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The ‘Island Queen’ mystery

BY ANGELA PIDDUCK Tuesday, March 3 2009

click on pic to zoom in
Chicra Salhab, the owner of the Island Queen with his cousin, on board the ill-fated vessel....
Chicra Salhab, the owner of the Island Queen with his cousin, on board the ill-fated vessel....

ON AUGUST 5, 1944, an inter-island auxiliary schooner, The Island Queen, travelling between Grenada and St Vincent, disappeared without trace, with 67 souls on board. The vessel was on the outward journey of an Emancipation Holiday excursion between Grenada and St Vincent.

Two or three generations have never ever heard of this disaster which it is reported “claimed the lives of some of the most beautiful middle class girls in Grenada, and some of the most promising and good-looking young men”. Were it not for the fact that Cynthia Salhab, the daughter of the vessel’s captain, Chicra Salhab, married Trinidadian, Aldwyn Arthur-Wong, and came to live opppsite to our family home in Picton Street, Newtown, a few years after the tragedy, I might not have known about this tragedy. Arthur-Wong, now 82, lives in North Port, Florida.

Two schooners were travelling together, the other was the Providence Mark. Most of the young people wanted to travel on the Island Queen, as that was the boat with the “fete and lime.”. Several people considered themselves lucky to trade their places on the more sedate Providence Mark with the older and quieter folks who were booked on the Island Queen. The All Blacks football team chivalrously gave up their places on the Island Queen to young women who preferred to travel on the party boat. Up to the last minute before departure, people were exchanging places, and it is reported that one young man hopped from the Providence Mark to the ill-fated vessel while the boats were moving, almost falling into the water.

The boats pulled out almost together, and stayed on a parallel course for a long time, the Island Queen travelling out further than the Providence Mark, which hugged the coastline. Night fell and the weather became blustery. An eyewitness on the Providence Mark recalls seeing the lights of the Island Queen as the boats passed Duquesne, between 8 and 8.30 p.m. After that, the lights disappeared as the boats separated.

When the Providence Mark reached the St Vincent harbour, the passengers were slightly surprised, but delighted that they had beaten the Island Queen, and by 8 am all the passengers had cleared customs. Most of the passengers waited around for their friends on the Island Queen, fully expecting that it could not be far behind. They waited in vain, because the Island Queen would never dock.

Worry started to set in by 10 am. Telephone calls were made to Carriacou to see if the Island Queen had put in there with engine trouble. By midday on Sunday, the Grenadians in St Vincent began calling Trinidad, Grenada and wherever else they could think that the boat could be. Searches which went on for weeks by air and sea, included planes from the Fleet Air-arm based in Trinidad, and Motor Torpedo Vessels based in the Grenadines. It was never publicly admitted that any wreckage from the Island Queen was ever found, but there were rumours that hats, shoes and other clothing were found on the north coast of Grenada.

On the Providence Mark’s return, the crowd at St George’s harbour was anxious and sombre, because some parents were unsure as to who had travelled on which boat, because of last minute “swaps”. Nearly every middle class family lost a son or daughter on the Island Queen. The entire population of Grenada mourned for passengers and crew, as parents and friends of the lost kept hoping. An official enquiry set up by the government, headed by Magistrate Henry Steele, reached the conclusion that the vessel had caught fire and burnt. Persons at the hospital in Carriacou reported having seen a plume of smoke out to sea around the time when the Island Queen should have been passing in the vicinity. The official closure was not universally accepted.

There were many theories as to what had happened. A German submarine had captured the ship and taken it to South America; or sunk the vessel.. An Allied submarine had torpedoed the Island Queen, which had a relatively new German engine that could have made the vessel a target.

The harbours at St Lucia and Martinique were heavily mined during the war and it is not impossible that one of these mines worked itself loose and floated into the Grenadines and that the Island Queen had been struck by a floating mine, and exploded with everybody and everything on the boat being blown to smithereens, with debris too fine to be recognised.

Dr Jan Lindsay of the Seismic Unit of the University of the West Indies theory is that the Island Queen passed over the Kick ‘em Jenny submarine volcano at a time when the volcano was producing methane gas. The bubbles of gas changed the water density and sucked the Island Queen down into a watery grave at the foot of the volcano with no hope of escape.

Perhaps the truth about the Island Queen’s disappearance will never be known. If the evidence is still in the official World War II records, it might soon be revealed, as these records are slowly being released for public scrutiny 60 years after the end of the war.

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