GUY RAZ, host:
A couple of years ago, a cargo ship was stolen out of a Caribbean port and taken to Haiti. And just hours before the thieves were about to sell it on the open market, a man named Max Hardberger casually walked onboard and steered it out of port, back to its rightful owner.
Hardberger is a repo man, and he specializes in repossessing stolen cargo ships. They actually get stolen a lot more than you think. And in his book called "Seized," Hardberger describes a life of eluding pirates and swindlers and recruiting prostitutes in disguise to help him recapture stolen ships.
Now, before Max Hardberger became known as the repo man of the seas, he taught high school English and even flew crop dusters for a stint, but he found his calling on the high seas. And he says it's not that hard to find customers. In fact, stealing a ship is actually pretty easy.
Mr. MAX HARDBERGER (Author, "Seized: A Sea Captain's Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World's Most Troubled Waters"): Well, the best way to steal a ship would be to go to some port, let's say in Venezuela, where you know a corrupt judge, or, you know, you know somebody who knows a corrupt judge, and then you just pay him to have the ship seized.
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.
RAZ: So your job is to get it back. How do you do it?
Mr. HARDBERGER: Of course, the very first thing is to vet the client. Then I have to go on the ground and make the surveillance. I'll find out the ship's condition. Sometimes I'll sneak on board so that I can find out whether or not, for example, the engines can be started.
And then I have to reconnoiter the environments around the vessel. Who's watching the vessel from the shore? What are the navigational hazards to getting it out at night without lights or a pilot?
Once I make all those preliminary sort of investigations, then I have to assemble my team if we're going to board the vessel, and then we have to sneak onboard and sneak it out.
RAZ: You describe one case in 2003. You repossessed a ship called the Maya Express. What happened there? What's the story there?
Mr. HARDBERGER: The owner of the ship had died. And the charterer of the ship, who was an infamous pirate, he paid the crew of Ukrainians to take it out of the Dominican Republic without a clearance so that nobody knew where it went.
He took it to a small port in Haiti, where he could bribe the judge to do exactly what we talked about. And I got down there, we brought a tug in, I managed to trick the guards into getting off the ship.
RAZ: How did you do that?
Mr. HARDBERGER: Well, 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.
So, then when the tugboat was coming up to tow the ship out, my Haitian associate told them, well, the gringo, the (unintelligible) they call him in Haiti, the white guy, he's afraid to come onboard the ship late at night. You know, there are no lights or anything. You'll have to come on the dock to get your money. And they were too greedy not to do it.
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.
RAZ: You don't you refuse jobs where there might be violence, right, where someone might die?
Mr. HARDBERGER: Well, I would like to, but I do refuse to use force or violence myself. In other words, if we get attacked by violence, we have to just throw up our arms and give up because my antagonists, like the innocent crewmen onboard a ship, or even the guards who've been hired - who are just doing their job, I cannot morally offer violence against them. So all I can do is just give up.
RAZ: So most of the time, it's just a matter of kind of tricking them, right?
Mr. HARDBERGER: It's absolutely a matter of - if I can't do it by trickery, it can't be done or bribery, trickery or bribery.
RAZ: And you've used alcohol. You even used prostitutes, right?
Mr. HARDBERGER: Yeah, I still do. I mean, 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.
And so, it's very easy for me to send a prostitute onboard the ship, and they don't know that she's a prostitute. You know, the crewman thinks it's a good-looking girl who is, you know, very attracted to him and wants to find out all about him and his ship. And...
RAZ: So you will go to a port and find a group of prostitutes and basically say here's what I need you to do for me.
Mr. HARDBERGER: Yeah. That, or hanging out in the disco. You know, the houses of prostitution are generally called discos. And so you go to the disco nearest the ship because you know the crewmen are going to be there, and then you just hang out.
And I'll pretend to be an old captain looking for work, and I'll ask them about their ship, and I'll pretend to be drunk. And, of course, they, you know, have no respect for me, and they think they'll talk, you know, freely because they have no idea I might be anything otherwise.
So there are many ways of finding out information onboard besides boarding the vessel surreptitiously.
RAZ: Is there a brand of liquor that you find is most effective in getting the crew drunk?
Mr. HARDBERGER: Well, rum, not a brand, a type. You know, they all drink rum.
RAZ: So rum?
Mr. HARDBERGER: Yeah, right.
RAZ: Now, of course, a British couple was just released after having been held for more than a year by Somali pirates. You don't even bother dealing with Somali pirates. Why is that?
Mr. HARDBERGER: I mean, I'm not afraid of Somali pirates. They're unschooled and brutish and khat-chewing fools. So the issue is that I - for whatever reason, the clients have not hired me for that.
RAZ: Max, you're 62 now, right? Is that about right?
Mr. HARDBERGER: That's correct.
RAZ: How long do you plan to keep doing this?
Mr. HARDBERGER: As long as I can still run down the street, jump in the water and swim to safety, I'll keep doing it. The moment I get so physically decrepit that I can't do that, I'd better hang it up.
RAZ: That's Max Hardberger. He's a captain based in New Orleans who makes his living repossessing stolen cargo ships. He recently wrote a book about it. It's called "Seized: Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World's Most Troubled Waters."
Max Hardberger, thank you so much.
Mr. HARDBERGER: Thank you.
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