Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book review: SEIZED, by Capt. Max Hardberger

When I was asked to write a review for Max Hardberger’s Memoir, “Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures,” I was both excited and flattered to be picked to receive an advance copy. In retrospect, based on what little I know about marketing, I believe that I was a clever choice. Ships’ libraries are in decline, but the lending and passing of good reading material while at sea is still widely practiced. Rarely have I ended a voyage with the same books I started with, and, among the mariners I call my friends, Capt. Hardberger’s works have been universally well-received.

If you’ve read Hardberger’s books “Freighter Captain” or ‘Deadweight: Owning The Ocean Freighter,” you know that Captain Hardberger doesn’t easily back down in the face of opposition. A writer-turned-mariner, Capt. Hardberger is a man who has built his career in the labyrinthine and often startlingly corrupt world of merchant shipping. In “Seized,” fans and new readers finally get an inside look at Hardberger’s eyebrow-raising and sometimes exceedingly dangerous business as a professional ship extractor, a sort of re-repo man who returns illegally-seized ships to their owners under cover of darkness, from ugly, lawless places in the developing world.

Hardberger’s early books hinted at his well-developed sense or right and wrong coupled with a propensity for retrieving stolen property, even when the thief was, say, the trigger-happy government of a Caribbean nation. An expert on shipping matters (the author is also a shipping agent, maritime lawyer and port developer for hire), especially in places like Haiti and other ungoverned busy ports where rule of law either exists only in theory or not at all, a lifetime of experience in international trade has allowed Hardberger to carve out a niche as a ‘fixer’, a man with the personal network to get things done.

The first time I ever stole a ship out of port was on the sturdy old bulk carrier Naruda, lying at anchor in Cap Haitien Bay, Haiti, at the end of 1987. (Click here to read an extended excerpt from Chapter 1)

”Seized” is written matter-of-factly, in a manner which non-mariners can easily understand, but the author also introduces the language of merchant seamen, so that by the middle of the book, even the most lubberly of readers can hear and understand the Caribbean patois and salty language used by mariners the world over. In the process, even master mariners learn just how frequent and extensive corruption, bribery and illegal actions exist as part and parcel of the regular course of merchant shipping. It’s a dirty world out there, and Capt. Hardberger tells it like it is, from his own experiences as a ships’ captain, but also as a man who must use the tools at hand to get the job done. Whether it’s hiring hookers to distract security guards, or hiring out an entire brothel to create an impromptu block party to cover up the noise of starting up and sailing a ship out of port without anyone noticing, or dealing with port officials that must be bribed in a bidding war with other parties simply to load or unload cargo, or befriending a witch doctor and underwriting the costs of a voodoo ceremony to keep port officials away from the one place they can make phone calls, Max displays the mental agility that keeps him in business in places where prison or a back-alley execution are only a phone call away.

The events described in ‘Seized’ focus quite frequently on the people who make up Hardberger’s extensive network of personal contacts in the shipping trade. His warm descriptions of the friends and associates involved in these affairs only allude to the depth of friendships and alliances- the loss at sea of a friend whose career was jumpstarted by Capt. Max is only mentioned briefly, but the terrible personal impact of the loss is not lost to the reader; Hardberger’s understated style of writing is part of what makes this book a gem. And no surprise, perhaps; coming late to the maritime world as a career, his experiences as a crop duster and high school English teacher are mentioned only briefly. The story of how a geeky kid from the Bayou ends up in grad school in Iowa, then in the middle of Guatemala during a revolution could be another book in itself- this book is about living and working in the dirty corners of the world where maritime business is mostly conducted, and how Hardberger has managed to free up ships illegally seized in foreign ports where possession is the only rule of ownership.

“Seized” contains episodic stories from the author’s long career, and these stories span the globe, taking place mostly in the places where fortunes can still be made and lost by those looking for fast money- the developing world, the Eastern Bloc, and the chopshops where stolen ships are given new identities, or where shipowners with troubled histories or high debts can sell their ships back to themselves miraculously free of encumbrance.

The stories told in this book are too crazy to be anything but true- The memoirs of Hardberger’s early maritime career, (when restoring stolen ships to their owners was a hobby rather than a career) seem to display the basis for Capt. Max’s philosophy of working a dozen projects at any one time, but focusing on just the job at hand. Although “Seized” is billed as Max Hardberger’s memoirs, the ending hasn’t been written yet.

If you're like me and don't want to drive around an unfamiliar seaport, you can order the book from right here.


Joan of Argghh! said...

Nice review. Nice blog, dammit!

Brian C/E Severn said...

Awesome Book!! Cant wait to get Max's other books.