Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book review: "Seized" by Max Hardberger



While in Mombasa, Kenya, a few years ago, I noticed a decrepit coastal freighter moored at one end of the Kilindini port. Her open cargo deck was empty and there didn't seem to be any crew aboard. The only sign of activity on the freighter was an armed guard with a rifle in his lap who sat on the afterdeck, looking bored as he leafed through a magazine beneath an impromptu awning of bedsheets meant to ward off the midday sun. I was told the vessel had been seized a few weeks earlier by the authorities as a result of a dispute between her owners and a chartering company. After being impounded, the crew were sent home without being paid, the cargo disappeared one night and the ship had not been allowed to move an inch. A couple of locals said the whole situation smelled of greed and corruption. Though rusty, the vessel still had a few years left in her in the East African tramp trade, and was valued at a quarter million dollars to whomever could get the ship back in business. But until the dispute was resolved, the freighter wasn't going anywhere; she would remain under guard in Mombasa and nobody would make a dime from her.

This dark side of the shipping business is at the core of Max Hardberger's new book, "Seized: A Sea Captain's Adventures" (Broadway Books, 294 pages, $25.00). The Louisiana native has led a varied life, working as a high school teacher, crop duster, flight instructor, maritime lawyer and writer, as well as working his way up from deckhand to master mariner. But it's the years he has spent working to free vessels that have been seized by corrupt authorities in dodgy places around the world that forms the basis for this book. Sub-titled, "Battling scoundrels and pirates while recovering stolen ships in the world's most troubled waters", the book actually has nothing do with pirates like those who operate from Somalia, but everything with being a maritime repo man.

The start of the book pretty much lays it out when Hardberger writes, "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 May 1987." From there, he recounts many tales of what it takes to get vessels out from beneath the noses of some clearly dangerous characters. Traveling as far afield as Vladivostok and Port-au-Prince, Hardberger's particular expertise is called into action again and again in a series of daring-dos that read like fictional thrillers, but are true.

One of the strengths of Hardberger's book is his prose, which is lucid, entertaining and dramatic. His descriptions of the waterfronts of various seedy ports and the characters who inhabit them are vivid. "Seized" is replete with insider information that only a professional mariner would know, yet the author explains much in a manner that will keep landlubbers interested. And the stories recounted are varied enough that they never seem to get boring.

At one point Hardberger is hired to get a ship and her crew out of a Honduran port after the vessel was fraudulently seized. To do so, he comes up with a risky plan that entails him climbing aboard one night, taking over from its cowardly captain, rallying her crew to sail into a coming storm and coaxing two armed guards into a lifeboat along the way. And this all happens before its discovered that the freighter's hull has been breached by the storm action and they're sinking. Unable to return to Honduras - where Hardberger and the crew would be arrested - they must push on through force nine winds and heaving Caribbean seas while trying to find a way to seal the crack.

But not everything that Hardberger details involves freeing vessels. He's also been called upon to use his unique maritime knowledge to help move some special cargoes around, such as when a buyer needs 47 Czechoslovak-built crop dusting planes moved from East Germany to Venezuela. This happens just before the two Germanys reunited, when the situation in the communist east was in limbo. Taking advantage of this, a team of pilots that includes Hardberger himself ferries the planes to a North Sea port, packs them in shipping containers and gets them on their way.

It's clear that in many of the cases he describes, Hardberger and his accomplices are breaking local laws to get the job done. But it's doubtful anyone reading will lose any sleep about the locales involved, which normally are some dismal Third World harbor. And the author comes across as being thoughtful about the repercussions of what he's doing, trying to balance being law-abiding while dealing with law-abusers.

It's unfortunate that Hardberger has a bare minimun in the way of a forward and acknowledgments, because he must have worked with many people to get the book published. The role of the editor, for instance, is too often overlooked in helping to craft good books, and it would appear that Hardberger worked with a good one here. Also, the book lacks any maps, which could have helped with the many places Hardberger travels, and it's too bad there are no photos (however, you can see some interesting shots on his website, www.maxhardberger.com).

But the biggest oversight in this book is the lack of more information about the nefarious business of seizing ships. This obviously goes on in ports all over the globe, yet Hardberger never gives us any broader context, such as the costs to the shipping industry or global economies, an idea how many vessels are seized and freed every year, the worst places this goes on, or whether anything is being done to deal with things. Hardberger also rarely mentions anyone else who does the sort of work he does, but since this is his book about his adventures, I think it's safe to forgive him.

Though the book comes to something of an abrupt end - for reasons readers will probably understand - Hardberger's stories and his skills as a storyteller are such that he could have filled a book with twice as many tales of what it's like to be a maritime repo man. "Seized" is a well-written book of true-life adventure tales set in the underbelly of the shipping industry, a place that most people would prefer to avoid, unless you're Max Hardberger.

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