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IAmA ship captain/author/lawyer/pilot named Max Hardberger. I steal ships back from pirates. Ask me anything!

Oct 5th 2014 by MaxHardberger • 27 Questions • 501 Points

Hello, reddit! After making the front page of TIL the other day, there were many who requested that I do an AMA, so here I am! If you want to know a bit about me, here is a short bio:

Max Hardberger received his MFA in Fiction and Poetry from the University of Iowa before working a series of odd jobs including: English teacher, crop-duster, newspaper reporter, private investigator, and oilfield "Mud Engineer" in Guatemala during the Guatemalan Civil War. He currently works as a maritime lawyer, novelist, and vessel repossession specialist. In other words, he steals ships back that have been corruptly seized and hidden in seedy ports around the world and then returns them to their rightful owners. Max has been featured in interviews, articles, and book reviews by The Guardian, BBC News, Fox News, Men's Journal, NPR, and the Los Angeles Times. He has also had two separate television specials air about his exploits on The Learning Channel and American Heroes Channel.

Proof

If you are interested in reading more of my exploits, please download a kindle copy of my book, Seized.

OK, everybody, let's shut it down for tonight. I'll check in tomorrow morning. Thanks for the great questions.

Q:

Stealing ships from pirates sounds very dangerous, where do I apply?

A:

If you have sea experience--preferably as an officer--please send your resume to the proper link at our website, www.vesselextractions.com.


Q:

Although I am not an "officer" my great grandfather is Poseidon, he'll vouch for me.

A:

Send me your great grandfather.


Q:

I have a USCG issued 100-ton near coastal master and 200-ton mate with an AB unlimited. Need any help?

A:

Pirates are a significant problem and everyone who buys imported goods pays the price because the shipping industry has to add the cost of piracty to the cost of transporting goods by sea.


Q:

You need to reply to the comment, not create a new top-level comment. I think this comment was in reply to this one

A:

Thanks--this is my first reddit experience and I just figured that out.


Q:

What's the largest ship you've recovered?

Do you have to work with a big crew, or can you go on your own to reclaim a vessel?

A:

The largest ship I've recovered was about 40,000 tons deadweight (about 700' long). I usually use the minimum crew necessary. . .for a big ship, that would be about 10 men.


Q:

How did this trickery happen?

A:

I had a tv crew with me, so I told the crew that I wanted them to get off on a tugboat (that I'd hired for the purpose) alongside so the camera crew could shoot them coming onboard. The camera crew had been onboard since we left Manzanillo, DR. the night before, so the crew didn't see anything unusual in that. But as soon as they got on the tugboat--which was nosed up against the port side of the ship--the captain backed off and headed for the beach. I had my crew waiting in a speedboat, and within five minutes my crew was in control of the ship. I already had tickets home for all of the old crew and the agent ready to take them to the airport.


Q:

How exactly does one take back a ship? I don't think you can just walk in there and take it. Do the pirates ever put up a fight? Or do you use your awesome stealth skills to sneak on and take it back?

A:

Of course the guards would put up a fight if they knew what I'm up to, but so far I've been able to get the guards and crews off with stealth, trickery or, in the last resort, bribery. But of course you can't just walk up and take it. . .not when somebody has invested a lot of money into bribing a judge to seize it.


Q:

I've sailed with engineers that were with him. He was an idiot that was too close and didn't take proper precautions. I refuse to watch that movie because I know it's BS.

A:

Yes, I do the dirty work; or at least I and my crew do the dirty work. We don't use SEALs for the usual repossession because I have a rule against using force against guards and crew unless they're part of the conspiracy to steal the ship from my client.


Q:

How much of a problem are Pirates, really?

A:

The problem of pirates shifts continually, but never goes away. The Indian Ocean is relatively quiet now, but piracy is a growing problem on the West Coast of Africa.


Q:

How well organised are the pirates?

Is there much competition in your line of work?

I assume speed is of the essence when swiping a ship, how long does it take to get 40k tonnes on the move and how do people not spot it?

A:

As for the Somali pirates--and I know some Somalis who are probably at least part-time pirates, they're not well-organzed at all. It is a small-time cottage industry requiring relatively small investment: a couple of skiffs with outboard motors (Yamaha, of course. . .at four times the cost in other countries), some weapons (very expensive in Somalia at $2000 for a Makarov and $1000 for an old AK, and $3/round for 7.62x39), and some gasoline. Once you seize the ship, you can sell it to a pirate investor who'll put the diallo onboard and cover the rest of the expenses. But they rarely work together, so an entire pirate band could be as few as a dozen men.

Very little competition in this business.

It takes about 30 minutes to get oil pressure up on a ship's main engine, which can be a long time under dicey circumstances. The ship will need another 15-30 minutes to get up to sea speed (depending on the size of the ship) once she clears the harbor. Keeping people from spotting the ship on the move can involve the dark of night, wet weather, timing the extraction for holiday nights (a favorite tactic of mine), and making the necessary arrangements for steaming out openly as if with a clearance to depart.


Q:

Wow were those weapon prices just what they would charge you, or what is a common price around there? I can't believe there would even be a local market at those prices, an old AK and several thousand rounds would be less than $1000 in the US.

I remember reading there are places in South America where you can shoot a cow with an RPG for $1300. Breaking down the price it was $100 for a box of AK ammo, $200 for the RPG, and $1000 for the cow.

A:

Shooting a cow with an RPG sounds like nasty business! The reason firearm and ammo prices are so high in Somalia is due to the longstanding embargo. I had a CZ and 9mm ammo for it was $10/round. Those are the common prices! On the other hand, I once got a chance to shoot 4 rounds from an Zu 23mm AA gun--just shooting into the empty desert--that only cost me $25 /round.


Q:

Who sends you on these missions to recover stolen vessels? Private companies?

Do you get requests for help from governments with lost ships, or have you ever worked with a military operation to recover a vessel?

A:

About half of our clients are mortgagees whose loans are in default, just like the credit companies that hire car repossessors. The other half are shipowners whose ships have been seized by corrupt governments. We've never worked for governments. Although vessel recovery from pirates is quasi-military, it is not a military (i.e., government) operation per se.


Q:

Your short bio mentioned that you steal back ships from "seedy ports" around the world , could you give an example of one ?

A:

Probably the seediest is Port-au-Prince, Haiti.


Q:

It seems like a big ship takes time to steal, so how do you buy enough time to get away?

A:

It depends on how far it is to international water. It's best to start as soon after dark as possible so it'll still be dark when you reach international waters even with the inevitable delays. I once hired some Haitian "flying squad" men to control a situation on the dock and buy me enough time to get the ship out. . .one was (and is) a friend of mine. His squad goes into slums like Citie Soleil in Port-au-Prince and drags out criminals. We didn't have any trouble with the locals on that job!


Q:

Can you detail the events of one? What was the dock situation? Do you need tugboat assistance? Why after dark, seems like they would know as soon as it leaves port

A:

It depends on the layout of the port, but I like to steal 'em out during the dark of the moon and, if possible, on an overcast night. A rainstorm is the best, of course. Also, like other businesses, things at a foreign port get looser at night--fewer checks, fewer busybodies around, etc.--so that's usually the best time unless my "suitable pretext" (an old private investigator term) covers a daylight extraction. As for tugboats, sometimes you need them, sometimes you don't. If you don't need it, a tugboat would just attract more attention.


Q:

What is your proudest work related and non work related achievement?

Also my family friend is a staffing consultant for those with silly amounts of money. How heavily protected do you recommend his clients boats be? I'm talking yachts for billionaires. He previously mentioned a client that didnt want protection on her yacht and I thought that seemed silly. Thoughts?

A:

Work-related? I suppose stealing out the PATRIC M because the owner was a friend of mine and I was happy to save his ship for him. Non-work-related? I don't know. . .I don't have many non-work-related activities. I guess being the father of two wonderful children.

As for yacht protection, it depends on the yacht's trading area. In US waters the vessel need little or no protection. In the waters off the north coast of South America, it needs more protection than it's likely to have onboard. Remember that in the modern world you can't clear into most countries with firearms onboard. Some will hold them for you until you clear out, some with refuse you entry, and some will arrest everyone onboard and take your boat. So unless you plan to cruise around without entering any foreign national waters, you really can't have much protection onboard. There are some non-firearm-related measures--I mention some of them in my book SEA BITCH--but they're not much use against a heavily armed pirate skiff. The only real answer is to stay away from pirate or bandit infested waters.


Q:

Hey, Max. Hope all is well. Are you still playing music?

A:

Hey, Mike! What's up? Yes, still banging away. . .my Ddrum set was stolen while I was in Somalia so I have a Mapex set now. I'll give you a call next time I'm headed for Jackson Town.


Q:

Do you have exit plans in place in case things go wrong?

A:

Good question. Always. Sometimes they're more aspirational than practical, but at least they're something. I always make plans in advance to get out of the country without the government knowing it if I can't get the ship out and our plans are discovered. Most of these countries have a few jungle border crossings that aren't hooked to the country's computer system like the immigration desks at the international airports, so I check out ways to get to one in a hurry if I have to. One time I left Venezuela by the ferry to Trinidad because I was afraid I'd been betrayed and I didn't dare try to fly out of Caracas. If I'm on an island I want to have enough money on me at all times to hire somebody with a boat to take me to the nearest foreign country where I can go straight to the US embassy.


Q:

How do you go about finding these border crossings?

A:

Easy. . .get a map of the country (or go on google earth) and look for small border villages. Almost all are going to have a crossing.


Q:

Do you regret majoring in fiction and poetry? I plan to major in English(emphasis on creative writing), but my family wants me to major in something more useful, as they put it. A lot of this has to do with my switch from wanting to be a veterinarian to a writer(I realized veterinary medicine wasn't for me). Thanks.

A:

Well, to be honest, I was having too much fun in Iowa City during those heady days of the early 70's to worry too much about writing, which is something I'd been doing from pubescence and continued doing regardless of the degree. But I am certain that creative writing is a science like any other--I've taught it as a science--and a good writers' workshop could be valuable. But I wouldn't do it as a career choice without a day job backup.


Q:

Are you, by chance, a fan of any of Clive Cussler's work? Based just of your bio you seem to be the closest thing to a real-life Dirk Pitt as we'll ever get.

A:

I'm sorry to report that although I like the subject matter of Cussler's work (and that of the people who are now writing the Cussler novels), I haven't been able to get past what I consider a turgid writing style. I am, however, a big fan of C. S. Forester.


Q:

Spending a lot of your time on the sea and ocean, have you ever witnessed UFO's in the sky or has your compass ever started spinning due to a magnetic field?

A:

You see a lot of very strange things out at sea, some of them without obvious explanation, but I haven't ever seen something that I didn't think had an earthly explanation. I've had compass anomalies in aircraft but I don't remember ever experiencing one in a ship.


Q:

Who is the most Jack Bauer-like dude in the game?

A:

There aren't many of us, and I can't name the others or they wouldn't like it. I do have one British friend--actually a character in SEIZED whom I call Barry Butler--who's my hero in this business. He's the only man I know who holds both an Unlimited Master's ticket and an Unlimited Horsepower Chief Engineer's ticket.


Q:

Holy shit. Has that guy just lived on ships since he was a kid or something? I'd love to be on his crew just for the learning opportunity.

A:

This is highly specialized work and I only use men with sea experience.


Q:

Aaaargh, this here AMA would shiver me timbers if you answered all questions posed in pirate prose.

What say you, matey?

A:

Ha! I've never tried that. I really don't think of myself as a pirate, regardless of what the book promoters write. But if the alternative is keelhauling, well. . .


Q:

Do you spare time with your family?

A:

I wasn't able to for most of my life. . .gone on flying jobs, or working on oil rigs in Central America, or working on ships. I once calculated that during my 23-year marriage, I was home for Christmas about 10 times. Now my law practice keeps me in the office at least some of the time, and extraction work is short-notice and short-duration (usually), so I get to relax occasionally. As much as I want, anyway!


Q:

do u liek to gamble?

A:

Nope.