The Cursed Ghost Ship of Fiji

The sea is a vast place full of a seemingly unfathomable amount of unsolved mysteries. It is also a place that at times seems possessed of a voracious appetite for human souls, with many having gone to their watery graves here or indeed disappearing amongst the waves without a trace. In fact, the ocean is a veritable black hole of people and ships that have ventured out to never be seen again. In the annals of maritime mysteries, one that truly stands out is the strange case of a ship which was deemed unsinkable, which embarked on a routine run in the Fiji Islands only to reappear an aimless, ghostly derelict that would pose more questions than it ever answered and would go on to become so mired in mystery and strangeness that it would come to be known as the “Mary Celeste of the South Pacific.”

The MV Joyita, which means “little jewel” in Spanish, was a luxury yacht constructed in 1931 for the famous movie director Roland West and was named after his wife, Jewel Carmenille. The boat itself measured 69-foot (21 m) in length, had a completely wooden hull composed of cedar beams on oak frames, and was diesel powered. At the time, it was widely touted that the vessel was unsinkable due to its solid wooden construction which made it extremely buoyant and ensured that even in the event of significant hull damage and leakage it was still nigh impossible for it to actually sink.

The MV Joyita at port

The MV Joyita

The ship had a rather colorful history. It would be sold in 1936 to a Milton E. Beacon, and would take numerous journeys south to Mexico until it was acquired by the US Navy in 1941. Once in the Navy, the MV Joyita was taken to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and reconfigured, refitted, modified, and transformed into Patrol Boat YP-108. The ship’s duties during this time mostly consisted of patrolling the Big Island of Hawaii until the end of WWII. In 1946, the ship would be decommissioned and sold to the firm of Louis Brothers, where it was fitted with refrigeration equipment and its hull lined with cork, further enhancing its legendary buoyancy and ensuring its unsinkability. The MV Jovita would change hands several more times until it ended up in the hands of a British born sailor living in Samoa by the name of Captain Thomas H. “Dusty” Miller, who used it as a fishing charter boat and passenger vessel for hire.

On October 3, 1955, the MV Joyita embarked on a routine merchant passenger run, leaving from the Samoan capital city of Apia and headed for the Tokelau Islands, about 270 miles (430 km) away, with 16 crew members, 9 passengers, and 4 tons of cargo including medical supplies, timber, 80 empty 45 gallon (200 l) oil drums and various foodstuffs. Various setbacks had befallen the ship at the time, most notably the fact that its port engine clutch had failed, which had postponed the ship’s original departure time of noon the previous day. The ship never was adequately fixed, instead opting to leave Apia Harbor with only one working engine. Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time bad luck had befallen the MV Joyita. During its days in the Navy, it had run aground and sustained heavy damage, which had been fixed but had also saddled it with a reputation as an unlucky vessel among superstitious sailors.

One engine or not, the MV Joyita slogged out of Apia a day off schedule but otherwise in mostly seaworthy condition. The trip was expected to take 2 days, with an official arrival date of October 5, but the ship never made it within this time frame and on October 6, 1955 it was declared overdue. At first, it was surmised that the vessel had merely encountered some difficulties or had been slowed down due to a lack of one of its engines and would arrive before long as no distress signal had been received, but one day would stretch into 5 weeks with still no word on what had become of the ship. During this time, the Royal New Zealand Air Force launched an extensive search and rescue operation which scoured nearly 100,000 square miles (260,000 km²) of ocean yet no sign of the Joyita was found. It was as if the vessel had simply disappeared off of the face of the earth.

MV-Joyita

On November 10, 1955, the captain aboard the merchant vessel Tuvalu spotted the missing Joyita off of the Fiji island of Vanua Levu, approximately 600 miles off course from its intended destination. It was immediately noticed that the Joyita was floating aimlessly, listing heavily, and there were no signs of anyone on board. When investigators moved in to have a look, it was discovered that not only were the crew and passengers missing, but also most of the 4 tons of cargo it had been carrying, nearly everything except the empty oil drums. The ship’s three lifeboats were also nowhere to be seen and could not be located despite the fact that the rafts had been fitted with with distress beacons and were specifically designed to be found quickly. The ship was also found to be at first glance in overall poor condition. The flying bridge had been destroyed, and many of the ship’s windows had been smashed in for reasons unknown. Additionally, barnacle growth on the port side showed that the ship had been listing rather heavily for some time, and there was a large hole in the ships’ superstructure that had led to heavy flooding of the lower deck. Oddly, it was noticed that an awning made of canvas had been hastily set up over the deckhouse behind the bridge.

When investigators boarded the mysteriously abandoned vessel, they were met with yet more strangeness. The first ominous find was a doctor’s bag on deck that was filled with bloodied bandages. In the bridge, it was found that the ship’s logbook and navigational equipment such as its sextant and chronometer were all missing, as well as several firearms that Captain Miller had kept on board. It was also noticed that all of the lights for the cabins were on as were the navigational lights, and weirdly all of the electrical clocks on board had stopped at 10:25, probably due to the ship’s generators cutting out at that time. The radio on the ship proved to be functional and was set to an international distress channel, although it only had a range of 2 miles due to faulty wiring. Nevertheless, it appeared that no distress signal had ever actually been sent. In the engine room, it was discovered that the starboard engine had been inexplicably covered with mattresses, perhaps in a misguided effort to plug a leak. There was heavy clogging of the bilge pumps that had rendered them useless, and an auxiliary pump had been rigged up in the engine room to fight flooding but it had not been connected to any power source.

The MV Joyita shortly after it was found abandoned

The MV Joyita shortly after it was found abandoned

An inquiry was launched into the mysterious circumstances of the Joyita, but little was found to answer the question of what had happened. The only thing which could be ascertained was why there had been leaking below decks; a corroded pipe in the engines cooling system which had then fractured and flooded the bilges. It was determined that the increasing amount of water would have soon made the ship’s single operational engine unable to gain enough speed to steer. It was also found that the fuel tanks still had a good amount of fuel, with the amount remaining suggesting that the vessel had travelled around 243 miles (391 km) before being abandoned, probably on the second night of the voyage. Other things uncovered by the inquiry were that Captain Miller had been transporting passengers with an elapsed license to do so, in direct defiance of maritime law, and he was found to be negligent for having decided to leave harbor with only one working engine. There were also not enough lifeboats on the ship to accommodate all of the passengers, meaning that many of them most certainly took to the water in life vests, where they may have drowned or been picked off by sharks. In the end, the official inquiry into the case deemed the disappearances as inexplicable.

Perhaps the biggest mystery was why anyone would have opted to leave the vessel in the first place. Although there was extensive leaking in the lower deck, the Joyita’s hull was still intact, and additionally was lined with large amounts of cork. This, plus the numerous empty steel drums that the vessel had been carrying as cargo, would have made the Joyita effectively unsinkable, no matter how much water she had taken on. Listing or not, the Joyita was essentially still completely seaworthy when it was found. The crew would surely have been aware of this, especially Captain Miller, who had often expounded on his ship’s inability to be sunk. It was also found that there were still plenty of supplies, provisions and water on board. So why would everyone on board leave this unsinkable, sturdy, and well provisioned ship in order to face the uncertain dangers of the sea aboard the tiny lifeboats? Those who knew Miller insisted that he would never have willingly abandoned his pride and joy with full knowledge that it would remain afloat. The mystery further deepens with the fact that the ship had apparently never given any distress signal. So where did everyone go? Why did they irrationally risk the life boats if the problem was merely flooding in the lower deck of an otherwise seaworthy vessel and why wouldn’t they send a distress signal even if they did? No one knew, and this enigma has become the main focus of those trying to unravel the mystery of what happened aboard the Joyita.

The MV Joyita

The MV Joyita

Over the years, theories have abounded on just exactly what transpired aboard the doomed voyage of the MV Joyita. One popular theory suggests that Miller for some reason had been killed or otherwise taken out of commission, which would lead to the rest of the crew perhaps panicking in the face of the flooding and therefore abandoning ship. As to how Miller could have been incapacitated, it has been suggested that he may have had a fight with his first mate, Chuck Simpson. The two famously disliked each other and would often quarrel about petty things, so it is believed that they may have come to blows and seriously hurt each other, or that they may have both fallen overboard in the melee. Simpson may have even taken things too far and killed or grievously injured Miller at some point. This could all explain the bloodied bandages that were found in the medical kit. This theory still does not explain the lack of distress signal or why the remaining crew wouldn’t have known enough of the Joyita’s legendary buoyancy to know enough to stay put.

Another idea is that the ship was attacked by some outside force. A popular proposed culprit is pirates, who perhaps caused the crew and passengers to flee aboard the life rafts in a hurry or even slaughtered everyone on board. However, it is not clear just what pirates would want with the missing cargo of medical supplies and timber, things that are not typically attractive targets for pirates. Another proposed theory is that the ship was captured by a Soviet submarine and the crew and passengers kidnapped. There was even speculation that there were still secret Japanese forces operating in the Pacific from some top secret island base after World War II, perhaps unaware that the war had ended, and that these forces had set their sights on the Joyita. Speaking of the Japanese, at the time of the ghost ship’s discovery, one popular theory reported in several news publications of the time was that the ship had been set upon by Japanese fishing boats after passing through a fleet and seeing “something the Japanese did not want them to see.” This theory carries some weight, as at the time there was a lot of controversy in Fiji over Japan’s operation of fishing fleets in their waters.

There was also talk that perhaps there had been a mutiny aboard the Joyita at some point during the voyage. In this scenario, the Joyita encounters problems when its engine room becomes flooded and foul weather marked by huge waves confronts the ship. It is said that the determined Miller, confident in his knowledge that nothing can sink the Joyita, chooses to press on with the mission while the rest of the crew insists that they turn back. It is thought that perhaps the crew had incapacitated Miller and then in the face of progressively frightening swells had opted to jump ship in the lifeboats after spotting perhaps a reef or small island which they thought they could reach. In the ensuing dash for the perceived safety, they may have been swept out to sea, leaving the Joyita an abandoned derelict.

One academic from New Zealand by the name of David Wright thinks that after taking on water from the broken pipe, the Joyita had tried to send a distress signal but for some reason or other the signal was not transmitted. The crew, thinking that the distress signal had indeed been sent, proceeded to take to the life boats while many of the passengers were forced to use life vests and subsequently drowned or were eaten by sharks one by one. The idea was that they would be rescued by the Royal New Zealand Air force Sunderland, but that help never arrived as the signal had actually not been received. This idea still does not explain why the crew would not have just sent the distress signal and then waited upon the well stocked boat which they likely knew was in no real danger of completely sinking beneath the waves.

The MV Joyita in 1958, after being salvaged

The MV Joyita in 1958, after being salvaged

Other theories surrounding the Joyita mystery say that it was an attempted insurance fraud by Miller or that the disappearances are even the work of aliens, ghosts, or some creature from the sea. Adding to the mystique surrounding the Joyita are several claims that the ship’s captain, Miller, was spotted alive and well over the years in such far-flung places as Singapore, the West Indies, and Honolulu, although these sightings have never been substantiated.

In the ensuing years after the inquiry, the MV Joyita was auctioned off, repaired, refitted, and overhauled, although it would prove to have not lost its air of bad luck. In 1957, it ran aground in the Koro Sea while carrying 13 passengers, after which it was repaired and resumed operations. In 1959, it ran aground again, this time on a reef at Vatuvalu. The ship eventually drifted off of the reef and experienced freak mechanical problems when its pumps began to pump water into the hull rather than expelling it out. These incidents, plus the ship’s already dark past, caused it to be labelled as a cursed ship, and there were few sailors who wanted anything to do with it. The owners stripped the ship of useful equipment and abandoned it as a mere hulk, which was then bought by the author Robin Maugham in the 1960s, who would go on to write a book titled The Joyita Mystery in 1962. The beached hulk was steadily salvaged for scrap and parts over the years until by the 1970s there was nearly nothing left of it.

Although the Joyita has deteriorated and lost its physical form, its mystery remains as strong as ever. What happened to this cursed vessel and its crew back in 1955? To this day, despite all of the rumors, speculation, and theorizing, no one knows. All 25 of those aboard have never been found, nor has any trace of the lifeboats aboard which they fled some unknown threat or of the missing cargo. This appears to be yet another inscrutable mystery of the sea, with the only witnesses to the truth the waves and perhaps the ghosts of the past, which may still be out there upon the ceaseless churning of the sea, contemplating their fate and lost to their watery grave.