Seized: A Sea Captain's Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World's Most Troubled Waters

Seized: A Sea Captain's Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World's Most Troubled Waters

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by Max Hardberger

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Seized throws open the hatch on the shadowy world of maritime shipping, where third-world governments place exorbitant liens against ships, pirates seize commercial vessels with impunity, crooks and con artists reign supreme on the docks and in the shipyards—and hapless owners have to rely on sea captain Max Hardberger to recapture their ships and winSee more details below


Seized throws open the hatch on the shadowy world of maritime shipping, where third-world governments place exorbitant liens against ships, pirates seize commercial vessels with impunity, crooks and con artists reign supreme on the docks and in the shipyards—and hapless owners have to rely on sea captain Max Hardberger to recapture their ships and win justice on the high seas.
A ship captain, airplane pilot, lawyer, teacher, writer, adventurer, and raconteur, Max Hardberger recovers stolen freighters for a living.  In Seized, he takes us on a real-life journey into the mysterious world of freighters and shipping, where fortunes are made and lost by the whims of the waves.  Desperate owners hire Max Hardberger to “extract” or steal back ships that have been illegitimately seized by putting together a mission-impossible team to sail them into international waters under cover of darkness.  It’s a high stakes assignment—if Max or his crew are caught, they risk imprisonment or death.
Seized takes readers behind the scenes of the multibillion dollar maritime industry, as he recounts his efforts to retrieve freighters and other vessels from New Orleans to the Caribbean, from East Germany to Vladivostak, Russia, and from Greece to Guatemala.  He resorts to everything from disco dancing to women of the night to distract the shipyard guards, from bribes to voodoo doctors to divert attention and buy the time he needs to sail a ship out of a foreign port without clearance.  Seized is adventure nonfiction at its best.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

In this heart-stopping account of his work recovering stolen (or otherwise illegally-seized) ships from "hellhole" ports, commercial captain Hardberger proves himself tough as a tank and articulate as a poet. An airplane pilot, teacher, and lawyer besides, Hardberger never turns down an assignment, no matter how perilous-from surreptitiously repossessing huge ships at midnight to transporting a fleet of old airplanes across East Germany in a perilous airborne convoy. Facing down foes that include gangsters, corrupt judges, and, of course, pirates, Hardberger proves a formidable hero, but nevertheless admits that "my long experience in leading men into dicey situations had taught me to keep my qualms to myself." Hardberger has a seafarer's gift for atmospheric storytelling, layering details to create a sense of place, history, and foreboding, as when outsmarting deceptive authorities at a Honduran port: "I knew that pier well, and those pilings had been rotten since Simon Bolivar was a boy." Full of the suspense that comes from ripping off the bad guys and making a daring escape, often aboard less-than-reliable craft ("the ship could only make a desperate run for Belize... before the hold filled with water and she took a nosedive into the sea") Hardberger's escapades make undeniably fun reading.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From the Publisher
“In this heart-stopping account of his work recovering stolen (or otherwise illegally-seized) ships from "hellhole" ports, commercial captain Hardberger proves himself tough as a tank and articulate as a poet….[he] has a seafarer's gift for atmospheric storytelling, layering details to create a sense of place, history, and foreboding…Hardberger's escapades make undeniably fun reading.”  – Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Ken Ringle
It's a rollicking ride and all the more so because Hardberger…tells a great story, writes with genuine skill and—just for good measure—hails from New Orleans, the city of pirate Jean Lafitte.
—The Washington Post
Washington :Post - Ken Ringle
Erroll Flynn would have loved to play Max Hardberger in a movie version of SEIZED. It's a rollicking ride and all the more so because Hardberger, an airplane pilot, lawyer, teacher and adventurer as well as a ship captain, tells a great story [and] writes with genuine skill ...
Publisher's Weekly - Starred Review
A heart-stopping account ... Hardberger proves himself tough as a tank and articulate as a poet ... Hardberger has a seafarer's gift for atmospheric storytelling, layering details to create a sense of place, history and foreboding ... Hardberger's escapades make undeniably fun reading.
Terror on the Seas - Daniel Sekulich
One of the strengths of Hardberger's book is his prose, which is lucid, entertaining and dramatic. His descriptions of the waterfronts of various seedy ports and the characters who inhabit them are vivid. � Hardberger's stories and his skills as a storyteller are such that he could have filled a book with twice as many tales of what it's like to be a maritime repo man.
Sacramento Bee - Glenn Dallas
Seized gradually evolves from a maritime memoir into a thoroughly enthralling tale of a man of principle, a man who risks his life in order to restore a spirit of fairness and honor to the seas, often with only his guile and whatever meager resources are available. It's an interesting and engaging read, but far deeper than you'd expect.
The Old Salt Blog - Rick Spilman
A fascinating account of one man�s remarkable career and personal journey.

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Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.52(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.17(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The first time I ever stole a ship out of port was on the sturdy old bulk carrier Naruda, lying at anchor in Cap Haitien Bay, Haiti, at the end of May 1987. We had finished discharging our cargo of rice the previous day, and on Friday afternoon I was sitting in the wheelhouse, waiting for a clearance to leave, when I noticed a gang of soldiers with automatic weapons coming out of the customs building on the waterfront. They climbed down into a rough-hewn dory bobbing against the dock.

My first officer, a heavyset Dominican named Arturo Robles, appeared at the door to the starboard wing of the bridge, his shirt unbuttoned and his round brown belly streaked with sweat. "Hold is clean, Cap," he announced. "Can we let the Haitians have the rice?"

"Sure," I said. "Looks like we're going to have visitors, First." I nodded my chin toward the dory, now pulling steadily toward us through the low Atlantic swells that rolled in past the reefs. The boatman sculling on the stern was helped by a gentle breeze that whispered down from the western mountains and carried the smells of rotten fruit and sunbaked dirt from the slums that ring the bay.

Arturo crossed to the port side. "That boat's full of soldiers," he said. "Trouble for us, Captain?"

"Yeah. I knew when the agent couldn't get us a clearance yesterday that something bad was going to happen. We should've upped anchor and steamed out last night."

The boat sped across the cloud-dappled water and pulled up at the pilot ladder on the ship's port side. I went down on deck to meet the soldiers as they climbed up one by one. The first man up was a short, stocky officer with a Colt automatic in a scarred black holster.

"You captain?" he demanded in a gravelly voice.

"Yes," I said, "I'm the captain. How may I help you?"

He thrust a grimy, badly photocopied paper into my hand. It said that the ship was seized "pour les dettes."

"What's this about?" I asked in French. "What debts are these, eh?"

He shrugged. His men crowded on deck behind him and stared at me sullenly. "It's a matter for the court," he said. "You are required to go to court on Monday." He waved two of the men forward, thin young men in faded uniforms, one light-skinned and the other black as jet. They carried submachine guns slung over their shoulders. "These men will stay on board until then," the officer said. "You will feed them and treat them properly."

I bowed toward them. "Of course," I said. "They will be our guests on board."

"You will give them a radio," the officer said. "Une radio portative. So they can call the port office if anything goes wrong."

"Yes, of course," I said.

His muddy little eyes glinted with hostility. "You will give it to them now, before I leave."

I shrugged and turned to Arturo. "First, please go get one of the walkie-talkies and bring it down. The yellow one."

He hesitated. Of the four walkie-talkies on board, the yellow one had the worst battery. It wouldn't stay charged more than a couple of hours. I gave him a look. He said "Yessir" and hurried to the accommodations.

The officer and I regarded each other without talking. A few minutes later Arturo returned and gave the officer the walkie-talkie. He held it to his ear and said, "Capitaine du port, capitaine du port, le batiment appelle."

After a few seconds, the port office answered. The officer handed the walkie-talkie to the light-skinned soldier. "Call the captain of the port if the ship tries to leave," he told him. "Do you understand?"

"Oui, Colonel," the man said. The colonel herded the rest of his men down the pilot ladder and the dory swung away from the ship's side, the boatman's black, muscular back working as he sculled against the wind.

"Please," I said to the soldiers, "you can relax in the messroom if you wish. The cook will bring you drinks."

The black man started toward the accommodations without speaking, but the brown man ducked his head and murmured, "Merci, Capitaine."

I went with them to the crew's mess on the starboard side and told Cookie, hovering unhappily in the galley, to bring them Cokes with ice. Lunch was over, but I told him to fix them something to eat.

Back on the bridge, Arturo said, "Why are you treating those men so well, Captain? You will not get them to disobey their orders."

I chuckled. "No, but maybe I can get them to drop their guard."

"What do you have in mind?"

I went up close and lowered my voice. "We're not waiting until Monday. The judge will probably order us off the ship, and might even put us all in jail. I'm taking this ship out tonight."

His brown eyes widened. "Put us in jail? What for? What have we done?"

"We've done nothing wrong. But you know that the receiver--that little fat man who came on board when we first arrived--is claiming a short shipment. It's not the ship's fault that the shipper didn't load as much cargo as the Haitian paid for, but that won't matter to a Haitian court. The only thing we can do is get out."

"What about the guards? You're not going to . . ."

"No, no," I said hurriedly. "I won't hurt them. Pero cada quien tiene su manera de matar pulgas, seguro?"

He nodded. "Everybody kills fleas in his own way" is the Spanish equivalent to "There's more than one way to skin a cat." I clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't say anything to the crew. I haven't got a plan yet, but I can promise you this: We won't be here Monday morning."

He went down and I called the ship's owner--a middle-aged Greek living in Miami with his young American wife--on the SSB radio. He was at home and accepted the collect call.

"But, Captain," he cried, "the ship's not responsible for short-loading. Surely the judge will let the ship sail."

"I think the receiver is trying to steal the ship. This is an outlaw port, you know. He can do what he wants here."

"Sacred Mary! What can we do, then?"

The whole world can listen in on radio communications. "I don't want to say too much," I said carefully. "I just want your permission to do what has to be done."

"You have it, of course," he said fervently. "Just keep me advised when you can."

We hung up and I dragged a stool out on the port wing of the bridge. The sun was dropping toward the western mountains, low over the ruins of the mountaintop castle that the slave-king Henri Christophe had built to guard the entrance to the bay. Far below its ramparts, fishing boats with long, willowy booms ghosted into the bay. There were no buoys or other navigation aids marking the entrance, and the rusty hulk of a freighter that had missed the channel lay a mile to the east, broken on the reef that stretched out of sight toward the Dominican border.

We'd come in through the reef only three days earlier, but I hadn't marked any of the waypoints. Loran--the only positioning equipment we had--wasn't accurate enough for this kind of navigation at night. I went into the chart room and studied the chart. The passage through the reef had a dogleg in the middle; we would have to bear northeast until we reached it, then make a hard left for five hundred yards before turning back to the northeast. At night, with nothing marking the channel, getting out would be a crapshoot, and the penalty for failure would be the loss of the ship and a long stint in a Haitian prison.

I found the chief engineer in his cabin, a muscular Honduran in his late forties with gray hair that bristled up from his square head like iron filings. He'd come aboard only two weeks earlier, in Miami, but he seemed to be a good, competent engineer. He was sitting in front of the fan on his desk, reading a Spanish paperback. He put it down and stood up when I knocked on his doorframe.

"Keep your seat, Chief," I said, sitting on his bunk. "I'm going to need some help from you tonight."

He raised an eyebrow. "To do what?"

I leaned close. "We're going to take the ship out. You know the receiver's had the ship seized on a bogus claim. Now listen . . . I want the guards on board to think we can't sail, so they won't be suspicious."

"What can I do to help?"

"While we're at supper, I want you to come into the mess and tell me that the main engine's broken. Bring some broken part to show me. Can you do that?"

"Of course. But what will the guards do when they find out we're sailing?"

I stood up. "I'm still working on that."

"Are you going to force them off the ship?"

I patted his shoulder and went to the door. "By the time I'm finished with them, they'll be glad to get off."

He wasn't convinced, but he shrugged and picked up his book. I went out and up to the bridge.

As I pushed open the heavy steel door to the wheelhouse, I stopped and examined its lock. Then I went back down and checked the doors leading from the landings in the companionway to each deck. The Naruda was a small ship, with only three levels above the main deck. International safety standards require steel doors on any passageway that could let fire travel from deck to deck, and although she was old and tired, the Naruda had been well built. I went down and found Arturo and the ABs--the ship had two able-bodied seamen to work the deck--dogging down the hatch covers.

The hold had been swept free of spilled cargo, and the Haitians I'd hired to clean it were climbing down to a waiting dory, holding their pitiful little bags of salvaged rice mixed with dust and rust chips. I led Arturo aft to the port passageway.

"I've got an idea, First," I said. "It's going to take some tricky timing, but it might work." I explained my plan.

He grimaced. "Sounds pretty risky, Captain."

"They won't be suspicious." I told him about the chief engineer's story of a broken main engine. "Plus, they'll have a big supper and a lot of rum in them."

"Rum? You're going to give them rum?"

"You will. I'm sure they speak Spanish . . . This close to the border, almost all Haitians speak Spanish."

"True enough."

"Do you have some rum?"

"Si, I have a botella in my cabin, almost full."

"Good. The ship'll buy it from you. I want you to take it to the crew's mess after supper and get them drinking. Since they'll think the ship can't sail, they'll probably take a few drinks."

"And if they don't?"

I shrugged. "Then they don't. The plan might work anyway."

"How can we put them ashore? Nobody in the crew will want to take them in the boat."

"They can go by themselves. It's worth losing the boat to get rid of them."

He looked at me for a long time, then said, "Well, I don't like it, but you're the captain. I'll do as you say."

"Thanks, First. Now go get some pieces of wood. Measure the distances between the doors and the hallway bulkheads and cut them to fit. Check the rescue boat's engine and put gas in the tank. And put a couple of life jackets in it."

He nodded and went forward to help the ABs finish securing the hatch covers. I glanced in the crew's mess as I went past, and saw the guards sitting at one of the tables with their guns in their laps, watching television. It was tuned to a Haitian station, and I could hear a snatch of a news broadcast. There was another revolution under way, and the rebels were marching on Port-au-Prince.

I went in the galley, where Cookie was frying chicken in a heavy skillet. The door to the crew's mess was open, so I drew him out onto the afterdeck. "Fix the best food you have, Cookie," I whispered into his ear. "Make a lot of it, and keep serving the guards food until they can't eat any more."

He was a rotund, pleasant-faced Nicaraguan who'd been on the ship since before I joined, six months earlier. He didn't ask any questions. "Si, Capitan," he said, and went back in the galley.

At 1800 hours, the ship's normal suppertime, I went down to the crew's mess and took a seat at one of the tables. I would normally eat in the officers' mess, but the guards couldn't know that. They were already eating, their submachine guns in their laps, but they nodded when I came in. A few minutes later Arturo came in and sat across from them.

"How is supper?" he asked them in Spanish. "Good?"

"Very good," the brown man replied. "Muy sabroso."

Cookie brought my plate. There was a French soap opera showing on the television, and the guards watched it intently while they ate. Arturo caught my eye and gave me a fleeting smile.

On cue, the chief engineer came in, his T-shirt limp with sweat; he was holding a bearing in a greasy rag. "We have a problem, Captain," he said in Spanish. The guards looked around.

He showed me the bearing. "The lube-oil pump bearing has frozen up. We can't start the main engine."

The bearing could have come from any of a dozen pumps on board, but neither I nor the guards could have told it from any other. "Got a spare on board, Chief?"

He shook his head. "No, Captain. No spare on board."

"So we can't use the main engine?"

"I'm afraid not."

I shrugged. "Well, we can't leave before Monday anyway. I'll call the owner and get a replacement shipped down. How long to install it?"

"Only a couple of hours."

"Everything else okay in the engine room?"

He made a disgusted sound. "We need plenty things, Captain. You know I order parts and the owner never sends them. But if we can get this replaced, we can sail."

"Thanks, Chief."

He went out and the guards went back to their meal. Cookie came in with another platter of fried chicken, and the guards heaped their plates anew. I wasn't surprised. A private in the Haitian army would have a hard time getting enough to eat, so this would be a feast to them.

I declined the bread pudding, but the guards accepted their bowls gladly. The oilers--the engineers' assistants in the engine room--and the ABs came in and took their seats.

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