On Board With: Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger finds stolen ships for a living.

On Board With: Max Hardberger
On Board With: Max HardbergerMax Hardberger

Every year, thieves get away with stealing tens of thousands of vessels worldwide. If you want yours back, the go-to guy has been Max Hardberger of Vehicle Extractions LLC. He’s been recovering ships and boats since 1987. Here’s what he has to share.

How did you get into the business?
I was a ship captain. Thieves tried to snatch a ship from underneath me a couple of times. I didn't want to see it happen to owners and crews, so I decided to take the thieves out. The word got around.

Let's say someone stole my rowboat. Would you take the case?
Most of the vessels we've recovered have been cargo vessels and cruise ships. We're not cheap. Ninety percent of the time when we get a call, we're able to resolve the situation in ways other than sneaking in during the night.

Can it be dangerous?
Quite a few times the extraction is extensive. The most dangerous extraction was the Maya Express in Haiti in the 2004 revolution. My problem was I couldn't use any violence against the guards on board — it's not their fault they were hired by the bad guy. In the past, I've been able to bribe them off or trick them off. These guys were selling fuel off the ship to all comers. That night when I came with the tugboat, my fixer said, "There's this guy who wants to buy the fuel on the dock," so they left the ship and I snuck aboard. I'm still a nice guy, so I gave them $300 each.

How many folks does it take to pull off an extraction?
Normally, it's a skeleton crew of six or seven people. A couple of times I took a full crew aboard because we were going to cruise a distance. One time I took 12 people to sneak a ship out of Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico. The tanker had run over a wooden fishing boat at night. One of the survivors testified they were drifting without lights. It was an opportunity for the Mexican government to get a ship for free, but they didn't get it.

Where is the best place for the boat-repo business?
I only work in foreign countries without a functional judicial system. One time I had a client whose ship had been seized, and I realized the lawyer who had seized the ship had the same last name as the judge. In the countries where there's no law, people have to turn to somebody like me.