Has somebody stolen your yacht? Here’s a swashbuckler who’ll get her back for you.
When Capt. Max Hardberger’s plane touched down at the nearly deserted Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, his old friend (and Haitian fixer) Ronald was waiting for him outside. Ronald was all smiles, in spite of the fact that Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Haiti was in the midst of a very violent coup d’état. Some parts of the country remained under Aristide’s control. Other parts were controlled by a variety of armed gangs, right-wing paramilitaries, rebels, and, according to reports Hardberger had heard, criminals freed from jails and penitentiaries by police fleeing for their lives. A rough-looking taxi driver standing next to Ronald opened the rear door of his cab.
“Please,” he said, motioning toward the back seat.
Hardberger’s immediate objective was simple—quickly get to a little, hole-in-the-wall port called Miragoane, some 50 miles west. Once there, he had to do some fast reconnoitering. Exactly how and precisely where was the 400-foot ship Maya Express tied up? Were her engines operable? Were there guards on board? And how about the crew—were they on board as well? And were they perhaps disgruntled? Unpaid? Unfed? Could they be turned into allies?
None of these questions were of particular importance to Hardberger’s employer, of course. The big-time Boston investment firm that had recently paid him an altogether whopping retainer simply wanted its ship removed from Miragoane and sailed to the Bahamas where a mortgagee’s rights—and an owner’s debts—could be legally dealt with. But things were seldom simple in Hardberger’s world: a motley collection of small, sleazy, poverty-stricken ports that encircled the Caribbean Sea like a string of iniquitous beads.
Miragoane, for example, was often considered a veritable den of thieves. Remote and essentially lawless, Hardberger knew it as a place that conveniently served the purposes of a shadowy host of modern-day pirates who hide ships and yachts from mortgage holders, or perhaps commandeer and sell them off to complicit third parties after radically unrealistic charges and fines are assessed and enforced by equally complicit judges and police agencies.
And the Maya Express was a perfect fit for Miragoane. Her problems had started with the death of her Greek owner, an event that promptly put an end to any payments on her $3.3 million mortgage, nixed wages, food, and travel-home money for her Russian crew, and pretty much voided all other pertinent financials. Then the crew, virtually marooned, had decided to steal the ship (with some prompting from an unscrupulous Colombian charterer) and abscond from a berth in Rio Haina, Dominican Republic, with no clearance and no reported destination. Indeed, Hardberger had been able to track her down in Miragoane thanks only to a finely tuned network of informants, friends, and associates he’d built up over the years while working in the seafaring trade, or more specifically, the “Vessel Extraction” business.
Gunshots and Burning Tires
Port-au-Prince seemed eerily empty as the cab sped through its streets, circumventing barricades of rocks and debris, burning tires, overturned vehicles, and small groups of seemingly distraught people. On the edge of Carrefour, a vast slum on the western edge of the old capital, a road block of sorts materialized and traffic stopped. In the front seat of the cab, Ronald and the driver waited nervously as they peered ahead at a long line of automobiles. Traveling anywhere in Haiti at the present time was dangerous. Some factions supported Aristide, some didn’t. Both factions tended to be armed to the teeth and might shoot first and ask questions later.
Gunshots rang out. Wild-eyed, the driver turned to look over his shoulder for an escape route as Ronald began yelling in French. More shots rang out, clouds of black smoke plumed, and people began running past the cab, obviously terrified by something that was happening up ahead. The driver wheeled his cab over a curb and into the oncoming lane, eventually got the cab turned around, and then sped back toward the heart of the city as fast as he could go.
Ronald specified a drop-off at the bus station where he and Hardberger could hire another cab with a cooler, less skittish driver. Soon the two of them were back in Carrefour, in a Mitsubishi Montero with blacked-out windows, using side streets to circumvent the roadblock that had previously stopped them. Their ticket to ride had cost them well over double the going rate.
“It is not good for them to see a white man in the car,” Ronald yelled at Hardberger, somewhere west of Carrefour, pointing at a large crowd armed with sticks. “Get down! Get down!”
A Shady Judicial Auction
Hardberger took a room at the Mirabeau Hotel in DeRousseau, a little town just outside of Miragoane. The Maya Express, he soon discovered, was tied up stern-to at the old Reynolds Aluminum facility where, in years gone by, locally mined bauxite was loaded for transport from a long pier with a T-head. Two anchor chains stretched from the ship’s bow into the green waters of the Baie de Miragoane and two hawsers attached her stern to the dock. There were only two guards on board—Dominicans, selling what fuel remained in the ship’s tanks, black-market style. The Russian crew had abandoned the vessel months before, going home via the good graces of the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York, a charitable organization that aids penurious seafarers in distress. The powerplant, electronics, electrical system—all of it was inoperable.
Hardberger figured he had two serious issues to deal with. First, the director of the port lived on the bay, with the ship in plain view, and would no doubt be alarmed if he noticed any nocturnal abnormalities, like the immense bluish glare that would result from cutting two anchor chains with an oxy-acetylene torch at or around midnight. Moreover, according to what he was hearing on the waterfront, the director also had a cellphone—the one and only phone in town—and would have no problem using it to call for help.
The second issue was perhaps more problematic. At the behest of a shady character living in Port-au-Prince, the Maya Express had been arrested and seized for auction by a tin-roofed court in Anse-a-Veau, a town even smaller and more remote than Miragoane. She was to be sold within three day’s time, thereby nixing all prior claims to ownership by the investment firm in Boston, and presumably allowing the shady character in Port-au-Prince to buy her for a song.
So something had to be done quickly. After considering his options, Hardberger used his Satphone to dial up an adventurous acquaintance in the Dominican Republic. He explained his situation and soon had an oxy-acetylene-torch-equipped oceangoing tugboat on the way. The tug would arrive in Miragoane on the following evening, cut the anchor chains, and shackle up for a surreptitious tow. Then hopefully, with the guards lured off the ship somehow, the port director prevented from yelling bloody murder somehow, and the hawsers cut at the last minute, the Maya Express would head for international waters, the shady guy and his shady tin-roofed judicial auction be damned.
A Voodoo Witch Doctor?
Ronald had a very creative fix for the port director problem. As luck would have it, cellphone coverage was severely limited in Miragoane—because of the surrounding mountains, the only place the director could get his phone to work was the soccer field up the hill from the Reynolds facility.
“I have an idea,” said Ronald. “You remember the old man we hired on the Erika to keep thieves off the ship?”
The Erika, a freighter under Hardberger’s command, had called many times at Miragoane in years past. And after a spate of thefts, he’d hired an old houngan—or voodoo witch doctor—to put a spell on the vessel by sprinkling a particular kind of powder on her decks. The ruse had worked like gangbusters and thieves had stayed away. Was the old man still alive? Could he cast a very public spell on the soccer field in the very near future and thereby prevent the port director from daring to use his phone there? Ronald went to find out.
In the meantime, Hardberger strolled down to the ship to talk to the Dominican guards. After introducing himself as an American tugboat owner, he told them he’d heard they were selling fuel on the cheap and he was in the market for many hundreds of gallons.
“Where is the money,” one guard asked. Hardberger said he’d return with dinero americano that evening.
A plan of sorts took shape. At midnight, Ronald would lure the two guards ashore to get the money for their black-market fuel by telling them the American tugboat guy was uncomfortable venturing aboard at night. Friends and relatives of Ronald’s, armed with semi-automatic pistols and MAC-10 submachine guns, would then detain the guards while the ship was freed and shackled up to the tug’s towline. And while all this was going on, the witch doctor’s powder-associated spell would prevent the port director, should he be startled awake by the blue flash of the cutting torch, from venturing to the soccer field to call for help.
So Long For Now, Haiti
The entire operation came very close to descending into disaster once the hawsers and anchor chains were cut. Although the immense blue flashes from the cutting torch did not alert the port director to Hardberger’s machinations and Ronald’s friends and relations had no trouble detaining the Dominican guards, an unfavorable wind caught the ship once she’d been freed and threatened to push her aground.
This was an exceptionally dangerous development for Hardberger. He was well known in town and indeed in Haiti as a vessel-extraction specialist. If he were caught trying to steal a ship in direct violation of the little country’s judicial edicts, or in any way found associated with such a nefarious project, it could mean jail time. Lots of it. And trying to get out of the country, with the authorities in hot pursuit, would be just about impossible.
Hardberger had decided to use the wheelhouse of a bought-off Russian ship anchored in Baie de Miragoane as a covert command center. From her wheelhouse, he now studied the movements of the tug through binoculars as she struggled to gain control of her charge. The scene was not an encouraging one—the ship continued to move slowly off toward the shallows under the influence of the wind. Hardberger’s options were diminishing fast. If the ship actually went aground, the tug would have to cut her loose and speedily depart. Ronald would have to free the guards. And someone would soon sound the alarm. Should he dive over the side into the bay? And swim to shore and find a place to hide until things cooled down?
Lady Luck—or perhaps Hardberger’s special mojo—answered the question. A wicked blast of smoke from the stack of the tug announced she’d finally gained control of the ship. The Maya Express began moving away from the shallows and toward the opening in the reef. And her speed began picking up. Hardberger watched as she disappeared into the moonlit sheen to the north, bound for the Bahamas where an owner’s representative was waiting to take legal possession. With considerable relief, he soon went quietly ashore in a rough-hewn skiff and then, after a fast cab ride east, caught a flight back to the United States later that day.
Max Hardberger is a ship’s captain, admiralty lawyer, aviator, vessel-extraction specialist, and author. He earned a captain’s license in 1986 after serving as a deckhand and then mate on board offshore oilfield vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. The son of a biology professor and a grammar-school teacher, he graduated from New Orleans University in the late ’60s and then attended the famous Writer’s Workshop at Iowa University, ultimately receiving a master’s degree in fine arts and poetry. In addition to a variety of employments at sea, Max has worked as a crop duster and high-school teacher. For a copy of his book Seized, from which my story of the Maya Express was extracted (pun intended), go to www.amazon.com.