Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom
Aerial view of Marjorie E from early 1960s.
Much of Roatan’s history disappears from view, living only in the memories of the island’s “old heads.” Artifacts left by Payas, pirates, or seamen have sunk beneath the sea, broken down by currents and covered by coral. One of the biggest examples is the now largely forgotten Panama registered Marjorie E., a roughly 160-foot refrigerated transport ship that struck a reef just outside the Oak Ridge channel 65 years ago.

After it sunk in late 1958, Marjorie E. was one of Roatan’s biggest wrecks for decades, and a prominent landmark at the entrance of the Oak Ridge channel.

Oak Ridge Cay resident Miguel de la Cruz Pérez, now 100 years old, was a seaman on the ship the night it sank. He enlisted as a merchant seaman in 1956 and had worked for two years on Marjorie E. before her fateful voyage.

The ship was on her typical route between Galveston, Texas and Guayaquil, Ecuador where she had a contract to pick up bananas for shipment back to the US.

Captain George Cooper and several other crew members were from Roatan, so they planned to stop for a couple days in Oak Ridge. Victor Cooper, Daniel Stanley, Nieland Moore, Flowers, Landon Gaugh, Rex Gaugh, and Arnaldo Valladares were among the islanders in the crew. Captain Cooper was even bringing his wife and three children for a Christmas visit. Neither the boat owners nor the insurance company were informed about the ship’s stop on Roatan.

Majorie E was in dire straits.

Marjorie E. docked in Coxen Hole to clear immigration and paperwork with the port captain. After delays, the ship left Coxen Hole just as the sun was setting. She sailed full steam into the eastern wind and waved towards Oak Ridge.

There are still people who remember witnessing the accident from the shore. Mrs. Elana Cooper was seven years old when she watched the ship crash into the reef. “There was a heavy north eastern wind and rain,” said Mrs. Cooper. Several islander families were expecting to see their loved ones before Christmas, and excitement was in the air. “I remember seeing the light from the boat. Coming into harbor is very dangerous,” said Cooper. “Something appeared to go wrong and the ship hit the reef.”

Marjorie E’s starboard side.

As Marjorie E. made the turn to the Oak Ridge channel, the crew realized the rudder suffered a hydraulic failure. Majorie E was in dire straits. Capt. Cooper tried to steer the vessel using two of her propellers, but the maneuver was done in vain. The heavy eastern wind and current were pushing Marjorie E straight into the reef. “She’s going on shore! She’s going on shore!” Cooper remembers her mother and aunts screaming.

Captain Cooper ordered a secondary anchor to be lowered to Marjorie E.’s only rescue boat and hauled east into the waves. Her crew used a wrench to tighten the rope and tried to pull the ship off the reef. This task was Sisyphean as the ship was simply too heavy, and was being pushed hard by the wind and the waves.

Still, being practically empty, Marjorie E was light enough that she pushed right on top of the reef where sharp coral made a hole right in the engine room floor. As the water poured in, the generators seized and the ship went dark. Islander Rex Gaugh, Marjorie E’s first engineer, simply didn’t have any options.

Two rope ladders were lowered on the ship’s side and De La Cruz jumped overboard with his duffle bag full of clothes. He was waist deep in the water and could stand on the coral. None of the crew was hurt.

“They never paid a cent,” he said of the insurance company.

On that fateful night, Roatan gained both a large wreck and two new islanders: Mexican sailor Miguel de la Cruz and Candelario Ventura Palacios. Both would go on to meet their wives on the island.

Soon after Marjorie E’s sinking, rumors began to swirl that it was intentionally sunk by the boat’s owner in order to cash in on insurance money. The testimony of witnesses points towards an accident. De La Cruz recalls that the boat’s owners were very upset and that they never collected any insurance money. “They never paid a cent,” he said of the insurance company. The insurance company claimed that Roatan was an unscheduled stop, and therefore not covered by their policy.

The imposing ship didn’t block the Oak Ridge harbor entrance, but for decades it served as a large and auspicious marker for vessels passing through.

Islanders helped themselves to whatever they could find on the abandoned ship. “They drove her up and sold her for scrap,” remembers Mrs. Cooper, who has a couple white porcelain serving plates from the boat. Her uncle Harvey had a light from the ship that he turned into a lamp. Someone else ended up with the ship’s bell.

Truman Jones, an island seaman, assisted in retrieving Marjorie E.’s anchor in April 1967. It was cleaned up and used by The Hybur, the first metal boat owned by the Hyde family.

“We all grew up swimming and diving around her”

Time, salt, water, and wind has since eaten away at the ship’s metal carcass. Marjorie E. eventually broke into two pieces with only her bow remaining visible on the reef. Both Hurricane Francelia in 1969 and Hurricane Fifi in 1974 pounded the Marjorie E. into smaller pieces that then sunk into the coral and off the reef’s wall. “Every time we had a hurricane, it would break her up even more,” said Mrs. Cooper. “One of the hurricanes even moved her bow.” It took about 20 years for the ship to completely disappear below the water’s surface.

American expat Erick Anderson used to snorkel around the wreck in 1966. Back then, her stern had sunk below the surface and her bow remained above water, next to the reef wall. “We all grew up swimming and diving around her,” remembers Cooper. There was a “giant engine,” and the metal carcass that was known to house the biggest Moray eels.