Seized: A Sea Captain's Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World's Most Troubled Waters - Max Hardberger The Erika was not the first ship Hardberger had stolen (actually retrieved) from under the noses of the authorities. The Patric M had been interned in Venezuela by the receiver for shortage of cargo. There are four entities involved in ship traffic: the owner, the charterer (who charters the ship to carry a cargo), the shipper and the receiver (the actual intended entity for the cargo.) Anyone of these four can screw over the crew, or each other. A common practice was for the receiver to claim he had been shorted in cargo and have the local government (often no government at all in places such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and then seize the ship “against debts,” sell it, and split the money as bribes with officials. The crew was caught in the middle, the owner having no incentive to pay the crew if he thought the ship would be seized.

Hardberger, risking years in a Venezuelan jail, used stealth, bribes, whiskey, whatever was necessary to get the ship out of the harbor into international waters. In the case of the Patric M, the Venezuelans declared the ship had been stolen by pirates which meant any vessel could go after it and it wasn’t welcome in any port -- at least as the Patric M Hardberger anchored in a remote bay and forged ships papers to reflect a new name and then helped the owner to sell the new ship back to himself. It meant changing the name on all the “build” papers, those that like owner’s manuals came when the ship was new. They also had to build up a new weld to reflect the new name since ships have their names raise welded in certain areas.

One of my favorite stories was when Hardberger was hired to smuggle 50 East German crop-dusters to Venezuela. It was two weeks before reunification, the East German government had collapsed, but the Westies (former West Germans) had no authority yet. The planes had been sold to an entrepreneur who called Hardberger to see about shipping. If they weren’t out of the country by reunification they would become the property of the new German government. Hardberger flew over, arranged for FEU’s (forty-foot containers) for each plane, helped arrange bribes for the East German customs officials, and got the containers eventually on board a ship for Venezuela. They had to fly each plane to Rostock where is was quickly disassembled and loaded on to a container. Mechanics and pilots were unemployed so there was lots of labor. It reads like a spy novel.

On another occasion, Captain Max was hired to act as intermediary for a bunch of ships that a salvager in China wanted to buy to break down for scrap. The ships were located in Russia (this was just after the fall of the Soviet Union.) He hooked up with broker who hired Milos, a Bulgarian ex-patriot, to translate since Max could not speak Russian. Milos, it turns out had worked for the Bulgarian Secret Police, and, unlike Max, was not averse to dealing with the Russian mafia who made their presence known very quickly. After the owner of the ships was shot and killed and the hoodlums decided they would sell the ships, Max and his colleague decided to vacate the country as quickly as possible only Milos, clearly wanting to take over the deal, had stolen their visas. Annie, Max’s colleague, had a unique and very satisfactory way of getting back at Milos.

Not all his adventures involved stealing ships back for their rightful owners from the clutches of Haitian (and other) corrupt officials. After he earned his law degree (he study law via a correspondence course, much to the embarrassment of his wife, and passed the California bar exam on his first try,) he opened a maritime law practice where his unlimited tonnage master’s license and experience as a ship surveyor came in handy, not to mention his numerous friends and contacts all over the world. His method for getting payment for shippers from a corrupt ship charterer was priceless. The generally take-everything-on-trust-or-a-handshake method of doing business lends itself to a lot of corruption. Unfortunately, the crew, often the last to get paid by owners who run into financial difficulty, get screwed. Many are from very poor backgrounds, have little money, and if the owner goes bankrupt with no money to pay anyone, the crew can be marooned in a foreign port with no way to return home or survive. Some wind up living a hand-to-mouth existence on the hulks of rotting ships. There is an agency in New York that exists for the sole purpose of providing these seamen with the means to return home, but if they don;t know about them (and often they don’t) no help can be provided.

Lots of interesting and useful information such as how to tell the age of a European freighter. European shipbuilders, being a conservative lot, decided it wasn’t enough to just weld strakes to the strakes so they added additional layers of rivets, especially when later connecting the hull to the deck. So any ship having rivets and welding dated from before the mid-sixties when they finally gained enough confidence in welding alone. Essential knowledge if you are ever in the market for an old freighter. Rivets are strong but they wear out faster than the steel they hold together and eventually have to be re-riveted making them earlier candidates for the breaker. Or what is a MacGregor hatch and the advantages of wooden versus metal hatches, not to mention the different types of cranes. ("Union-purchase derricks are not the best system, but they have the advantage of simplicity. They are slightly faster than swinging derricks-cargo gear with a single boom that swings from over the cargo to over the dock-but they're slower than cranes. Today you will find no type of gear on ships except cranes, but they are complex and prone to mechanical problems" I love this kind of detail, and Hardberger makes it such an integral part of the exploits, it doesn’t even hint at dryness.

One of his great jobs was to travel all over Europe surveying ships and recommending them -- or not -- to purchasers. It required a great deal of knowledge about ships knowledge -- he bemoans Coast “90-day wonders” not having yet who can control whether a ship can leave port or not -- and got to see lots of European towns and villages. Very cool. Highly recommended to anyone with a passing nautical interest.