand up a stairway to the deck above, where he and other crewmen broke out life jackets and put them on. The general alarm rang. Without further encouragement they began to gather at the assigned muster stations, and prepared to abandon ship.

Later it was pointed out that even mortally wounded tankers tend to float for a while, that molasses doesn't burn, and that there was no need for such a hurry; the old adage was mentioned that sailors should only step up into a lifeboat - meaning as a desperate last resort. But let us be honest. This crew was not sitting in some office thinking back on an event but, rather, enduring the chaos of the ocean in real time, clustered on the tilted deck of a broken hull in a ferocious winter storm, and facing the close prospect of death. The air temperature was 39 and the water was only slightly warmer. The Kristal was equipped with an inflatable life raft in a canister and two open lifeboats on davits, one on each side. Had the stern suddenly sunk, it would have tangled the lines, dragged the lifeboats down, and possibly taken the raft as well. It is regrettable that many of the men panicked and that some had not dressed beyond the shorts and T-shirts that they happened to have had on. But it is also understandable that they hastily lowered the lifeboats to the level of their deck and began to climb in. Captain Marin and the chief mate had been dining in the officers' messroom when the accident occurred, and they quickly climbed to the bridge. Marin got on the radio and broadcast the first emergency call.

In his cabin, braced against the sloping floor, Naeem Uddin donned a heavy sweater over his nightclothes, put on fresh coveralls and shoes, and strapped himself tightly into a life jacket. Oddly, he heard no alarms, and instead was impressed by the silence of the dying ship - a quiet broken only by the crash of objects continuing to fall and the rhythmic banging of his door, which had popped open and was swinging with the ship's rolls. He staggered down the deserted hallway, went through a watertight door, and pushed into the roar of the storm outside. Perhaps ten minutes had passed since the breakup. He was the last man to arrive at the port-side muster station, which was on the leeward side of the ship.

By the time he got there, the port lifeboat was hanging just outboard of the deck, and twenty-two of the crew had already climbed aboard. The Croatian chief engineer was there, as were all three Spaniards and a large number of ordinary Pakistani sailors. Uddin saw two higher-ranking Pakistanis standing on the deck beside the boat - including the third officer who had been on the bridge the night before, and who now held a crew list and was checking off names. That third officer was Kenneth Romal, a Karachi native not quite twenty-eight. He was listening to shouted instructions and reassurances from Captain Marin, who stood two levels higher, on the port bridge wing. The men in the lifeboat were silent. Uddin climbed into the bow of the lifeboat, which because of the ship's angle was pointed slightly down. He noticed that the water below was thick with molasses, and that the spilled cargo was calming the waves.

Third Officer Romal had a handheld radio with which he could communicate with Captain Marin. Romal climbed in and sat in the stern of the lifeboat, at the helm. After another ten minutes the captain gave the order to abandon ship, and the chief mate, standing one deck higher, used a brake arrangement to ease the port lifeboat into the water. There were twenty-five men aboard. They unshackled the boat from the cables, started the small diesel engine, and drifted clear of the ship. From the bridge wing the captain radioed for them to stand by in case of difficulties as, next, the chief mate lowered the starboard lifeboat, with an additional eight men aboard. It rapidly faded into the storm and disappeared from view.

Captain Marin and the chief mate were alone now on the ship. Some in the port lifeboat argued for returning to try to pick them up, but the captain insisted by radio that the ship was about to sink and that they should steer clear. It was an extraordinarily brave gesture - a private display of honor by a man who must have known that his own captains ashore, those shadowy companies whose schedules he had so dutifully served, would never have taken such risks for him. For the moment, at least, this did not seem to matter. He and the first mate checked the ship for stragglers, deployed the life raft, jumped down into it, and floated free.

Aboard the port lifeboat the crew had already lost sight of the Kristal. The suddenness with which they found themselves alone was almost as frightening as the facts that faced them. They had no idea of their destination, or even if their plight was known. Third Officer Romal was steering skillfully. But they were twenty-five sailors without survival suits on a bitterly cold ocean, moving among mountainous seas in a small open boat, battered by wind and spray. They veered between roaring breakers any of which could have rolled or swamped their fragile vessel. Sitting at the bow with the masses of water hissing and rearing over-head, Uddin tried and failed to estimate the size of the waves. They were later said to be thirty feet high - a clinical measure that does not convey the sea's true dimensions for the Kristal's terrified castaways. Romal kept cautioning the men to stay calm, but with limited success. Uddin and several others remained functional. But one man was seasick and vomiting, and many of the others were seized by a dangerously unreasoned, animalistic craving to survive. Romal was able to maintain control for a while, but the storm pressed in relentlessly, and did not allow his men the space to collect their minds.

It is useful to remember the reductive effect that fear has on thoughts and reactions: whether during shipwrecks or in other disasters, a sort of tunnel vision may set in and narrow people's views. There is another story that comes to mind. It took place three years before the Kristal's demise, on a similarly old and rusty ship named the Flare, which set off from Rotterdam on a stormy winter crossing to Montreal. The Flare was a dry-bulk carrier, flagged in Cyprus, and it had a multinational crew of twenty-five. The voyage was extremely rough, with waves exceeding fifty feet. For two weeks the Flare slammed and whipped, flexing so wildly that, according to one survivor, the deck cranes appeared at times to be touching. As it was approaching the Canadian coast late one night, the Flare broke cleanly in two. The entire crew was on the stern section, which listed to the side and began to sink. Strangely, the engine continued to turn, slowly driving the hulk on an erratic course through the night. The crew managed to launch one lifeboat, but it broke away before anyone could climb aboard. The men were panicked, and ultimately twenty-one of them died. But before the end on the sinking stern, there was a moment of savage euphoria when a ship floating in the opposite direction suddenly loomed out of the darkness ahead, as if it were coming to rescue them. The terrified men cheered. To their horror they then saw the name FLARE written on the side. It was of course their own detached bow section, and it passed them by.

Something similar happened to the crew in the Kristal's port lifeboat: they never saw the Kristal again, but at the top of a wave Uddin spotted another ship coming toward them; the men responded euphorically, and immediately allowed tunnel vision to set in, with only one goal in view, which was the salvation to be found on that ship's deck. Apparently they gave no thought to the difficulty of climbing a ship's sides in such seas, and never discussed the possibility of waiting for helicopters and rescue divers, which could quickly have been brought into play. Third Officer Romal seemed to be as single-minded as the others: he headed the life-boat at full speed for the ship, while the excited men fired off rocket flares. On the handheld radio Romal began broadcasting, "Mayday! Mayday! This is Kristal Lifeboat Number One, with twenty-five men on board!" He repeated this several times until the ship answered. It took twenty minutes to close the distance.

The rescuer was a Panamanian-flagged gas carrier named the Tarquin Dell, with a Filipino captain and crew. Gas carriers are high-sided vessels, and this one was particularly so, with a deck about thirty feet above the waterline, because it was riding empty. For the same reason, the Tarquin Dell was difficult to maneuver in the storm, and prone to heavy rolling. The captain managed to turn it beam-on to the waves in an attempt to shelter the waters on the downwind side. The lifeboat circled around the stern and tucked in close against the ship's hull. Far above, on the Tarquin Dell deck, sailors in life jackets stood along the railing, holding on against 30-degree rolls, and attempting to lower light "heaving lines" to which the lifeboat's bow and stern lines might be secured. This proved almost impossible to accomplish; the Dell's sailors were trying to tie one-handed knots on a rolling deck, and the few lines that they did secure broke. They kept at it. The situation in the lifeboat was nearly uncontrollable. Many of the crewmen were crying and shouting, and the boat was brutally slamming against the ship's unyielding hull. At the bow, Uddin broke a boathook while fending off, and then continued to work with the stub. The storm waves seemed to be undiminished by the Tarquin Dell's mass. One of them rose so high that it came to within a foot of simply depositing the lifeboat on the ship's deck. But then the boat dropped away, and the final line broke. The boat started drifting rapidly forward and the Tarquin Dell's crew ran along with it, until one of them heaved a heavy "messenger line" into the center of the crowd below.

At that point things went very wrong. Rather than securing the line to prevent further drift, a cluster of desperate men grabbed it, each higher than the other, until very quickly they were standing, half hanging from the line, and unbalancing the lifeboat. For the last time Third Officer Romal shouted desperately, "Sit down! Calm down!" But then a large wave broke over the boat, and the boat swamped and tilted, and all but one man, who was sitting toward the stern, were washed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite their life jackets, most seem to have gone deep. The gray-haired Spaniard Jose Manuel Castineiras felt the tangle of flailing legs and arms as he fought his way back to the surface. When he emerged, he saw that the lifeboat was flooded and floating low in the water, and that the man who had not washed out was still sitting upright in place, but that he was dead. He was a Pakistani "galley boy," fifty-some years old, and the first of the Kristal's crewmen to die. Castineiras swam to the lifeboat and somehow crawled in. Several others followed. The Tarquin Dell had pivoted in the wind and drifted some distance away, and it was no longer providing protection from the storm. Rolling heavily, it began a series of difficult maneuvers to set itself up for another try.

When Naeem Uddin was washed out of the lifeboat, he heard the screams of others before the ocean closed over his head. Time then slowed for him. He felt himself sinking as his life jacket started sliding up his chest, because, astoundingly, like other life jackets provided by the Kristal, it was not equipped with a crotch strap. He grabbed the life jacket with both hands before it escaped over his shoulders, and he rode it to the surface. When his head emerged from the water, he found himself in a wilderness of waves, with neither the ship nor the lifeboat in sight. Three other crewmen floated within view, including the burly, black-bearded pumpman Infante Casas.

The ocean was shockingly cold. Eventually, from the top of a large wave, Uddin spotted the lifeboat and in the background the Tarquin Dell. Holding his life jacket to his chest with one hand, he began to swim. He had on his night-clothes, his heavy sweater, his coveralls, and his shoes. He used an improvised sidestroke and, because of the life jacket, stayed mostly on his back. This meant that when occasionally he caught sight of the lifeboat, it appeared upside down and above his head. He navigated by those sightings. He swam for fifteen minutes or more, past crewmen floating helplessly. At times he cried. He knew he was going to die, and he wondered what it would be like, if he would feel pain. The cold water had hurt him at first, but it no longer did. He had visions of his mother, his father, his sister, his brothers. He recited a Muslim prayer in preparation for the end. He said, "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the last prophet of God." When he got to the lifeboat, he noticed that it was riding nose-high in the water because there were five men in it, including Castineiras and the dead emerged galley boy, and they were all sitting at the stern. Uddin tried to crawl aboard, and was surprised to find that he lacked the strength. He hung onto a rope until he found a way to drape himself over the lifeboat's gunwale and roll in.

Later another Pakistani sailor arrived. and Uddin helped him aboard. They sat toward the bow for balance. The waves were relentless. There were now seven people in the lifeboat, and eighteen in the water, mostly out of sight. The Tarquin Dell was back in action, providing its limited lee shelter, and with an innovation: a heavy rope strung in a loop from bow to stern, to which the men in the water could cling, and the lifeboat could be attached. But the situation was grim. Uddin and Castineiras both saw dead bodies floating nearby. For the men still alive, the Tarquin Dell's sailors threw life rings into the water, and dangled ropes and a rope ladder over the side. After a while Infante Casas swam up, holding his life jacket under one arm. Castineiras thought that Infante Casas got into the lifeboat, and Uddin thought that he did not. What is certain is that Infante Casas grabbed a dangling rope with his powerful arm, and that a wave washed over him, and he was gone.

It seemed obvious by now that others were disappearing too. Uddin decided to take matters into his own hands. He slid out of the lifeboat, swam along the Tarquin Dell, and despite being slammed repeatedly against the hull, caught the rope ladder and began to climb. The climbing was slow. Uddin's leg was badly cut, and it was warm with blood. The ladder swung violently as the Dell rolled, and waves continued to clutch at him, sapping what little of his strength remained. About halfway up the side of the ship, bruised and battered and still vulnerable to the ocean's surface, he simply could not move anymore. He did not pray or think of his family then; his mind was empty. He hung on. Vaguely, he felt someone grab his collar from above. It was a strong grip, and he fainted.

When he regained consciousness, a few minutes later, he was lying in a small room along with three other survivors - the only Kristal crewmen who ever actually found the sought-for safety of the Tarquin Dell's deck. All of them were blue with cold. Someone gave Uddin a bowl of soup. Someone bandaged his leg. The captain of the Tarquin Dell came and said that a helicopter was on the way. Soon afterward, Uddin heard the whacking of its blades.

The helicopter was a bulbous Sikorsky, with a rescue diver and a winch. It had come from La Coruna, an old port city on the Galician coast, a half-hour flight away. The pilot was a local star, a man universally known by his first name, Evaristo. He went after five men still loose and alive in the water, winching them up in a double harness, two at a time; then he swung over to the flooded lifeboat and picked up the survivors there, too. Castineiras was the second to last to leave. By then another helicopter was coming onto the scene. Evaristo flew his load of hypothermic survivors to the hospital in La Coruna. By the time he got there, one of them had gone into cardiac arrest. The sailor was rushed into the emergency room and revived. Evaristo headed immediately back to sea to find the dead and search for the missing. The second helicopter meanwhile had easily retrieved Captain Marin and the Kristal's chief mate from their life raft, and had rescued the eight men in the starboard lifeboat too. Uddin and the three others aboard the Tarquin Dell were the last to be plucked from the scene.

In business terms the damage control began within hours. As the crew recovered in La Coruna, at the hospital and at a hotel, the Kristal's managers sent a representative to the city, and employed guards to keep unauthorized visitors away - meaning mainly the press. They hired a crisis-management public-relations firm in London, issued a terse statement of regret, and endured a few days of national coverage in Spain before the news of the disaster faded away. The survivors were rapidly repatriated to the far points of the globe, and were paid their salaries to the end of their contracts, as the contracts required. The families of the dead were offered lump sums by the Kristal's insurance company, in London. To receive this money, the families first had to sign "quitclaims" promising not to pursue further action. Against the advice of the international seafarers' union, almost all of them signed. The amounts were kept private, and involved commitments to silence, but it is known that most were small that the payouts varied according to nationality, and that the Spanish got the most, because before they signed the quitclaim they made a little fuss.

The Kristal broke entirely in two, and floated for several days until first the bow section sank, and then the stern. As for the human tally, eleven men had died, almost a third of the Kristal's crew. Only four of the bodies were ever retrieved. Among those who were never found was Infante Casas. It seemed poignant and strange that the Spaniard had sailed the world for years, only to die here, off his own Galician shores; when Castineiras left the hospital, it took him less than an hour to make the trip home from La Coruna. But perhaps the saddest loss of all was that of the one sailor who by measure of his performance should have survived - the young, level-headed Third Officer Romal. After he was swept from the lifeboat, he was never seen again.

II. The ILLUSION OF CONTROL

The frustration is that a large body of regulations exists to keep such maritime disasters from happening. Most of the regulations are generated by the Inter-national Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency based in London, which since 1959 has issued a plethora of technical standards covering every aspect of the operation of large ships at sea. The Kristal was designed, built, and maintained to full IMO standards, and operated under the well-known maritime authority of a modern democratic state (Malta). It passed both scheduled and spot inspections on a regular basis. It was supervised and approved by the designated agencies, and its safety procedures were formally acknowledged to be in compliance with all the applicable standards. Its crew knew, of course, that the Kristal was an unsafe ship, rusting away beneath its paint, harried by its owners, and probably as a result handled recklessly. But when the ship was boarded by official inspectors whose role in principle should have been to intervene, the crew treated the visits as distractions that were mostly irrelevant to their lives. When I finally tracked him down, Naeem Uddin mentioned the crew's attitude toward inspections without any indication that the crew might have made a mistake, though he had suffered the consequences, and even two years after the accident remained visibly traumatized.

The point is, the ocean may look tight in print, much as many failing nations still do by formal description-but the entire structure built to regulate it is something of a fantasy floating free of the realities at sea. The IMO is a typically idealistic construct for bringing order to the world-a democratic assembly of 162 member nations, all of them determinedly equal, who work with the assistance of a technical staff and the consultations of accredited non-governmental groups to establish regulatory packages known as conventions, which the individual member states are then free to adopt (or not) in their sovereign maritime laws. The enforcement of those laws is a separate question, and it is spotty, because the arrangement allows the IMO no enforcement powers of its own. Most of the individual states have neither the expertise nor the inclination to enforce their own official standards, and they rely instead on independent technical organizations known as "classification societies," which are not hired by the states but, rather, selected and paid for by each ship's owner. The fact that this is a conflict of interest is not allowed to intrude. The IMO has been influential nonetheless, and indeed has become the universal reference for life at sea. Thumbing through the international conventions, hefting the books of regulations, or browsing the logbooks and certificates required to be carried aboard a ship, one might easily conclude that thanks to good government in London, the world of shipping is completely under control. But from the point of view of increasingly disillusioned regulators, the documents that demonstrate compliance are so easy to manipulate that they can be used as a facade behind which groups or companies can do whatever they please.

During the 1990s, even as international regulations multiplied, disorder on the high seas grew dramatically. However, this was not necessarily obvious to officials. They continued to see the ocean in tidy governmental terms as a place subject to civilization, where navies projected national power, and merchant ships sailed however reluctantly under effective IMO controls. It was a view of the world still possible at the end of the twentieth century - an illusion of progress and community that was demolished twenty-one months later.

Since then in the United States many officials have come to regard the ocean with grave concern, believing that a full-blown maritime attack would make September 11 seem puny by comparison, that such an attack currently poses the most serious threat to national security, and that when the attack comes, it will involve the use of merchant ships. They may well be right. Ships can deliver a big punch, and their importance to world commerce practically ensures that in the reactions that follow, major self-inflicted damage will be done.

Out beyond the horizon there is evidence that al Qaeda and related groups are indeed nautically minded and have been since well before September 11. On January 3, 2000, al Qaeda and some of its affiliates conspired to ram a fiberglass workboat heavily loaded with explosives against a U.S. destroyer named The Sullivans in the Yemeni port of Aden. The attack was aborted after the boat nearly sank under the weight of the explosives. The terrorists learned their lesson. Later that same year, in the same port, they loaded a boat properly and blew a forty-foot hole through the hull of another destroyer, the USS Cole. Seventeen sailors were killed, and thirty-nine were wounded. It was early October of 2000 - September 11 minus eleven months. In response the U.S. Navy tightened its warships' defenses. Other than that the attack on the Cole had little effect. Again, the terrorists appear to have learned a lesson - possibly about the inefficiency of hitting purely military targets, glorious though such targets may be. Two years later another small boat darted out from the Yemeni shores, and it exploded against the Limburg, a French supertanker loaded with crude oil. The ship caught on fire and spilled oil, and one sailor was killed. This time the damage was magnified by increases in insurance costs for ships calling at Yemeni ports and a corresponding drop-off in traffic, as a result of which the Yemeni economy has suffered. True, if the goal was to hit at the West, hurting Yemen hardly constituted a major blow, but the sophistication of the choice to attack a civilian ship was noted with concern around the world and it spread damage merely by raising the question of what would come next. A cruise ship full of Americans? A European ferry? A tanker in the Strait of Hormuz? A freighter off Gibraltar? Already the navies of the United States and its allies have their hands full with escort duties and patrols. And the ocean is a very big place. With deliberate preparation and the occasional well-placed attack, a few men with small boats can keep the navies churning for years.

But the real concern is not so much the vulnerability of merchant ships as it is their use by terrorist groups. Osama bin Laden is said to own or control up to twenty aging freighters - a fleet sometimes dubbed the "al Qaeda Navy." To skeptics who wonder why bin Laden would want to own so many of them, the explanation quite simply is that he and his associates are in the shipping business. Given his need for anonymity, this makes perfect sense - and indeed it reflects as much on the shipping industry as on al Qaeda that the connections remain murky. Such systematic lack of transparency is what worries U.S. officials when they contemplate the sea. The al Qaeda ships are believed to have carried cement and sesame seeds, among other legitimate cargoes. In 1998 one of them delivered the explosives to Africa that were used to bomb the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But immediately before and afterward it was an ordinary merchant ship, going about ordinary business. As a result, that ship has never been found. Nor have any of the others.

A measure of American frustration was an executive order signed by President Bush in July of 2002, expanding the U.S. Navy's authority to intercept merchant ships on the high seas. The target has always been larger than just the al Qaeda fleet of freighters: the government maintains a watch list of several hundred suspect ships, whose names are constantly being legally changed and painted over to avoid detection, and it recognizes that terrorists, with or without a crew's knowledge, may use almost any kind of ship, from a dhow to a supersized freighter. Therefore the search has been large, and enormously expensive. It has extended through much of the world's ocean and has been carried out by the navies of the United States and its allies. By rough calculation NATO forces so far have intercepted more than 16,000 ships, and they have boarded and searched about 200 of them. For all that, there have been only a few rather modest successes. For example, after an operation in July of 2002 that involved warships and airplanes from four NATO nations (not including the United States), four suspected al Qaeda operatives were found on a couple of freighters in the Gulf of Oman, and were transferred to a holding pen at the American base in Bagram, Afghanistan. The following month fifteen Pakistani suspects on another ship were captured by the Italians in the Mediterranean, after the ship's captain grew suspicious and turned them in. The ship had been renamed five times in the previous three years, most recently as the Sara. It was flagged in Tonga and owned by a Greek, who operated it through a company named Nova Spirit, of Romania and Delaware. American officials said that the company was involved in human smuggling - an allegation that the owner vigorously denied. According to the captain, the Pakistanis had joined the ship in Casablanca, at the owner's insistence. Though they had claimed to be seamen, and had carried seamen's documents, they demonstrated no knowledge of ships, and to a man grew seasick when the Sara sailed through a storm. The captain said that they threatened the crew. If so, as terrorists go they were inept. Because they were found with false passports, large amounts of cash, maps of Italian cities, and unspecified evidence linking them to purported al Qaeda operatives in Europe, they were charged with conspiracy to engage in terrorist acts. Pakistan refuted the charges, and claimed that Italian authorities had bungled the investigation. By this summer the Pakistanis' plight had drawn the attention of human-rights activists. But the men remained under lock and key.

Italy took a softer line in two other encounters. In February of 2002 eight suspected al Qaeda terrorists disembarked from a Nova Spirit ship in Trieste with false documents and ultimately disappeared. A more bizarre case had occurred several months earlier, in October of 2001, when port police in the southern city of Gioia Tauro found a forty-three-year-old Egyptian-born Canadian citizen named Amid Farid Rizk inside a Maersk Sealand container. Rizk is now known to some as "Container Bob." His box had been loaded in Port Said, Egypt, and was being transferred in Italy to a ship bound for Rotterdam, where it was scheduled to be transferred again, this time for the final destination of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It is said that Rizk was discovered when the Italian police heard him drilling additional ventilation holes. He was a man who apparently liked his comforts. When he emerged he was clean-shaven, neatly dressed, and obviously well rested. The container was equipped with a bed, a toilet, a heater, a water supply, a cell phone, a satellite phone, and a laptop computer. Investigators also found cameras; a valid Canadian passport; maps and security passes for airports in Canada, Thailand, and Egypt; a Canadian aircraft-mechanic certificate; and an airline ticket from Montreal to Cairo, via Rome. The use of containers to gain entry to North America is a well-established trick, part of the vast volume of human smuggling that relies on the far vaster volume of ordinary trade to penetrate the borders. And though the customers willing to transport themselves this way often arrive in very poor shape (indeed, sometimes dead), Cadillac containers like Rizk's have been seen before. Still, Rizk never adequately explained his setup, or why as a Canadian citizen he had not simply flown. Upon his arrest he hired an attorney named Michele Filippo Italiano, whose services I can recommend. Italiano said that Rizk's decision to travel in a container was completely innocent: "He had fallen out with his brother-in-law in Cairo and feared he would be prevented from leaving Egypt." An Italian court released Rizk on bail in November of 2001, at which point he vanished, leaving no trace.

A more serious threat is posed by the inanimate cargo that containers may hold. The fear on everyone's mind is that a nuclear device, or some other weapon of mass destruction, will pass through a port with little chance of being discovered, and subsequently be ferried with dead-on precision to any target desired. An example of the damage a portside attack could cause is an explosion that occurred in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, after a French munitions ship collided with a Norwegian freighter. The French ship caught on fire, drifted to the city's waterfront, and blew up. Witnesses said that the sky erupted with a cubic mile of flame, and that for the blink of an eye the harbor bottom went dry; more than 1,630 buildings were completely destroyed, another 12,000 were damaged, and more than 1,900 people died.

Despite their expanded authority to run intercepts, there is very little that allied navies can do to police container ships. Aboard the transporting ships the containers are stacked tightly and high, and most are impossible to get at. Moreover, speed is the essence of the container business: the ships move fast and on schedule, and any act of interference that did not immediately produce results would raise an outcry not just among shipping companies but among manufacturers and businesses of many sorts in every corner of the world. Without absolutely certain intelligence - there is a specific device, in a specific box, on a specific ship - the navies simply can't get in the way. This leaves NATO, in its hunt for terrorists, probing through the murk among all the other kinds of ships that could carry equally dangerous cargoes. The idea is to keep the pressure on, officials say. They have begun to explain the lack of results as a measure of success.

The truth is that naval patrols hardly matter at all. It's not that they are a bad thing, or might not occasionally turn something up, but that they are national tools best applied against nations, and have little effect against ephemeral gangs on the open ocean. This may be difficult to grasp, because a warship coming over the horizon does instill fear, and the struggle against al Qaeda is too young to make the lack of deterrence clear. But there is longer-standing evidence that can be brought to bear. It is the growth and persistence of a modern form of extra-national piracy that plagues large swaths of the ocean, and has escaped every sea-based effort at control. On a global scale this sort of piracy is more a nuisance than a threat, but it is a significant phenomenon nonetheless, because it requires no base, and it mimics normal operations where even legitimate ships fly false flags and swap names. Though it is apolitical by nature, it is structurally very similar to the terrorism now faced by government forces.

The pirates involved are ambitious and well organized, and should be distinguished from the larger number of petty opportunists whose presence has always afflicted remote ports and coastlines. The new pirates have emerged on a postmodern ocean where identities have been mixed and blurred, and the rules of nationality have been subverted. Scornful of boundaries, they are organized into multi-ethnic gangs that communicate by satellite and cell phone, and are capable of cynically appraising competing jurisdictions and laws. They choose their targets patiently, and then assemble, strike, and dissipate. They have been known to carry heavy weapons, including shoulder-launched missiles, but they are not determined aggressors, and will back off from stiff resistance, regroup, and find another way. Usually they succeed with only guns and knives. Box cutters would probably serve them just as well. Their goal in general is to hijack entire ships: they kill or maroon the crews, sell the cargoes, and in the most elaborate schemes turn the hijacked vessels into "phantoms," which pose as legitimate ships, pick up new cargoes, and disappear.

Because of the scope of their ambitions, these gangs are responsible for the theft of much of the cargo stolen on the high seas, though they seem to perpetrate relatively few attacks. Given the murkiness of the world they inhabit, the numbers are difficult to calculate. Of 1,228 pirate attacks reported worldwide from 1998 through 2002, about a fourth were on ships under way, and of those about sixty-eight were major, involving gangs of ten pirates or more. It's safe to assume that some in the gangs were repeat offenders. Among them during the five years in question they hijacked perhaps twenty-five large ships. The violence was not evenly distributed throughout the world. Though piracy posed problems off the coasts of South America, Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent (and occurred in the midst of NATO's sea hunt for al Qaeda), roughly two thirds of the activity was concentrated in just one region - the area of the South China Sea, including the waters of Indonesia and the Philippines. The problem, in other words, would seem finite. Gazing at a map from the confines of land, one might think that with some sea and air patrols, and maybe the "expanded authority" to perform intercepts at sea, order could be imposed. But that authority already exists, and those patrols are being run, and the numbers have only wavered, and order has not come.


III. THE NEW PIRACY

Paradoxically, the place in the region that ought to be the easiest to police is in fact the one most plagued by piracy. It is the Strait of Malacca, a narrow water-way roughly 550 miles long, flanked by tidy Singapore and Malaysia on one side, and chaotic Indonesia on the other. Because it provides a shortcut between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as many as several hundred ships pass through it every day - most of them under great pressure to save time. Merchant crews understand the dangers there, and they try to post additional lookouts when sailing through. On some ships they even train to repel boarders, and to fight them with high-pressure fire hoses if they reach the deck. But crews are often shorthanded, and they may be too overworked to bother with training exercises of any kind beyond the minimal safety drills, and too tired to stand careful guard.

The latter appears to have been true on the Alondra Rainbow. It was a nearly new 370-foot general-cargo vessel owned by a one-ship company in Japan through a subsidiary in Panama, where it was registered. From bow to stern it was a trim and functional ship. The bottom was red, the sides dark blue, the cranes and derrick beige, the superstructure white. The funnel was painted in broad stripes - blue, white, red, white, and blue again. The stripes were an affectionate touch. The Alondra Rainbow was young and even jaunty.

In the fall of 1999 it was engaged in the tramp trade, picking up cargoes where it could, and working primarily between the Malay Archipelago and Japan. It was crewed by fifteen Filipinos working under the command of two Japanese officers - a sixty-eight-year-old captain named Ko Ikeno, and a chief engineer named Kenzo Ogawa, who was sixty-nine. Both of these officers were lifelong seamen. Captain Ikeno had graduated from the Tokyo University of Fisheries, and had gone to sea when he was twenty-five, in 1956. Eleven years later he had assumed his first command, and with the exception of four years spent on land, he had inhabited the ocean ever since, serving as the master of cargo ships and trading in various corners of the world. Ikeno was a more careful captain than Allen Marin, of the Kristal, but fundamentally he was a typical merchant master - not some distant figure with braid on his shoulder but a modestly paid working man in ordinary clothes, a technician whose thinking had been subtly elevated by the responsibilities that he bore. It is not clear whether Ikeno ever loved the ocean; few merchant mariners do for long. Later it certainly came to terrify him. But like others he had a family ashore, and he was a reliable, almost stolid man, who simply made his living this way.

On the morning of October 17, 1999 after an uneventful crossing of the Java Sea, the Alondra Rainbow arrived with empty holds at the outer anchorage of Kuala Tanjung, an equatorial port dominated by an aluminum smelter on the Indonesian island of Sumatra west and north of Singapore, at roughly the midpoint of the Malacca Strait. Captain Ikeno posted a normal pirate watch through the night, and in the morning eased his ship into the port, to an assigned berth. Over the next five days the Alondra Rainbow took aboard a full load of 6,972 bundles of aluminum ingots, each bundle weighing about a metric ton, or 1,000 kilograms. The work was unhurried, as loadings go. It was supervised by the ship's chief mate, a Filipino with the musical name of Voltaire Lapore. The cargo had a value of about $10 million, which happened to be the value of the Alondra Rainbow as well. Captain Ikeno's job was to shepherd this $20 million package 3,300 miles north across the open ocean to Omutashi, Japan, on the southern island of Kyushu. Once free of the Malacca and Singapore Straits the route would take the ship through the waters between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo, across the South China Sea past the Philippines, past Taiwan, and finally across the East China Sea. The trip would require about a week. In preparation Captain Ikeno had the ship fueled.

Only ten weeks remained in the twentieth century. As always, the air at Kuala Tanjung was hot and humid. Local chandlers came aboard with their supplies and paperwork as did the port's hawkers, who scampered up the gangway and sold directly to the crew. The hawkers' goods were global things like garish radios and running shoes, many of them stolen from other ships. They haggled in broken English, the language of the sea. It was a typical port scene, too industrialized to seem exotic, but beneath its machinery and concrete, much wilder than it appeared to be. By late afternoon on October 22, the Alondra Rainbow was ready to sail. The sun set behind Sumatra at 6:06 P.M. Two hours later, after maneuvering to clear the dock the ship got under way. By the time it cleared the outer anchorage and was headed down the Malacca Strait, the deep night had fallen. The crewmen were tired as usual after a stay in port as much because of the disruption of their sleeping patterns as because of any work or drinking they might have done.

The bridge was darkened to allow the watch to see outside. Captain Ikeno stood duty there, along with the ship's third officer and a helmsman steering by hand. The steering was passive on such a calm night. Occasionally Captain Ikeno asked for a heading correction or a small turn. The Alondra Rainbow moved to the southeast at a moderate speed, barely trembling with the exertion. An almost full moon illuminated the waters from high overhead. The ocean's surface drowsed in the balmy air; it foamed with the ship's passage and rose into little waves in the wake, but shortly settled down again and slept. In the moonlight that wake would have been clearly visible to anyone looking back from outside on the bridge's wings, but the seamen's attention was focused necessarily on what lay ahead. There were islands around, dark masses, some sprinkled with lights. Among them moved ships, ferries, and coastal craft - obstacles that appeared as masthead lights, or as ghostly shapes, or not at all. Despite radar's appeal as an all-knowing eye, the smaller vessels would have been invisible to it, and even some of the larger ones might occasionally have been missed. As an experienced mariner, Captain Ikeno was aware of these dangers, of course. But eventually he felt he had the necessary space, and he accelerated the Alondra Rainbow to its full 13 knots. At 10:00 P.M. he ordered the helmsman to switch on the autopilot and set in an east-southeasterly heading of 113 degrees, outbound for the Singapore Strait and the ocean beyond. Having reminded the third officer to keep a careful lookout for pirates, he left the bridge for his quarters, one deck below. He intended to relax, draft a departure telex to the ship's owners, and take a bath. A few minutes later, with the moon now directly overhead, the Alondra Rainbow came under attack.

The assault was not a casually opportunistic act - yet another case of native fishermen suddenly striking at passing wealth - but, rather, the culmination of an elaborate plot. The operational phase appears to have started nearly three weeks earlier, with a meeting in a coffee shop at the port of Batam, Indonesia, just across the strait from Singapore. At least two of the future pirates were there - a local resident and ship's engineer named Burhan Nanda and a Sulawesian named Christianus Mintodo. Both men were middle-aged. Mintodo said he held a master's certificate, variably from Honduras or Belize. Both men were short and slight but physically tough, and undoubtedly they had spent hard years at sea. Mintodo in particular had a dangerous air, a quiet voice and restrained demeanor belied by a ruthlessness that was obvious in his eyes. It is presumed that he knew Nanda already, and that both men had been involved in piracy before. They were joined at the table by a recruiter for the current venture, an "employment agent" who went by Yan, or Yance, Makatengkeng, and who outlined the plan. Makatengkeng has since become a fugitive from justice, though at little risk of being found. He was serving as an agent for the real power, an anonymous figure known simply as "the Boss." This man is believed by investigators to be Chinese, though such distinctions mean little on the ocean today.

For the pirates in Batam the Boss was a disembodied voice on a throwaway phone. He telephoned Makatengkeng at the coffee shop and welcomed the new "officers" aboard. The conversation would probably have seemed legitimate to anyone listening in. The words were those of an honest employer, working through an honest agent to hire an honest crew: Christianus Mintodo was to be the captain of a ship, Burhan Nanda his chief engineer. The setup reflected normal arrangements on the high seas. All that was required was a slight shift of a word or two, or even just of implication, to unleash the mayhem that followed.

But intricate planning was involved, most of it logistical. Mintodo and Nanda flew to Jakarta, on the northern tip of Java, where they hired a port service boat to ferry them to the Sanho, an old freighter lying inconspicuously in the outer anchorage. The Sanho was a pirate ship, pure and simple. It was financed by the Boss or his syndicate and commanded by a man who called himself Marnes Zachawarus and is now another fugitive from justice. While lying off Jakarta the Sanho took on fuel and provisions. Over several days a crew of thirty-five pirates was assembled, including of course Mintodo and Nanda. Most of these men were Indonesian, but they included Chinese, Malaysians, Thais, and perhaps other nationalities. They were divided into groups according to skill and function. The hijacking team was made up of fifteen armed men equipped with a fast boat that probably was stowed somewhere aboard.

On October 16, after receiving a satellite call from Makatengkeng, the Sanho left Jakarta and headed upcoast for the port of Kuala Tanjung. It arrived there on the night of October 21, and lingered in the outer harbor. The next day word came from a port informant that the Alondra Rainbow would depart around sunset. The timing was convenient. There is a theory that one of the pirates may have gone aboard when the ship was berthed, perhaps by posing as a hawker, and that he hid himself away in order later to emerge and lower ropes to the others. But the hijacking team consisted of nimble men who would have had no trouble securing grapples and ropes on their own, and who were practiced as well at the art of shimmying barefoot up bamboo poles. It is unknown how they actually proceeded, though it seems likely that the Sanho put to sea first, that it was one of the ships the Alondra Rainbow passed by on the sleeping, moonlit ocean, that the pirates approached from behind in their small, fast boat, and that while the Alondra Rainbow plowed ahead under autopilot at 13 knots, they easily climbed onto its stern.

At 10:30 P .M . Captain Ikeno was at work at his desk one level below the bridge when he noticed thumping on the deck overhead, and simultaneously heard garbled shouts on the intercom. He rushed up the stairs and found that the bridge door was blocked from the inside. When he shoved at it hard enough to force a small opening, he saw pistols and knives, and wisely desisted. The pirates yanked the door open, pushed him against a wall, and held a knife to his throat. In the same thick English used to haggle for goods, they threatened to kill him if he resisted. One of them fired several rounds into the ceiling to make the message clear.

There was a sign on the bridge that read SAFETY FIRST in block letters. However, safety is always a relative condition. The Alondra Rainbow was proceeding unmanned and at full speed through some of the busiest waters in the world, but Captain Ikeno was occupied with more immediate concerns. He counted about ten pirates on the bridge, armed with knives, guns, and bolo swords. They wore ski masks and loose clothes, and were barefoot. From their language and build and what he could see of their skin he thought they included both Malaysians and Indonesians. They had roped the hands of the third officer and the helmsman behind their backs, and they did the same now to him. Ikeno was afraid of their tempers, and he did not speak. One of the pirates took his wristwatch, and another took the ship's master key out of his pants pocket. They then forced him to guide them through the accommodation decks, where they pulled terrified sailors out of their cabins, bound and blindfolded them, and sent them to be held in the crew's messroom.

Captain Ikeno's fellow Japanese officer, the aging chief engineer, tried desperately to hold his cabin door closed from within, but he was quickly overpowered. The third engineer was on duty deep in the engine room, working in its cacophonous isolation, when suddenly the pirates appeared as if in pantomime, shoving the captain before them. They made the third engineer reduce the ship's speed, and then bound and blindfolded him, and shoved him up the stairways to the messroom. The entire crew of seventeen had now been captured. Captain Ikeno was led to his cabin and forced to open the ship's safe. The pirates grabbed the cash that was kept there - several thousand dollars, in U.S. and Japanese bills - and took the crew's papers and passports and the captain's second wristwatch. They also ransacked the other cabins for anything of value, which wasn't much. They took the captain to the messroom blindfolded him like the others, and threatened to slaughter everyone if anyone rebelled.

Ikeno and his crew had every reason to believe the threat. Merely one year before, in September of 1998, a smaller Japanese-owned freighter named the Tenyu had gone missing soon after departing from the same port of Kuala Tanjung with a similar load of aluminum, and a crew of fifteen. Three months later the Tenyu was discovered under a changed name and flag in a Chinese port, but the cargo was missing, as was the original crew, all of whom are presumed to have been killed. The strangers found aboard the Tenyu were arrested by the Chinese under suspicion of piracy, but because they claimed to have joined the ship legitimately in Myanmar, and possessed used airline tickets to Rangoon along with valid Myanmar visas issued in Singapore, the Chinese authorities released them for lack of evidence. In the background was the understanding that they had not committed any crime in China. For Captain Ikeno and the crew sitting captive in the Alondra Rainbow, it was just as well not to know that at least one of the pirates on their ship had been among those released by the Chinese.

It is not clear whether the designated captain, Christianus Mintodo, had yet come aboard, or who exactly was on the bridge, but it seems likely that the Alondra Rainbow was again under control, and being steered by experienced hands. Was it midnight now? The captive crew sat in blindness on the messroom floor, each man in isolation, feeling the familiar vibrations of the ship in motion. Because there were guards in the room, they probably did not talk. Captain Ikeno tried to keep track of time. A couple of hours after being shoved into the room, he noticed a change in vibration, which he recognized as a reduction in speed, and he heard a pump start up. He then felt a sharp bump. Soon afterward the pirates began to take the men, still bound and blindfolded, one by one from the room.

They were led down the corridor, through a door, and out onto an aft deck, to the railing. The pirates then removed the captives' blindfolds. Ikeno found himself looking three feet down onto the deck of a small freighter that had come up alongside. There were many armed men aboard. In the moonlight Ikeno saw that the freighter was rusty and badly maintained, and that it was riding high, as if its holds were empty. It was probably the original pirate vessel, the Sanho, commanded by Marnes Zachawarus. Ikeno dubbed it "the dirty ship," a name that stuck. He and his crew were made to jump down onto its deck, after which they were led below to two separate rooms, where they were blind-folded again, and ordered to lie on dirty mattresses spread on the floor. The pirates warned them to be silent, and said that anyone who tried to stand or look outside would die. From the sound of things - the occasional bump, the clatter of equipment, the voices of men moving back and forth - the two ships lay together for another hour or more. But the night was still deep when they drew apart and went their separate ways.

For nearly a week Captain Ikeno and his crew lay bound and blindfolded in sweltering rooms as the dirty ship carried them northwest through the Malacca Strait and on into the vastness of the Andaman Sea. They were fed only twice, taken to the toilet, and given dirty drinking water from a can marked ESSO on the side. This last detail they learned from Voltaire Lapore, the chief mate, who saw it from beneath his blindfold. As the blindfolds naturally loosened, others learned to see as well. Ikeno's vision got to be so good that he could discern among the pirates, and was able to study the man he thought was the leader - about forty-five years old, five feet eight inches tall, muscular, potbellied, dark-skinned, and with the features of an Indian or a Pakistani. The pirates were going around unmasked, whether because they trusted the blindfolds or believed that the prisoners would not survive.

On the seventh night the engine stopped. The pirates came to the rooms, took the Alondra Rainbow's crew outside, and made them lie on the deck. The scene was similar to one that had occurred less than a year before, and that the crew must have been aware of: a bulk carrier named the Cheung Son, loaded with steel-mill slag, had been hijacked on the South China Sea by pirates dressed in Chinese customs uniforms, who had lined up the twenty-three crewmen and then systematically clubbed them to death before attaching heavy objects to their bodies and heaving them overboard. It would have been of little consolation to the Alondra Rainbow's crew, lying prone on the deck of a dirty ship in the middle of the Andaman Sea, that the killers had recently been arrested in China, and that a rare trial was about to begin. The men standing above them now were clearly not the sort to care.

It turned out, however, that the pirates had a different solution in mind. Rather than dirtying their hands with killings, they floated the Alondra Rainbow's inflatable life raft, which they had purloined at the start, and with disregard for their prisoners' ultimate survival, they forced the crew to crawl aboard. Captain Ikeno was last to go. The pirates cut the rope. The dirty ship steamed away, disappearing so thoroughly into the night that neither it nor the pirates aboard have yet been found.

The crew felt little relief at having been freed. They were now marooned in a crowded rubber raft, without effective means of propulsion, adrift on the open ocean. They had no radio or navigation gear, and they were completely lost, with no idea even of what ocean they were in. The raft came equipped with the barest provisions: a few cans of food, a supply of fresh water, a first-aid kit, two sponges, two safety knives with buoyant handles, two bailers, two paddles, ten signal flares, and a pamphlet of survival instructions, written in English. The instructions amounted to Don't get cold, don't get hot, try to stay out of the sun, and do not drink seawater.

There may also have been something about keeping up morale - but that was especially hard. For ten days the crew drifted. Ten ships passed within sight, and did not stop. All ten flares were fired off. The water rations grew precariously small. The crew caught a few fish, which they held up and squeezed over their mouths for the juice that dripped out. As the days went by, the men began to pray and cry. The mood grew so surly that Captain Ikeno feared that he and the chief engineer, as the only Japanese in the raft, might be attacked and even murdered. He formally ceded command - most critically of the water supply - to his Filipino chief mate, Voltaire Lapore.

On the tenth day adrift, around noon, a small commercial fishing boat came into view. The stranded crew took off their shirts and waved them in the air. The boat slowly approached. Several times it changed direction, as if the fishermen were uncertain whether to get involved. Eventually it drew to within shouting range and stopped - maintaining a wary distance. Pirates were known to have posed as stranded mariners to lure innocent vessels into traps. The men in the life raft could see that the boat flew the flag of Thailand. One of them shouted in English that they were fifteen Filipinos and two Japanese, that they were victims of pirates, and that if they were not rescued they would die. The fishermen might have understood a few key words. They remained suspicious and shouted back, demanding passports. It was an odd request, since pirates have passports too, sometimes in abundance, but this was not the moment for a debate. The immediate problem was of course that the crew's passports had been stolen. One man had an expired passport tucked away in his clothes, and he held it up. The fishermen were not convinced, but finally their skipper grudgingly allowed Captain Ikeno, alone, to climb aboard. Once on the fishing boat, Ikeno tried to explain what had happened, but he could not make himself understood. He wrote out his name and the Alondra Rainbow's, and waited while the skipper radioed the details to his company. The radio conversation was in Thai, and unintelligible to Ikeno. It clearly reassured the skipper, however, and he gave permission for the remaining crewmen to come aboard. The next day they arrived at the Thai resort island of Phuket, where amid all the beach hotels and sunburned vacationers they finally stepped ashore. It was November 9, 1999, eighteen days after the attack. The Filipinos flew to the Philippines, where, for want of better jobs, most if not all eventually hired on to other ships. Captain Ikeno and his chief engineer flew home to Tokyo, and both retired from the sea.

The Alondra Rainbow, however, was still going strong. After the hijacking, Christianus Mintodo and his pirate crew sailed it brazenly through the Singapore Strait and across the southern edge of the South China Sea to the Malaysian port of Miri, on the island of Borneo. While under way they painted the hull sides black (a one-day job), and rechristened the ship Global Venture - a particularly apt name, which they carefully inscribed on the bow, the stern, and the superstructure. They also painted over the funnel's stripes - the blue, white, and red now becoming a single somber black. In the sheltered waters off Miri another ship came alongside, and took on 3,000 metric tons of the aluminum ingots - nearly half of the Alondra Rainbow's $10 million treasure. The transfer must have required several days. The receiving ship was a freighter named the Bansan II. It sailed for Subic Bay, in the Philippines, where apparently it arrived renamed as the Victoria, and presented satisfactory import documents for the cargo. The Alondra Rainbow's aluminum was quickly sold for a small fortune. Attempts to recoup the loss by the insurance company bogged down in the Philippine courts. The local police mounted a criminal investigation of the Victoria, which went nowhere. There has been no prosecution of any kind.

Meanwhile, Christianus Mintodo on the Alondra Rainbow was suffering from a problem related to the sheer size of the heist - where to find a buyer for the 4,000 metric tons of industrial material that remained in the ship's holds. Little is known about the tactics that he used once the Alondra Rainbow left Miri - only that the name was changed again, to the Mega Rama, that the home port was shown on the stern as Belize, and that the ship steamed generally westward, either through the Strait of Malacca or by a more roundabout southern route, before finally gaining access to the Indian Ocean. One week after the hijacking, when the Alondra Rainbow became overdue in Japan its owners had reported it missing. The meaning was obvious. From an office building in Kuala Lumpur a piracy-reporting center maintained by the international shipping industry sent out alerts and descriptions, along with notice of a $200,000 reward that was offered by the insurance company for information leading to the ship's capture. For several days a search was mounted by patrol ships and airplanes from several nations, including Japan. But the Alondra Rainbow had vanished.

IV. A 95,000-MILE PROBLEM

That a ship can hide in plain sight would hardly come as a surprise to the U.S. Coast Guard, which for years has been locked in a fight against smugglers skilled at pulling disappearing acts, and has had to deal as well with the reverse side of the magic trick, which is the sudden emergence as if out of nowhere of ships that may pose a threat - either because they are decrepit and may spill something or because they are involved in crime. The Coast Guard is a peculiar organization, a militarized hybrid that is as much a shipping inspectorate as a maritime police force. It consists of 5,700 civilians and 43,000 people in uniform, some of them wishing for battle, but most of them not. As the only armed service required to reside outside the Pentagon, it has long been a bastard child, with a bastard child's complaints - lack of love, lack of funding - and it remains a little uncomfortable in its skin. But through difficult experience it is also very familiar with the interwoven disorders of the sea; and by chance of history now, with the United States facing this new form of oceanic threat, it is unexpectedly in a position unique among American forces, of being able at least to respond in relevant ways. As a result it has been shunted from the Department of Transportation to that of Homeland Security, given a bigger allowance, and assigned the lead role in protecting American shores. This may prove to be a thankless task, but the Coast Guard is basking in the implicit praise, and it has set diligently to work.

The challenge is daunting. The United States has 95,000 miles of coastline, and more than a hundred seaports capable of handling large ships. It is the most active sea-trading nation on earth, accounting for a large percentage of long-distance maritime traffic worldwide, and annually accommodating more than 60,000 port calls by oceangoing ships, the great majority of which are foreign-flagged and many of which are operated by fictitious offshore companies, whose real owners are difficult or impossible to identify. The owners are mostly ordinary businesspeople (and quite a few are American), but they could easily include terrorists as well, and they certainly do include smugglers of goods and drugs and people. Moreover, the ships are crewed by several hundred thousand nearly anonymous foreign sailors drawn on short contracts from a much larger pool. Many of them are Muslims, and almost all come from troubled parts of the world, where America is resented, corruption is rife, and authentic documentation can easily be bought. These sailors necessarily bypass all the standard screening procedures by immigration authorities, and arrive with their vessels in American ports. It is believed that in the past many jumped ship, though how many is unknown, because the captains had no reason to report their losses to authorities on the shore. Procedures have tightened somewhat now, but the United States remains utterly dependent on these crews, trust them or not. Their ships bring in six million containers a year, 3.7 million vehicles, 53 percent of the nation's oil, and mountains of other goods and materials too numerous to name; and they take away significant amounts as well. They carry more than three fourths of American foreign trade as measured by weight, and somewhat less than half as measured by value. Interrupt the flow with a terrorist attack, and the backup would instantly reach around the world, with devastating results. Institute heavy-handed inspections and other procedures to head off an attack and the damage could be even worse.

The Coast Guard has no choice but to move gingerly. It has followed a logical path, starting with tightening the security of the largest ports by means of harbor patrols, cruise-ship escorts, civilian-based "harbor watches," better fences, and tighter gate and ship-access controls. The costs of the effort have been high, grossly estimated in the billions so far, and as the controls have expanded, ferrymen, tour-boat operators, and others have begun to object to the burden of expensive and inconvenient restrictions. Still, if safety has no price and is defined narrowly, the improvements have been real: ports, waterfront facilities, and ships in harbor are certainly better protected now against land-based or small-boat attacks. None of this, however, does much to address the more serious threat of a heavy maritime attack - a ship that delivers a weapon, for instance, or simply steams in and blows itself up. The desire for funding and power is typically difficult to differentiate from genuine patriotic concern, but the vulnerability is real, and Coast Guard officials make the valid point that by the time a ship pops over the horizon and pulls into port, little defense is possible. The problem is that popping over the horizon is what inbound ships just naturally do. The only solution is to push the horizon farther away - a Herculean task that Coast Guard members are now straining to perform. "Increasing the maritime domain awareness," they call it, borrowing unnecessarily from the Pentagon's pompous, self-indicting jargon. They have been aware of the maritime domain for years, and for better or worse they understand full well that as they push the horizon out into it, they are pushing into anarchy.

There is no obvious technological solution. With the exception of ten highly localized vessel-traffic services designed to prevent collisions in the major harbors, there is no U.S. coastal radar picket system, no maritime version of an early-warning system, for the good reason that it would be enormously expensive to build and maintain, and would not be able to look over the horizon anyway. An additional problem would be informational clutter. One of the high-ranking officers I spoke to at the Coast Guards Washington D.C., headquarters laughed at the idea often suggested by landlubbers, that radar could provide a panacea. He said, "We've got thirty million boats out there." Referring to the radar's adjustable sensitivity he said, "Can you imagine how we'd have to turn down the gain?" That brought up the subject of attacks by vessels smaller than 300 tons, the Coast Guard's minimum definition of a ship and currently the bottom limit for much of the security thinking. It was a possibility that left the poor man shaking his head at the complications; he said that the Coast Guard was aware of the problem, and would be turning to it as soon as it could. In any case, for the physical monitoring of coastal seas, alternatives other than radar are being pursued, including increased ship and air patrols, the use of surveillance satellites, and a hard-wired shipboard GPS-based transponder system. This last, however, the shipping industry is resisting, arguing that it will reveal proprietary information to competitors and (less plausibly) provide targeting coordinates for attacks by terrorists and rogue states. All these initiatives will require years to implement, and even in combination will leave loopholes big enough to steam a ship through. At best the sort of information they can provide is crude - a ship by some name is approaching from some location out there on the ocean - and does little to answer the more important questions of who the owner is, who and what is aboard, and (the big one) how legitimate its intentions are. Transparency, in other words, will still be lacking.

The Coast Guard is also shoving at the horizon with a regulatory change: the requirement for four-day advance notice of arrival, where before only one day's notice was necessary. This notification, along with a crew list a cargo description, and several other details, has to be sent to a new Coast Guard operation in West Virginia, known as the National Vessel Movement Center. For the Coast Guard, the term "movement" means merely the arrival or departure of a ship. But the center's name has ended up being an embarrassment, because to outsiders it conjures up visions of a high-technology war room providing an omniscient view of the ocean, and this in turn requires the Coast Guard to explain that such views are not possible, and if not, why not. Where would you even start? The National Vessel Movement Center is an office full of clerks. They receive about 600 notices a day, by phone, fax, and e-mail, and they enter the information into a consolidated database, which Coast Guard intelligence and operations people can then contemplate, trying to discern which ships seem somehow out of whack - one that's importing wheat from Indonesia, for instance, or carrying an oversized crew, or maybe just belonging to Nova Spirit and flying Tonga's flag. The idea is to intercept, board, and inspect those ships while they are still safely at sea. Nationwide this is being done on average about twice a day.

The Coast Guard, like the Navy, searches for bombs only on the basis of specific information, which does occasionally arrive, but so far has turned up nothing. For want of action, therefore, the emphasis is on the crews, and particularly those from certain Muslim countries, who are fingerprinted and photographed by immigration authorities upon arrival, and unless they have valid visas are restricted to the ships while in port. It is said that this is a temporary adjustment, until better crewmen's documents can be brought into play. There is unembarrassed talk in Washington of a future under control, in which sailors will undergo meaningful background checks, and will be supplied with unforgeable, biometrically verifiable IDs by honest, appropriately equipped, and cooperative governments. Panama, for instance, will vouch for the integrity of, say, an Indonesian deckhand working on a ship operated by a Cayman Island company on behalf of an anonymous Greek. This is a vision so disconnected from reality that it might raise questions about the sanity of the United States. Back in the real world the new guard services in ports are provided by private security companies, and are paid for by the ships at the cost of thousands of dollars for a typical stay. The additional expense seems to be accelerating a global shift, already under way, from brown-skinned sailors toward the even cheaper Chinese. Domestically the new procedures have brought a presumed reduction in ship-jumping incidents, which if it has not measurably headed off terrorist attack has at least forced would-be immigrants to jump ship elsewhere - say, in Mexico - before joining the crowds of unauthorized visitors coming overland into the United States.

Meanwhile, the Customs Service, now also a part of the Department of Homeland Security, has imposed new reporting requirements on inbound freight, and has embarked with much fanfare on a container-security initiative, by which it is placing inspectors in twenty large ports overseas (soon it will extend the initiative to ports in several Muslim nations). Because the physical inspection of a container can take hours, only about two percent of the six million units headed to the United States each year are opened; but some can be scanned by x-ray machines or radiation detectors, and more can be looked over by experienced inspectors checking for paperwork anomalies. Still the opportunities for something to slip in are innumerable. There is talk of equipping the containers with tamper-proof seals and intrusion-detection devices, neither of which would stop the loading of a bomb at the outset, or more than inconvenience a determined terrorist who wanted to insert such a weapon during a container's long voyage to port. I spoke to a Dutch maritime official very familiar with the U.S. effort in Rotterdam, who was sympathetic to the American plight but privately scoffed at the idea that the new inspections had any meaning at all. Speaking just of that one port, he said, "Look., if you want to send a bomb through, it's so simple! The chances of it being filtered out are almost nil!" He was not being critical so much as flatly descriptive. As a believer in good government, but long exposed to the chaos of the ocean, he seemed to have learned the hard lesson that government tools might simply not apply.

The Coast Guard struggles on with the tools that it has, as it must. Though its members tend to be alert, and very aware of the complexities that they face, as a collective they are confined by governmental frames of reference. One sign of their confinement is the effort that they expended in 2002 to create a new body of ship and port security regulations overseen by the very same institution that has proved to be incapable of controlling the situation at sea - the International Maritime Organization. As of July of 2004, every ship above 500 tons will have to designate a Ship Security Officer (SSO), who will work under a designated Company Security Officer (CSO) and be familiar with the new documents required to be carried aboard, including a Ship Security Plan (SSP), which is based on a Ship Security Assessment (SSA). The paperwork will be subject to the approval of each ship's flag state, which in most cases will rely as usual on the expert oversight (paid for by the shipowners) of the classification societies, which for these purposes are to be known as Recognized Security Organizations (RSOs).Another complicated set of rules and acronyms will apply to ports. The effect has been the instantaneous creation of a whole new industry, as tens of thousands of ships and mobile offshore drilling platforms struggle to get the paperwork done.

Close observers have been incredulous. Reflecting a widespread view, one of them said to me, "We're doing nothing but creating this pile of regulations. It's a small pile compared to other piles, but look what the flags of convenience have already done with those. Oh, on paper everything will be all right, but in reality it will not make any difference. And what is a flag of convenience, after all? It's an absolute nothing. In the worst cases it's just a commercial company running a registry. Money flows in and certificates flow out. I don't want to use words like 'cowardice' or 'over-reaction' to describe what the United States has done - just 'ineffective.' Because you can get all the paperwork you want, no problem. And it will not help."

He was probably right. The only sure effect of the new regulations is that legitimate operators, who do not pose a threat, will comply. But it is likely that terrorists will comply as well, and that, like many shipowners today, they will evade detection not by ducking procedures and regulations but by using them to hide. This would be very easy to do. Paradoxically, when a ship approaching U.S. shores does not comply, it will be because it is a bumbler, and therefore almost by definition innocent. People in the Coast Guard know this: they are not protecting the shores from a random, hundred-year storm but confronting a calculating and adaptable form of chaos - an intelligent thing. In private conversation most continue to talk about "channeling the attack," or reducing the odds, but others admit that they may not have affected the odds at all.

 

V. LAW OF THE SEA

Politically - and ethically - it is of course impossible to sit back and do nothing: the United States is a nation, and it has no choice but to act like one. And although minor successes tend to be portrayed as significant victories, there is no denying that determined policing does sometimes pay off - both here and abroad. It turned out to be helpful, for instance, that after the naval search for the hijacked Alondra Rainbow failed, in early November of 1999, the hunt for the pirates did not end. With the description of the Alondra Rainbow widely disseminated, and $200,000 in reward money on the table, the piracy-reporting center in Kuala Lumpur received a plausible report of a sighting toward evening on November 13, a few weeks after the ship had disappeared. The report came via satellite phone from the captain of a Kuwaiti freighter named the al-Shuhadaa, which was sailing in international waters off India's southwest coast. The captain said that the suspect ship's name was illegible in the fading light, but that it appeared to have been freshly painted; he gave the location, and he provided intelligence, apparently gleaned from his radar display, that the ship was moving to the north-northwest, on a compass course of 330 degrees, at 8 knots. The piracy center sent the news to the Indian coast guard, and requested an intercept.

The Indians could have sat back and done nothing. The Alondra Rainbow was a Panamanian ship owned by Japanese, crewed by Filipinos, and attacked off the shores of Indonesia by pirates of uncertain nationalities. Its disappearance had no connection to India at all - and there was certainly no domestic constituency expressing outrage and demanding action. India, however, is a party to the Law of the Sea, a sweeping 1994 United Nations treaty (as yet unratified by the United States) that includes a paragraph encouraging nations to stop pirates on the high seas no matter where their crime took place - and old Indian laws to the same effect are left over from British colonial rule. More important, the news of the sighting seems at first to have been contained entirely within the Indian military, which like other militaries is eager to use the equipment that it has, and to take action. The suspect ship had popped into view like a rabbit running across a field, and, without the need for legal or policy thinking, the coast guard just naturally went after it.

A patrol boat named the Tarabai, with twenty-four men aboard, headed out from the southern port of Cochin, and early on the night of November 14 spotted the suspect ship on radar at a range of thirteen miles, ahead to the left. The Tarabai closed the distance until the ship's lights came dimly into view, and it hailed the ship repeatedly by VHF radio, demanding that it identify itself and reduce its speed. There was no response. On the possibility that the ship's radio had failed (which no one believed), the Tarabai flashed its lights and fired two yellow flares, again to no avail. The ship responded by turning 20 degrees left and increasing its speed. The Tarabai then fired six warning shots across the bow from the deck-mounted 40/60 millimeter Bofors gun, a modified anti-aircraft cannon. The Tarabai settled into a safe position one to two miles away, and shadowed the ship for the rest of the night.

When daylight spread over the ocean, the Tarabai's crew saw the ship clearly for the first time. It was a good-looking vessel, a giant compared with their own. Through binoculars they could see the name Mega Rama and the flag state Belize painted on the stern. In the early morning, a turboprop patrol plane, a German-built Dornier, flew onto the scene, and joined the Tarabai on the VHF channel, calling for the ship to stop. This time a man answered, identifying the ship as the Mega Rama, with a cargo of aluminum and a crew of fifteen Indonesians aboard. He said that they were bound from Manila for Fujairah, an Arabian port. When ordered to submit to a boarding, he refused, informing the Indians that the Mega Rama had a schedule to keep, that it was in international waters, and that it could do whatever it pleased. This was hardly the sort of response one would expect from an ordinary merchant crew faced with a hostile naval force. Headquarters easily confirmed the lack of international records for a Mega Rama, and from the ship's description concluded correctly that the Alondra Rainbow and its pirates had been found.

The patrol plane was lightly armed with a fixed self-loading rifle. On instructions from shore it fired a few rounds across the Alondra Rainbow's bow, and when that had no effect came around and hit the ship with five full strafing runs. For the pilots this was fine sport, and the high point of their careers, but for all the good it did they might as well have been throwing stones. as well have been throwing stones. Low on fuel, they broke off and headed for home. The tenacious Tarabai, however, did not go away, and with permission from base, it began plastering the Alondra Rainbow with round after round from its Bofors gun. The shoot-up continued intermittently throughout the day, smashing the ship's windows and punching holes into its superstructure and hull. Still the pirates refused to slow.

Later it was discovered that they had abandoned the bridge and taken refuge safely below the waterline, leaving the ship to proceed on autopilot alone. They appeared to be trying to reach the territorial waters of India's archenemy, Pakistan, where their pursuers would dare not follow. When it seemed that they might actually succeed, India dispatched several warships, including a navy missile corvette named the Prahar, which arrived during the second night and added the threat of its heavier cannons to the argument. This did the trick. Around sunrise on November 16, having run from the Tarabai for thirty-five hours and nearly 575 miles, the Alondra Rainbow drifted to a stop.

Soon afterward a larger coast-guard ship, the Veera, came onto the scene, and found the Alondra Rainbow lying dead on a flat sea, with the Tarabai and the Prahar standing close by. Smoke was billowing from the fugitive ship's bridge and superstructure, and a group of pirates - all fifteen - stood at the bow waving white shirts and holding their arms high in surrender. Teams from the Veera and the Tarabai soon climbed aboard and handcuffed the pirates, who included Christianus Mintodo and his companion from the Batam coffee shop, the chief engineer Burhan Nanda. They were transferred to captivity on the Veera.

The fires aboard the Alondra Rainbow turned out to be paperwork conflagrations that had been set by the pirates to destroy incriminating records, and they were eventually extinguished. More seriously, the pirates had opened sea valves in the engine's cooling pipes in an attempt to scuttle the ship. They were nearly successful. By the time Mintodo and his men were safely under guard, the engine room had flooded, and was starting to pull the ship down by the stern; had the engine room's bulkhead collapsed under pressure, the end would have come very quickly. The navy however sent in divers who managed to find and close the valves. Emergency pumps were set up on deck, the engine room was emptied, and the Alondra Rainbow was saved. The Veera was given the job of towing it 345 miles to the port of Mumbai, otherwise known as Bombay. The trip took four days, during which the pirates were interrogated. It is widely believed but officially denied that they were roughed up; one of them was some how shot in the leg. A few of them are said to have made confessions, which were excluded from the subsequent trial.

When the pirates got to Mumbai, they were displayed to the press before being turned over to the police - forced to kneel on the Veera's deck with their hands bound behind their backs, while a proud and possessive coast-guard commander in naval whites described their arrest as "the catch of the millennium." But the Mumbai police operate in a chaotic city of 18 million people, with plenty of homegrown criminality, and they had a different view. One of their high officials later told me that the Alondra Rainbow was like an orphan dropped off on the doorstep. He said, "The common practice if such a ship comes, you shoo her away. Otherwise you don't know what to do with her. The question of jurisdiction comes up everywhere? The same was true for the pirates, criminals whom he called "the scum of the earth." What would happen, he asked, if India convicted and imprisoned them, but after their release Indonesia refused to recognize or accept them? There was little chance of that happening in this case, he admitted, but when the orphans were first delivered, the possibility had to be considered, if only in the abstract.

"What did you conclude?" I asked.

"That they would become stateless people." The problem for India would be where to send them. I suggested they could be repatriated to their natural environment at sea. He smiled wanly.

In any case, the Mumbai police had no choice politically but to proceed with a prosecution. They held the pirates for two weeks at a harbor police station known as Yellow Gate, a dismal complex built in 1921, which contains five cells with wooden bars along a dim hallway, and looks like a movie set meant to depict a Third World hell. Later the pirates were moved to the city's overcrowded central jail, where they were kept together in a high-security cell. As a group they decided to grow their hair long. Meanwhile, in China, after a six-day trial, thirteen of the pirates who had attacked the Cheung Son and murdered its crew were sentenced to death; on the way to the execution ground a group of them, who were drunk on rice wine, defiantly sang, "Go, go, go! Alé, alé, alé!," the chorus from a Ricky Martin song called "Cup of Life." This got some press. The Alondra Rainbow remained in Mumbai. The ship's Japanese owners had petitioned to have the ship released from Indian custody, and a short legal tussle ensued. In January the owners were finally allowed to tow the Alondra Rainbow away. (The ship would eventually be sold, and returned to service under a new name by a company in Singapore.) The year 2000 passed.

Justice moved slowly in Mumbai, owing to an overload in the criminal courts. One of Mintodo's men grew sick, went to the hospital, and died. But early in 2001 the first depositions were taken, and the legal proceedings finally got under way. There was a strange twist to the logic of the case: though the act of piracy had given India legal jurisdiction, piracy itself is assigned no penalties under the Indian code of law, and the government therefore had to charge the men with other crimes. This it did with abandon, accusing them of multiple acts of armed robbery, attempted murder, assault, theft, and forgery - and even of entering India without valid passports, though they had done so involuntarily, in shackles and under guard.

India gave up the jury system in 1961, after it was believed to have failed. Most cases now are argued before single judges, who regulate the proceedings and ultimately hand down the decisions. The judge in the Alondra Rainbow case was a typically overworked officer of the mid-level Sessions court of Mumbai. He was a kindly, mostly toothless man in oversized glasses, a parsi named R. R. Vachha, who had a salt-and-pepper moustache and an upper gum that showed when he smiled. He had a reputation for patience, fairness, and competently written decisions. The courtroom over which he presided stood on the fourth floor of the old stone-built Secretariat building, from which the British once ruled Mumbai. The room was large, dim, and when crowded, as it usually was, stiflingly hot.

The pirates were brought to their hearings under heavy guard. Before entering the courtroom they had to remove their shoes in the hallway, as all the accused did in Mumbai, because prisoners in the past had hurled their shoes at judges. The pirates, though, were well behaved, and some of them were almost gracious, as if they enjoyed these little excursions from jail. If so, they had plenty to enjoy. Had it run straight through, their trial might have lasted three weeks; instead it was squeezed among other cases a few hours at a time, and dragged on for almost two years. It was an unequal contest from the start. Serving pro bono as the special prosecutor was an obviously brilliant attorney named S. Venkiteswaran, a master of law and argument, who at sixty-two is the preeminent maritime attorney in India, and undoubtedly among the best in the world. He was assisted backstage by a protégé, a rising young attorney named K. R. Shriram, who though not yet as wise and Churchillian as Venkiteswaran is every bit as smart. Against this duo stood several ordinary public defenders, and principally only one - a small-time criminal lawyer named Santosh Deshpande, who never stood a chance.

The star witness was Captain Ikeno. Having been promised full-time police protection while in India, he came twice from Japan to verify the real identity of the Mega Rama, and to describe his ordeal in emotional detail. Venkiteswaran later said to me, "Deshpande was flamboyant and played to the gallery. But once the master [Captain Ikeno] gave evidence, I was very sure no one could touch the case. Look - you can ignore all the evidence that you have read, and consider just the basics. Here is a ship with fifteen of the accused in it. They're caught. They've got a property which is hot. It's proved beyond doubt that the vessel is the Alondra Rainbow. The master's evidence establishes that he was deprived of possession and control. Once that has happened, it is for the accused to show how they came into possession of that ship. And if they don't show it, then the presumption of the law is that they are the ones who hijacked it. And no attempt was made to look into this aspect at all."

Deshpande occupied a difficult position. The pirates would have made poor witnesses, so he didn't even put them on the stand. He was required nonetheless to support their claim that they were an innocent crew who had been offered jobs by manning agents in Jakarta, and had flown to Manila and sailed without any idea of the ship's ownership or any curiosity about the evidence, abundant aboard, that the vessel's name had been changed twice in a few weeks. He also had to suggest that the crew ran from the Indian forces for fear they were pirates, and that the crew had no passports or seamen's cards because the coast guard had thrown them overboard. Still, Deshpande's performance was weak. During his cross-examination of a shipping expert from London, for instance, he should have asked, but did not, "Sir, can you tell us how crews are recruited for ships? Is it normal for sailors to ask questions of the manning agents who offer them jobs? To know the ownership of the vessels they serve on? To know the vessels' histories? Is it unheard of for a ship to change its name? To change its flag? To do this at sea? Have there never been cases of pirates in uniform? Or of patrol boats' being used?" The answers to those questions would not have turned the case, but they might at least have helped to educate the judge about some of the realities at sea.

The pirates were convicted, of course. On February 25, 2003, Judge Vachha handed down a 245-page verdict, finding them guilty on every count except the passport violation, and sentencing them to seven years of "rigorous imprisonment:' of which three had already been served. Venkiteswaran was traveling at the time, but was represented in the courtroom by his protégé Shriram. Some of the pirates broke down, lamenting the fate of their families and the effect the separation would have on their children. Others remained calm. One of them came up and congratulated Shriram. From the back bench Christianus Mintodo looked on impassively.

Soon afterward I went to meet Mintodo at the maximum-security prison to which he and the others had been transferred - a nineteenth-century compound with fortresslike walls, in the hot and dusty city of Poona, about a hundred miles inland from Mumbai. The prison turned out to be a surprisingly peaceful place. Though filled to twice its designed capacity, it was noticeably less crowded than the city outside. I waited for Mintodo in a file room that opened onto the central courtyard, and watched inmates languidly sweeping the walks with straw-bundle brooms, or strolling by in small straight-backed groups, dressed in coarse cotton clothes and caps, talking quietly. The air in the shade was pleasantly warm. In the distance a prison phone kept ringing with a double ring, and went unanswered.

Mintodo was wary when he arrived, and at first pretended to speak little English. He was slim, barefoot, and copper-skinned - a man who at the age of fifty-six still moved with feline precision and grace. He had brought with him one of the younger pirates, Ari Kurniwan, age twenty-six, whose job was to translate, and do most of the talking. We spoke for a while about the food and routines of the prison, the Indian guards, and the prospects for an appeal. I discouraged them from expecting results. We talked about the Tarabai's attack, and the way that the Mega Rama, as they insisted on calling their ship, had trembled as it was being hit.

Kurniwan said, "We didn't know who was firing on us."

I said nothing.

Mintodo said, "At sea anything can happen."

About that I could agree.

I asked Mintodo why he thought Deshpande had not put him on the witness stand. He did not answer but gazed at me appraisingly. Kurniwan intervened. He said, "This idea is coming now in my mind for the first time!"

Later I asked about the manning agents in Jakarta, the key to their story. Kurniwan responded with a flood of words. "I come in Jakarta port. I meet a broker who says, 'Pay me two hundred dollars, and you'll have a job at three hundred dollars a month.' He gives me an airline ticket to Manila. It's my first flight, and I'm afraid of heights. I close my eyes the whole time. I go to the ship. This is my first job, my first flight, my first time going abroad. Everything is the first."

I said, "What was the name of the agent in Jakarta? I'll go there and find him."

Mintodo was looking into space, somewhere above my head.

Kurniwan said, "When you come into a port you find so many brokers. You don't have to ask their names. You trust them. They give you a job. They give an alias also, those people."

When I asked Mintodo for his contact there, he brought his gaze back down to me. He said, "It was the same agent in Jakarta. A broker. I forget his name."

It was all just a game anyway. Their agent was the one who went by Yan, or Yance, Makatengkeng, who had been at the coffee shop in Batam, and had safely disappeared. He worked for "the Boss," who remains unseen and unknown, and is presumably still active. Mintodo and his men were insignificant players on a very large sea - sailors who got stuck holding the loot, long after the smarter players had covered their tracks. Piracy meanwhile shifts around, and responds to pressures, but either grows or remains essentially unchanged. It was clear in the Poona prison that the pirates understood this too. Their arrest and conviction had been proclaimed around the world as an important message that disorder would not be tolerated on the high seas. But they knew the ocean better than most, and were just biding their time, unrepentant and undeterred.


*The Atlantic Monthly; September 2003.

**William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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