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Clockwise from left: Indonesia's patrol vessel Lepu approaches the Reliance at the contested waterway; naval officers loitering on the bridge deck; the arresting officer was educated in Newport Rhode Island, and "proud to have captured an American captain"
EXCLUSIVE: American Ship Captain, Accused of Anchoring Illegally, Detained by Indonesian Navy for 24 Days
After his release, Captain Ledoux says his company “threw him under the bus.”
On June 9th Reuters reported the Indonesian Navy detained another ship, claiming it had anchored illegally and holding it for $375,000. It’s the latest of dozens of similar recent detentions revealed by Reuters in November. One American captain, claiming he was detained for 24 days last Fall, sat for extensive interviews with gCaptain. This is his story.
By David S. Lewis (gCaptain) –
When Captain David Ledoux dropped anchor off Indonesia’s Bintan Island, waiting for clearance to proceed to the shipyard at Singapore, he had little reason to expect he’d spend the next month in a detention facility menaced by aggressive monkeys.
Ledoux was detained by the Indonesian Navy for 24 days in October of 2021. He also says that, although the agent selected the anchorage and he consulted the Sailing Directions, relevant charts, and other navigation resources, his company elected to hold him responsible for the decision to anchor in waters known to be contested by Indonesia. Ledoux said they let him take the ship on to the shipyard at Singapore after his detention, only then informing him that he would be disciplined for his role in the incident: either demotion to 2nd Mate, six month’s suspension without pay, or the forfeiture of six months’ operations pay.
“I said, for what? What did I do wrong? What policy or law did I violate?” he exclaimed in the first of a series of telephone interviews conducted with gCaptain.
Ledoux submitted extensive documentation from his ordeal, including communications conducted over email and encrypted-messaging app “Whatsapp.” He also said that, while detained, he was instructed to provide letters asserting two false narratives: one suggesting the Marshall Islands-flagged C/S Reliance had experienced fictitious damage to one of the vessel’s thrusters, and another indicating his mental health was failing from the ordeal, and that he was experiencing suicidal ideation.
“It was all bullshit,” he said. He indicated his boss’s order to write them had been conveyed either over the phone or by since-lost Whatsapp messages. His company, the subsea cable company SubCom, didn’t respond to questions about the allegations, although Ledoux provided the letters for gCaptain to review. After being informed the company planned to discipline him for following their agent’s direction, he quit.
Ledoux, a sailing master for over 25 years and a SubCom employee for eight, had received detailed instructions from the company’s Ben Line agent in Singapore directing him where to anchor as he waited for the shipyard to clear him. The message came with some caveats, however:
Good day to you.
Message well received, please be advised that vessel will not have any issue entering Singapore if she anchors at OPL(“outside port limits”).
We would like to inform you that we are unable to commit with providinginstruction on safe anchor in East OPL location as it is fallen underInternational water which may have complication with Malaysia or Indonesiaclaiming that the water territory falling under them. For your additionalinfo, the Western OPL has now been effectively closed down in order to tryand remove any possible triggers between to the two states as both countries (Singapore and Malaysia) have naval presence within the area and both sides are scared a spark could ignite the already tense conditions.
However, may you be advised that it’’s merely a suggestion for vessel toconsider below location. As you may be aware that vessel will be outsideport limits. Henceforth, this does not fall under the agent jurisdiction tojustify the safety of the East OPL location. We cannot advise which area issafest for liability reasons, but would suggest to be careful ofencroachment to other territorial waters and any offshore installations. Kindly note that Master to take the necessary safety precaution and anchoring at own risk.
ANCHORING AT OFF SOUTH CHINA SEA
aa. Lat: 01-50N, Long: 105-20E (Off South China Sea)
Kindly advise Master to keep clear of the followings once anchoring:
aa. 12nm away for Malaysian Coast Line.
bb. Traffic Lane.
cc. Submarine Cables
When the Reliance dropped the hook, Ledoux looked around at the other ships anchored around him, noting that several had turned off their AIS transponders, but thinking little of it.
Three days later, Reliance was approached by KRI-861 Lepu, an Indonesian Pari-class fast attack craft and part of the Indonesian Navy’s patrol fleet. Ledoux, who said no attempt to contact the Reliance had been made, was boarded. The boarding party told him he was in an illegal anchorage. He requested they identify on the chart where he should’ve anchored, and said the official indicated a place that would’ve been acceptable. He picked up the hook, made his way there, and proceeded to anchor. After all, in most of the world, ships anchored where they’re not supposed to are simply hailed by the authorities and asked to leave.
Ledoux was then arrested and taken from the ship, along with all of Reliance’s original documents and the passports of all crew members.
Indonesia, for its part, has long been signaling its intention to combat smuggling in its territorial waters, and declared that the waters around Bintan and Batam Islands were part of its territory. A P&I Club memorandum from February of 2019 warned shipowners that “…the waters in the Strait of Singapore and Malacca may not necessarily be international and will be claimed either by Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia,” and noted that “[r]eleasing the ship from detention in such circumstances could be difficult and a time consuming process.” The Club recommended members use local agents to avoid anchoring at non-designated anchorages within the region.
Ledoux said that SubCom had not forwarded the memorandum to Reliance, noting it would have been part of the turnover logs.
“There was nothing on the charts, nothing in the Sailing Directions, to warn me not to anchor there,” he said. “Only the agent’s email telling me to go in but with that disclaimer, that they were not responsible if I did.
“In 35 years of going to sea, I have never had an agent recommend an anchorage position with a liability disclaimer,” he said. “As a ship’s master, I rely on the local agent to provide accurate and trustworthy information. That is precisely why they are hired. I closely noted [the areas the agent said to avoid] and we did not violate any of said advice.”
The coordinates offered by the agent were extremely specific. Neither the level of detail nor the disclaimer, though unusual, triggered any concerns at SubCom fleet operations management when he forwarded the agent’s email.
The crew was left aboard; Reliance’s 2nd Mate, a female, wrote in a statement provided to the embassy in Jakarta noted that the Indonesian officers trashed the bridge and were disrespectful and were verbally abusive to the crew, catcalling her. (The Indonesian Navy didn’t respond to those allegations.)
“In my entire shipping career, I have never experienced the complete disrespect as I did in those moments, with no way to respond or report the situation,” she wrote in the statement, which was provided to the embassy.
Assured he would only be ashore for a short time for questioning, Ledoux was shown to his quarters: a dirty room with no air conditioning in a kind of barracks shared by the other captains who had been detained. (He said that, for a fee, he was sold an air conditioner, with payment arranged through the company agent.)
“At one point, there were 13 other captains in there with me,” said Ledoux, who documented those who were there as best he could, keeping detailed notes. One Filipino captain had been there for 67 days, as his company had refused to pay the bribe. (After Reuters covered the payoffs in a November 12 article, that captain was taken back to his vessel, but the vessel was not released.) A Vietnamese sailing master told Ledoux his VHF’s audio recorder function retained a message from the Indonesian navy, directing his vessel into the anchorage before ultimately arresting him.
Ledoux said that, although he was treated relatively well by his captors, the heat and conditions in the facility were oppressive, and there were often water shortages. Trash was burned on the grounds, filling the air with foul-smelling smoke. The grounds around the housing building were littered with trash and prone to flooding, with the flooding entering the residential area at times.
“There were monkeys kind of watching all the time; one big male that tried to charge me,” he said.
Ledoux said that “the interview,” ostensibly the justification for his being brought ashore, never took place, and that the Indonesian authorities never questioned him.
He also said he was instructed to provide letters asserting two false narratives: one suggesting the Marshall Islands-flagged C/S Reliance had experienced fictitious damage to one of the vessel’s thrusters, and another indicating his mental health was failing from the ordeal including suicidal ideation. He asserts that the letters were reviewed by SubCom.
“It was all bullshit,” he said. He indicated his boss’s order to write them had been conveyed either over the phone or by since-lost Whatsapp messages, but thinks the letters were requested by the Indonesian officers overseeing the extortion scheme to provide them with cover. He said the agent provided him a template to follow, and told him the letters were necessary for his release.
After 24 days and multiple communications with both his supervisors at SubCom and the agent, he was finally released to his ship, and continued on to the shipyard at Singapore.
Shortly after his release, the director of fleet operations and labor for SubCom informed him that he was to be disciplined for the incident. He would be told which disciplinary action the company had decided on after he had taken the ship back to Papua New Guinea.
Ledoux was incredulous.
“I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. After what I endured? After what I put my family through?
“He’s covering his ass; that’s what he’s doing,” he said.
Ledoux shared messages between himself and the supervisor in the aftermath of the captain’s release. In one, his boss accuses Ledoux of throwing a “hissy fit” after being informed of the disciplinary measures; in response Ledoux shoots back, “What am I being disciplined for?” and requested a relief, effectively resigning.
Ledoux also had extensive contact with the US State Department attache in Jakarta, as reflected in Whatsapp messages provided to gCaptain. The attache told him his company wasn’t communicating with the embassy, despite assurances from his supervisor it was. The attache said he had been prohibited from discussing the situation further but reported US officials wanted media attention on the story.
The embassy spokesperson in Jakarta told gCaptain that U.S. citizens arrested or detained overseas should ask authorities to notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, adding that “In a free and open Indo-Pacific, safe and unimpeded lawful commerce, freedom of navigation and overflight, and respect for international law must be maintained.”
The embassy’s careful response is hardly surprising and reflects a possible conflict of interest between advocating for detained U.S. citizens and broader diplomatic goals. The US has invested tens of millions of dollars in Indonesia to incentivize its ally to develop its ability to push back against Chinese advances into the South China sea. A collaborative effort with U.S. and regional parties, per a June 2021 US State Department Release, includes $3.5 million contribution to a training center for Bakamla — Indonesia’s non-ministerial littoral security organization which reports directly to the country’s president.
These investments are an important diplomatic tool for the US, as Indonesia plays a powerful role in the ongoing struggle for naval and trade supremacy in the south China sea. And the US has been aggressively countering China’s long-standing courtship of the archipelago nation; indeed, as Ledoux was arrested, the US Navy was in preparations to begin its 21st annual Cooperative Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT Indonesia) exercises, one of the large-scale naval training exercises conducted with ASEAN countries.
Another US official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, said, “We are aware of incidents of ships waiting to enter port in Singapore being detained by Indonesian authorities for anchoring in Indonesian waters. We are also aware of reports of ship owners making payments to parties claiming to represent the Indonesian Navy in order to have vessels released. Ships should exercise caution when navigating these waters.”
Though there is no justification for the length and mechanism of Ledoux’s detainment, the legal standing of these waters—and who is responsible for compliance with such standards—is less clear under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which governs everything from maritime boundary lines to outlining acceptable behavior for ships plying the sea.
Captain Ledoux asserts he was operating under the “Innocent Passage” standard in UNCLOS Section 3, which also applies to archipelagic states (with limitations outlined in Section 4.)
“For me, the aforementioned article clearly states that anchoring IS allowed. Awaiting a pilot boarding is an incidental reason for anchoring,” said Ledoux. A look at both the agent’s provided coordinates and the Reliance’s chart show that Ledoux was neither in a Traffic Separation Scheme or the precautionary zone that flanks the TSS; he was in around twenty fathoms of water and nearly 40 nautical miles northeast of Bintan Island.
Innocent Passage, in relevant part is defined in Article 18.2: Passage shall be continuous and expeditious. However, passage includes stopping and anchoring, but only in so far as the same are incidental to ordinary navigation or are rendered necessary by force majeure or distress for the purposes of rendering assistance to persons, ships or aircraft in danger or distress.
The terms “continuous and expeditious” are open to some interpretation. An addendum to the P&I Club memo provided by maritime consultants with SPICA Indonesia identifies several activities that could cause a vessel to lose the right innocent passage, e.g. conducting ship-to-ship cargo transfer. Even slowing to conduct a crew change could be construed to forfeit legal sanction under Article 18, section 2, which concludes its list of disqualifiers with the broad phrasing “any other activity not having a direct bearing on passage.” (Of note, invoking “Innocent Passage” necessarily concedes the claim to the waters being traversed to the country claiming them, as opposed to citing Freedom of Navigation [codified under UNCLOS Part 7]).
Lay attempts at sea-lawyering aside, the crux of Captain Ledoux’s conundrum is whether he is solely at fault for the consequences of his choice to anchor off Bintan or whether SubCom and the agent share responsibility, making discipline inappropriate. He was master of the vessel, but the company hired the agent, the agent gave him the coordinates, and he communicated those coordinates to the company.
Brian McNamara, a retired US Coast Guard Judge Advocate General officer and current professor of public policy at Tulane University in New Orleans, said it all depends.
“The company may have some responsibility if it was reasonably foreseeable that a vessel anchoring under these conditions in this location would be detained or if the company, exercising reasonable diligence, could have learned that the Indonesian Navy would likely detain a vessel master for a vessel anchoring in this location under these circumstances,” he wrote in an email. “A master in this type of situation might have to bring an action against the company in a different forum. In other words, a master detained by a coastal state might not be able to defend the master’s own detention by claiming the fault of their employer.”
McNamara, who specializes in maritime law with regards to international shipping, added that “The sailing master’s allegations, if true, appear to suggest the company directed the sailing master to anchor despite the sailing master’s objections to the anchorage location, or at least without informing the sailing master of the risk of detention.”
Despite some grounds, Ledoux may have trouble finding a qualified attorney. McNamara explains.
“[M]any times, a coastal state action or a port state action will create a situation in which the vessel master or captain has different interests than the vessel owner or operator. Because most admiralty attorneys in law firms represent vessel interests, vessel captains and masters may face significant challenges in identifying attorneys with the right background and knowledge to represent the mariner’s interests…I recommend that masters think ahead of time how they might handle this situation, and identify potential attorneys in advance. License insurance representatives might be a good source of references for experienced attorneys who represent mariners rather than maritime companies.
“To put it directly, I think the most significant challenge a sailing master would encounter is finding an attorney who represents individual mariners, knows the intricacies of maritime law, and who has enough practical maritime experience to understand a master’s situation,” he said.
Ledoux’s experience is certainly a cautionary tale for professional mariners. Vessel masters depend on shipowners for support, and the agents operating in far-flung locales and selected by the shipowner can be a significant component of that. It’s also a warning to the shipowners themselves, for whom a lack of due diligence can have dangerous consequences for the mariners manning their ships, and costly repercussions for their bottom lines. Diplomatic entanglements can delay strong U.S. government response for extrication from detention. This presents both vessel masters and shipowners with a Catch-22: pay the bribe and get the ship back in service quickly, with a maximum of legal exposure – or follow diplomatic and legal protocol while at the mercy of a foreign admiralty that has little incentive to expedite the legal process, while the crew suffers detention.
“Companies circumvent established diplomatic channels and solutions at their own risk,” said McNamara. “I am more concerned, however, with the real world impact. In the aggregate, this type of action can erode public trust and confidence in the international institutions that exist precisely to help resolve international maritime disputes.”
“Vessel masters train their entire careers to be ready for whatever situation they may encounter at sea. They should take the same approach to prepare for vessel detentions and other situations in which their personal interests diverge from their company’s interests. Prepare ahead of time,” advised McNamara. “Who will you call? Who is your attorney? What locations along your voyage route raise geopolitical risks and concerns? Have conversations with your employer ahead of time about concerns and risks along a route; communication is key.”
David S. Lewis is a USCG-licensed master mariner and veteran reporter. He runs a maritime consulting and charter business in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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