Max Hardberger, savior to ship owners and modern-day shipping "pirate." (Haiti getaway pictured)
The majority of non-business travel is for one special thing, “Vacation.”
The word within the word vacation is "vacate" ("4. an act or an instance of vacating," Merriam-Webster), so by extension looking at it as a vacate-tion makes a very clear statement (in a convoluted sort of way).
To the newbie vacationer, the daydream vacation is imaged in a beer commercial, on a beach, water lapping at your toes in anticipation of a wondrous sunset. To others it's a camping trip in the forest, etc.
After many beer-commercial vacations (or maybe not so many), extracting all that this daydream is worth eventually becomes spent and boring. To the diligent vacate-tion-er, this is an all-too-familiar pattern that the proverbial two-week per annum time slot becomes. Beer on the beach becomes a cruise ship margarita with the constant companions of hangovers and intestinal distress.
Progression into the "purpose-led" vacate-tion is usually explored (when the aspirin and imodium-D run out). Possibly a volunteering vacate-tion sponsored by an altruistic organization promising a feel-good takeaway from efforts to advance some special project.
Then, finally, the very unsatisfying staycation is experienced. The two weeks becomes the re-banking of sleep deficits from the other 50 weeks.
What to do, what to do? Moving beyond these disappointments, next is to elevate the risk to an adventure. That is, to do the challenging or dangerous or seemingly dangerous. But it eventually fades to a purposeless, petty conquest spent to boredom... that was first escaped when the beer commercial sunburn had peeled.
Enter the purposeful and risky vacate-tion! Many opportunities are here and can be had in any of the previous venues. The difference is this: involvement in the real world of your destination, with all of its challenging preparations and issues.
I can think of no one who has taken this beyond our imagination of the possible better than a man called Max Hardberger. For he is the current champion of the brief but intensely exciting pursuit of the risky vacate-tion!
What did he do, you ask? He went to Haiti and repo'd a 700-foot Freighter.
A Man of Action
Captain Max Hardberger is defined by his actions. The most noteworthy action of his life (so far) occurred when he repossessed a 700-foot freighter from Haiti in the still and darkness of the night... with the local authorities in pursuit. It was a quasi-legal repossession of an illegally confiscated vessel.
Modern Haiti – and most of the Caribbean – is rife with corrupt officials who are smart enough to avoid any schism with the tourist industry and concentrate on other areas like the shipping industry. Judges and magistrates who issue rulings of customs violations and crimes from mud huts for a bribe. It's reminiscent of the 1700s Golden Age of Piracy, except the piracy happens in port.
In 2004, when America was embracing reggae music, affordable sailing vessels and pleasure cruises, Max Hardberger was a practicing lawyer of maritime law and a licensed freighter captain dealing with the sinners and saints of the Caribbean shipping world. Many of his friends in those ports would give the shirt off their backs to help Max despite living an impoverished existence.
He knew their folkways and mores and was respected for his generosity and openness by those he employed. It was this savvy insight into their culture that preceded his boldness to take those steps his conscience compelled him to take.
As a ship captain, Max had served on ships seized for fraudulent claims in outlaw ports, and as an international maritime salvage-master and "fixer," he often gets calls from distressed shipowners and insurers looking for help in unusual circumstances.
"A lot of times," he says, "they have no one else to turn to. Their ships have been seized in corrupt countries, like Venezuela and Mexico, so they can't appeal to a higher court. For them, I'm the court of last resort."
Max is quick to point out that he's acting in the public interest as well on behalf of his clients. "Shipowners and insurers can''t absorb these kinds of losses – one ship and its cargo can be worth fifty million dollars – so they have to build the risk into freight rates. These are, of course, ultimately paid by the consumer."
This repo was a little more than meets the eye. The ship, Maya Express, was entangled with a $3.3M mortgage that had gone into default by a Greek shipping company since the owner died.
To complicate matters, the ship was used to transport 235 cars from the Eastern Seaboard to the Haitian port of Miragoâne and the businessman didn't pay the charter fee. This businessman took the opportunity to avail himself of the local courts with bribery to seize the vessel and sell it back to him through a cleverly rigged auction, as court records show.
With an entrepreneurial penchant to meet such a challenge, Max proposed to repossess the ship and bring it to the Bahamas where the rule of admiralty law prevailed. The client had had enough. They commissioned the high seas adventure, much like the "privateers" of the Golden Age of Piracy. The repercussions of Max's actions were evaluated, and even with the jurisdictions at issue, the practice of corrupt confiscations was reticent to the light of day in international maritime courts.
The challenge was undertaken quickly. Max had a willing crew from the local area at a moment's notice. He planned the repo with several elaborations, for the devil was truly in the details.
First, the armed guards were selling the ship's fuel to all takers and Max stepped up as a buyer. As he led them to the docks, his friends, who were Haitian riot police, subdued and held them.
Next, because the only cell phone service to be had was on a nearby soccer field, Max paid $100 to a local witch doctor for a spell and voodoo symbols to be placed on that field. No Haitian made a call that night.
A tugboat was waiting on an all-clear signal just outside the harbor.
The local patrols were distracted by Max's contribution of rum and hookers and were occupied most of that full moon night.
Once all of the tumblers clicked into place, the tugboat was called into play. The tug backed up to the vessel and secured its lines while Max's crew torch-cut the anchor chain. (A tugboat was required since the ship had sat for several months in the Miragoâne port and the engines were not serviceable.)
Success was in sight as the evening progressed when another tugboat approached to relieve the first. Hardberger's crew checked with the towing company, however, and the second tugboat proved to be false. They called the Bahamian coast guard and the second tug was arrested for attempted piracy. Max reported that the second tugboat was sent by the confiscation mastermind after he learned that the boat had been repossessed.
A Bahamian court upheld the repossession and ordered the vessel to be sold to pay the mortgage on the boat.
Max is a man who has worn many hats in his life. A pilot, who used to transport the "guests of honor" for funeral homes to their final resting place, an English teacher at a Louisiana high school, an author of several published books, a filmmaker, a stuntman, and an attorney and a businessman.
Ironic as it may seem, he now owns most of the port that was the place of this adventure, just one of a dozen-plus Caribbean extractions. His adventures are under consideration for a motion picture, and Max says that he wants Daniel Craig to play himself.
In his early 60's Max is far from being retired. He is currently arranging for a vessel extraction... in Somalia.
More info on his exploits and publications: MaxHardberger.com and vesselextractions.com.