Port Elizabeth of Yore: Motor Launch Joe Vanishes in Algoa Bay

The motor launch Joe was carrying ten fishermen when on the night of the 22nd May 1906 it failed to return to port. Anxious families spent a fearful night hoping beyond hope that their loved ones would return unharmed. As days passed into weeks, then months and finally years, would these grief-stricken families ever receive closure, or would this remain an open wound never quite healing.

What had happened to this vessel and its ten occupants?

Main picture: Messina Bros tug Talana, skippered by Spero Messina, recovered pieces of the wrecked launch, The Joe, in Algoa Bay 15 months after it went missing in May 1906

On the morning of 22nd May, 1906, the motor launch, known as “The Joe,” owned by Mr. Maitland and employed by the Standard Cold Storage Co. of Port Elizabeth, left the Bay on a fishing expedition with a mixed crew, as follows: Alexander Williams (coloured) coxswain; Geo Williams (coloured), Spero Masterton (European), Sydney Domingo (coloured), T Chandler (coloured), Arthur Edwards (coloured), Robert Cromie (coloured), Nickolas Sarovitch (European), William Jones (coloured), and Fred Harrison (coloured). With the exception of William Jones, the remainder were married.

As the motor launch had not returned at night-time, grave fears for their safety were entertained. On the following day no answer from the sea came. In consequence the Harbour Board tug H B Christian set out in search but after skirting the island of St Croix, all efforts to find the boat and crew proved futile. The following day was Victoria Day,  a day of celebration and joy.  Whilst the larger section of Port Elizabeth’s community was participating in the festivities of that glorious day, a lesser and more humble section were bemoaning the loss or feared loss of husbands and fathers, whose only means of livelihood are found on the open seas.

Still no glad tidings came and at three o’clock that day, the harbour tug Sir Frederick under the charge of Captain Harding, set out for Bird Island in search of the missing launch. During the early part of the afternoon the jetty was alive with people, all anxious for the tug’s return. It was not until 4.15pm that the Sir Frederick came alongside with an exclamation from the skipper of “No news“. This struck terror into the hearts of all, and cherished hopes were shattered. Mothers with their children openly wept bitterly. Empire Day, 1906, will ever live in memory and the findings of portions of the boat will open a fresh wounded and heart-broken feelings which time alone can appease.

Many residents questioned the wisdom of using the Joe. Seemingly accident prone, it was never a success as it had suffered with two accidents prior to this ultimate tragedy. It was no use crying over spilt milk; rather give it to the cat.


At last! After a lapse of just over 15 months, the missing motor launch or parts thereof were discovered. The  mystery  had  been solved. As the identification of several  parts  of  the  launch by men

The Tug Sir William MacIntosh

who were acquainted with it, proved beyond a shadow of doubt that it was vessel with which the 10 fishermen had left the shores of Algoa Bay on 22nd May, 1906, for fishing purposes. The loved one would now know how they had lost their lives.

The motor, or at least parts of it, were found outside the Bay during the early hours of Saturday morning  by Skipper Spero Messina of the tug Talana in a thick fog. How the discovery was made may be described best in Skipper Messina’s own words. “We were out trawling on Friday night and at exactly 1.30this morning a heavy fog came on. We were at this time east by north-east of the Hill lighthouse and about five miles distance from the island of St Croix. Just as we started to haul, we noticed an extra heavy drag on the trawl and in the first place I thought we had struck a ‘mud’ bank. As we hauled up it appeared to become lighter, and we then found a portion of a boat, which included one side, stem, and mast traveller, for hoisting the sail. We became convinced that these were portions of the motor launch, by which the fishermen lost their lives, which have been identified by a fisherman. In bringing it up it tore the net to pieces. From the place we found it, one must conclude they were making for St Croix for shelter.

The Tug Chatles Hamilton

The parts as discovered were placed on the jetty and during Saturday morning were the subject of much curiosity. Asked what he intended doing with his “find”, Skipper Messina said he thought at first of presenting it to the Museum, but that the timber might be too far gone as to become a nuisance. The story of the sad disaster needs hardly any describing to bring it vividly before our readers, although it may be as well at this stage to refer to the sad occurrence.


The Eastern Province Herald May 1906

Grim find confirms tragedy by Ivor Markman in the Herald dated Friday 31st August 2007


  1. Thank you for this story. I have reason to believe that my great grandfather was indeed Skipper Spero Messina.


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