The mysterious disappearance of the crew of MV Joyita is one of the most well-known and thought provoking disappearances in history. MV Joyita was a merchant vessel which was holding 25 people at the time of its disappearance. It was found adrift in the South Pacific with no one on board. While the ship was damaged, investigators concluded that the chances of the ship sinking were ‘nearly impossible’. This led to several questions being asked regarding why the crew departed, and ultimately what happened to them. In this article, we take a look at this spellbinding case.
MV Joyita was a 69-foot long ship made from wood. It was built in 1931 – initially serving as a luxury yacht for a movie director, who named the ship after his wife. In 1936, the ship was sold on, and underwent several trips around Northern America. MV Joyita was then acquired by the United States Navy for World War II, which led to some damage. In 1948, the ship was sold privately, and was subsequently modernised. Over the following years, the ship would undergo several ownership changes.
The fateful journey came in October 1955. MV Joyita left Samoa, with the intention of completing a 270-mile trip to the Tokelau Islands. Captain Thomas Miller was at the helm. The forecasted journey time was between 40 and 48 hours. Engine problems delayed the departure, and eventually the ship left with just one engine. 25 people were on board in total – including 16 crew members and 9 passengers. The cargo largely featured nondescript items – mainly food.
72 hours following departure, operators from Tokelau raised the alarm following MV Joyita’s failure to arrive. No distress signal had been received by operators, which caused confusion as to its whereabouts. A search and rescue mission was launched. The search was believed to have covered an area of 100,000 square miles of ocean, making it a large search. However, there was no sign of the ship nor its passengers – leading to bewilderment.
A breakthrough in the case followed five weeks after its departure. Another merchant ship which was en route to Tuvalu spotted MV Joyita. MV Joyita was over 600 miles away from its scheduled route – explaining the search team’s inability to find it. The ship was partially submerged, some of the cargo was missing, and there was no sign of passengers nor crew. The ship was eventually brought to land, and a thorough investigation was initialised.
The investigators noted that while the ship had been listing for some time, the vessel was not at risk of sinking. The significant amount of cork in the hold lining and empty fuel drums made it near-unsinkable. MV Joyita was still running on just one engine. This led to severe criticism of Captain Miller, who was said to be ‘reckless’ for setting out on the voyage with just one engine and some minor faults. The state of the ship led investigators to conclude that an evacuation had occurred.
The dinghy and liferafts were all missing, as was navigational equipment – suggesting the passengers departed. The radio had been tuned to an internationally-recognised marine distress channel. However, investigators noted the equipment was faulty, limiting the range of the radio to just 2 miles – explaining why no distress call was received. Calculations on fuel suggested the ship had travelled around 250 miles before being abandoned – just 50 miles away from its destination. Another finding was that blood-stained bandages were found on board. No trace of the passengers were ever found, giving rise to several theories.
- Ship Abandonement Led by Captain Miller: One theory posits that the crew decided to abandon ship due to the flooding of the engine room. They would have taken the navigational equipment and left on the liferafts to an uncertain ending. However, investigators didn’t believe this theory – believing that an experienced Captain like Miller would’ve realised the ship wouldn’t sink. The best solution would have been to drift, and to await rescue.
- Ship Abandonement Caused by Captain Miller’s Demise: Therefore, it has been suggested that Captain Miller could have either died or become incapacitated during the voyage – which links well with the bloody bandages found. After Miller had died, the others may have panicked and hastily evacuated, taking equipment and liferafts. Like above, they would have fled to an uncertain fate, never to be seen again. This is the most widely-accepted theory.
- Insurance Fraud: Captain Miller was supposedly in severe debt at the time of the disappearance. This has led some to believe that Miller opted to use MV Joyita for insurance fraud – before utilising his influential position as captain to lead an evacuation. Perhaps then the group got lost. However, given Miller’s experience, it would have been inexplicable for him to get lost in the sea, given the navigational equipment that would have been taken.
- Mutiny: Given the aforementioned debt problems of Captain Miller, it is likely that Miller would have been hell-bent on reaching the destination in order to be paid. Yet when the ship started to flood, it is possible other crew members demanded they turned back. An altercation may have happened – leading to the bloody injury. The group then might have decided to abandon the ship with the equipment, only to get lost, with Miller perhaps remaining on the ship, before also deciding to leave later, without navigational equipment.
- Japanese Involvement: A somewhat controversial theory suggested that the ship had travelled past a fleet of Japanese fishing boats. Those on board the fishing boats were purportedly doing something clandestine, and opted to eliminate all those on board, before staging an evacuation. The Fiji Times quoted an ‘impeccable source’ to that suggested this theory was true.
- Soviet Involvement: Another less-supported theory is similar to above, albeit with Soviet involvement. This theory is largely due to the Cold War – with suggestions that the Soviet Union may try to kidnap the occupants of MV Joyita. This theory lacks backing.
- Pirates: Modern-day pirates who were aiming to steal the cargo of MV Joyita could have been responsible for the disappearance. They could have dumped bodies in the ocean after raiding the ship, before getting rid of liferafts to make it look like they had evacuarted.
- Alien Abduction: Finally, if there is no other explanation, it is possible alien’s opted to abduct those on board, leading to their uncertain fate.
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This mysterious disappearance is truly baffling. It is unsurprising that this incident has been referred to as ‘the Mary Celeste of the South Pacific’. The disappearance has been the subject of several books and TV documentaries, owing to its popularity. Unfortunately, the truth will surely never be known. MV Joyita itself would be refitted, before a crash in 1959 ended its career. Two memory stones in honour of those on board are located in both Samoa and Tokelau – serving as a permanent reminder of this disappearance.