Book Review — Dead in the Water by Matthew Campbell
This morning, I finished Dead in the Water: A True Story of Hijacking, Murder, and a Global Maritime Conspiracy by Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel. Campbell and Chellel are both award-winning business reporters for Bloomberg. The book was written in 2022.
What do you do when, upon investigating a story, you are warned several times that if you continue your line of inquiry, you are doing so at the risk of your safety? You know that at least one person involved has been murdered; others have been kidnapped or forced to flee their homes and countries of residence in terror. What will you do?
Dead in the Water is an audacious and shocking expose of the mysterious underbelly of international shipping through the prism of the hijacking of the ship, Brillante Viruoso, and the events that ensued. It took the authors four years to piece together the awful reality of one of the largest financial swindles in shipping history.
“…police records, military documents, emails, memos, and audio transcripts, as well as interviews with more than 75 people involved in the events concerned. No scenes or dialogue have been invented or embellished”
I knew about the seafarers but did not fully appreciate their importance to global trade until I saw some stats in this book. For instance, they account for the movement of over 80 percent of all worldwide trade in physical merchandise — from shoes, cars, oil, food, and everything in between. And some routes are more important than others. You may know about the Suez Canal, but there are others, like the Gulf of Aden in Yemen. The Strait of Malacca, the slender passage between Malaysia and Indonesia, is the most crucial shipping route in global commerce.
Because of the nature of the oceans, they can be quite dangerous, not just because of the weather but because of the activities of pirates. The ocean provides a vast, often poorly patrolled area for pirates to operate in and potentially intercept ships carrying valuable cargo. Additionally, the lack of centralized law enforcement on the high seas makes it easier for pirates to evade, capture, and pursue their activities. Once, pirates from Somalia captured a group of sailors and held them for more than four years before a bounty was paid. Three of them died during the hijacking or in captivity; the rest survived by eating rats.
#WIL Why Van Speijk is considered a national hero in the Netherlands
You may be wondering why it took four years for the ransom to be paid. In this book, you will see some frightening details about how the convoluted structures of maritime business structures make it difficult to determine who a ship actually belongs to. This lack of transparency allows for substantial cost-cutting, including responsibility for the crew’s welfare. I was surprised to see the tiny country of Liberia featured prominently in this space. Liberia, alongside countries like Panama and the Marshall Islands, serves as the ostensible home of more than a third of the global merchant fleet.
And this was where the inner workings of the shipping insurance industry baffled me. For an industry whose business deals with the hazards of the ocean, it seems ridiculous that it doesn’t care much about verifying claims. You would think that the famous Lloyd’s of London is a conservative insurance bastion. Not at all. It doesn’t care about due diligence. It will pay out on fraud rather than look for honest answers. The entire business is built on blind trust. Its Latin motto, “Uberrima Fides,” meaning “utmost good faith,” is naive, just as history has shown. Major insurance decisions involve no meaningful risk assessment. But then you will see why the consequences of being defrauded over and over again do not bother the maritime insurance business.
One of these scams was detailed in Chapter 13. The fascinating story of the scuttling of the Salem will leave you bewildered. For all parties, ships can be worth more below the surface of the water than above it. Greece is arguably the most important and most successful country in the maritime industry, and you will see how complicated their relationship with the insurance market is. Piraeus, a city of 160,000 people, is the ship-owning capital of the world.
The outsized influence of the Greeks involved is why the destruction of Briliante Virtuoso, the ship this book is centered on, is so complicated. When a witness was put on the stand and asked why he didn’t go to the police about the conspiracy to commit fraud in the middle of the ocean, he blurted out,
“Forgive me for being rude. Mr. David Mockett knew how to communicate, and he’s where he is. Don’t ask me questions why I didn’t do what I didn’t do . . . whatever I did was correct because I’m still alive today. That’s all I know.”
David Mockett was killed via a car bomb over the case. And the book might have existed only because Mockett’s death was too gruesome to wave away. In fact, the way and manner in which Mockett was killed may have shocked the Lloyd’s market into a rare moment of conscience.
The book reads like a novel. I was only on page 15 when I sent it to a fellow I know who works in the Navy. It has intrigue, murder, and legal action. The authors did an extremely good job of presenting detailed and knotty information in a story that is easy to read. There is enough background material on politics, insurance, and the shipping industry to keep the reader from becoming distracted from the main plot.
My only grouse are the Greek names. At a point, I had to switch to the audiobook so I could keep up with the names and follow the story. The book has a lot of the names. Aside from that, you will love following how two ex-detectives from London’s Metropolitan Police try to unravel this complicated mess of a crime. Little wonder it was shortlisted for Financial Times Business Book of the Year in 2022.