Freighter Captain - Max Hardberger Hardberger has quite a background. With a Master’s from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he has been a ship captain, “newspaper reporter, English and history teacher, crop duster, private investigator, maritime lawyer, flight instructor, ship surveyor, commercial aircraft pilot, sailing instructor, insurance adjuster, vessel repossession specialist, filmmaker, oilfield mud engineer, stuntman, ship breaker and even a drummer in a blues band.” That would seem to provide lots of material for stories.

Billed as fiction, this book clearly is based on fact, and Hardberger was, in fact, captain of the M/V Ericka in 1988. Hired as port captain, the ship had just arrived from Europe with obvious cracks in the hull and an extraordinary amount of rust. The ship’s new owner hires him to replace the onboard captain who spends most of his waking hours dead-drunk. The owner got a great deal.

The way Hardberger deals with welders, Coast Guard, charterers, stevedores, Haitian rebels and crew is remarkable in its guile, perspicacity, and knowledge of sea contracts. There’s a great scene where the Haitian agent, who has arranged to smuggle a car into Haiti, has the vehicle lowered on to a small lighter in heavy seas on the top of poles so stevedores could carry the car on the poles off the boat on to the beach past any officials. Hardberger warns them that in the prevailing seas it wouldn't work, and sure enough, at the first wave the boat rolled and off went the car.

His first charter with a load of rice to Haiti is revealing in the lawless, wild-west nature of the country where everything is for sale, government is non-existent and risks are high. Trying to make his way over the mountains to get money for the rice to the ship’s owner, he stuffs much of it into his shorts when they are stopped by a road blockade. It’s touch-and-go whether he’ll be killed by a mob when a stevedore he had given a mattress to (that’s a whole different story) saves the day.

Life becomes a battle of the “cons,” with Hardberger using the letter of the law when it suits him, a gun when necessary, burning piles of rugs and a canoe to make a point, and shoving thousands of dollars in his shorts as a last resort.

His battle with the Coast Guard over his use of a camper toilet while in port is classic. Sect. 159.7, subpart © says, “After January 30, 1980, no person may operate any existing vessel equipped with installed toilet facilities unless it is equipped with an operable Type I, II, or III device.” Well, the ship’s sanitary system was broken and would cost thousands to fix, money the owner did not have, so Hardberger goes to the nearest camping store and buys an MSD Type III toilet device for his crew to use in port. The Coast Guard in Mobile says fine; the CG in Miami says no way. However, the Lieutenant and Hardberger work out a solution that’s just marvelous but totally stupid and both know it. It required dismantling the sanitary system and sailing with a camper portapotty. Marvelous in its ridiculous stupidity.

It’s probably the most authentic portrayal of life at sea in the unknown underbelly of the tramp freighter world that most of us know little about. Agents, owners, seamen, stevedores, whores, surveyors, captains, Coast Guard, scavengers, and many others each doing his own battle with the world to stave off bankruptcy or poverty.