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Crowd waves goodbye to M/V Nunoca in 1934.

Published 4th July 2021, 3:26pm

The 4th of July frequently brings to mind American Independence celebrations as well as the official start of the summer holidays.  However, for many Caymanians a generation ago, July 4th was remembered as a tragic day. The day when the motor vessel Nunoca disappeared mysteriously in 1936, on its voyage from Grand Cayman to Tampa. On that calm, clear Saturday evening, the Nunoca left George Town harbour and vanished  with 22 persons on board (9 crew and 13 passengers). Passengers onboard were recorded as 9 Americans (a Tampa couple returning from their honeymoon and 6 adult Caymanians and infant with US citizenship all living in the southern USA), as well as 4  British nationals (3  adults and one six year old boy). To this day, the disappearance of the Nunoca is possibly one of Cayman’s biggest maritime mysteries.

Nunoca – The Ship

According to the official Shipping Register, dated May 12, 1932, the Nunoca was built between 1931/1932 by Mr. James Arch.  It was fitted with two internal combustion engines made in 1925 at the Kahlenberg Company in Louisiana. At time of registration in 1932, it was registered to Caribbean Motor Boat Company. Close to the time of the disappearance, in March 1936, registered owners were C.G. Kirkconnell and H.O. Merren Company.

Mr. Reginald Parsons of George Town shared details of the vessel in an oral history interview in 1991 - “The Nunoca was built in Arch’s shipyard. It was the successor to the Noca, a converted WWI US naval boat which had to be replaced.  The engines from the Noca were installed in the Nunoca and for the next several years she was the lifeline between Grand Cayman, the Isle of Pines and Tampa, carrying passengers, cargo and mail."

The son of the builder, Mr. Heber ‘Roy’ Arch, in a 1980 Northwester article referred to this 110 foot vessel as “the one ship that he regarded more highly than the other ships built by the family. He added that she was a ‘good boat with sixteen staterooms.'"

This reference to the staterooms may seem rather grand, but it is borne out by an article that appeared in The Daily Gleaner on Wednesday, April 20, 1932, which gave a beautiful account of the building and launching of the vessel. The writer praised shipwright, Mr. James Arch Senior, who himself designed the model and along with his six sons, a few journeymen and apprentices - “have turned out what is considered as a belle, the finest craft that has ever been launched from any dockyard in Cayman’.  He added, ‘the approximate cost was about 4,000 pounds … it would have accommodations for 28 first class and 20 second class passengers. All the staterooms are single, the berths being built in with panel work and stained varnished cypress doors. The cabin interiors are finished in mahogany and the galley is large and well ventilated.  The Captain’s and officers’ quarters are on the bridge, and the upper decks are railed in for safety and convenience to passengers.’  The article then goes on to vividly describe the ship’s launching on Thursday, April 14th at around 5 pm watched by a crowd of approximately 1,000 spectators assembled from across the island.  

Memories of the Nunoca’s Last Sailing:

Quite a number of the National Archive’s Oral History interviews capture first-hand accounts of the ill-fated vessel on the afternoon of her departure. 

Nurse Leila Yates, a midwife of West Bay, who was on a maternity case in George Town recalled going down to the harbor that evening - “I stood up and looked at that boat a long time, and felt very impressed to see her go out.  I just watched and watched that boat, a good long time, and I said to some of ‘em, I said “The Nunoca is going out”.  

Mr. Reginald Parsons also recalled that departure from the point of view of a 10 year old boy swimming in the harbor as she sailed away - “I imagine that Mervyn Panton and I were the last two Caymanians to have contact with the Nunoca.  We were swimming in Mr. Mallie’s Bay (to the right of Hog Sty Bay) when she reversed from her moorings.  We held on to her bow and were pulled by her past the edge of the shore.  After we let go our hold, she continued reversing, turned around to disappear into the unknown”.

Mrs. Lilah Ebanks (nee Henning) whose mother, Aneza Henning and six year old brother Loxley were passengers on the Nunoca added this detail -“She left from Cayman on a Saturday evening.  I think it was like, around about 5:00 or 6:00, because I remember my mother saying that the engineer, who was a neighbor of ours, had told her that he was…that she would be a little late because he was working on the engine, trying to get it all in order you know, all put right. I believe they had planned to put her in dry dock in Tampa”.

The Disappearance - Search and Theories

When the Nunoca did not arrive at Tampa as scheduled the following Thursday, concern arose. Seventeen days after her disappearance, newspapers across 14 US states, Canada and Jamaica were reporting regularly on this story. The articles reported to the world on the search of the missing vessel.

Coast Guard flotillas from six nations (Cayman, Jamaica, British Honduras, Cuba, Spanish Honduras and the USA) were searching between the Yucatan Peninsula and the Florida Straits scouring the coastline, but acknowledging that hope of doing so was fading.  Items found along the coastline (12 drums similar the ones lashed to the deck of the Nunoca and a hatch cover) led some seamen to believe that the motorship had been destroyed by an explosion.  Several newspaper 23 July articles recounted details of more wreckage being collected from the Gulf Stream to Miami, including a splintered and charred fire bucket rack.

The most important piece of evidence found was a flour box with the word ‘CAYMAN’ penciled on it. Appearing also splintered and charred, it seemed to be partially smashed in an explosion. Capt. Samuel Lorraine Henning of West Bay, Grand Cayman, also the husband of Aneza and father of young Loxley who were missing passengers, was quoted as saying - “There’s not much hope with 17 vessels and airplanes searching that they have passed anything up, but a boat could live a long time in that current without touching land.  As long as they can’t identify any of the wreckage they have been picking up I’m still going to hope.”

Eleven days later, this all changed, when on August 4th  The Associated Press ran a news story “Wreckage Identified from Missing Nunoca”.  This article reported that C.C. Foster, the Tampa agent for the Nunoca and A. E. Foster the ship’s carpenter, had visited the local Coast Guard Air Station in St. Petersburg, Fla. and positively identified the wreckage of the Nunoca. They were both of the view that the craft was swept by fire following an explosion.  Their findings were based on the rope attached to a life raft picked up by the Coast Guard, which they confirmed was a particular kind, Plymouth cordage, that was used exclusively on the Nunoca. The ship’s carpenter also said, he positively identified several pieces of the fire bucket rack which he had built for the ship sometime prior. They both were further certain that the wreckage was that of the missing vessel, when they identified samples of thatch rope and a birch wood float, both made of materials native to Grand Cayman and not known to grow anywhere else.

From August through early September, notices of sympathy were received by the local Government and shared with the public via Government Notices posted outside the Old Court House. Others appeared in Jamaica’s The Daily Gleaner.  Still, there was never any definitive evidence presented to answer the question of what really did happen to the M/V Nunoca, and many people struggled to come to grips with its great unresolved disappearance. There were reports of sightings of passengers in cities in the southern USA, speculations that there had been a hijacking, a mutiny or other modes of demise.  The families of those who lost loved ones in the mysterious disappearance suffered immensely from never knowing for sure what happened to the good ship Nunoca 

On September 19th this final entry was made on the official Shipping register – “This ship sailed from Grand Cayman for Tampa Fla. U.S. A. on 4th July 1936 and has never reported or been heard of since.  A portion of her life raft has been identified and other wreckage.  It is thought that she has been burnt up. Advice received from owner. Register lost with ship. Signed: A.C. Panton Acting Registrar.”

In late September of that year, a united memorial service, involving the members and clergymen of all the congregational churches in George Town and surrounding districts, was held at Elmslie Memorial Church for the passengers presumed that were lost.

This tragic event inspired several poems and other creative works by persons alive at the time of that sad Caymanian maritime mystery.

For more information about this story, contact the Cayman Islands National Archive to make an appointment to visit our Reading Room.

"A crowd was assembled on the dock,
Relatives and friends their respects to pay,
Many sad good-byes and painful farewells
Were made as the good ship pulled away."

Excerpt from a poem on the loss of the  Nunoca, author is thought to be Alice Richardson. Image not be reproduced without the permission of the C.I. National Archive.