The Joyita was a yacht that belonged to Roland West and was used in the 1931 movie CORSAIR. This was the movie in which Thelma Todd was billed as "Alison Loyd".
Vessel description and history
The incident at sea
Overdue and disappeared
Sighted off-course without passengers or crew
Condition of the vessel
- Barnacle growth high above the usual waterline on the port side showed that the Joyita had been listing heavily for some time.
- The starboard engine was found to be covered by mattresses, while the port engine's clutch was still partially disassembled, showing that the vessel was still running on only one engine.
- An auxiliary pump had been rigged in the engine room, mounted on a plank of wood slung between the main engines. However, it had not been connected.
- The radio on board was tuned to the international distress channel, but when the equipment was inspected, a break was found in the cable between the set and the aerial. The cable had been painted over, obscuring the break. This would severely limit the range of the radio to about 2 miles (5 km).
- The electric clocks on board (wired into the vessel's generator) had stopped at 10:25 and the switches for the cabin lighting and navigation lights were on, implying that whatever had occurred happened at night. The ships' logbook, sextant, mechanical chronometer and other navigational equipment were missing.
- A doctor's bag was found on deck containing a stethoscope, a scalpel and four lengths of blood-stained bandages.
Maritime inquiryA subsequent inquiry found that the vessel was in a poor state of repair, but determined that the fate of the passengers and crew was "inexplicable on the evidence submitted at the inquiry". An especially inexplicable point was that the three liferafts the Joyita carried were missing, but it would not make sense for the crew and passengers to voluntarily abandon the vessel. Fitted out for carrying refrigerated cargo, the Joyita had 640 cubic feet (18 m3) of cork lining her holds, making her virtually unsinkable. In addition, further buoyancy was provided by a cargo of empty fuel drums.
The inquiry was only able to establish the reasons for the vessel becoming flooded. It found that the vessel would have begun to flood due to the fractured cooling pipe. The bilge pumps were unserviceable due to becoming blocked. The Joyita lacked watertight bulkheads or subdivisions in the bilges. The water would have gradually flooded the lower decks. As the vessel began to sink lower into the water, the one remaining engine would not have been able to maintain enough speed to steer. The Joyita then fell beam-on to a heavy swell and took on the heavy list it was found with. While flooded to an extent which would sink a conventional vessel, the Joyita stayed afloat due to her cork-lined hull and cargo of fuel drums.
The inquiry also placed much of the responsibility for the events on Miller. They found him reckless for setting out on an ocean-going voyage with only one engine and numerous minor faults, and negligent for failing to provide a working radio or properly equipped lifeboat. He was also in breach of maritime law, since he had allowed Joyita's license to carry fare-paying passengers to lapse.
The inquiry made no mention of the used medical equipment found on board.
TheoriesThe Joyita is sometimes referred to as the "Mary Celeste of the South Pacific" and has been the subject of several books and documentaries offering explanations that range from rational and conventional to supernatural and paranormal.
Numerous theories for the disappearance of the Joyita's crew and passengers have been advanced. Many were circulated at the time of the event, and several others have been put forward since.
Given the fact that the hull of the Joyita was sound and her design made her unsinkable, a main concern of investigators was determining why the passengers and crew did not stay on board if the events were simply triggered by the flooding in the engine room.
Captain injured theoryCaptain Miller was well aware of the vessel's ability to stay afloat, leading some to speculate that Miller had died or become incapacitated for some reason (someone on board was injured- hence the bloodstained bandages). Without him to reassure the other people on board, they had panicked when the Joyita began to flood and had taken to the liferafts. However, this in itself would not account for the missing cargo and equipment, unless the vessel had been found abandoned and had her cargo removed.
A friend of Miller's, Captain S. B. Brown, was convinced that Miller would never have left the Joyita alive, given his knowledge of her construction. He was aware of tension between Miller and his American first mate, Chuck Simpson. Brown felt that Miller and Simpson's dislike of each other came to blows and both men fell overboard or were severely injured in a struggle. This left the vessel without an experienced seaman and would explain why those remaining on board would panic when the ship began to flood.
The "Japanese did it" and the piracy theoriesThe Fiji Times and Herald quoted at the time from an "impeccable source" to the effect that the Joyita had passed through a fleet of Japanese fishing boats during its trip and "had observed something the Japanese did not want them to see." Others theorize that modern sea pirates attacked the vessel, killed the 25 passengers and crew (and cast their bodies into the ocean), and stole the missing four tons of cargo.
The Daily Telegraph theorised that some still-active Japanese forces from World War II were to blame for the disappearances, operating from an isolated island base.
There was still strong anti-Japanese feeling in parts of the Pacific, and in Fiji there was specific resentment of Japan being allowed to operate fishing fleets in local waters. Such theories suddenly gained credence when men clearing the Joyita found knives stamped 'Made in Japan'. However, tests on the knives proved negative and it turned out the knives were old and broken- quite possibly left on board from when the Joyita was used for fishing in the late 1940s.
Insurance fraud theoryIt was also revealed that Miller had amassed large debts after a series of unsuccessful fishing trips on Joyita. However, it would have been difficult to see the events surrounding the Joyita as insurance fraud, given that no seacocks were found open and the ship would be almost impossible to scuttle. Also, Miller was relying on Joyita being chartered for regular runs between Samoa and Tokelau- these government charters would have quickly cleared his debts.
Mutiny theoryOne of Joyita's owners after the events of 1955, travel-writer Robin Maugham, spent many years investigating his vessel's past, and published his findings as The Joyita Mystery in 1962. Maugham agreed that events were started by the flooding from the broken cooling pipe and the failure of the pumps. The mattresses found covering the starboard engine were used either in an attempt to stem the leak or to protect the electrical switchboard from spray kicked up by the engine's flywheel as the water level rose. At the same time, the Joyita encountered increasingly heavy swells and squally weather.
Miller, knowing the Joyita to be unsinkable and desperate to reach his destination to clear his debt, pressed on. However, Simpson, and possibly other crew members, demanded that he turned back. This effectively led to mutiny and Miller and the crew struggled, during which Miller sustained a serious injury. By now the ship was entering heavier weather, with winds around 40 mph (64 km/h), and with one engine and a flooded bilge, was beginning to labour. The flooding in the engine room would have eventually caused the starboard engine to fail, also cutting all the vessel's electrical power. Simpson was now in control and made the decision to abandon ship, taking the navigational equipment, logbook and supplies, as well as the injured Miller, with them. It still seems unlikely that Simpson would choose to abandon a flooded but floating ship to take to small open rafts in the Pacific Ocean.
Maugham proposed that they sighted a nearby island or reef and tried to reach it, but in the strong winds and seas the rafts were carried out to sea, leaving the Joyita drifting and empty. The damage to the lightly built superstructure was caused by wave damage while the vessel was drifting in heavy seas.
Joyita after 1955In July 1956, Joyita was auctioned off by her owners for £2425 to a Fiji Islander, David Simpson. He refitted and overhauled her and she went to sea again that year. However, she was surrounded by legal disputes over the transfer of her registry from the USA to Britain without permission. In January 1957 she ran aground while carrying 13 passengers in the Koro Sea. She was repaired and in October 1958 began a regular trade between Levuka and Suva.
She ran aground again in November, 1959 at Vatuvalu.
She floated off, but while heading for port, began to ship water through a split seam. The pumps were started, but it became clear that the valves for the pump had been installed the wrong way, meaning that water was pumped into the hull, not out. Now with a reputation as an 'unlucky ship' and with a damaged hull, she was abandoned by her owners and beached. She was stripped of useful equipment and was practically a hulk when she was bought by Robin Maugham in the early 1960s.
- John Harris (1981) Without Trace: the Last Voyages of Eight Ships. London: Methuen ISBN 0-7493-0043-4
- Robin Maugham (1962) The Joyita Mystery. London: Max Parrish & Co ISBN 0-906754-59-3
- Stephen Noakes (1965) "The Marie Céleste of the South Pacific (Joyita)", in: Wide World Magazine, January 1965
- John Pinkney, World's Greatest Mysteries. Five Mile Press ISBN 978-1-74211-664-8
- David G. Wright (2002) Joyita: Solving the Mystery. Auckland: Auckland University Press ISBN 1-86940-270-7
The name "Joyita" is Spanish for "Little Jewel". It was actually named after Jewel Carmen, with whom Roland West was involved. People also associated the Joyita with Thelma Todd and there were stories that when West sold it some of her posessions were still on board. Because the Joyita was supposed to be an unlucky ship, people also thought that Thelma Todd had been a victim of some sort of jinx on the vessel, and because it was used as a patrol boat at Pearl Harbor during World War II, some people linked it to the Japanese attack that flung the US into the war. I would call it coincidence, but ill fortune did befall many people who were associated with the Joyita, some of who aren't mentioned in histories of the vessel. In his autobiography MY WONDERFUL WORLD OF SLAPSTICK, Buster Keaton spoke of going on board the Joyita to talk with Roland West shortly before his career went on the skids.
But everything in life that goes wrong doesn't have to be caused by things like unlucky ships.
The Joyita Mystery, Pt. I:
Joyita Mystery, Pt. II: