Monday Mystery: A "Little Jewel", Abandoned

On October 3rd, 1955, the MV Joyita set sail from Samoa. Though run as a merchant vessel, she began her life in 1931 as a swanky Hollywood yacht, and had spent WWII serving the US Navy as a patrol boat in Hawai'i. Sturdy enough to survive a hard grounding near the Big Island, she was further reinforced after her purchase by a private company in 1948, when her holds were lined in cork insulation to enable her to carry refrigerated cargo. 

When the Joyita left Samoa that fall, she carried sixteen crew, nine passengers, an assortment of cargo for sale and trade, and a wonky port engine that the crew had failed to fix before setting out seventeen hours behind their original schedule. 

You might think that this is an inauspicious beginning. You would be correct.

The trip was slated to take two days, give or take a few hours. Three days after they departed, the destination port of Fakaofo in the Tokelau Islands sent a message out asking where the hell they were. A search and rescue effort was launched, lasting nearly a week, wherein the Royal New Zealand Air Force overflew almost 100,000 square miles of ocean and found absolutely no trace of the Joyita whatsoever. 

The complete failure of the search party was at least explained in mid-November, when another merchant ship ran across the MV Joyita, purely by chance -- the little wooden yacht was adrift, listing profoundly to port, near Fiji, more than 600 miles west of where she was supposed to be sailing. They hailed her and got no response; when they boarded the Joyita, they found she was completely abandoned. Nor was it just the people that were missing; the ship's log, the sextant, the mechanical chronometer, and the captain's firearms were also gone, as were all of the life jackets, all of the lifeboats, and four tons of the original cargo. Still present were a doctor's bag (presumably belonging to Dr. Alfred Denis Parsons, one of the passengers), complete with stethoscope, scalpel, and several lengths of ominously bloodstained bandages.

Investigators were puzzled. Though the boat had been floating at a list long enough for barnacles to have grown on the port side of the hull, the heavy cork lining meant it was in little danger of sinking. Despite that, there were indications that she had been abandoned late at night, and perhaps in something of a hurry: A cabin clock, wired into the main power supply, was stopped at 10:25, and the switches for cabin lights had been left on. 

Water had swamped the lower decks of the Joyita when she was found, and seeped back in once she was safely moored again; this proved to be because corrosion in some of the pipes had allowed water in through leaks in the cooling system. A pump had been propped up in the engine room, yet wasn't connected to anything and couldn't have been used. The starboard engine was beneath a heap of mattresses and the clutch on the port one left in pieces, meaning she could have been running on at most one engine. 

The radio was found still tuned to the international distress frequency, which implied the crew had been calling for help, and yet no vessel or port had ever heard it. This, at least, was explained when the radio was exampled; a wiring fault had limited the broadcast range to roughly 2 miles, which is not a long way when you're in the middle of the ocean.

Though it was clear that the boat had been in considerable distress, no one could understand why it had been abandoned. The cork in its refrigerated compartments meant that, barring being blown to smithereens, the Joyita would have been incredibly difficult to sink. (Conspiracy theorists have pointed out that the captain was badly in debt and might have been trying to commit insurance fraud. Sensible people have pointed out that 'scuttling' is just another way to spell 'sinking', and that you'd have to do a lot better than leaving a tap open to submerge that thing.) And even if they were worried about that, standard practice when loading into lifeboats is to tie yourselves together, and also to the vessel you had previously been on, inasmuch as that's where the people who heard your distress call are going to look for you.

A Kiwi named David Wright, whose mother's cousin was among the vanished passengers, claims to have solved the case. His theory is set out in a book called Joyita: Solving The Mystery, which I have not yet gotten my grubby little paws on. The Boston Public Library can do anything short of sticking an arm back in time through a dimensional rift to get you what you want, but you have to have a bit of patience with the Inter-Library Loan people sometimes.

The name of the yacht, "Joyita", is Spanish for "little jewel" -- the original owner, film director Roland West, named it for his wife, Jewel. In a minor subsidiary mystery, all of the sources I can find give her full name as "Jewel Carmenille". I've no idea where that came from; Googling that name gets nothing. She actually performed under the name Jewel Carmen, starring in a number of silent films from 1912 to 1926.

Carmen and West were themselves involved in either an infamous scandal. West was estranged from Carmen and carrying on an affair with the actress Thelma Todd at the time of Todd's 1935 death from carbon monoxide poisoning, variously ruled accident, suicide, and potential murder.

Check the category label for more Monday Mysteries! 



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