After weeks of detention, the U.S.-flagged heavy-lift carrier MV Ocean Atlas has been released by Venezuelan authorities.
The Ocean Atlas was boarded by local police, members of Venezuelas’ drug enforcement agency, and individuals claiming to be INTERPOL agents shortly after tying up in Maracaibo, Venezuela on Wednesday, August 29. The officials claimed that they had received a tip that the vessel was smuggling drugs from the United States.
A search of the Ocean Atlas failed to turn up drugs, but authorities detained the ship after finding weapons used by the vessel’s security team during a recent transit of the Gulf of Aden.
The weapons were locked in the Captain’s safe and had been declared prior to arrival, yet this did not stop authorities from returning September 6th with a police van and arrest warrants for the entire crew. A crew member reports that after being held at gunpoint for 3 hours, Captain Jeffrey Michael Raider convinced the authorities to accept his arrest if the other crew members were allowed to remain on the vessel.
Morale continued to decline until September 6th, when a crew member contacted gCaptain and news of the incident was posted to the gCaptain Forum.
Mainstream media attention quickly followed, encouraging US State Department officials to make their first visit to the detained vessel the following day.
M/V Ocean Atlas, one of four heavy-lift vessels of Intermarine’s U.S.-flag heavy-lift affiliate, U.S. Ocean, is operated by Crowley and manned by AMO union officers and SIU crew. The 8,000 DWT vessel, with 400 metric tons lifting capacity, is particularly well-suited for the movement of project/heavy-lift and military cargos. The Ocean Atlas sailed to Venezuela with 15 crewmembers aboard.
The incident follows the August detention of an unnamed U.S. citizen attempting to enter Venezuela from Colombia whom President Hugo Chavez said may be a “mercenary.” The U.S. and Venezuela diplomats have clashed ever since Chavez, a self-declared “anti-imperialist,” came to power 13 years ago. Chavez, who faces elections on Oct. 7, accuses the U.S. of having supported a 2002 coup against him.
“The disturbing aspect of the matter in Venezuela is the possible politicization by the Chavez regime of the world-wide trend toward criminalization of the master and officers. This has occurred before in that state in similar circumstances such as in the cases of the B Atlantic (2007) and the Astro Saturn (2008) which seem similar in some respects to this case.” said CAMM member Dr. John A. C. Cartner, a world recognized maritime security expert and author of the book The International Law of the Shipmaster. “These are well-worn ways toward arresting first, asking questions later and in some cases waiting a year or more before moving toward charge and trial or release.”
In the weeks following the incident, gCaptain contacted INTERPOL and learned that the organization prohibits agents from boarding ships or conducting field work of any kind. The organization warns all ships to be aware of any individuals claiming to be INTERPOL agents.
The vessel was finally released on September 14th and sailed directly to the Dominican Republic to replenish supplies and allow the crew to step off the gangway for the first time since the vessel departed Houston one month earlier. It was also noted that Captain Raider is in good spirits and was treated well throughout the period of his arrest.