The Ghost Ship Joyita

Accounts of jinx vessels go back as far as man’s written records of seafaring adventure.  There were Roman ships and Viking dragon boats reputedy “born unlucky”, and we may assume that the same applied to certain dugout canoes long before the first sail was every hoisted.

Sailor’s superstitions have remained ingrained throughout the centuries.  There are dozens of reasons for a craft to be considered ill-starred.  It is easy to brush these stories aside as tall-tales but the fact remains that there ARE ships that appear cursed with every mishap and tragedy malevolent fate can bestow.

Roland West, a film producer with RKO studios, had her built in the first blaze of Hollywood´s glory and named her Joyita – Spanish for little jewel in honour of his actress sweetheart Jewel Carmen.  The romance fizzled and bad luck began to haunt the yacht even before her launching in 1931.  West has long been considered a murder suspect in many conspiracy theories due to the unusual circumstances surrounding the death of his longtime mistress, actress Thelma Todd.  Todd was found dead in the garage of her home in December 1935.  An autopsy concluded that she died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning caused by the exhaust of her car.  Some conspiracy buffs have suggested that Todd was really murdered by West aboard the Joyita and then later transfered to the car.

The Joyita had been built in 1931 at Los Angeles.  On her maiden voyage the ship was towed back into port after a disastrous engine room fire.  The Joyita was sold and went into charter service. The great stars of the screen were among those who sailed in her.  When a passenger mysteriously vanished, nobody wanted to know the boat anymore.  Humphrey Bogart is said to have looked at it as a possible buyer.  It had been chartered by the U.S. Navy during W.W. II as a patrol vessel.  It arrived in Pearl Harbor on the very day the Japanese attacked.

Even out of service, her record was grim; a caretaker died from battery acid fumes, there was a series of unexplained fires, and two men were killed in a fight aboard her.  Sold as war surplus, the now shabby yacht went from owner to owner. Dusty Miller bought her with his last few dollars.  He went to work to try to make a charter vessel out of it.


on 3 October 1955 the MV Joyita, now a fishing boat, slipped out of the harbour at Apia, Western Samoa, heading for Fakaofo in the Tokelau Islands.  There were 25 people on board, and the voyage should have taken just under 48 hours.  The Joyita never arrived. Yet no distress message was ever received from the boat, and an extensive search by the Royal New Zealand Air Force failed to find any trace of it.  Five weeks later, on November 10, the Joyita was spotted by a passing ship near Fiji, 600 miles from its scheduled track, abandoned, waterlogged and adrift. Four tons of cargo were missing.  Not a trace of the people on board has ever been found.  The ship was towed to the nearest port and the story of the Joyita would not end here.

In July 1956, Joyita was auctioned off by her owners  to UK citzen David Simpson.  He refitted and overhauled the ship and she went to sea again that year.  However, her bad luck would not end.  In January 1957 she ran aground while carrying 13 passengers in the Koro Sea.  It was repaired again and in October 1958 began a regular trade between Levuka and Suva in Fiji.  She ran aground again in November 1959.  She floated off, but began to take on water.  The pumps were started, but the valves for the pump had been installed the wrong way causing water to be pumped into the hull, not out.  Now with an altogether new repuation as an ‘unlucky ship’ she was abandoned by her owners and beached. She was stripped of useful equipment and was practically a hulk when she was sold again the early 1960s.

The mystery of the Joyita is a compelling one.  The ship had ben retrofitted with two large refrigeration compartments to be used for storing caught fish.  These cooling units had been insulated with more than 600 cubic feet of cork.  This amount of corking made the Joyita very boyant and all but unsinkable and the Captain would have known this at the time the ship ran into trouble that fateful trip.

The question is:  What would have caused an able seamen like Dusty Miller and his mate, to abandon a still sound ship in the open sea and entrust their fates and those of their 25 passengers to the doubtful security of an outboard dinghy and three flimsy life rafts?  This is a question we will likey never obtain an answer to.