Recovering stolen ships from pirates in the world’s most troubled waters is big business, and Captain Max Hardberger is here to steer us through it.
What We Learn in Conversation with Captain Max Hardberger:
- Not all pirates are impoverished desperados with nothing to lose — the most vicious ones wear suits and hobnob with royalty.
- The surprising places where ships are illegitimately seized by the rich and powerful who know how to play the game.
- When ship owners can’t recover their seized property through legal channels in corrupt courts, they turn to people like Captain Max Hardberger.
- How Max determines if someone’s claim to a seized ship is valid, or if they’re trying to scam him into heisting somebody else’s property.
- The extreme “extraction” methods Max is prepared to employ when ships can’t be reclaimed by mere paperwork.
- And much more…
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Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale — a tale of a lucrative industry built on “reclaiming ships that have been illegitimately seized, either by a private party or, more often, by a government,” as our guest, Captain Max Hardberger, tells it.
On this episode, Max — author of Seized! A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Pirates and Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters — joins us to shine a light (like, as he says, “a full moon on a cloudless night in Haiti”) on the ups and downs he’s experienced over decades navigating the tricky maritime repossession circuit. Here, we discover that not all pirates are impoverished desperados with nothing to lose, the surprising places where ships are illegitimately seized by the rich and powerful who know how to play the game, why a ship owner who can’t recover their seized property through legal channels would turn to someone like Max, how Max determines if someone’s claim to a seized ship is valid, the extreme “extraction” methods Max is prepared to employ when ships can’t be reclaimed by mere paperwork, and much more. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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This Episode Is Sponsored By:
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Miss our conversation with Somali pirate hostage Michael Scott Moore? Catch up with episode 115: Michael Scott Moore | What It’s Really Like to Be a Pirate Hostage here!
Thanks, Captain Max Hardberger!
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters by Max Hardberger | Amazon
- Other Books by Max Hardberger | Amazon
- Max Hardberger | Website
- Max Hardberger | Facebook
- Max Hardberger | Wikipedia
- Max Hardberger | Badass of the Week
- Ian Urbina | Maritime Misdeeds on the Outlaw Ocean | Jordan Harbinger
- The World’s Largest Marine Liquidation Company | National Liquidators
- All Flags Are Not Alike | The Liberian Registry
- Flags of Convenience | ITF Global
- Matthew Campbell | Examining Global Shipping’s Grim Underbelly | Jordan Harbinger
- Commando Action Saves Ship | The Florida Shipper Magazine
- He’s His Own Port Authority | Los Angeles Times
- 2004 Haitian Coup D’état | Wikipedia
- Shipbreakers In Gadani Beach, Pakistan | YouTube
- Michael Scott Moore | What It’s Really Like to Be a Pirate Hostage | Jordan Harbinger
896: Captain Max Hardberger | The Man Who Steals Ships from Pirates
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: This episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show is brought to you by Nissan. Whether you want more adventure, more electric, more action, more guts, or more turbocharged excitement, Nissan is here to make sure you get it. Learn more at nissanusa.com.
[00:00:11] Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:14] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh, that was the time where there was only one cell phone in the entire town that worked. It was up on a soccer pitch on the top of a hill. So that's the time I hired a witch doctor to go and put a curse on that soccer field. So the port director who had the cell phone wouldn't go up there and call Port-au-Prince to report it. And in fact, my client, the mortgagee, loved to show his friends a line item in his bill, $100 for the services of one witch doctor.
[00:00:42] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life. Our mission is to help you become a better informed, more critical thinker through long-form conversations with a variety of amazing folks, from spies to CEOs, athletes, authors, thinkers, and performers, even the occasional drug trafficker, undercover agent, economic hitman, astronaut, or tech luminary.
[00:01:10] And if you're new to the show, or you're looking for a handy way to tell your friends about the show, I suggest our episode starter packs. These are collections of our favorite episodes on persuasion and negotiation, psychology and geopolitics, disinformation and cyber warfare, crime and cults, and more. To help new listeners get a taste of everything we do here on the show, just visit jordanharbinger.com/start or search for us in your Spotify app to get started.
[00:01:31] Today, we're talking to a high-seas repo man, literally a good pirate, well, figuratively I suppose, in some ways. He takes ships that are taken hostage in corrupt ports. His job is to essentially sneak onto seized ships, illegally seized ships, and get those ships back to their rightful owner. So he will quite literally sneak onto boats, in the middle of the night, and commandeer them while making sure that the local authorities are none the wiser. This is some pretty crazy stuff in countries where one would definitely not ever want to go to prison. I think you're going to love the fact that this job even exists. I mentioned this guy before on my episode with Ian Urbina. We talked about it, high-seas repo man. Well, this is the guy. So here we go with Captain Max Hardberger.
[00:02:21] So you repossess and or re steal ships for a living. Is the correct term really just repossessed or am I close enough with re-steal? Because it certainly sounds like that.
[00:02:31] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, I don't like to use the word steal.
[00:02:34] Jordan Harbinger: Of course.
[00:02:34] Captain Max Hardberger: In fact, we always work under the color of law. But the fact of the matter is that we are either repossessors on behalf of a mortgagee or we are reclaimers on behalf of some other party and normally would be the owner. So I guess it would be a repossession because the owner was in possession before his ship was seized. So we're repossessing the ship for the owner. In essence, we're repo men.
[00:02:59] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. This makes a lot of sense. Although I think a lot of folks are shocked that there are boat repo men. And they think that if there are, they're probably repoing fishing boats, not cargo ships and tankers. Is it cargo ships and tankers primarily that you go for you and your crew?
[00:03:14] Captain Max Hardberger: Yes, that's our specialty. We work with a company called National Liquidators who operate in the United States and they do repossess fishing boats and pleasure craft and so on. We do not operate in the United States.
[00:03:27] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:03:27] Captain Max Hardberger: So when they have a job outside the States, they come to us. When we have a job in the States, we go to them. Our specialty is reclaiming ships that have been illegitimately seized either by a private party or more often by a government.
[00:03:43] Jordan Harbinger: And you say you don't work in the United States, I assume because if you take my boat from me, I sue you and the law, which is functioning in this country for the most part, helps me get that ship back.
[00:03:54] Captain Max Hardberger: Precisely. In fact, we don't operate in any country. That has a functioning series of laws and a procedure in place for a legitimate owner to make a claim against an illegitimate seizure.
[00:04:06] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Interesting. Because, of course, countries that have no good rule of law often pretend they do. I mean, there's no place with clearer law than maybe North Korea, right, where everything is against the law, but there's no actual rule of law, right? It's all just sort of a function of the dictator of the state. I suppose you have a list of places where, okay, this is what we consider to be a place with rule of law and these are the places we work that we consider to not have any legitimate rule of law. How do you make that determination?
[00:04:33] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh, I don't go in there with any preconceived notion. Even Venezuela has laws. They're not followed, but they exist. Haiti has laws. Unfortunately, the Haitian lawyers have no concept of what the law is because there are no law books. But the fact of the matter is, the laws do exist somewhere. What I do when we are assigned a case is, I will look into the situation and in fact, I have to get on the ground. So that if there is a possibility of taking the ship out legally, that's what I prefer to do. Quite often I'll work with the correspondent, that's the insurance person, the lawyer in the local jurisdiction. I'll work with the port authorities. I would do almost anything to get the ship out. And including some things that I probably couldn't do here in the States without having to do a middle of the night extraction. That's a last resort.
[00:05:24] Jordan Harbinger: Of course. I would imagine calling you generally is the last resort for any company that decides they need to give you a call. It's probably a pretty bad day in the office, for them.
[00:05:36] Captain Max Hardberger: Nobody ever calls to say, look, everything's going great with my ship.
[00:05:41] Jordan Harbinger: So who steals the ship in the first place? Because a common misconception is that pirates are only the guys in some off the coast of Somalia who come up in a dow with an RPG and say, "We're getting on the boat and we're going to drive it back to wherever and hold it for ransom." Your pirates wear designer suits, probably.
[00:05:59] Captain Max Hardberger: I've dealt with Somali pirates as well, but they are not actually nearly as much a threat as are the quasi legitimate pirates who operate under what they like to call the color of law — venezuela, Haiti, Dominican Republic. In fact, there's some other countries where this operates as well that we would think are law abiding countries. Greece, for example. Greece is a very bad place to get your ship seized. And Greek law is very pliable when it comes to seizing ships. The Greeks have been doing this for 4,000 years and they know exactly how to do it.
[00:06:32] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I've heard that the Greek shipping industry is essentially, I could be talking out of school here, above the law, right? It's just, it's all of these same guys from the same small island villages. They all run the major shipping in and out of Greece and they have a lot of political capital and I think there's a lot of exemptions and a lot of tax exemptions and a lot of what they say goes kind of stuff and so despite Greece being in the EU it's with shipping it's almost a free for all in some ways or at least you have to follow what the magnates at the top decide you're going to do.
[00:07:03] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, it's not just the Greeks though, once you get beyond the 12-mile limit, you're in the open ocean and you're beyond the reach of any warship other than your own nation's warships. So when you consider that the greatest number of ships in the world are flagged by Liberia, Liberia has no navy. Liberia cannot inspect a single ship beyond their 12-mile limit. They may have some patrol boats, but the fact of the matter is that if a Liberian flagship does something wrong on the open ocean, no one has the authority to intercept it except the warships of Liberia.
[00:07:41] Of course, what happens is another warship, let's say a US. warship, will follow the vessel, they'll get the Liberian ambassador to give them permission, which Liberia does freely. But the point is that Panama and Liberia have very little interest in controlling their tonnage. They're only interested in getting the money for the tonnage. And after you've paid your dues and gotten your flag and gotten your certificates, you can pretty much do what you want.
[00:08:07] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, we did an episode on flags of convenience, episode 739, where we talk about why Liberia, which has no navy, and Panama, have most of the world's ships are flagged there. It's taxes, convenience, compliance, all kinds of reasons.
[00:08:22] These ships you end up repossessing, they go into a port to what, deliver cargo, and then they just can't leave? Is that how it works? It sounds like they roll in thinking everything's hunky dory, and then they can't leave.
[00:08:35] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, there are various reasons when common scenario is a shoreside pirate who has fraudulently made a claim against the ship and has gotten a judge. In fact, in Haiti, a justice of the peace in a little hut on the beach can actually seize a $10-million ship. So, you just have to go to a local authority, pay a little money, either some on top and some below the table. And then you get paperwork, which is called papering the ship, when you go on board and you slap a notice on the wheelhouse window. And papering the ship is the act of seizing the ship. Now, the owner, if it's that kind of situation, can try to fight it legally, but very often he will find that there is no fighting it in the local court. And that's when he comes to us.
[00:09:23] Jordan Harbinger: Okay, so these are corrupt port officials who are essentially in the business alongside a judge or whatever of saying, "Oh, this boat hit the dock and it caused damage and we're going to keep it because of our laws that allow us to do that." And then somebody says, "Wait a minute, that's my $15-million ship. What do you mean you're keeping it? I want it back." And they say, tough kishka, as my grandma would say, you're out of luck. And then that's when they call you.
[00:09:47] Captain Max Hardberger: Essentially. There are other scenarios as well, but that's a common one.
[00:09:51] Jordan Harbinger: When I was prepping, a lot of people were saying, "Oh, he steals the ship." You don't steal the ship. You simply bring the ship to a place that respects international law. That's it.
[00:09:59] Captain Max Hardberger: That's correct.
[00:09:59] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that sounds like a very useful service. And I know you're also an attorney, and so is your business partner. That makes a lot of sense, because I would imagine you have to do some diligence to make sure you're not just being set up by somebody who wants you to steal a ship for them in contradiction of international law.
[00:10:17] Captain Max Hardberger: That's why our billing is always two stage. The first stage is our investigation, which normally involves me going on the ground and finding out what is happening and why the ship has been seized. A number of times we have been approached by owners, perhaps sometimes Greek owners, who think that we can help them avoid paying a legitimate debt. Once we find that out, then that's the end of the job. If we decide that our client has a righteous claim to his own vessel, or a mortgagee to the vessel, then we will make a second tier, a second tranche, in which we receive a second payment and estimated expenses. And that's when we begin the actual operation.
[00:10:59] Jordan Harbinger: That makes sense. Right. So you want to make sure you get paid because if you find out it's not a legitimate job and you spent 40 hours flying somewhere to look at a dock that was supposedly hit and it was hit and they do owe the money. They're not going to pay you if you then suddenly ask for the money saying, "Hey, I'm not going to help you by the way, that'll be $14,000," right? So it makes sense. Get some of that money up front. It makes sense that some folks, anyway, are trying to hoodwink you into taking a ship that wasn't held by a valid claim. Some of these claims are probably quite expensive, right? I mean, you're looking at, what, damaged cargo, damage to the dock. What other reasons can somebody legitimately steal or seize a ship?
[00:11:36] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh, well, there are Chandler debts, fuel debts. A ship normally will encumber itself in almost every port it goes with repair costs. And of course, there's the pilotage, there's tug costs. There are various charges that the ship will have to pay before it leaves. Normally, those are not the problems, those costs are normally dealable, even if you're a pirate, you will pay that rather than have to deal with losing your ship.
[00:12:03] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:12:04] Captain Max Hardberger: Our situation is normally a very expensive cargo damage, or a dock damage, or in the case of, for example, one of our more famous operations was the motor vessel Patrick M out of Venezuela, in which the scam was a Peruvian crime family chartered our vessel with the express purpose of seizing it. They sent it to a port, that Puerto Cabello, where they already had the situation in hand and they had a Venezuelan subsidiary ready to paper the ship as soon as we arrived. What they did was, they refused to pay the freight to carry the cargo from Peru to Venezuela. Every ship has the right to refuse to open its hatches. If its freight has not been paid, that's international law.
[00:12:49] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:12:50] Captain Max Hardberger: The captain refused to open the hatch. The Venezuelan subsidiary then went to the court and said, "We have been harmed by the delay in opening the hatch, and we therefore want this ship." And of course, their harm in the 24-hour delay would have been very minor, but the ship was seized, and the ship was going to remain seized for months and months. And the owner of the ship, he named the ship after his father, Patrick M. Jim Maher was the owner. He came to Venezuela and he was distraught. The captain of the ship was so nervous and so beside himself that the captain refused to take it out. And although I was only port captain, I decided I wasn't going to let that happen either. So I sneaked on board and the crew was cooperative. They didn't want to stay there either. So we got the engine started and got out.
[00:13:36] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I want to get into some of the details of how that stuff happens. So these ships get stolen because they get seized for a reason, in your case, that's not legitimate, right? Some corrupt port decides, hey, we're going to steal this boat by refusing to pay for the cargo hatch, the cargo delivery. And then is the plan to use the boat? Is the plan to just sell the boat to somebody else and say, "Hey, we seized a $15-million boat. Here it is for $10-million. One million dollars in bribery across whoever needs to get bribed and it's a pretty decent business and margins could be pretty big on stealing something as expensive as a ship.
[00:14:11] Captain Max Hardberger: Some of these guys would run it themselves if they are experienced ship owners. But normally especially if the port is the one involved their interest is in selling the ship There is a ready market for ships and don't forget, once a ship goes through a judicial auction, all prior claims are wiped clean.
[00:14:28] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:14:29] Captain Max Hardberger: Even fraudulent actions have no bearing once the gavel comes down. That's why, with that vessel, the Maya Express, the auction was going to be on Thursday, and we didn't get the ship out until Tuesday, but we knew we had to do it. Even though Tuesday was a full moon, it was a terrible night for me, because you cannot imagine how bright it was, a full moon on a cloudless night in Haiti. But the thing about it was we couldn't wait. Once the gavel came down on Thursday, our client was completely out of luck. And the guy who planned to steal the ship would have the ship free and clear.
[00:15:04] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. So they don't even have to vanish the boat by changing the name and turning off the transponder and moving it around and hiding it. They can just say, oh, we legally auctioned this off. And yeah, this thing was stolen from somebody. Maybe we don't know. It doesn't matter. It's been auctioned. And now this person has good free and clear titles. So tough Kishka again, sorry, I got to stop using that. But like the ship is then free to use. That's a really good racket for a criminal. I've taken zero maritime law classes in law school. So I know absolutely nothing about this, but it makes sense. They would have to have that free and clear because. If this is 500 years ago or whatever, when they wrote this law, you don't know that some ship that's from Greece that's now in Antwerp has an action against it in Portugal. You just bought the ship from a guy. So you have to draw the line somewhere in an era with pretty much zero communication. And that was the most expeditious way to do it back then. And they haven't really decided to revamp this for reasons that perhaps make sense when you dig a little bit, but wow. So they really can just grab your stuff and auction it off and you can't do anything about it. That is just bananas. So you really are under pressure.
[00:16:13] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, I was that night.
[00:16:14] Jordan Harbinger: I do know, in normal law, you file a lawsuit against an individual or an entity. If you crash into my front gate, I sue you, you pay me, or the insurance company does. But in maritime law, correct me where I'm wrong here, your claim is against the ship itself. Correct?
[00:16:31] Captain Max Hardberger: Yes, that's correct. It's a unique feature of maritime law. It's an in rem claim as opposed to an in personam claim. And the ship itself is the defendant. So the pleading will read Allied Stevedores versus the MV Sevilla. And if no one defends the ship, then the ship obviously can't defend itself and it gives up.
[00:16:51] Jordan Harbinger: Right, okay. For the legal nerds like me, maybe just super early versions of international law. You can't sue somebody from Greece if you're in England in 1702 or whatever. It's hard to do it even now. So you just seize the ship to settle the debt. And the bandits that you are repossessing these boats from, they abuse that system deliberately because that's their business model.
[00:17:11] Captain Max Hardberger: That's correct. They have found a way to to legitimize a immoral action. And unfortunately, the realities of international shipping are such that it's not easy to change this regiment. So it's still that case today.
[00:17:27] Jordan Harbinger: Where is most of this type of work? You said Haiti earlier, where else?
[00:17:32] Captain Max Hardberger: Venezuela, Trinidad, Dominican Republic. Oh, I did one job out of Mexico, Africa, Greece. That's about it.
[00:17:42] Jordan Harbinger: Okay. Are there any places you won't or can't work? I mean, you mentioned places with functional rule of law. That's not really what I'm getting at. What about like Iran or China?
[00:17:51] Captain Max Hardberger: After having spent some months in Somalia, I'm not so worried about these other countries. In fact, they might be a little bit more conducive to pleasant living. So I don't have any preconceived rejections. I probably would not go to North Korea, but who knows? My business partner and I will listen to all approaches.
[00:18:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. North Korea might be a tough one just because of the logistics involved. And yeah, we've all seen what happens there. What about Cuba? Cuba is an interesting case, right? Because it's so close to the United States and yet that could be a complicated working environment.
[00:18:24] Captain Max Hardberger: Yes. I think if we did anything in Cuba, we would be working with the state department. We would not be doing anything in Cuba on our own individually. We've worked with the US government before in some politically sensitive matters. And one was involving a tanker off the Venezuelan coast. So we will investigate and we will charge for our investigation. And then, we'll see after that, whether we go on with the project, but. Obviously, North Korea, Cuba, probably Yemen, there are probably some other places where we would have to charge a lot of money.
[00:18:56] Jordan Harbinger: I suppose the pricing is dependent upon the value of the vessel and also just how likely things are to go belly up.
[00:19:04] Captain Max Hardberger: Exactly. We quite honestly factor that in. The risk involved is part of our calculus as to what it's going to take. Because there is a point at which we will turn the job down. In fact, there was a Venezuelan job, which would have been quite remunerative, but the chance of the crew getting killed by a Venezuelan helicopter Because the Venezuelans don't respect the 12-mile limit. So even though we had a plan to get the vessel out beyond the 12-mile limit before dawn, being towed would mean that at a four or five knot speed, within an hour or so, a Venezuelan helicopter could catch up with us in international water, and I could not guarantee to the crew that the Venezuelan helicopter would not shoot them out of the water.
[00:19:48] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my gosh. So the 12-mile limit is the line at which a coast becomes international water. It's 12 miles off. At that point, it sounds like you were worried that the military or coast guard, whatever of Venezuela would just come and sink the actual ship because it was being taken out and that being an international water, they just don't care about that.
[00:20:08] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah. That was my fear.
[00:20:09] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. Yeah, you did the right thing. I mean, people's lives are always going to be more valuable than a tanker, even if it isn't full of oil and worth a lot of money. At least that's where I fall on it. It sounds like you think similarly.
[00:20:20] Captain Max Hardberger: I do.
[00:20:21] Jordan Harbinger: Is it always corrupt ports where you go after ships? I'm wondering what happens if I buy a $10-million yacht in my dreams, I put the payment down and then I take it to my friend's uncle's port over in Granada or whatever, the Caribbean, Dominican Republic. And I say, this is my boat now. Right? I'm the captain now. And just never pay the rest of the mortgage or the loan on the boat. Am I going to get a visit from Max Hardberger and associates, or are you going to say, look, here's a couple of people that go after yachts. I'm after cargo and tankers only.
[00:20:50] Captain Max Hardberger: Our restriction is on acting outside of the United States and outside of countries with the rule of law.
[00:20:56] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:20:57] Captain Max Hardberger: We have repossessed ferries. The vessels are not that small because we are so expensive that the vessel has to bear the cost.
[00:21:04] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:21:05] Captain Max Hardberger: But we've been approached on various other projects, like for example, a submarine in Russia and so on.
[00:21:11] Jordan Harbinger: That's very specialized. Did you turn that one down? That seems like it would be a little bit scary. You got to really know what you're doing.
[00:21:17] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, it was an interesting story, but we didn't get the submarine.
[00:21:21] Jordan Harbinger: How do you even find, I guess it's in port, right? So it's not underwater. A submarine, is it substantially similar to a tanker or cargo ship? It seems like there's some quite specialized navigation and controls, because you're not talking about a small submarine that you're riding around looking at fish, right? This is a giant military grade vessel, I assume.
[00:21:42] Captain Max Hardberger: This was a whiskey class Russian sub based on a World War II German design. There were a dozen of them in Kaliningrad, and one of them was operational and used for training, as a matter of fact. Submarines are very seaworthy. A submarine can go around the world because it has so little exposed wind resistance. And so much of the hull is in the water that actually submarines on the surface, not below, but on the surface, they're quite seaworthy.
[00:22:09] Jordan Harbinger: That would just be terrifying. Okay, let me back up. This is a Russian submarine in a Russian enclave, Kaliningrad, in Eastern Europe or in the Baltics, essentially. Who wants that? That isn't the Russian government. Who has any claim to that? That isn't the Russian government.
[00:22:26] Captain Max Hardberger: That was a little bit different, without going into too much of the politics.
[00:22:30] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:22:30] Captain Max Hardberger: At the time, Peru and Ecuador were at war, and Peru had just bought a German diesel submarine and Ecuador felt that it had to have a submarine also, but it couldn't afford a new German diesel submarine. So that was the background.
[00:22:42] Jordan Harbinger: Ah, okay. Interesting. Yeah. That's a story for another day. I'd love to back up a little bit and ask how you got into this because it seems, obviously you have a background in seafaring. But who decides one day to call you and say, "Hey, I've got a very unique problem. Can you handle it?" And then what sort of possesses you to say, I can do that. I can take that ship back for you.
[00:23:03] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, no, it wasn't a conscious decision. After I took Patrick M out of Venezuela, there was an article written about it in a shipping magazine. And it's a small community, especially down in Miami where I was living at the time. So my buddies and I would get together around the Miami river and laugh about this thing and so on. But it wasn't long after that that a fellow called me and he had gotten his ship seized in Trinidad. So I took that one out. And then, of course, some years later, when Michael Bono was thinking about doing the same thing from a lawyer standpoint, he couldn't find anybody else who would actually go in to do it. And when we got together, it worked
[00:23:39] Jordan Harbinger: out. This is such a very unique line of work. How many other people in the world do this kind of thing? You've got to be one of a small group. There's a
[00:23:48] Captain Max Hardberger: company in England that does it. I don't think they're very active now, but traditionally they were quite active when we started. They were our major competitors. I had a very good friend named John Lightbaugh, who's now passed, who had also on his own, like me, would do this for clients. He was an amazing fellow, both a chief engineer and a captain. There are very few people in the world who are both unlimited chief engineers and unlimited masters. But other than that, no, I don't really know of too many people.
[00:24:20] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, Captain Max Hardberger. We'll be right back.
[00:24:25] This episode is sponsored in part by Momentus. Momentus, Live Momentus is widely trusted by professionals with their products being the go to and most pro and collegiate locker rooms. They're trusted by Olympians, professional athletes, top teams alike, all who vouch for their quality and efficacy. And all products are NSF certified. I don't know what NSF stands for, but I could easily look it up. However, I will not. I will just say that it means that what you see on the label is exactly what you get. No fillers, no misleading claims. The Live Momentous Sleep Pack is more than a sleep aid. It is a scien Actually, it is a sleep aid. The scientifically-backed formulation that helps you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and ensures that the sleep you get is of the highest quality possible. Convenient single serve pouches make it easy for you to get your daily dose of sleep enhancing nutrients, and it's not a drug. It is nutrients like magnesium and stuff that I've been taking for years at the recommendation of a sleep coach that have changed my sleep scores for the better, deep sleep, REM sleep. So you can wake up feeling rejuvenated, filled with energy, ready to conquer the day. For me, it's been like the refreshing sleep that I get on vacation, but now part of my everyday routine.
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[00:27:27] Now, back to Captain Max Hardberger.
[00:27:32] This sounds like a combination between Intelligence and extraction work because you don't just run into the port and grab the boat, right? You mentioned you go down and investigate the claim first, but that can't be all you do, right? I assume you're also looking at, "Okay, is the claim valid? If so, how am I going to get this thing out of here? Is there fuel in the boat?" And how are you doing this? Do you act like a tourist or do you say, "Look, I'm here from the owner and I want to take a look around the ship," and they let you do that?
[00:28:00] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, my modus operandi generally involves getting on the ground at the port where the ship is and going to the bars that are closest to the ship where the ship's crew are going to be hanging out and maybe suborning the ladies a little bit.
[00:28:15] Jordan Harbinger: What does suborning the ladies mean? I need get a translation on that one.
[00:28:18] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, the background is that the Caribbean is full of old white men. Old ship captains from Europe, mostly, but some Americans who have retired to the ports where they spent their life and they pick up a young local lady as a girlfriend or wife. And that's such a common phenomenon in these South American ports that for me to go and hire a girl to hang out with me, she's happy because she doesn't have to do what she normally has to do. I'm happy because everybody around sees an old white ship captain with a young local and he's curious. He wants to know, how is your ship? What's going on? I hear your ship is almost out of food. What's wrong? Why can't you guys leave? Et cetera, et cetera. Is there anything I can do to help?
[00:29:02] You can actually sometimes get the girls on board because some captains will allow the girls on board and those girls, of course, they traffic in information about ships with each other and I can get them to tell me what they find out on board. I can also go on board under pretense, as an inspector. I've done that. Go on board as a port state control inspector, with some fake, legitimate looking IDs. Also, I can pretend to be a buyer. Almost all of these ships are for sale at some level, even the ones that are not being advertised for sale. The crew may not know, for example, that the owner has not arranged for a buyer to come on board.
[00:29:39] So I may come on board and say, "I'm here to represent Trident Shipping and they want me to take a look at the ship before we buy it. But we're willing to pay all the crew their back wages as soon as we pay." Boy, talk about get the crew's attention then. When they're four or five months behind and their children are dying of starvation back home. And so a guy comes on board and says, "I want to look at the ship and we'll pay all back wages as soon as we buy it." You will not believe how much cooperation you can get.
[00:30:05] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Oh my gosh. I didn't even think about that. They're really that many months behind on pay. Sometimes that's terrible.
[00:30:10] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh, that's very normal. When a ship owner decides to stop paying his debts, he stops paying the crew first. He knows the crew can't leave. Once a crewman leaves the ship, he will never get paid. He has to stay on board until somebody will assume the crew debt and pay the crew.
[00:30:26] Jordan Harbinger: Ugh, that's terrible.
[00:30:27] Captain Max Hardberger: And if the crew gets put off in a foreign port, there is a good chance they will never go home. They'll die in that foreign port. I have seen that happen.
[00:30:35] Jordan Harbinger: Really? Because they just have no money and no way of getting back from whatever, Venezuela to the Philippines or wherever they're from?
[00:30:42] Captain Max Hardberger: Exactly. These countries have no fund like the United States does to bring people home. There was one fellow, a very nice fellow from Peru, who died in Port-au-Prince because he got sick. His family had no money for a doctor, no money to send him home. The Romano was the name of the ship and he'd been put off the ship when the ship was seized along with the rest of the crew. Half of them got home, he died. Some of the others, I don't know what happened to them.
[00:31:06] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my god.
[00:31:06] Captain Max Hardberger: But that's a very common problem.
[00:31:08] Jordan Harbinger: That's terrible. That's really awful to hear that kind of thing happening. It's so unfair and just so tragic.
[00:31:15] So you go in and out of the country by land. Or do you go out with the ship when you take the ship out? I'm a little confused. So if you, is it your crew that takes the ship or do you go in and out some other way?
[00:31:27] Captain Max Hardberger: I usually go in by airfare.
[00:31:28] Jordan Harbinger: That makes sense.
[00:31:29] Captain Max Hardberger: So whether I go out with ship or not depends on the situation. Quite often, I do have to go with the ship, especially if we have a dicey situation and we're doing it in the middle of the night. If the ship is being towed out, then I don't necessarily have to go with a ship like the Maya Express. We had a tugboat come in and tow it out. So I reconned the situation and I monitored the situation from another vessel. But once the vessel was outside of the port, my job was pretty much over and it was beyond my control. So I did emailed for the Port-au-Prince airport as fast as I could after the ship got out of port.
[00:32:01] Jordan Harbinger: Maya Express is the ship that was in Haiti.
[00:32:05] Captain Max Hardberger: Correct.
[00:32:06] Jordan Harbinger: If you're flying in, are you worried at all that you're on a list that says, "Hey, the guy who stole the ship last time is, just landed at the airport. Maybe put some extra guards over there or give people a little bit of a heads up over at the port because this guy's not here on a guided tour."
[00:32:21] Captain Max Hardberger: The real problem is going into the computer.
[00:32:23] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:32:24] Captain Max Hardberger: That's what I don't like. You'll get caught when you try to go in and they see your name on the computer and then they take you into the back room. So, one time, for example, I went into Venezuela by ferry from Trinidad because I was afraid to fly in. And I knew that little port in Venezuela, they didn't check people very carefully that were coming from Trinidad across the bay there. Because I was afraid that I was in the Venezuelan computer for that Patrick M extraction.
[00:32:49] Jordan Harbinger: Interesting. I'm assuming you get resumes thrown at you all the time, but what kind of people do you actually hire?
[00:32:55] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, they're seamen. They are licensed crewmen. The most important of course is the chief engineer, but they all must be licensed crewmen.
[00:33:02] Jordan Harbinger: I'm guessing that a lot of military types try to apply, but what you really need is somebody who can work on any ship, even if something is broken, maybe the lights don't work, problem solvers with seafaring expertise as opposed to somebody who's just brave or shoots straight. Because you don't use violence, right? You use cunning and guile.
[00:33:22] Captain Max Hardberger: That's correct. I'm not excluding that. In fact, in my Somali work, we did have military types involved. But. As a general rule, I need people who are extremely competent in their field, especially the chief engineer. He's the most important man in the entire team, including me. Nobody can replace a good chief engineer.
[00:33:44] Jordan Harbinger: What does that person do? It sounds like they're probably in charge of making sure the boat actually works, which yeah, that would be important when you're sneaking a boat out of a port.
[00:33:53] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh, it's not easy at all. It's nothing like starting a car. And there are many things. In fact, quite often I will take the chief engineer with me on my recon on board because he needs to see what's going on in the engine room. He needs to see if there's some part that's missing that we're going to have to have. A chief engineer who can board a vessel that he doesn't know in the middle of the night, explore the engine room by flashlight, get the air valves open because these engines start with air. Get the compressors running to get the air pressure up. Get the oil going to the heads. Get the oil going to the valves. And then, to start the engine, and be sure enough that the engine is going to keep running, that we can then take axes and chop the lines, because we don't pull the lines in, we chop them with axes. Once we've chopped the lines with axes, I need that engine to run and keep running until we get 13 miles offshore.
[00:34:44] Jordan Harbinger: Wow, I've heard that you don't use very many Americans on your crew. What's the reason for that? Are you trying to hire locals who speak a local language or know their way around?
[00:34:52] Captain Max Hardberger: No, the sad fact is America has lost the ability to man large ocean going commercial vessels. We have no more American flagged fleet. I forget what the number is. It's like 12 American flag cargo ships left in the world. This is a serious problem, not just in my business, also in the Marine surveying business. Where you need chief engineers and captains as marine surveyors in New Orleans, where the grain ships are very large. These marine surveying firms in New Orleans are having a terrible time hiring Americans. They have to hire crewmen who are experienced and good quality men, but they have to come from foreign because we do not have a reserve of American mariners from which to draw.
[00:35:37] Jordan Harbinger: This is probably a stupid question, but we have so many people who are Retiring from the Navy, but I guess most of them are not actually running the ship itself, right? So that pool is not enough to draw from?
[00:35:49] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, there are a lot of mariners on supply boats and tug boats and so on, but a commercial freighter of 50,000 tons, whose engine runs at a hundred RPM is a completely different animal. And you cannot go from one to the other. You have to start as an oiler or a cadet on a large ship and work your way up year after year in that large ship environment. It is not the kind of machinery where you can go from one to the other. And that's the problem for me would be not only does the man have to be a good chief engineer, and he has to be brave too to willing to take the risk, but he has to be the kind of chief engineer who can go on board a ship that he doesn't know and work in the dark and get it going.
[00:36:32] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that is kind of a heavy lift. How many guys do you need to take a ship? I assume it varies with the size of the vessel.
[00:36:39] Captain Max Hardberger: Yes. Let's say a 30,000 tonner will have a normal crew of, say, 15 to 17.
[00:36:43] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:36:44] Captain Max Hardberger: I need about six to eight men to get her to a near port. If we're going to go a long way, I need a full crew. But generally, I'm going to go to the nearest safe port, say, three or four days away. And for that I need a skeleton crew of at least six or eight guys.
[00:37:00] Jordan Harbinger: Wow, okay. I assume these guys don't charge their normal day rate when they work for you. You probably sweeten it up a little bit given the risk factor involved.
[00:37:08] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh yeah, they get paid very well. Let's say an engineer who would normally make $250 to $300 a day, I will pay 1, 000.
[00:37:15] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Is this a young man's game? Because it sounds like, look, I'm 43, I've got two little kids, granted, I'm useless to you. In fact, I'm useless in many ways. But this is not the kind of thing I would ever want to sign up for. Maybe like 20 years ago, 10 years ago, this would have been right up my alley, regardless of skill set. But I'm curious, what kind of guys go for this?
[00:37:35] Captain Max Hardberger: The chief engineer is not going to be a young man.
[00:37:37] Jordan Harbinger: No.
[00:37:38] Captain Max Hardberger: He's going to need many years of experience. And I would be suspicious of a chief engineer in his 20s.
[00:37:44] Jordan Harbinger: How old are they usually?
[00:37:45] Captain Max Hardberger: A good chief should be in his 50s.
[00:37:47] Jordan Harbinger: 50s? Oh, wow. Okay.
[00:37:49] Captain Max Hardberger: 40s maybe, but that's why they always call the captain the old man, because captains are always old men. When I was a captain in my 30s, my 60-year-old chief engineer called me the old man, but the other crew have to be young and strong. For example, your deck crew, you want men who can handle those lines. And if we have to, you want men who can keep up and run away if you have to run.
[00:38:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:38:11] Captain Max Hardberger: So I have not hired men that were not physically able to handle themselves.
[00:38:17] Jordan Harbinger: How do you know that a ship is safe to use and has fuel? That's part of your recon, right? That you look at the gauges and make sure — do they usually just leave the vessel field up in port?
[00:38:27] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, unless some crook has sold fuel off the vessel and we've had that happen.
[00:38:31] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I was worried about that. Yeah. Like what if they drain it and sell that and then you're sitting there stuck.
[00:38:37] Captain Max Hardberger: But normally, you don't. There's no market for heavy bunker. So if the vessel uses heavy bunker, then that's all going to be on board. There's a market for diesel and every ship has to use some diesel. You start your engines with diesel, then you switch over to heavy bunker. But there are no gauges. You have to actually sound the tanks with the sounding tape. But then again, if you're pretending to be a buyer, it's quite normal that you'll sound the tanks. If you're an inspector, you might come up with a reason that, for example, the ship's been accused of pollution and therefore you want to see how, what's in the tanks, etc.
[00:39:10] Generally, the crew itself is not very hostile or suspicious. With the crew and with the girls on shore and with everybody, if you show up and they have no reason to suspect that you're not what you appear to be or what you claim to be, they're so busy, everybody's so busy trying to make a living, they don't look further than that. You're an old, drunk, white man with his young Venezuelan girlfriend. You're interested in this ship. You want to help out somehow. Of course, there's nothing unusual about that.
[00:39:38] Jordan Harbinger: How do you get food while you're on the ship? Are, is it just short enough where you, you don't really need to worry about that, these missions or these operations?
[00:39:47] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, there's always going to be some food on board.
[00:39:49] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:39:50] Captain Max Hardberger: I don't even worry about that. If we take a ship out and there's no food on board, we'll eat the lifeboat crackers.
[00:39:56] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that makes sense. I guess you could bring a couple power bars in your backpack. I mean, you're not on the ship for a long period of time, right? It's a couple of days at most?
[00:40:04] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh, I don't know. This one in Greece. I went on board for a few days and ended up on the boat for, I think, six weeks.
[00:40:09] Jordan Harbinger: What? Why?
[00:40:11] Captain Max Hardberger: I was trapped. The captain had originally agreed to do what we wanted, but then he got cold feet, dropped anchor behind an island in Greece, and refused to move. And my client was the mortgagee. There was a stalemate between the mortgagee and the owner, and it was never actually resolved. The captain finally got desperate and agreed to take the ship to Malta, where we seized the ship in Malta.
[00:40:34] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. Six weeks, man. That's a lot of crackers.
[00:40:37] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh, we had plenty of food. On a Filipino cruise ship, you have a rice cooker that stays full all the time. We never went short of food on that job. Now, there have been jobs where we did have to try to search around and try to find some food on board. And some of the cans were kind of old, but not on that job.
[00:40:54] Jordan Harbinger: I mentioned earlier that you never use force, always guile and cunning. Are we talking about bribery? You know, the guards are around the port, I assume, but are they also on the ship itself?
[00:41:05] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh, I've had several cases where the guards were on the ship. In one case, I had to bribe the guard to get off. I had to give him enough money where he could go join his family in the interior of the country and never have to worry about a guard job again because, you know, after all, he's going to be in trouble.
[00:41:21] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:41:21] Captain Max Hardberger: In the morning when the ship is gone, they're going to be looking for him. That was Venezuela where you can disappear quite easily. There was another case where the guard was on board and I actually had to hire a girl to give him some sleeping powder to knock him out. I delivered his body onto the dock, made sure he was still breathing steadily. And then we took the ship out.
[00:41:40] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my gosh. If the host country catches you doing this, that even gets you personally, but if they see the boat rolling out, they send the coast guard or warships out to get you, or is it just kind of like, God, that thing's moving. We don't want to go chase it. How hard do they pursue you? You mentioned the Venezuela job where you weren't sure if they were going to follow you with a helicopter. That's pretty aggressive, but is this often a business dispute where once you're moving that thing, they're over it?
[00:42:04] Captain Max Hardberger: No.
[00:42:05] Jordan Harbinger: No?
[00:42:06] Captain Max Hardberger: I don't think I've ever had that happen.
[00:42:07] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:42:08] Captain Max Hardberger: They very aggressively pursue it. Not only do they see potential money leaving, but also there's sometimes quite a bit of investment that each party has made into the scam and they see their investment disappearing. For example, on the Maya Express, the pirate who had it seized, my understanding was that he had over a hundred thousand dollars invested into bribes and various expenses involved in holding the ship for those months.
[00:42:33] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. Okay. So yeah, this is the golden goose is taking flight at that point. They're not going to let it go. Yikes.
[00:42:39] You mentioned that a full moon was a terrible night to take the boat. I assume that's a visibility thing. Is that what you're hinting at there?
[00:42:47] Captain Max Hardberger: Exactly.
[00:42:48] Jordan Harbinger: So do you pick deliberately bad conditions? Is it the worse the weather, the better?
[00:42:54] Captain Max Hardberger: Absolutely. That time that I had that guard carried off the ship, the only way we could take off in the middle of the afternoon was because I knew that there was a huge thunderstorm coming. You could see it coming out of the southeast. And I timed everything for just before the thunderstorm hit. And the moment the thunderstorm hit was when we left. Well, they tried to chase us. In fact, they sent a warship from Santo Domingo, which is about 25 miles away, to chase us. But I knew that I had already reconned that warship. And I knew they had very old radars, like World War II open array radars, the kind that look like fishing nets.
[00:43:29] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:43:29] Captain Max Hardberger: If you remember those old radars, and I knew that radar would see nothing in a rainstorm because of rain clutter. And that's apparently what happened because they didn't catch us.
[00:43:39] Jordan Harbinger: Wow, it seems like the best time to do this if you don't have a storm would be some sort of like national holiday or how's a Saturday night when everybody's kind of like maybe drinking on the job or not showing up to work or hungover from the night before. It seems like you're really timing this quite precisely.
[00:43:54] Captain Max Hardberger: National holidays are good. Feast days are good. One time in Greece, I managed to get a ship out on Good Friday because I knew that all the coast guard officers would be drunk. I knew they'd be drunk because I paid the agent to take them a case of whiskey. And at the coast guard, at the lookout office, where they could see the ship's path. And it was on a Friday night of Greek Easter, and so nobody noticed when the ship slipped out.
[00:44:19] Another time, that ship in Mexico, I knew there was a disco right next to the port. And it's a very quiet place, and I knew that the starting the ship engine would alert the guards. There was no guard on board, but the guards were like, not more than, say, 150 feet away. But what I did was I paid the disco to put their speakers out on the lawn. I didn't do it, I had a guy do it. And he was gogoing toave a big party out, and so at the moment, they had the speakers turned up full blast. We started the engine and sneaked out.
[00:44:48] Jordan Harbinger: So if the speakers were to drown out the sounds of the engine, so any guards would have just had already lost their hearing to the Miriachi music? That's a good idea. I got to hand it to you. How do you get on the ship itself? If you go through the port, yeah, you can walk up the gangway, but that's knocking on the front door. Do you ever board the ship like other pirates do, from the side or the rear? You can tell I know jack squat about ships.
[00:45:10] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, I've boarded ships from the seaside where you can't be seen, but there has to be a pilot ladder. You have to have cooperation with somebody on board to do that.
[00:45:18] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:45:19] Captain Max Hardberger: I've never actually climbed up the anchor chain. People have done it. I know thieves who have done it, but I myself have not ever climbed up an anchor chain. Well, I haven't done it, but if I have to I'll throw a padded grapple up on the side and then pull myself up. But I haven't had to do that.
[00:45:34] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. How much are the ships worth that you usually repossess? Is there a dollar value that you kind of work in between?
[00:45:41] Captain Max Hardberger: I would say probably no less than about 10 million. And of course, up to like, for example, the super tanker in Venezuela, that would have been, we're talking many millions of dollars.
[00:45:51] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Yeah. I know I've done other episodes about shipping and some of these oil tankers. I don't know if this includes the cargo. I don't think it does, but they're worth like 80-plus million dollars sometimes.
[00:46:02] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh yeah, certainly or more.
[00:46:04] Jordan Harbinger: This is the insured value. So that's like the insured value of a 30-year-old, possibly not working as it once did tanker. And that's still 80 million. So it was probably half of what it was worth when it was manufactured and nice and shiny.
[00:46:19] Take me through the first, I don't know, 10 or 15 minutes of a ship extraction mission. You sneak on the ship. What do you do once you're on there? What's the first thing that has to be done?
[00:46:29] Captain Max Hardberger: The first thing is to go to the wheelhouse and ensure that you can get power to the ship. At the same time, I go to the wheelhouse, the chief engineer takes the engine room gang to the engine room. And then, the chief engineer and I start talking on the ship's internal communication to coordinate starting the engine, especially if there's going to be any sound that would be heard outside of the ship. We have to coordinate that. Even starting a generator could be noticed on the shore if the ship was dead shipped to begin with. So, at the same time, the deck crew are taking their axes forward and aft, and they're getting ready to chop the lines.
[00:47:07] The moment that the chief engineer has air up and can signal to me that he has enough air pressure to start the main engine, you never want to chop the lines until you've got the main engine started. Because if the main engine doesn't start, you might have a shot at it some other time. But once you've chopped the lines, there's no going back. So the moment the main engine starts and you get the first few puffs of smoke out of the funnel, then I get on the horn and I tell the crews fore and aft to chop the lines. Then, I've got a quartermaster who's on the wheel. I give the quartermaster his steering instructions to move the ship away from the dock and to steer for the fastest way to open water.
[00:47:49] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Captain Max Hardberger. We'll be right back.
[00:47:54] This episode is sponsored in part by Nissan. These days, too many people have to settle for the next best thing, especially when it comes to choosing a car. But at Nissan, there's a vehicle type for everyone, for every driver who wants more. Whether you want more adventure, more electric, more action, more guts, more turbo charged excitement. Nissan is here to make sure you get it because Nissan is all about giving people a whole spectrum of thrills to choose from with a diverse lineup of vehicles, from sports cars to sedans to evs pickups and crossovers with nissan's diverse lineup anyone can find something to help them reach their more. In my life, I'm always looking for more meaningful conversations I'm talking about the kind of talks that make you sit up a little straighter tune in a little bit more, and really make you question your own preconceptions. And that is why I love that Nissan wants to help people find their more — more freedom, more adventure, or even just more fun. So thanks to Nissan for sponsoring this episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show, and for the reminder to find your more. Learn more at nissanusa.com.
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[00:50:00] Jordan Harbinger: If you liked this episode of the show, I invite you to do what other smart and considerate listeners do, which is take a moment and support our amazing sponsors. All of the deals, discount codes, and ways to support the show are at jordanharbinger.com/deals. You can ask the AI chatbot as well, that's on the website. Thank you for supporting those who support the show.
[00:50:16] Now for the rest of my conversation with Captain Max Hardberger.
[00:50:22] You're chopping the lines with an axe, so do they still use ropes? They don't use chains for this?
[00:50:27] Captain Max Hardberger: I'm talking about the dock lines that secure the ship to the dock.
[00:50:30] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:50:31] Captain Max Hardberger: You always use ropes, two-and-a-half-inch diameter ropes.
[00:50:34] Jordan Harbinger: Wow, that's it, huh? I just, for some reason, I envisioned these just absolutely massive steel chains, but I guess you have to move them by hand, so that wouldn't work, right?
[00:50:43] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, you have a bunch of them. You'll probably have eight to ten dock lines. So, yeah, two-and-a-half-inch diameter line has a lot of strength.
[00:50:50] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, no kidding. Now, it all makes sense that they use an axe. What happens if you get on the ship and the engine won't start? You mentioned that you might have another shot at it. Do you mean, okay, this thing won't start. We need a widget. Everybody sneak back off this thing and we're going to go get the widget and come back in three days. Is that what we're talking about?
[00:51:09] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, that would be the best thing to do in that case. The worst thing is you have to jump over the side and swim away.
[00:51:15] Jordan Harbinger: My god, that sounds awful, in a port too, with gear, right? I mean, you'd have to ditch some of that or stash it somewhere. Jumping off of a boat that big in a port in the dark sounds kind of horrifying.
[00:51:29] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh, I've been faced with it.
[00:51:31] Jordan Harbinger: Phew. Oh my gosh in Venezuela or wherever None of these places are places you want to be in prison. That's for sure. If you need a part though How do you get the part? How does that even work? You're in Haiti? Oh, hey, we need a very specialized thing for a diesel boat manufactured in Germany. How could you get that? Somebody's got to fly it in for you. Yeah?
[00:51:50] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, I'll get a guy in Germany to get on the plane with it and fly It to me.
[00:51:53] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my gosh And they just land at a small airport in Port-au-Prince, or whatever, near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and drop off the, I don't know, I don't even know any ship parts that aren't the giant wheel that they probably don't use anymore with some engine part. Your guy has to install that on the fly, too, no doubt.
[00:52:10] Captain Max Hardberger: That case in Trinidad, the pirate shipyard, they had taken off the air start valve off the main engine because they were afraid that somebody might do exactly what I was thinking of doing.
[00:52:20] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:52:21] Captain Max Hardberger: But on my inspection, that's what I was looking for. And when I saw the air start valve missing, which is about a foot by a foot, and it sits on the front of the engine, when I saw it missing, I had my chief engineer, he was actually in Germany, Peter Schick was his name, he's dead now. And I had him go to the manufacturer, get the air stuff from Werkspoor, actually in Holland. Get it and then send it to Miami and then a guy in Miami flew it down to me in Trinidad. And then, I took it on board. My confederate took the ship out.
[00:52:53] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. And so you really do need an amazing engineer who can sit there and go, all right, we've got a very limited amount of time. You need to put this piece in, make sure it works, start the engine. And oh, by the way, there's no working lights down there. So you're going to have a headlamp or whatever during the time you're doing this. Every minute that goes by is time that the authorities might catch on to what we're doing, or the guard might have a change of heart, or — oh, this is stressful. It's stressful even thinking about this kind of thing.
[00:53:21] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah. I think it's stressful.
[00:53:23] Jordan Harbinger: The ship you took out of Haiti, this was not the most calm time to go for. Well, Haiti seems like a wild place anyway, but this was not the most chill time to be in the country. Tell me about that.
[00:53:33] Captain Max Hardberger: Haiti was actually in the middle of the revolution at the moment. And the Aristide had fled. And I know Haiti quite well. I have godchildren in Haiti. I own property in Haiti and I spent many a year there. Policemen in Haiti are very, shall we say, attuned to self preservation. The moment that social order breaks down, they tear off their uniforms and run up in the hills. And so, at that time, all the police stations were deserted. There were no police to be found. In fact, interestingly enough, in Miragoane, which is a little port where that ship was being hid, the port authority actually hired some men and gave them uniforms because they knew that foreign ships were not going to come into a port with no police.
[00:54:14] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:54:15] Captain Max Hardberger: So, the mayor hired some men to be policemen and walk around in uniforms to reassure the foreign crews that everything was okay.
[00:54:22] Jordan Harbinger: And these are just Joe Schmo wearing a police uniform, not actually police. Wow. Fake police.
[00:54:27] Captain Max Hardberger: Right. When we landed to go to the ship, and when we went from Port-au-Prince to Miragoane, there's about five or six towns on the way. Every police station had been burned out, the police cars were turned over and burned out.
[00:54:41] All the roads were full of bandits at the time. And in Haiti, it's very easy to be a road bandit because all you got to do is roll some rocks in the road. And the terrain is so rugged that there's no chance of going around. You have to stay on the road. So, when the car stops at the rocks, you shoot the occupants and take whatever they have.
[00:54:58] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my god.
[00:54:58] Captain Max Hardberger: In fact, it's even worse now today than it was then, unfortunately. But when we got to Miragoane and I found out the situation with the ship, the owner had a couple of guards that were on board. They had been selling fuel off the ship to all comers. So I had my Haitian tell them that I was going to bring a tugboat to buy fuel. The tugboat that was going to tow it off, of course. And they were happy with that. And then, I hired a couple of SWAT team guys from Port-au-Prince to come down and control the crowd. Because I knew there was going to be a big crowd while we were trying to cut the anchor chain. We had to cut the anchor chains with a torch. I thought it was going to take about 15 minutes, and it took half an hour. And of course, people come fleeing down.
[00:55:38] Oh, that was the time where there was only one cell phone in the entire town that worked. It was up on a soccer pitch on the top of a hill. So that's the time I hired a witch doctor to go and put a curse on that soccer field so the port director who had the cell phone wouldn't go up there and call Port-au-Prince to report it. And in fact, my client, the mortgagee, loved to show his friends a line item in his bill $100 for the services of one witch doctor.
[00:56:04] Jordan Harbinger: So, so you hire a witch doctor and what just made sure that everybody around knew that there was a witch doctor on the soccer field and they were like, "I'm not going near that thing. I don't care what you tell me. I'm not going out there with this cell phone. That place is cursed." That's brilliant. You didn't have to bribe anybody. You didn't have to threaten anybody. You just had to have some, I don't know, dried chicken heads spread around the place or whatever and that was it.
[00:56:27] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, I'd hired that same guy 20 years earlier to come on my ship when I was a ship captain and put the powder on my ship to keep the thieves off. And the interesting thing about it was in 20 years he hadn't aged a bit.
[00:56:39] Jordan Harbinger: And maybe he's on to something.
[00:56:40] Captain Max Hardberger: I think so.
[00:56:41] Jordan Harbinger: Whatever's in that powder are those chicken heads, man. I guess then witchcraft is something that just everybody universally believes in down there.
[00:56:48] Captain Max Hardberger: That's correct.
[00:56:49] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. In 2004, Aristide flees, the president of Haiti flees. I know some French foreign legion guys that actually got him out of there. And if memory serves, didn't they empty all the prisons? Or somebody emptied all the prisons? They just went to this, the national penitentiary and just opened all the doors, let all the gangsters out. But probably what to distract the police, slash let their friends out. Is that the idea behind that? It's been so long.
[00:57:13] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah. To let their friends and relatives out, surely. The national penitentiary normally holds about 1500, 2000 prisoners. And they were all released.
[00:57:23] Jordan Harbinger: Phew.
[00:57:23] Captain Max Hardberger: Not only that, but all the jails all throughout the country were all opened.
[00:57:27] Jordan Harbinger: I can't imagine. You said you lived in Haiti. What is that even like? It's just got to be so incredibly wild.
[00:57:35] Captain Max Hardberger: Normally, it's not. Normally it's very peaceful and the Haitians are wonderful, peaceful, happy, joyous people. The history of Haiti is a complicated one.
[00:57:44] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:57:45] Captain Max Hardberger: And the responsibilities for the Haitian situation must be borne by more than just the Haitians.
[00:57:51] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I'm with you on that. I mean, it's got a colonial and slavery background and slavery uprising, corruption. I mean, it's just quite tragic. Is the understatement of the show here that it's so tragic. But you living there, what brought you there? You're just curious and adventurous or did you meet somebody that you love down there? I mean, what brings you to a place like that and you say, "I want to live here, I want to buy a house here"?
[00:58:12] Captain Max Hardberger: No, no, no. I was a ship captain. My owner got a two year contract to carry rice from Freeport, Texas to Haiti, to Miragoane, that same little town. My first time in Miragoane was when my ship arrived. I think '84 that would have been. And then, of course, I just met people and became friends. And then, later I had a shipbreaking operation in Miragoane. And I had a hundred Haitians working for me. That's when I bought some property.
[00:58:35] Jordan Harbinger: Is shipbreaking what it sounds like? Is that just salvaging old boats? Is that what that means?
[00:58:40] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, that's right. Cutting up ships.
[00:58:43] Jordan Harbinger: I've seen those videos where they blare the horn and they run the thing up on the beach as fast as they can. And then, all these, I guess, maybe it's in Bangladesh and all these guys are running around. And it was mystifying until somebody told me that that's how they get the boat on shore and then take it apart.
[00:59:01] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, we didn't have to do that. We have deep water in my property where we can just come alongside by side and then cut the ship up alongside. But that's how they do it where you don't have a dock, where you have to run the ship up onto the beach.
[00:59:13] Jordan Harbinger: So during the earthquake and all these other tragedies, are you worried about your people, I assume, but you're also worried about your business down there, right? Do you have people protecting it while you're not there?
[00:59:23] Captain Max Hardberger: No, no, my property is unimproved.
[00:59:25] Jordan Harbinger: I see.
[00:59:26] Captain Max Hardberger: There was no worry about that. It's just, my property is just some bare coral ground next to the port of Miragoane.
[00:59:32] Jordan Harbinger: I see. Okay. Wow. You've got a lot of tricks up your sleeve, man. I heard you once told a guard or had someone tell a guard his mother had a heart attack and he just runs off the boat, which I think is also quite genius.
[00:59:45] What jobs have you turned down? The submarine job sounds like it didn't work out. What other jobs have you said? No, thank you. I do the sounds way too dangerous.
[00:59:54] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, there was that one ferry in Venezuela, we didn't turn the job down, it just, we advised the client that it was impractical, it would be too dangerous.
[01:00:01] Jordan Harbinger: Which one was this?
[01:00:02] Captain Max Hardberger: That was the ferry where I was afraid that they would chase it with helicopters.
[01:00:06] Jordan Harbinger: Ah, that was the ferry, okay, gotcha, yeah.
[01:00:08] Captain Max Hardberger: There was another ship in Punto Fijo, Venezuela, where the claim of damaged cargo, and I got to Punto Fijo, I found that the cargo actually had been damaged, in fact, the cargo was still at the port. And it was a cargo of pulp and the pulp had gotten wet on the ship and was damaged. And so we turned that job down because it was a legitimate claim.
[01:00:29] Jordan Harbinger: I see.
[01:00:29] Captain Max Hardberger: Other than that, I don't remember exactly how many. We haven't turned that many down, I'm happy to say.
[01:00:35] Jordan Harbinger: Tell me about the Vladivostok incident.
[01:00:40] Captain Max Hardberger: You know, that was fun. That was when the lady I went with, got into a fist fight with her translator in front of the office of the guy we were there to buy ships from. He grabbed her by the throat and was shaking her. He was throttling her by the throat. And the moment that this tall, dignified Russian guy opened the door, she kicked him between the legs. He howled like a monkey. Then, they saw the Russian and they both straightened up, assumed dignified expressions, and the three of us marched into his office with him going, What? He was from Bulgaria. She called him the translator. He turned out to be our enemy. He turned us over to the Russian mafia to be captured. She called him the vulgarian.
[01:01:23] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. Wait a minute. So, okay. So you went there to buy ships from this guy and how did it go so wrong? And I don't just mean the getting kicked in the nuts into the fist fight. I mean, that's, I definitely want to hear a little bit more about that, but how does an operation degrade to that level?
[01:01:39] Captain Max Hardberger: Well, what we didn't know and what we found out was that Vladivostok had been taken over by the Russian mafia.
[01:01:46] And in fact, the week before we got there, the assistant port director had been shot dead apparently because he refused to go along with it. What happened was the mafia found out that we were there to buy scrap ships. I was there to buy them for a Chinese buyer and we were going to take them from Vladivostok to China for scrapping. There's large 3,000-ton deadweight fish processing vessels, a whole bunch of them. But when the mafia found out that we were there to buy, their plan was to capture me and have me call Dr. Yin, that was my client, and tell him to come to Vladivostok with a bunch of cash. And then if I didn't, of course, they would beat me or whatever they had to do to force me to call him and tell him to come.
[01:02:26] So, I knew they were looking for me. In fact, when we got back to the hotel, the receptionist, who was a quite friendly lady, told us that these guys, she called them musicians, that's the Russian word for mafia. They had been there looking for us, but she put us on a floor that was not open to foreigners. So they couldn't find us. And then, we sneaked out of town the next morning.
[01:02:46] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. It was pretty lucky that she did that for you because do you think she put herself a little bit at risk helping you? She has to live there.
[01:02:54] Captain Max Hardberger: I don't know because when we left, nothing had happened. So I don't know. But this guy had stolen our visas. We were stuck and we knew that he had stolen our visas because when he left with this mafia guy, he held up our two visas, they're yellow cards, and gave me a big grin and waved with his fingers at me to show that he had stolen our visas. So we had a real hassle that evening getting replacement visas.
[01:03:18] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my gosh.
[01:03:18] Captain Max Hardberger: So that we could leave the next morning.
[01:03:20] Jordan Harbinger: Obviously the interpreter just, do you think he planned that all along or do you think he just smelled the money and decided to call his friend's cousin?
[01:03:28] Captain Max Hardberger: Andre was the mafia guy. And I could tell they were getting to be buddies.
[01:03:32] Jordan Harbinger: What year was this?
[01:03:33] Captain Max Hardberger: This was about two weeks after Vladivostok was open to foreigners. Before that, foreigners were not allowed in the city.
[01:03:41] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, really?
[01:03:41] Captain Max Hardberger: So, this was about two weeks after Vladivostok was open to foreigners.
[01:03:45] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, wow.
[01:03:46] Captain Max Hardberger: This would have been about '93 or so.
[01:03:49] Jordan Harbinger: Why was it closed to foreigners? Because there's a port there? Was there a submarine base there or something like that? A naval base?
[01:03:55] Captain Max Hardberger: A large naval base, Russia's only naval base on the Pacific.
[01:03:59] Jordan Harbinger: I had a job that I didn't take in Vladivostok, and it would have been in 2003, and it sounds like it would have been really interesting, but possibly I made the right choice, I think.
[01:04:11] Captain Max Hardberger: Take your food with you.
[01:04:12] Jordan Harbinger: Really? No good food there? I mean, they got to have, maybe it's a little better now.
[01:04:16] Captain Max Hardberger: I hope it's better now, it was horrible then.
[01:04:19] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, man, stuff like that is just so fascinating. Places like that are super interesting. Obviously, getting kidnapped by the Russian mafia is less interesting. Or, maybe it's very interesting, but for all the wrong reasons. So you never got those ships for your Chinese buyer, I assume?
[01:04:33] Captain Max Hardberger: Nope, nope, that deal completely fell through.
[01:04:36] Jordan Harbinger: Would you go back to Russia? Those guys surely have forgotten you by now.
[01:04:39] Captain Max Hardberger: Oh yeah, I have no problems going back to Russia.
[01:04:41] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. I'm sure you do this mostly to make a living, but is there any part of you that gets a kick out of recovering a ship from thieves who stole it in the first place?
[01:04:51] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, I like the fact that the bad guys get their comeuppance. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I loved it when the guy who tried to steal the Maya Express showed up to the Bahamas, which is a very friendly jurisdiction for mortgagees. And the thief showed up to claim that we had stolen his ship and to try to get it back. The judge told him, and this is in the record, "That you're lucky I don't have you put in jail right here, right now." And I was happy about that. And my client was quite happy.
[01:05:18] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that's a relief. Hearing things like this. And you doing the job that you do, when you get back to the United States, you must just be thinking, "I'm glad I live in this very imperfect place that has rule of law where I have recourse other than bribing a judge. I can make money honestly rather than stealing from other people. It really puts things into stark contrast."
[01:05:41] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah. Many times I have, when my friends and neighbors and my wife, when I was married, when they would complain about the dryer not working or complain about the dishwasher being on the fritz, I would have to hold my tongue.
[01:05:55] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, especially after living in a place like Haiti and saying, though the Wi-Fi is too slow. Is that the problem today? Yeah, it's very, again, stark contrast. You're a very interesting guy. You've been a lawyer. You still are a lawyer. What else? Pilot? Crop duster? Private investigator? I don't know the technical term for this. Dead body transporter? I assume there's a better way to phrase that.
[01:06:21] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, I flew for a mortuary service.
[01:06:23] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[01:06:23] Captain Max Hardberger: I flew bodies around.
[01:06:25] Jordan Harbinger: A stuntman.
[01:06:27] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, yeah.
[01:06:27] Jordan Harbinger: I'm guessing you don't do that anymore.
[01:06:29] Captain Max Hardberger: I haven't been called on to do it in a long time, but my stunt boss and I are still good buddies and in fact, we might be going out to Arizona sometime in the fall for a movie.
[01:06:40] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[01:06:40] Captain Max Hardberger: You see, the thing about it is that it's very hard for a young man cannot double for an old man. So if you have an actor who is an old man, his stunt double has to be an old man. The audience can actually see the difference. There is actually work for physically capable old stunt doubles.
[01:06:58] Jordan Harbinger: I heard that in the latest Indiana Jones, they wanted to get him a stunt double, and Harrison Ford said, "Man, I'm old. I want people to see me hunched over while I'm riding a horse, because I'm 75," or however old he is. And that's admirable, but also, he's lucky he didn't get thrown off that horse.
[01:07:14] Captain Max Hardberger: Yep, yep.
[01:07:15] Jordan Harbinger: What do you want to do when you retire? You were an English teacher. Might go back to that?
[01:07:19] Captain Max Hardberger: No, I don't think so.
[01:07:21] Jordan Harbinger: No?
[01:07:21] Captain Max Hardberger: I'm not interested in going back to teaching.
[01:07:23] Jordan Harbinger: Let me guess, it's too dangerous?
[01:07:25] Captain Max Hardberger: Ah, it's too frustrating. And it's too rule bound.
[01:07:29] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[01:07:29] Captain Max Hardberger: It would be possible if I had a classroom without rules, where I didn't have to turn in lesson plans. That was one thing I never did was turn in lesson plans. It's against my religion. And luckily ,after a few weeks, principals realize there's no hope and they give up asking for them. But I doubt if I'll go back to teaching. I don't know. I'm playing drums in a blues band now. I might keep doing that.
[01:07:50] Jordan Harbinger: This sounds like something that should be made into a movie. I know that was an idea early on. Is that still happening?
[01:07:57] Captain Max Hardberger: After 15 years, 14 years, something like that. Yeah. Yeah. There are people who are still working on it. Michael Bono stays on top of that. I myself don't follow it.
[01:08:06] Jordan Harbinger: Michael's your business partner in the, uh, ship repo business. I see.
[01:08:10] Captain Max Hardberger: Correct.
[01:08:11] Jordan Harbinger: Never a dull day in the office, hey, Max?
[01:08:14] Captain Max Hardberger: Maybe in the office. It's a dull day, but I don't get to stay in the office much.
[01:08:19] Jordan Harbinger: I really appreciate it. This is a long time in the making, crazy interesting, and I hope you stay safe and we'll see you either in a movie or a, an English classroom sometime in the future.
[01:08:30] Captain Max Hardberger: Yeah, and let's hope not in the news.
[01:08:33] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, exactly.
[01:08:36] I've got some thoughts on this episode, but before I get into that, here's what you can check out next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:08:43] You're in Somalia trying to track down pirate gangs, and I'd love to kind of hear what this felt like.
[01:08:49] Michael Scott Moore: We went with a big security team and we paid the security team and a lot of money and it was this one portion of a clan in central Somalia that was supposed to protect us.
[01:09:01] Jordan Harbinger: So how did they get you?
[01:09:02] Michael Scott Moore: My partner Ashwin flew off to Mogadishu. I drove him to the airport and then we saw him off. He got on the plane safely and then on the way back from the airport, back into town towards our hotel, there was actually a truck waiting for us. It was a truck with a cannon welded in the back. These are very common trucks, they're called technicals. At first, we thought it was there to watch over us or protect us or something, but actually it stopped our car and 12 gunmen from the flatbed came over to my side of the car, and they actually fired in the air, and then opened the door and tore me out of the car.
[01:09:34] They were waiting for me, and they were probably waiting or hoping for both of us. I think they were a little bit disappointed that there was only one journalist. They beat me. They broke my glasses, and I was wearing glasses at the time, and they had another car waiting, and they bundled me into it, and off we drove into the bush for about three hours, something like that. Hard to keep track of time, but at some point we stopped. They blindfolded me, and they took me a few steps over to a mattress. So there was a mattress waiting for me in the middle of nowhere.
[01:10:02] There were other people there, other guards and other hostages, and I sat down for the next two years and eight months. I was a hostage.
[01:10:10] Jordan Harbinger: For more on life in captivity under the thumb of Somali pirates and how he made it out, check out episode 115 with Michael Scott Moore here on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:10:23] As one would predict, Captain Max lives on a sailboat, so how appropriate is that? He also spends a lot of time in Haiti and owns property there. The man loves to read. He had 8,000 books that he lost in Hurricane Katrina. That's horrible. Sorry to hear that.
[01:10:37] The other EPs we mentioned in this particular conversation, Ian Urbina, episode 856, Matthew Campbell, episode 739 about shipping, Michael Scott Moore, episode 115, he was kidnapped by Somali pirates. A lot of drama and action on the high seas. We'll link to those episodes in the show notes as well.
[01:10:53] And all things Max Hardberger will be in the show notes over at jordanharbinger.com. You can also ask the AI chatbot, which is on the website. Transcripts are in the show notes. Advertisers, deals, discounts, and ways to support this show always at jordanharbinger.com/deals. Please consider supporting those who support the show.
[01:11:11] We've also got the newsletter, and every week, the team and I dig into an older episode of the show and dissect the lessons from it. So if you are a fan of the show, you want a recap of important highlights and takeaways from past episodes, or you just want to know what to listen to next, the newsletter is a great place to do just that. jordanharbinger.com/news is where you can find it. And don't forget about Six-Minute Networking as well. Also over at jordanharbinger.com/course. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.
[01:11:38] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team includes Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is you share it with friends. When you find something useful or interesting, the greatest compliment you can give us is to share the show with those you care about. If you know somebody who's really interested in this kind of thing, this kind of unique story, definitely share this episode with them. In the meantime, I hope you apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you learn, and we'll see you next time.
[01:12:10] Thanks again to Nissan for sponsoring this episode. Let Nissan help you find your more at nissanusa.com.
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