About 5:00 AM on October 3, 1955, the Joyita left Samoa’s Apia harbor bound for the Tokelau Islands, about 270 miles (430 km) away. The boat had been scheduled to leave on the noontide the previous day but her departure was delayed because her port engine clutch failed. The Joyita eventually left Samoa on one engine. She was carrying 16 crew members and nine passengers, including a government official, a doctor (Alfred “Andy” Denis Parsons, a World War II surgeon on his way to perform an amputation), a copra buyer, and two children. Her cargo consisted of medical supplies, timber, 80 empty 45 gallons (200 l) oil drums and various foodstuffs.
The voyage was expected to take between 41 and 48 hours. She was scheduled to return with a cargo of copra. The Joyita was scheduled to arrive in the Tokelau Islands on October 5.
On October 6 a message from Fakaofo port reported that the ship was overdue. No ship or land-based operator reported receiving a distress signal from the crew. A search and rescue mission was launched and, from 6 to 12 October, Sunderlands of the Royal New Zealand Air Force covered a probability area of nearly 100,000 square miles (260,000 km²) of the ocean during the search. But no sign of theJoyita nor any of her passengers or crew was found.
Sighted off-course without passengers or crew
Five weeks later, on November 10, Gerald Douglas, captain of the merchant ship Tuvalu, en route from Suva to Funafuti, sighted the Joyita more than 600 miles (1,000 km) west from her scheduled route, drifting north of Vanua Levu. The ship was partially submerged and listing heavily (her port deck rail was awash) and there was no trace of any of the passengers or crew; four tons of cargo were also missing. The recovery party noted that the radio was discovered tuned to 2182 kHz, the international marine radiotelephone distress channel.
Condition of the vessel
- Barnacle growth high above the usual waterline on the port side showed that the Joyita had been listing heavily for some time.
- There was some damage to the superstructure. Her flying bridge had been smashed away and the deckhouse had light damage and broken windows. A canvas awning had been rigged on top of the deckhouse behind the bridge.
- The Joyita carried a dinghy and three Carley-liferafts, but all were missing. She did not carry lifejackets for everyone on board.
- The starboard engine was found to be covered by mattresses, while the port engine’s clutch was still partially disassembled, showing that the vessel was still running on only one engine.
- An auxiliary pump had been rigged in the engine room, mounted on a plank of wood slung between the main engines. However, it had not been connected.
- The radio on board was tuned to the international distress channel, but when the equipment was inspected, a break was found in the cable between the set and the aerial. The cable had been painted over, obscuring the break. This would have severely limited the range of the radio to about 2 miles (3.2 km).
- The electric clocks on board (wired into the vessel’s generator) had stopped at 10:25 and the switches for the cabin lighting and navigation lights were on, implying that whatever had occurred happened at night. The ships’ logbook, sextant, mechanical chronometer, and other navigational equipment, as well as the firearms that Miller kept inside the boat, were missing.
- A doctor’s bag was found on deck, containing a stethoscope, a scalpel, and four lengths of blood-stained bandages. There was still fuel in Joyita’s tanks; from the amount used, it was calculated she made some 243 miles (391 km) before she was abandoned, probably within 50 miles (80 km) of Tokelau. The leak had probably started after 9 p.m. on the second night of the voyage, with nine hours of darkness ahead.
Although the Joyita was found with her bilges and lower decks flooded, her hull was sound. When she was moored back in harbor at Suva, investigators heard the sound of water entering the vessel. It was found that a pipe in the raw-water circuit of the engine’s cooling system had failed due to galvanic corrosion, allowing water into the bilges.
The first the crew would have known about the leak was when the water rose above the engine room floorboards, by which time it would have been nearly impossible to locate the leak. Also, the bilge pumps were not fitted with strainers and had become clogged with debris, meaning that it would have been very difficult to pump the water out.
A subsequent inquiry found that the vessel was in a poor state of repair, but determined that the fate of the passengers and crew was “inexplicable on the evidence submitted at the inquiry.” An especially inexplicable point was that the three liferafts the Joyita carried were missing, but it would not make sense for the crew and passengers to voluntarily abandon the vessel. Fitted out for carrying refrigerated cargo, the Joyita had 640 cubic feet (18 m3) of cork lining her holds, making her virtually unsinkable. In addition, further buoyancy was provided by a cargo of empty fuel drums.
The inquiry was only able to establish the reasons for the vessel becoming flooded. It found that the vessel would have begun to flood due to the fractured cooling pipe. The bilge pumps were unserviceable due to becoming blocked. The Joyita lacked watertight bulkheads or subdivisions in the bilges. The water would have gradually flooded the lower decks. As the vessel began to sink lower into the water, the one remaining engine would not have been able to maintain enough speed to steer. The Joyita then fell beam-on to a heavy swell and took on the heavy list it was found with. While flooded to an extent which would sink a conventional vessel, the Joyita stayed afloat due to her cork-lined hull and cargo of fuel drums.
The inquiry also placed much of the responsibility for the events on Miller. They found him reckless for setting out on an ocean-going voyage with only one engine and numerous minor faults, and negligent for failing to provide a working radio or properly equipped lifeboat. He was also in breach of maritime law since he had allowed the Joyita’s license to carry fare-paying passengers to lapse.
The inquiry made no mention of the used medical equipment found on board