The wreck of the RMS Rhone is by far the most popular dive site in the BVI. It usually takes two dives to see all of it and during the surface interval between those dives the story of The Rhone is told. It varies a little bit depending on who’s telling it and I’ll let you decide for yourself how much you believe is true.
The story I’m telling you here is a mix of what I consider to be the best parts of the different versions I’ve heard.
The RMS Rhone was built at the Millwall Iron Works in London and owned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. In 1865 she was finally done and started carrying both cargo and passengers between England, Central and South America and the Caribbean. It was the first ship ever to be powered by both sail and steam.
She was on her 10th voyage when she found herself in the BVI in October 1867. Normally RMS Rhone would go to St. Thomas but they were flying a yellow flag meaning that an outbreak of yellow fever had hit the island and instead she anchored up in Great Harbor at Peter Island next to her sister ship RMS Conway.
RMS Rhone had weathered several severe storms and had therefore been deemed unsinkable – can anyone think of another “unsinkable” RMS ship?
On October 29th 1867 Captain Robert F. Wooley of RMS Rhone who was a very experienced captain and the captain of RMS Conway enjoyed their tea with rum (as all captains do, you know) while monitoring the dropping barometer. Back in those days hurricane season was only thought to last during June, July and August so the captains weren’t really nervous.
They got through the first part of the hurricane by firing up the boilers and riding up against the wind but even with full power the anchor was dragged across the bottom. So when a lull (today known as the eye of the hurricane) came RMS Rhone and Conway decided to head over to Road Harbor where they thought they’d be safe. But first all the passengers from RMS Conway was transferred on to the much safer RMS Rhone. Conway made it over there just in time for the second part of the hurricane but the wind had changed direction and the ship was foundered off of Tortola.
RMS Rhone ran into problems when the anchor had got caught under some coral and precious time was wasted trying to get free. Eventually Wooley ordered the anchor line cut as they did have a second anchor onboard. But when they finally were able to leave the wind had picked up again and their best option was to go into the Sir Francis Drake Channel and head out to open sea where Wooley knew they could ride up against the storm. They just had to get away from all the islands that were potential hazards.
The visibility was very poor and it wasn’t even possible to see the 300 feet from one end of the ship to other. But after several hours of full speed ahead Wooley felt certain that they had made it into the open sea so when somebody suddenly yelled land at port he was very surprised. As he went up on deck to see what was going on he was washed away by one of the 40 foot waves and he was never seen again. The land that had been spotted was Salt Island and shortly after RMS Rhone was thrown into Black Rock Point on Salt Island. The ship broke in two and the cold Caribbean water made contact with the hot boilers causing a gigantic explosion. It is said that it could be heard six miles away in Road Town over the roar of the hurricane.
The bow section stayed pretty intact but was turned by the explosion so it is now facing back towards where they came from. There is a bit of a dispute as to how long it took for the ship to go down but it is between 30 seconds and six minutes so we can agree that it went quite fast.
Due to the fact that passengers were transferred from Conway onto Rhone it is known how many people were actually aboard RMS Rhone. But it is known that 23 people survived. Only one of them was a passenger. Back in those days it was common practice to tie the passengers to their beds during hard weather so they wouldn’t be in the way of the crew. Have you ever heard the phrase “night night, sleep tight”? It’s an old maritime saying..
It is said that several of the crew members survived by tying themselves to the aftmast that was sticking out of the water and waiting for the hurricane to pass. The aftmast stayed vertical until the 1950s where the Royal Navy deemed it a navigational hazard – never ming the island right it. So the aftmast was cut down and is now laying beside the wreck.
As told earlier the wreck is usually done in two dives with the first dive being on the bow section which lies at approximately 23 meters. The bow section features an amazing swim-through in the ship’s longitudinal direction, the foremast with the remains of a crows nest and one of the two cannons. All the underwater scenes of the 1977 film “The Deep” were filmed at the Rhone. Apparently it is not a very memorable film but there is one scene that most men seem to remember: when Jacqueline Bisset swims through a hatch in the bow section wearing not much else than a wet t-shirt.
The second dive covers the mid and stern section which are spread out a bit more. On this dive a lot of interesting things can be seen such as the water pump, the 18 feet propeller, Captain Wooley’s teaspoon, the lucky porthole (it is the only intact porthole and everybody who has rubbed it three times has made it back on the boat) and the gear box.