Where else but the wreck of the Rhone? Deservedly the most popular wreck dive in the Caribbean, I have dove it probably hundreds if not a thousand times and still do not get tired of it. The story, as I know it!. The wreck of the Rhone was built in 1865 and is 310 feet long and her beam was 40 feet. She was a Royal Mail Steam Packet Ship. She was an iron hulled steam sailor, that was built in Southampton, England, and cross powered by both sail and steam driven propeller. In fact, the propeller was only the second bronze propeller that was ever produced, and the oldest one in existence that you shall see as the oldest one was melted down a long time ago.
The Rhone has accomodation for 253 first class, 30 second class and 30 third class cabins. She was commanded by Captain F Woolley, who was a 25 year veteran of the Royal Mail Company. The Rhone made her first trip in August 1865, and after 6 successful voyages to the Brazils, where she proved herself by weathering major storms, she was put on the West India route. The Rhone was also a favorite among passengers, as her speed with the steam driven propellers could get up to 14 knots and the accomodation was excellent.
This was the Rhones 10th voyage, and normally she pulled into St Thomas in the USVI. Unfortunately, the coaling station had been moved to Great Harbor at Peter Island in the BVI, as St Thomas was having yellow fever outbreaks. On August 29th, 1867 the RMS Rhone and the RMS Conway, were alonside at Great Harbor. The weather started deterioting, and the two captains discussed the conditions and agreed that it was too late in the season for a hurricane, that it must be an early noreaster. The Conway transferred her passengers over to the Rhone, as the Rhone was much larger, and therefore safer, and then prepared to make Road Harbor where there would be more shelter for her.
As the weather worsened, the Rhone, even steaming full ahead was losing ground and dragging across the harbor toward the rocky headland. She tried to weigh anchor, but the shackle of the cable caught in the hawsepipe and parted, dropping the 3000 lb anchor and 300 feet of chain to the bottom. You can still see the anchor on the outskirts of Great Harbor, along with bottles and china encrusted into the coral, from when the Rhone was throwing many things over board to try and lighten her. Now, the Rhone was without its main anchor, and her only option was to run to the comparative safety of open sea. The quickest way to sea was out by Black Rock, in between Salt and Dead Chest.
As she was struggling to get out to open sea a spar fell from the top mast and killed the first officer. His body was found on Salt Island the next day.
The Rhone has almost cleared Black Rock, which was its last obstacle, when the wind direction changed and came ferociously from the other direction. Then they knew that they had made an error of judgement and it was a hurricane, not a noreaster. They struggled to bring her away from the rocks, but a strong gust blew them sideways onto Black Rock. As the cold water hit the boilers, they exploded, tearing the ship in half and sending her to the bottom with 123 crew and passengers.
Altogether there were 146 people on board the Rhone, and out of the 23 that survived. Only one was a passenger! One crew members survived 20 hours by clinging to the fore topmast and topsail yard, which were still standing. Of the people that survived, some were washed ashore that night all the way across the channel to Beef Island. As well, the residents of Salt Island helped rescue who they could and the queen, in gratitude to them, gave the island in perpetuity, to the residents and their heirs in return for one bag of salt a year rent. This is still paid today.
The only part of the captain that was ever found were a couple pieces of his shirt sleeve.
There were barely any houses standing in the BVI, and in the USVI, there were only 2 ships afloat out of 275 after this hurricane, considered to be one of the worst in the West Indies history.
The Conway, was blown up onto the shore at Baughers Bay, in Road Harbor, but since it is mostly sea grass there, she was fine and eventually was refloated. The passengers would have survived had they not transferred to the Rhone. The Rhone itself, would have been much better off if it had been able to stay in Great Harbor, as its high hills would have provided it protection. It was not that long afterwards that the Rhone was salvaged by Irish brothers using hard hat equipment. The stern section was blown open by US Navy underwater demolition teams in the 1950′s and finally the Rhone became a National Marine Park in 1967. Prior to it being established as a marine park, local diver Bert Kilbride salvaged quite a bit of china, both on the wreck and from where she was anchored in Great Harbor.
The movie,The Deep, with Jacqueline Bissett and Nick Nolte was filmed on the RMS Rhone. Today, she is covered in a multitude of coral and fish. Her shallowest part, where the propleller is, is in 20 feet and the bow, which is still relatively intact, with a great swim through is about 70 feet. Still, new pieces are uncovered in the summer storms at the wreck and the sea urchins, by travelling just under the sand are always uncovering old bottles, particularily small medicine bottles and pieces of china.
At the anchorage on Salt Island, there is a small cemetary that holds local residents, plus where they buried some of the passengers and crew that died. Part of this cemetary was covered a few years ago, by a slide on the hill above it, but not all of it. Still, bones are found on the wreck and deposited in the cemetary when found.
So, did I peak your interest to SCUBA dive on this historic RMS Wreck?