Friday, February 15, 2013

Max Hardberger

There was one evening, almost twenty years ago now, when the sun in the Leeward Islands had just set with a memorable green flash on the horizon, when the rigging on the sailboat we had chartered was making the familiar sound of ratcheting and releasing cordage, as the splash of the flying fish could be heard over the gunwales, and when the clear sky revealed more stars than one would think even God's imagination could hold, that I thought that the last thing that I ever wanted to do was to return to a Massachusetts winter and the scabrous demands of the underemployed faculty of the private school at which I was working in those days.  Whatever work I could find in the islands or along the Costa Maya, even as a marina deckhand or tour bus guide would have been fine with me.

Of course, I went back to the Berkshires and listened to the disgruntled and outraged, patiently smiled as the prosaic pretended to be the perspicacious, and saved my money so that I could again return to the Caribbean and that lonely boat in the middle of the Gulf Stream.

Max Hardberger was a high school teacher of history and English with a graduate degree in fine arts when he reached that point of no return that many in the more lyrical professions tend to reach when relating the subtleties of Shakespearean sonnet form to a roomful of ungracious adolescents.  He quit that nonsense and started his own very small air transport company.  Mainly, he transported the remains of the dead from one location to another, sometimes circumventing local laws by dressing the corpse as his co-pilot.  You can see why I like this guy; this is what "questioning authority" is really all about.

He then drifted into work on freighters, eventually getting his master's license and serving as a well-respected captain.  Then, one fateful day in Haiti, he found what was to become his life's work.  As anyone who has spent even a short amount of time in some of the ports of the Caribbean can testify, it is a remarkably corrupt area.  In the 1980's, small local governments were notorious for using their courts systems to "legally" seize any ship or boat that caught their fancy.  One day, Hardberger found himself on the pointy end of some rifles [Or are they now "assault weapons"?  I'll have to ask a politician, TV reporter, or movie star; they know everything.] while in Port-Au-Prince when his ship was seized by some local "businessmen".  Naturally, he surrendered the ship.  Sort of.

While a handful of guards were left on board, Max threw them a party with lots and lots of rum.  Once the guards were unconscious, unarmed, and locked in a cabin, Hardberger quickly moved his ship into international waters and placed the former guards in an open boat to row themselves back to the Haitian mainland.  When the story became known, Hardberger became a legend in the commercial shipping community.

So much so that, from that point on, he was asked to, essentially, "steal" back ships that had been seized by corrupt governments or their local bureaucrats.  It became a surprisingly lucrative enterprise.  Although I'm speaking as one who was never more than on the outside of the very remote orbit of Caribbean sailors, I can testify that Hardberger is regarded as a combination of Robin Hood and Captain Morgan, maybe with a little bit of Superman thrown in for good measure.

I could relate some more of his adventures, but I don't think I could do so with the same linguistic panache as the writer whom I quote below.  A word of warning, though; if you choose to go to the link, you will find the paragraphs laced with pungent language:

Hardberger once repoed a freighter from the Russian Mafiya [sic] in the ice-covered Baltic port of Vladivostok, Russia. One time he captured a ship in Central America by hiring a prostitute to flirt with the guards and give them shots of booze lined with Hardberger's-homemade handy-dandy insta-sedatives. During the Haitian Revolution of 2004, Hardberger sailed into the battle-torn hive of destruction in the middle of a warzone, boarded a ship pretending to be a potential buyer, and got his men to distract the guards while he snuck off, repaired a damaged engine, and cut the anchor chains with a blowtorch. Another time in Haiti, he used a Voodoo witch doctor to freak out a crew of AK-47 slinging pirates and send them running from the ship. In Venezuela he straight-up convinced the guards that the...ship was sinking, and he did such a good job of it that the entire crew of bad guys all ran to the life boats and rowed back to shore, leaving Max and his buddies plenty of time to leisurely pull the ship out of dock. He also snuck a boat out of Greece by buying the Coast Guard a case of Ouzo on Greek Easter and sailing out right under their noses. More recently, he's hired a team of ex-Special Forces operatives to help him extract ships from Somali pirates armed with assault rifles and RPGs, but by this point it was about as routine as filing a TPS report.

During his adventures, Hardberger has been chased by pirates, shot at by Mafia bosses, accosted by Coast Guard officials, and pursued by god-knows-who-else. He once eluded...INTERPOL agents by grinding the ship's name and serial number of its hull mid-transit and painting a fake new name over top of it. In the Dominican Republic he was being pursued by a...naval cruiser, but even a...warship couldn't slow this moustachioed madman down – during his recon, Hardberger had noticed that the Dominican navy was using outdated radar gear, so he sailed his ship right into the middle of a horrible thunderstorm because he knew it would [mess]with their detection equipment.
Hardberger has written a book or two about his adventures; I can certainly recommend Seized: A Sea Captain's Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World's Most Troubled Waters, as it is a ripping yarn and great fun.  The chapter on how he "stole" 47 airplanes across Soviet airspace and got them to Venezuela is alone worth reading.

Hardberger is still recovering illicitly seized ships and still collecting remarkable fees for so doing.  Just as importantly, he still serves as the subject of some wonderful tales that can be heard in port and marina bars from Key West to Puerto Aventuras.