'Repo Man Of The Seas' Shivers Pirates' Timbers Meet 62-year-old Max Hardberger, a former high school English teacher who's built a career repossessing stolen cargo ships from ports all over the world. Among his techniques: Hiring local prostitutes to distract pirates while his guys recapture the ships.
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'Repo Man Of The Seas' Shivers Pirates' Timbers

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'Repo Man Of The Seas' Shivers Pirates' Timbers

'Repo Man Of The Seas' Shivers Pirates' Timbers

'Repo Man Of The Seas' Shivers Pirates' Timbers

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131492945/131493867" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Max Hardberger works the ocean with some of his Haitian friends. Ronald Joanuel hide caption

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Ronald Joanuel

Modern-day piracy is alive and well, and Somali pirates aren't the only ones in the game.

One man who makes a living fighting back is Max Hardberger, a 62-year-old sea captain who repossesses stolen cargo ships from ports all over the world.

Earlier this year, he wrote about his adventures in the book Seized: A Sea Captain's Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World's Most Troubled Waters.

Hardberger talked to Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz about his decades eluding pirates and swindlers, and recruiting prostitutes in disguise to help him recapture stolen ships.

From English Teacher To Crop Duster To ...

Before Hardberger became known as the "repo man of the seas," he taught high school English and flew crop dusters for a stint. He's also licensed as an attorney.

But 25 years ago, he found his calling as a captain. Hardberger says it's not that hard to find customers; in fact, stealing a ship turns out to be pretty easy.

"Well, the best way to steal a ship would be to go to some port in, let's say, in Venezuela, where you know a corrupt judge or you know somebody who knows a corrupt judge, then you just pay him to have the ship seized," he says.

The judges will often draft fake debt notices and have them delivered to the ship's captain once the vessel has been docked. Even though the papers are fake, the captain's only options are to pay off the fake debt or try to buy the ship back when it goes to auction.

"Once the ship is sold at auction, it doesn't matter if it was stolen, it doesn't matter how it got to that auction, the guy who buys it at the auction gets it free and clear," he says.

And that's where Hardberger and his company, Vessel Extractions LLC, come in. He's usually recruited in the final days before auction by the owner. Once arriving in port, he has to work quickly.

"I'll find out the ship's condition. Sometimes I'll sneak onboard so I can find out whether or not the engines can be started," he says.

He'll also do reconnaissance to figure out who's watching the ship, whether there are navigational hazards, and how difficult it will be to work under the cover of darkness.

The Voyage Of The Maya Express

One of Hardberger's most dangerous jobs was repossessing the ship Maya Express in 2003. The owner had died and the charterer -- an infamous pirate -- paid the Ukranian crew to take it to a small port in Haiti. The country was in the middle of a violent rebellion against then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

"I managed to trick the guards into getting off the ship," he says. "The guards had been selling fuel off the ship, so I went onboard, I pretended to be a fuel buyer, I told them I'd bring a tugboat up. And, of course, being greedy, simple men, they said, 'Great!' "

When the tug arrived, his Haitian associate told the guards Hardberger was too scared to come onto the dark ship at night to complete the transaction. He persuaded the guards to meet him on the dock.

"As soon as they got on the dock, I had my Haitian policeman that I had hired convince them not to go back on the ship, and the tug towed it out," he says.

Hardberger says the retrieval was one of the most dangerous because ofthe instability in Haiti at the time. He says the charterer -- the pirate -- had purposely chosen to steal the ship in a small port where he assumed no foreigners would dare set foot.

Rum And Hookers

Each of Hardberger's missions has some element of danger, but he's never been injured. To protect his crew, he's made a pledge to never use violence during a repossession.

"If we get attacked by violence, we just have to throw up our arms and give up," he says. "Because my antagonists -- like the innocent crewmen on the ship or even the guards who are just doing their jobs -- I cannot morally offer violence against them.

"If I can't do it by trickery, it can't be done," he says.

A little bribery also helps. Hardberger's tools of the trade include alcohol -- rum, of course -- and prostitutes.

"Prostitutes are an extremely valuable resource. All the ports are full of prostitutes. And you know, prostitutes are excellent actresses, you know they have a lifetime of practice," he says.

"It's very easy for me to send a prostitute onboard the ship, and they don't know she's a prostitute. The crewman thinks it's a good-looking girl who's very attracted to him and wants to know all about his ship."

'Khat-Chewing Fools'

Hardberger says he doesn't have much trouble finding work. He hasn't taken on any Somali pirates -- who most recently made the news for the release of a British couple held hostage for more than a year. But he wouldn't say no to the challenge.

"I'm not afraid of Somali pirates -- they're unschooled and brutish and khat-chewing fools," he says.

Hardberger turned 62 last week, but says he's nowhere near retiring.

"As long as I can still run down the street, jump in the water and swim to safety, I'll keep doing it," he says. "The moment I get so physically decrepit that I can't do that, I'd better hang it up."