Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

Josie J’s Fall to Notoriety

Josie J sunk right on top of a bus she was transporting. (photo by Alex Graham)

A West Bay Wreck Attracts Divers from Far and Wide

Some rise to notoriety, others fall to it. One of the most recognized ship wrecks in the dive community is Josie J, a ship that rests 215 feet off the tip of West Bay.

Josie J is not only Roatan’s biggest underwater icon, every month she is generating thousands of dollars of revenue from tech divers who travel far and wide to experience this dive. “It is a huge attraction to the dive community. It is the very last dive of our course,” says Monty Graham, a TDI trimix instructor who has dived Josie J over 150 times.

Her story begins many decades ago. In the early 1980s, Mr. Álvarez “Dito” Johnson and his brother Arley Johnson bought Josie J for their West End based family business. Josie J was to carry cargo between the mainland and Roatan.

Josie J was a Bahamian ship built in the US and served as a supply boat for the oil rigs. At 75 feet long, 30 feet wide, and around 90 tones, she was sold for $69,000.

Josie J ran cargo between La Ceiba and French Harbour for 20 years. She carried general freight and was a family business supporting the entire Johnson family. “All of my boys learned how to captain right on her,” remembers Mr. Dito. He worked on board the boat for more than 15 years.

She got lost through carelessness. A boat never sinks by herself.

Josie J typically ran form Cortés to Roatan and La Ceiba to Roatan. The boat would bring general supplies and building materials to Oak Ridge, French Harbour, and Jonesville.

All of that ended on March 13, 2003. Coming out of La Ceiba harbour, “a piece of steel or something made a hole in the hull. They knew it happened right away,” said Mr. Dito.

The crew knew right away about the damage to the hull and leak, but the captain calculated the damage was small enough that they could make it to Roatan. Captaining Josie J was her owner Arly Johnson, co-owner of the boat with his brother Mr. Dito.

Josie J started leaning port side on its journey with building supplies back to Roatan. A much larger rescue vessel tied up to Josie J, and its crew tried to pump out the water that flooded her hull. Captain Karl wanted to run Josie J through the West Bay channel and ground it on the sandy shore to prevent her from sinking.

But there was just one huge problem – the pumping of the water out of the Josie J’s hull couldn’t keep up with water rushing in. “She was pulling the ‘mothership’ over,” says Monty.

When Josie J was listing around 30 degrees, the crew of six rescuers felt her starting to turn quickly. They let go of the bilge pump hose and sprinted across to the rescue ship.

A couple of minute later, Josie J was gone under the calm sea. “All was lost, just like that,” remembers Mr. Dito. “She got lost through carelessness. A boat never sinks by herself.”

With water filling her hull, Josie J quickly descended to the bottom. She settled at 215 feet upright, on a sand bar near Black Rock dive site, just in front of Meridian Hotel.

There were some disappointed people on the island that day who lost goods and supplies, but could have been worse. “Nobody got hurt, nobody drowned,” says Mr. Dito. “She paid for herself long before she sank.”

Twenty years later, there are algi, coral, and hundreds of lionfish hanging off her sides. “You almost have coral growing on the back where the propellers are,” says Monty Graham, TDI trimix instructor with Roatan Tec Center Coconut Tree Divers. Hammerheads and eagle rays can be seen around the wreck. It’s a nest for moray eels. Lionfish are also plastered all over the hull of Josie J.

Underwater and above ship wrecks produce revenue for the island.

Josie J rests on a sand plateau in between two walls. If it went off that second wall, it would have been gone and in too deep for even the most experienced tech divers to enjoy. It is not a dangerous site to dive, but only experienced and trained divers are allowed to dive it.

Josie J was carrying a menagerie of building supplies and groceries, and the blue bus Josie J was transporting landed right under her crushed hull. They are mostly scattered in and around the sunken vessel. There is rebar, PVC pipe, a staircase, bundles of Crisco oil, gyp rock, tires, soda pop cans, and groceries of all sorts.

In her murky wheel house lights, electronics and wires are exposed and dangling. “It’s just a hanging trap,” says Graham. “In my tech [dive] team, nobody is allowed in the wheel house.”

In order to dive past 200 feet, the divers use a mixture of Trimix, a blend of helium, oxygen and nitrogen. “Each dive we do on that wreck is well planned out,” says Graham.

Over the years, divers have moved a few things from around the wreck. “We tried to lift the anchor and see if we could retrieve it,” says Monty. The flips of the anchor are in the back of the bus, in the springs.” The “blue colored” bus is much more deteriorated. For years after the sinking, the bus’ engine would leak oil, pop by pop to the surface.

Underwater and above ship wrecks produce revenue for the island in general and for Roatan’s dive industry in particular. “It’s a nice feature for tech divers,” says Monty. Josie J’s wreck has become an income generator for the entire island. It has likely brought well over a hundred thousand dollars in revenue from divers looking to descend more than 200 feet.