Travel literature review: Seized

SeizedSeized: A Sea Captain's Adventures by Max Hardberger

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3 star

Rating: 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Ted Hein

Ted has travelled the globe for business and exploration and is a frequent contributor on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forums.  He is an avid trekker and IT professional with a passion for crossing the digital divide with the help of One Laptop Per Child.

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True stories of battling to repossess ships from modern-day pirates in exotic locations is a great premise for a page-turner. It promises equal parts memoir, travelogue and action-adventure.

Port cities in developing countries are often gritty, rundown places seldom visited by tourists. Dig a little below the surface and they are a melting pot of cultures, filled with colourful characters and unique charms.  Moreover, harbours and their surrounding gritty industrial centres of trade can provide insight into a country’s culture through what and how it imports and exports.

Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures includes tales from a wide variety of ports, including Haiti, Venezuela, East Germany (before reunification), Vladivostok, Trinidad, the Netherlands, Honduras, Belize, Greece and the US Gulf Coast. Regrettably, Seized's author approaches these as “hellhole” destinations, with the sole objective of getting in and out as quickly as possible. As a consequence, Hardberger can only offer brief stereotypical descriptions of their shortcomings. Like a reluctant tourist or unadventurous business traveller, little time is spent savouring the variety and spice of the unfamiliar.

With the exception of an interesting two page dissertation on the merits of MacGregor hatch covers, too many nautical terms have little or no explanation. One particularly egregious example: “I scrambled up to the raised forecastle deck, where the heavy hawsers went from their bitts through the Panama chocks – rounded cast-steel holes in the bulwarks — and out to the shore bollards”.

The quality of his writing improves somewhat in the last chapters. Unfortunately by then the focus is on the legal aspects of ship repossession rather than the clever and resourceful swashbuckling of the first several chapters.

Hardberger’s memoir attempts to be part travel literature and part action-adventure. Effective memoirs transcend a recitation of events to give reflection, perspective and insight. The best travel writing evokes a strong sense of place, filled with insightful observation — even of unremarkable or unsightly places. Compelling works of non-fiction adventure develop memorable plot and characters. Although Seized is interesting and unique, it does none of these things well. It suffers by attempting to do too much, spreading itself over many locations, with many minor characters and a dozen separate tales.

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