Empty vessel, Gavin McLean

Joyita: Solving the Mystery
David G Wright
Auckland University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 1869402707

It was a recurring image in New Zealand and Pacific newspapers and magazines 40 to 50 years ago: the waterlogged hull of the old Islands trader Joyita, drifting near Fiji in October 1955, largely intact but abandoned and offering no clues as to what had happened to its 25 passengers and crew. This was a Mary Celeste for modern times.

At the time there were almost as many theories about what happened during the last hours aboard the Joyita as there were bars in the South Pacific. Some put it down to acts of God, a waterspout or a rogue wave. Others suggested human intervention. Perhaps there had been a mutiny, after which the survivors had drowned or had been eaten by sharks. Others alleged that the Joyita people had seen something they were not supposed to and had been murdered by Japanese fishermen (remember this was only a decade after World War 2). Cold War warriors suggested that a Soviet submarine had run down the Joyita.

The Joyita story had all the ingredients of a movie. The old boat had started life as a Hollywood mogul’s pleasure craft. Since then its career had taken a downward path, serving as a navy patrol craft and then an Islands trader-cum-fishing boat. By the time the Joyita made its fatal voyage, its master, “Dusty” Miller, a likeable rogue, was a near-empty fuel tank away from insolvency. The ship had been banned from American territorial waters, the radio did not work, and the port engine was not operating at any stage of the voyage from Apia to the Tokelaus. It was not licensed to carry the passengers that it had aboard. Little wonder that the story kept popping up at irregular intervals. Robin Maugham wrote a semi-sensational book about it but other versions were mainly by feature writers interviewing their typewriters.


Five years ago, one of these once-over lightly stories sparked the interest of Auckland University English Department lecturer David Wright. Maritime mysteries are a long way from Wright’s usual field of writing (Joyce), but the story itself and why no one had gone back to the original evidence or interviewed people associated with the Joyita intrigued him.

Wright quickly dismisses the more fanciful explanations of the Cold War era. The boat was salvaged, towed back into port and inspected closely. Its fabric showed no sign of collision with a submarine or ship (the hull was intact and the damage to the superstructure was consistent with wave damage after taking on a list). Nor was there any trace of bloodshed, either from a mutiny or boarding. There were problems with the court of inquiry but, essentially, Wright accepts its findings.

The simple truth is that the Joyita was indeed unfit to put to sea and its crew was of mixed quality. The vessel was soundly built but poorly maintained. Its port engine was not working when it left Apia, and on the way out the starboard one failed, delaying the ship’s departure. Slapdash post-war refits and the inactivity of recent months had taken their toll (paint over the severed ends of the radio antenna showed that Miller had not used it for months). Sometime, shortly after sailing, a pipe from the cooling system fractured, flooding the engine room and stopping the one functioning engine. Although cork lining applied during an earlier refit and some empty metal drums placed in the hold by the crew after the incident prevented the Joyita from actually sinking, it would have been wallowing and listing alarmingly. Attempts to pump water failed and the radio was useless.

Wright surmises that this chain of incidents almost certainly panicked the passengers and crew into abandoning ship in the dark. It was the wrong thing to do, and he speculates that Miller, who would have known better, may have lost control of them at this point. It made no sense to leave. No one knew that they were in trouble and there was no guarantee that anyone would come across them. Even worse, the Joyita’s three war-surplus Carley floats were of doubtful quality and insufficient for the 25 passengers and crew. Since the floats skimmed the surface of the water, they would have quickly drifted away from the heavy, wallowing Joyita. By the time a freighter found the Joyita weeks later, the bodies were either drifting hundreds of miles away or already on the bottom.

In a well-written book of just over 110 pages plus front and back matter, Wright explains convincingly what happened to the Joyita. He also advances a good case for what may have happened amongst the passengers and crew as they reacted to the disaster, the next best thing to a survivor’s tale or a diary entry. Photographs, a map and full documentation of primary sources set the context for his deductions. Human nature being what it is, people will probably go on raking over the story but Wright has at least provided a sounder basis for future retellings of the Joyita’s tale.


Gavin McLean is a maritime historian who lives in Wellington.


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