Pirate hunter guns for Somali raiders


Verified Military
Sep 7, 2006

Max Hardberger, a maritime repo man who recovers stolen ships from lawless
Caribbean ports, has set his sights on the notorious Somali pirates

By Richard Grant
9:00AM BST 22 Jul 2011
'I don’t know why I like Haiti so much,’ Max Hardberger says, as we battle and swerve through the choking
dust and chaos of Port-au-Prince traffic.
'The Haitian people are wonderful, sure, but sometimes they do bad things, especially when they get in
mobs, and the country is obviously frustrating. One thing I do like is that it’s lawless here, which makes it
much easier for me to operate.’
Hardberger is a 62-year-old adventurer from Louisiana who specialises in stealing back ships that have
been fraudulently seized in corrupt ports, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean.
He describes himself as a 'vessel repossession specialist’, a kind of maritime repo man who ghosts into
tropical hellhole ports, outwits the guards and authorities, and ghosts out again with a 5,000- or 10,000-ton cargo ship, usually under cover of darkness and preferably during a heavy rainstorm.
A Hollywood film about his escapades is planned, with The Good Pirate as a working title, and there’s
undoubtedly an element of piracy to what he does.
Whether it’s good or not depends on your perspective. For his clients he is a godsend, well worth the
$100,000-plus that he charges to retrieve a ship. To foreign port authorities, judges, coastguards, naval
commanders and government officials, he is a flagrant and notorious law-breaker, and if they ever manage
to catch him at it, he can expect a long sentence in a vile prison.
People usually expect Max Hardberger to be an ex-military type, bristling with weapons and menace, and
tough as a two-dollar steak, but he’s a jovial, white-bearded, avuncular figure of medium height and modest
build, a former sea captain with no military background.
One senses an indomitable will, a steely determination, a very keen intelligence, but nothing threatening or dangerous. The most striking thing about him is the relentless current of energy that courses through him.
He talks fast, laughs often, moves quickly, never takes a day off, never goes on holiday, and always has
about nine projects going at once with another 12 in the works.
Hardberger repossesses aeroplanes as well as ships. He works as a maritime lawyer, a ship surveyor, an
insurance adjuster, a pilot and flight instructor, a stuntman for films and television, a blues drummer in New
Orleans bars, and a scattershot business entrepreneur. He has also written three books; the latest is a
hard-boiled memoir called Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Pirates & Recovering Stolen Ships
in the World’s Most Troubled Waters.
As a red-blooded son of the American South, Hardberger is comfortable with guns and the idea of using
them in self-defence, to defend another’s life, or to avoid the shame of running away, but he goes unarmed
on his 'vessel extractions’, as he calls them, and his main weapons are stealth, guile and trickery.
'Probably the worst thing I ever did was have someone tell a guard that his mother was dying,’ he says. 'I’d
done my research and I knew he was an only son, and that his mother was seriously unwell, so I had
somebody run up to him and tell him his mother was in the hospital, and to get there right away if he wanted
to see her alive. Just as I expected, he took straight off, and five minutes later we were out of port with the
Deep, throaty, booming laughter comes from the driver, a middle-aged Haitian called Ronald Joanuel who is
an old friend of Hardberger’s and his fixer-in-chief on the island. They have worked together on several ship
extractions, partnered on various business schemes, and the depth of their friendship is indicated by the fact
that Ronald’s eldest son, now in law school, is named Hardberger Joanuel.
As a teenager, Joanuel used to fetch cold beers in the early morning for John Wayne, who was a frequent
tourist to Haiti in those days, and who paid for Joanuel’s university education in gratitude for those beers
before the bars opened.
Observing Joanuel’s skill and nerve at the wheel as he slams through the potholes and earthquake fissures,
dodging the brightly painted tap-tap buses, swerving to avoid a maniacal taxi, and then detouring through a
filthy teeming slum, still strewn with rubble a year after the earthquake, Max Hardberger confesses that
driving in Haiti makes him feel nauseous and traumatised, and he won’t do it any more.
Wait a minute, I say. You’ll go into the roughest, shadiest ports on earth and steal a ship away from armed
guards or rebel soldiers. You fall off buildings as a stuntman. You’ve nearly died how many times doing crazy
things in aeroplanes?
'At least half a dozen times,’ he says. 'And the thought of driving a car in Haiti makes me feel ill. Not logical, I
know, but true.’
Then we reach the sanctuary of the Oloffson Hotel, a crumbling 19th-century gothic mansion with gingerbread trim, where Graham Greene stayed while he wrote The Comedians, his novel about the Papa
Doc Duvalier years in Haiti, and where the waiters greet Hardberger like an old friend. We take coffee on the
veranda, looking out over tropical fruit trees and sculptures of voodoo gods, as Hardberger outlines some of
the scams that bedevil the shipping trade at these latitudes.
'Typically, a ship will come into port to discharge its cargo, and some pirate in a business suit will bribe a
local judge to get the ship seized,’ he says. 'They’ll use some pretext. They’ll say the ship has damaged the
dock, or spoilt its cargo, or broken some other law. Now the owner has to pay a fortune in fines to get his
ship back – usually the entire value of the ship – or they’ll stage a crooked judicial auction and sell it off
cheap to the pirate in the business suit. That’s the most common one and it’s happening dozens of times a
month around the Caribbean and Latin America. Venezuela is the absolute worst.’
The desperate ship owner may then decide to call Hardberger, or more precisely his company Vessel
Extractions, LLC, based in New Orleans. 'The first phase is for me to get my expenses and go into the port
to do my research. I either keep a very low profile, or I hire the youngest prostitute I can find and pretend to
be a drunken old American ship captain who has gone native with a teenage girlfriend. There’s one in every
port so people see me in that role and they don’t look past it, and I can look around and ask questions
without attracting attention.’
Prostitutes, in fact, are a key resource for Hardberger. 'I don’t consort with them and I’m one of the few
seamen I know who never has,’ he says. 'But I’ll send them on board to gather information, or entice the
guards away from the ship. I’ll give them a bottle of rum that I’ve mixed with crushed-up sleeping pills and
tell them to start pouring drinks. It goes without saying that most prostitutes are excellent actresses, and I’ve
found them extremely useful.’
Sometimes he judges it too risky and dangerous to do an extraction, and the job ends there. More
commonly, he finds out that there’s no need for an extraction, because the ship can be released with a
well-placed bribe. This is slightly awkward ground for Hardberger, because he is also a practising maritime lawyer and bound by the rules of his bar association.
'They wouldn’t be too happy if I admitted to bribing foreign officials,’ he says. 'That’s against the law in the
United States, even though almost no one ever gets put in jail or prosecuted for it. But I’ll give you an
example of how things sometimes work. I was sitting in Ecuador with a lawyer, the judge’s representative
came into the office and he said flat-out, “$100,000 and the ship sails. No less.” And the lawyer, who
belonged to the P&I [Protection and Indemnity] Club in London… well, let’s just say the ship sailed, and I
didn’t bribe the judge.’
Only when all other avenues have been exhausted will Hardberger take on the risk and danger of an
extraction. People often assume he’s an adrenaline junkie who steals ships for the rush, but this, he says, is
a misunderstanding. If he wants an adrenaline rush, he gets on his motorcycle, or looks for stunt work that
involves a high fall. But when it comes to ship extractions, he likes them to generate as little adrenaline as possible.
The last one he did, in Punta Fijo, Venezuela, last year, was a case in point. The seized ship was being kept
out at anchor, and through binoculars he saw that the guards came into shore twice a day to change shifts.
While they were changing shifts at midnight, Hardberger and a small crew went out to the ship in a fishing
boat, climbed on board, started up the engines, and made it to the safe zone of international waters, 12
miles from shore, with no pursuit from the coastguards or the navy.
'I wish they could all be that straightforward, but usually it’s just not possible,’ he says. 'Or unexpected things
happen, and the next thing you know your heart is pounding like crazy and you’re getting visions of 10 years
in a Venezuelan prison. What I’ve observed in myself is that I don’t panic or freeze up when everything goes
wrong. Once I was flying a single-engine plane over the Mexican jungle, and the engine caught fire, and
even then, I logically examined one possibility after another, and managed to land that plane. Then I leapt
out and ran and yelled, “Not yet, by God, not yet!”’
After a lunch of club sandwiches and beer, we all get back in the vehicle and head down the coast towards
the port of Miragoâne, Joanuel’s home town and the setting for the most audacious and nerve-rattling
extraction of Hardberger’s career. The year was 2004, Haiti was erupting in armed rebellion, and the ship
was the 10,000-ton, 10-storey high Maya Express. It had been stolen from the Dominican Republic by an
American who brought it to Miragoâne
and bribed a village judge to sell it to him at auction. 'I was sent there by the ship’s mortgage company
because there was nothing else they could do,’ Hardberger says. 'Once a ship has gone through a judicial
sale, the new owner is legitimate. In a place like Miragoâne you can seize a $2 million ship by giving $2,000
to a justice of the peace who lives in a hut, has no legal training and can barely read or write.’
To spring the Maya Express, Hardberger first had to get through all the bandits and blockades on the road to
Miragoâne. Then he hired a local houngan, or witch doctor. Hardberger wanted to observe the ship
undetected and in privacy, so he got the houngan to sprinkle powders and bones around the perimeter of his
observation area, in full view of the local populace, and after that no one would come near the place.
Then he went on board the ship posing as an inspector for a prospective buyer, and tricked the guards off
the ship by promising them a cash payment on the shore. Seeing the state of the engine room, he arranged
for a tugboat to come and tow the ship out to international waters, but that night, as the tugboat crew were
cutting through the anchor chains, the flare of their torches lit up the entire bay and rebellious Haitians came
running down from the hills to see what was happening, and formed a volatile mob on the dock.
Hardberger and Joanuel found two off-duty police officers with automatic weapons and paid them to keep
the mob under control, and to prevent anyone leaving the area and telling the on-duty police what was happening.

Finally the tug crew finished cutting the chains and started towing, but they inadvertently swung the Maya
Express towards some rocks, and it looked certain that she was going to run aground. Hardberger had his
leg over the rail, ready to jump, swim to shore and take his chances as a lone white man on foot in the midst
of a Haitian uprising, but the ship swung away from the rocks at the last moment.
At that instant, Max Hardberger, a staunch atheist, put his head down and, for want of a better phrase, said,
'Thank God.’
It takes us nearly four hours to drive the 40 miles to Miragoâne. Whenever the possibility of overtaking
occurs, the southbound traffic fully occupies both lanes of the road, and the northbound traffic does the
same thing, so great intractable jams form, further aggravated by the frequent accidents and road repair
Street vendors work the jams, holding up live chickens and fighting roosters by their feet, pirated DVDs,
bottles of water in buckets of ice. The air conditioning is broken in Joanuel’s rented SUV and the sweat rolls
down our faces in the fierce afternoon heat. I guzzle down two litres of water on the journey, and Hardberger
touches not a drop. He belongs to the old school that regards water as a very poor substitute for beer or
Coke, and tries to avoid drinking it altogether.
Nor does he relax at any point on the journey. His agile, restless, fertile mind is constantly plotting and
planning, observing and analysing, flashing back to past adventures and leaping forwards to new projects
and schemes.
Tomorrow he has meetings with government officials about setting up a Haitian ship registry and flag of
convenience. In Miragoâne he’s trying to establish a regional airport and the island’s first flight school, a
manufacturing plant for concrete and ammunition, a shipbreaking yard, a shipwreck salvage operation and a business to export dead coral rocks for decorative use in American aquariums, and he also wants to buy a
certain secluded cove that he spied on Google Earth, and build himself a small house there.
Hardberger has made a lot of money in his long and varied career but most of it, he admits, has been cycled
into other projects, not all of them successful. He has amassed a great wealth of stories, experiences,
memories and insights into the world, but little in the way of capital or material goods. His wife divorced him
because he was gone most of the time and she had to bring up their two children by herself. 'I don’t blame
her a bit,’ he says. He bought out her share of their house outside New Orleans and then, a year later,
Hurricane Katrina destroyed the house and all his possessions, including a treasured 7,000-volume library.
Now he lives by himself on a 33ft sailboat in a bayou off Lake Pontchartrain, and he’s still gone most of the
'When I was a boy, my great passion was reading nautical adventure books, like the CS Forester
Hornblower series, and I always dreamt about running away to sea, or becoming a pilot and flying planes,’ he says.

After university he got a job as a deckhand on a boat that delivered drilling fluid to offshore oil rigs, and
worked his way up until he got his captain’s licence. Then he got his pilot’s licence. Then he became a
drilling fluid engineer, working mostly in Latin America, and in between jobs he flew cropduster planes,
transported corpses to mortuaries, and taught English and history at a Louisiana high school.
In 1986 he was hired as the captain of the Erika, an old freighter with a patched-up crack in its hull, a
mutinous crew, a crooked charterer and a slippery owner. The ship was being chartered to deliver rice and
other goods to Haiti, and Miragoâne was its main port of call.
'Repossessing ships is easy compared to being a freighter captain in the Caribbean,’ Hardberger says.
'Everyone is constantly trying to scam and swindle you, and you move from one emergency to the next. The
owner won’t pay the crew. The charterer is making up lies so he won’t have to pay the owner. As soon as
you come into port, you get swarmed by officials wanting bribes, whores and thieves trying to get on board.
The chandlers are trying to sell you food that is spoilt. The stevedores will steal anything that isn’t nailed
down. It really is relentless.’
The Erika was never seized, but during the two years he spent as her captain Hardberger learnt the layouts
of the ports, the various scams and swindles, whom to pay off and how to get things done, and all this
knowledge served him well when he started repossessing ships.
He did his first extraction in 1991. He was working as a port captain in Miami, arranging the loading and
unloading of cargo ships, and one of his company’s vessels, the Patric M, was seized by a crooked judge in
Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. The company’s financial officer sent Hardberger there with $140,000 in cash.
Having paid off the guard and the pilot who controlled ship traffic in the port, Hardberger sneaked on board
with a skeleton crew, cut the dock lines, had a nightmarish time getting the engine started, but made it to
international waters and opened a bottle of whiskey in celebration.

A new line of work had presented itself, and in 2002 Hardberger formalised it by founding Vessel Extractions
in partnership with one of his former high school English students. He thinks it’s the only maritime
repossession service in the world.
On the edge of Miragoâne now, we drive through a grimy, thriving street market and then down into the old
French colonial port. Resting in the shallows of the harbour are the rusting hulls of old ships that have been
scrapped down to the waterline, and Joanuel says there are at least a dozen shipwrecks in the deeper
water. Hardberger has bought a secondhand underwater camera off the internet to investigate these wrecks
for salvage possibilities, but the camera turns out to have some technical problems and that particular
scheme gets put on hold.
He inspects a piece of land he owns adjacent to the port where he envisions his shipbreaking operation and
manufacturing plant, and then goes to the airstrip he cleared a few years ago in preparation for his airport
and flight school. Now it’s covered in scrub and grazing goats, but no matter. If money can be found, it will
be cleared again, and there may be support for the project from the incoming defence minister. Then we
drive out to the cove, which surpasses all his expectations and fills him with delight.
'Oh man, this is it! Je suis enchanté and Ronald says it’s mine if I give 50 bucks to the mayor. I’ll get in a
pump dredge to make a channel for my sailboat and throw some more sand up on the beach. I’ll put my
house right there, blade a road in, bring in solar and a satellite dish. Maybe I’ll get a catamaran and why not
build out of these dead coral rocks. Aren’t these awesome? Ronald, we’ve got to start harvesting these
rocks. Americans will go crazy to have them in their aquariums. It’s like picking up money.’
It is hard to know how many of Hardberger’s Haitian schemes will come to fruition, because he is
simultaneously taking on the biggest and most dangerous challenge of his entire career. Having
repossessed 20 ships and six aeroplanes, outwitted con artists and swindlers from Jamaica to Guatemala,
narrowly escaped thugs in Athens and the Russian mafia on an ill-fated trip to Vladivostok, Max Hardberger
has now vowed to take on the biggest menace facing international shipping: the pirates of Somalia.
As we drink our beers in Miragoâne, 35 ships and 650 hostages are being held on the Somali coast. The
average ransom paid is $2.5 million and some shipowners have paid £6 and £7 million ransoms, with the
predictable result of encouraging yet more piracy, with faster pirate skiffs and ever-improving weaponry. The
international response of sending patrol craft into the vastness of the Indian Ocean has not worked, and for
Hardberger all this is an outrage that he can’t ignore.
'It infuriates me that the world’s civilised nations won’t put a stop to it, because for some reason they’re
afraid to. It’s crazy. It’s too easy to stop them.’
He has set up a company called Shiprotek that supplies armed, well-trained, American security teams to ride
on ships and defend them against pirates, but he is finding that shipowners would rather pay $30,000 for
kidnap and ransom insurance. Despite having dropped his price to $35,000, he has yet to find his first client, although recently he has had increased interest. Now, in partnership with an ex-Marine Corps sniper named
Todd Garrett, he has put together a team of 12 combat veterans and former Swat team members, and is
offering to storm ships that have been seized by pirates and take them back.
'My guys are all good old boys from south Louisiana, and not only that, they’re all Cajuns. We’re raring to go
and those khat-chewing thugs have no chance against us. We’ll be doing aircraft surveillance. We’ll have
access to satellite imagery. We’ll conduct on-the-water reconnaissance in small, unlit, inflatable boats on the
nights leading up to the extraction. We’ll have plans of the ship from the owner and we will have rehearsed
our operation 50 times.’
The cost of one of these armed extractions will be in excess of $100,000, and Hardberger believes it is a
reasonable alternative to paying ransoms and ever-escalating insurance premiums, and the only way to
actually stop the piracy in the long term. 'The answer to this is for the warlord to turn on his television, because they do have televisions, and see the dead bodies of his pirates floating in the ocean, his skiff gone
and his investment wasted. A warlord won’t last long if he puts $100,000 into a pirate skiff and it doesn’t
come back.’
Hardberger, ultimately, is a moralist with very firm notions of right and wrong, and the idea of being a
righteous avenger sits very well with him. In the past his opponents during extractions have been underpaid
guards, and the idea of using violence against them has been morally repugnant to him, so he has always
gone unarmed. All that changes with Somali pirates, and he fully intends to take up an automatic weapon
and join his team when, and if, they do their first armed extraction in the Indian Ocean.
'The first two guys on board will have silenced weapons and, unfortunately for the sentries, we can’t offer
any chance to surrender, because they will raise the alarm. Except for them, I will do everything possible to
avoid loss of life. Once we’ve gained control of the vessel, everyone else can get off, and I’ll even give them
the ship’s lifeboat to go to shore. I’ve got no interest in taking prisoners, or getting involved in the
ramifications of arresting these people. It only makes extra difficulties for the shipowners.’
Sitting there in the insect-humming Haitian night, speaking with tightly marshalled facts and barely contained
excitement, he outlines his full strategy for storming a ship of pirates. It will take an unusual shipowner to
give Hardberger the green light, and it may never happen, but the strategy is brilliantly conceived and
thoroughly Hardbergerian, relying on bluff, deceit and trickery.
'If you create an illusion of something that people expect to see, they won’t look past it,’ he says, and
extracts a promise that I won’t reveal his best tricks in advance.


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Verified Military
Sep 7, 2006
How much of a thrill would it be to steal a bloody freighter away from pirates!? :D

I hope he's hiring! 8-)