Max Hardberger is an adventurer in every sense of the world. Pilot, ship captain, teacher, legal counselor and author, his most exciting job involves stealing ships and aircraft back from pirates and criminals.
Becoming a licensed pilot at the age of 16 in 1964, he then taught himself sailing and ocean navigation while earning his English BA at the University of New Orleans. After stints working as an English teacher and a newspaper reporter he earned his Master’s degree at the famous University of Iowa ‘Writer’s Workshop’ in 1972. Max went on to work as a deckhand on oil supply vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, and earned his captain’s license. He later earned his commercial, instrument and multi-engine aircraft ratings and worked as a pilot delivering aircraft, towing banners, and taking aerial photographs.
In the 1980’s, Max’s adventurous streak began to show itself further. He worked the oilfields of Guatemala the midst of a civil war, delivered airplanes to central America, did nightly check-runs for banks, delivered corpses for mortuaries, and dusted crops. However, concerned about the effects the chemicals—including a type of Agent Orange—were having on his body, he decided to quit cropdusting and go to sea as a ship captain.
It was in the 1990’s, whilst working with Morgan Price & Company that Max discovered a unique talent – stealing ships back from criminals and pirates. Venezuelan gangsters had acquired a bogus court order allowing them to seize control of Max’s ship, the Patric M. By the time his company had fought through the corrupt bureaucracy to clear the matter up, the ship could be long gone, sold at auction (an irreversible transaction according to international maritime law) or damaged beyond repair by being used to carry salt. When a judge ruled that they were allowed to begin using the ship themselves, Max took matters into his own hands, dangerously sneaking the ship out of port under cover of darkness. After word spread of the incident, other shipowners facing similar frauds started contacting Max for help.
Max went on to establish Vessel Extractions, LLC, taking back vessels illegitimately held overseas, and tracking down vessels and aircraft that have been stolen. In 2004, during the Haitian Revolution, they extracted a ship and delivered it to the Bahamas, and they’ve pulled off jobs in the Caribbean, Russia and throughout South America, always through nonviolent means. Bribery, dangerous cons, getting the criminals drunk, using witch doctors and prostitutes as a distraction, hiding from radar in a thunderstorm – it’s all in a days work for Max and his team.
Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters by Max Hardberger is available now.
Q. Your career trajectory seems highly unusual for a man with your education. What has motivated your career path?
A. Desperation, mainly, plus the fact that I’m easily bored.
Q. You claim to have never failed. What do you owe your success to?
A. Actually, the truth is that I’ve never failed once I commenced an extraction operation. There’ve been a number of times when, at some point in the process, I decided that the job was too dangerous or just couldn’t be done, and had to turn the job down. However, so far, once I’ve delivered my crew to the ship, or the tugboat I’ve hired has hooked onto the ship, we’ve always gotten her out. This is self-evident, of course: if I’d failed—i.e., gotten caught—I wouldn’t be here today. The average life span of a gringo in a Latin American prison is about six months.
Q. Who has inspired you, as an adventurer and as a writer?
A. My primary inspirations as an adventurer—although I’m not sure that’s an accurate description of me—were Richard Halliburton, the iconic adventurer of the ‘30’s; he was the first man to fly across the Sahara Desert, the first man to climb Mt. Fujiyama in the wintertime, and the first man to swim the Panama Canal lengthwise (he insisted on paying the 30-cent tonnage fee!). He disappeared while sailing a Chinese junk across the Pacific.
As a writer, my influences are many, chiefly C. S. Forester (the Hornblower novels), Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald, as well as the better-known writers James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.
Q. How do you go about planning an extraction?
First, I vet my client to make sure he’s legitimate. Then I go to the port where the ship is detained and make a surreptitious reconnaissance, including gleaning intelligence from prostitutes, bartenders, agents, and dock hangers-on about the ship’s condition and the situation onboard. Usually I’ll take a chief engineer onto the ship, if we plan to steal her out under her own power, to determine the condition of the engine room and the amount of fuel onboard. This can either be done surreptitiously or under a ruse; for example, pretending we’re surveyors or buyers. Once my plans are in place, I’ll trick (or bribe) the guards or crew into getting off the ship and bring my crew in, or have a tugboat arrive in the middle of the night. Once we get possession of the ship, the only thing that matters is getting to international waters (12 miles offshore) before dawn.
Q. Do you ever get scared?
A. I have been scared many, many times, in airplanes, on boats, on motorcycles, skydiving, and SCUBA diving, as well as on extraction jobs. Only a madman or a fool wouldn’t be scared in those circumstances. The only difference between a brave man and a coward is that the brave man can think and act in spite of his fear, and a coward is unmanned by it.
Q. What has been your greatest challenge?
A. Getting a law degree and becoming a lawyer.
Q. How important is the right team?
A. Critically important. The chief engineer on my team is its most important member; he has the ability to get us out safely or get us arrested and imprisoned. I only hire seamen; I have no use for paramilitary types who don’t have sea experience. Every man I take on an extraction job is personally known to me, and some of them were my crewmen in long-ago years, so I can feel relatively certain that they won’t panic, run, or betray the operation either inadvertently or for money.
Q. Can you see yourself retiring anytime soon?
A. No, not any time soon. As long as there’re bad guys out there stealing ships and innocent shipowners and mortgagees being victimized, and as long as I’m physically capable of running or swimming away from a crisis, I’ll keep doing it.
Q. What do you hope to achieve in the future?
A. I hope to be able to do something about the Somali pirates. Michael Bono, my partner in Vessel Extractions LLC, and I have just formed a division called ShiProtek that offers armed riding crews for vessels sailing in harm’s way, and I hope that we can help to deter these murderous thugs from raiding the sea lanes. If I live to see the world’s legitimate nations gain control of the waters now infested by pirates, I’ll be a happy man.
Q. How do you hope Pelime could help in this?
A. I hope that Pelime can facilitate collaboration between my company, Vessel Extractions, LLC, and others who are engaged in the fight against piracy.