By Brooke Schultz
Elm Staff Writer
Ian Urbina said his fascination with seafare is what drove him to pursue his current project: a four-part series detailing the violence and lawlessness of the sea.
Typically Urbina, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, would sit down with his editor and discuss what story he’d be writing next. With no fresh idea, Urbina saw an opportunity to pitch the story he’d been trying to get past two previous editors for the last 10 years. This time he was finally approved to write it. With the greenlight, Urbina began his ongoing, two-year project: “The Outlaw Ocean.”
As a part of Downrigging Weekend hosted by the Sultana Education Foundation and Center for Environment and Society, the Garfield Center for the Arts at the Prince Theatre asked Urbina to give a presentation on his series on Oct. 30.
Drew McMullen, president of the Sultana Education Foundation, said he tries to read The New York Times every day, and when he saw the first installment of “The Outlaw Ocean,” he immediately sent Urbina an email.
“The stories Urbina tells in ‘The Outlaw Ocean’ are perfect for the audience we have at Downrigging as they address both the topics related to the environment and the current state of the seafaring world. Amazingly, Ian got back to me almost instantly, and we had his talk lined up a couple days later.”
The talk focused mostly on Urbina’s articles and the background and logistics that went into the stories he was trying to tell. He tried to limit his discussion of each of the four installments to five minutes, incorporating footage and photographs that were included in the articles to give those who were unfamiliar with his work a sense of what story he was telling.
The four part series focuses on stowaways, unprosecuted murder at sea, sea slaves, and hunting for fugitive fishing ships.
The gritty and fascinating details behind the reporting Urbina had done for his series intrigued many of the audience members who came to hear him speak.
Margie Elsburg, a Chestertown resident, helped build the Sultana, and for many years has been very involved in the Downrigging Weekend. She was excited specifically about Urbina’s presentation. “This is everything that Sultana is about, but at a national and international level. It’s about education, it’s about the ecology, it’s about telling the truth of what life was like then. The good, the bad, and the ugly,” she said.
Urbina did just this. He talked about the luck it took for him to track down the surviving stowaway, David Mndolwa, in the first part of his series. It took months for them to find information on the two stowaways who had washed up, but after some lucky connections, Mndolwa was found in South Africa.
“It turns out the guy’s homeless, and he’s living in a shanty in Cape Town. But he has a Facebook page,” Urbina said, getting a laugh from the crowded theater. “So within two months, I’m texting with the homeless guy in Cape Town, and he is my stowaway, and this is a huge breakthrough.”
While there were funny moments, with Urbina trying to understand the stowaway’s broken English text messages, there were also less appealing activities involved in reporting the story.
When researching part three of his series dealing with sea-slaves, Urbina recounted spending the night on a rat-infested ship. Urbina, his photographer, and their translator tried to stay up throughout the night to absorb all the information they could, but in a lull, they decided to join the rest of the sleeping crew who were packed in a small room and hanging in hammocks.
“So we lay down, and I fall asleep. I woke up, I think it was maybe seven minutes later, with this warm rush of adrenaline because something has just crawled across my legs. And your body knows what’s not supposed to happen…. I sat up, actually and hit the guy in the hammock above me,” Urbina said.
Urbina’s hour long presentation was infused with intricacies like this, detailing the difficulties of writing such a long, ongoing piece.
This presentation was only a sliver of what the Sultana Education Foundation and Center of Environment and Society had planned for the weekend. The annual weekend, running from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1, also included public sails on tall ships, concerts, movies, lectures, and forums.
“The Sultana Education Foundation exists to teach students about the Chesapeake Bay, the threats it faces, and what they can do to preserve and protect it. While Urbina’s ‘The Outlaw Ocean’ series has a broader geographic scope, the issues it highlights are relevant for everyone who lives in the Chesapeake Watershed,” McMullen said.