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The World | COLUMN ONE

He's his own port authority

A seafaring `repo man' uses stealth and trickery to seize cargo ships taken by thieves or corrupt officials. Once, a witch doctor came in handy.

March 01, 2007|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

If a repossession is requested, Hardberger and his team quietly enter the country involved. They seek out friendly officials and trusted local contacts such as ship agents who tend to a vessel's logistical needs in port.

"You need to pick up clues about the ship and what is said in the bars, at the ship chandlers and in the local whorehouses," Hardberger said. "Crews are not that sophisticated and talk about their orders and departure times. You can really keep track of a vessel this way."

Hardberger said he does not carry a firearm, though he has hired bodyguards, as he did with the Aztec Express. Stealth and trickery are the preferred methods.

"I do not want my face seen," he added.

Such tactics were employed in April 1999, when Hardberger was asked to extract a 280-foot cargo ship that had put in for repairs at Drapetsona, a part of the Greek port of Piraeus. "It's a place," he says, "where ship names are repainted quickly."

The small freighter was Hungarian and, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, was still equipped with a commissar's office. It contained a secret radio room and the complete works of Lenin.

When the repair company charged four times the agreed-upon price to fix a huge dent in the stern, Hardberger said, the owner refused to pay. Port officials then denied the vessel a clearance to leave.

Hardberger and the ship's agent got permission to move the ship to a port anchorage under the ruse that she needed refueling. The new location would make it possible for a crew to reach the vessel by launch.

Then, with everything in place, Hardberger waited for the weekend of Greek Easter, a religious festival marked by rich pageantry and widespread celebration.

To help the coast guard enjoy the event, Hardberger arranged for the ship agent to drop off several cases of ouzo at the station, which overlooked the port.

At 2 a.m. on a Sunday, a crew boarded the unattended freighter and sailed it out of the harbor unnoticed.

Hardberger, who coordinated the operation from shore, sat in a seaman's bar in Piraeus with friends, including the ship's agent. In the ancient port, they toasted their success with vodka.

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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