One of my passions is scuba diving. I love it. Probbaly why my debut novel Ladyfish has scuba diving at it’s heart. It’s the most exhilarating, amazing, and relaxing past time for me. Yeah, I know that sounds totally contradictory, but I promise you…it’s true! I love it so much that I thought I’d tell you about one of my favourite dive sites. The RMS Rhone, off Salt Island in the British Virgin Islands.
The RMS Rhone was a royal mail steam packet ship that transported cargo between England, , and the Caribbean. She was one of the first iron hulled ships, powered by both sail and steam. Built in 1865 on the Isle of Dogs, she was 310 feet (94 m) long and had two masts with a 40-foot (12 m) beam. Her propeller was only the second bronze propeller ever built! She was also considered to be one of two ships the British Royal Navy deemed unsinkable. The Rhone was popular with passengers due to her speed of fourteen knots (lightning at the time), and her lavish cabins. She sported 253 first class, 30 second class and 30 third class cabins. On October 19, 1867, after only five voyages, the Rhone pulled up alongside the RMS Conway in Great Harbor, Peter Island to refuel. The original coaling station they needed had been moved from the island of St. Thomas due to an outbreak of yellow fever.
On the day the ship sank, the captain of the Rhone, Robert F. Wooley, was worried by the dropping barometer and darkening clouds, but because it was October and hurricane season was thought to be over, he and the Conway stayed put in Great Harbor. The storm that hit was a Category 3 hurricane. The first half of the storm passed without much event or damage, but the ferocity of the storm worried the captains of the Conway and the Rhone, as their anchors had dragged and they worried that when the storm came back after the eye of the storm had passed over, they would be driven up onto the shore of Peter Island.
They moved the passengers from the Conway to the supposedly “unsinkable” Rhone, then the Conway headed for Road Harbor and the Rhone would make for open sea. Normal practice at the time dictated that the passengers on the Rhone were tied into their beds. This was supposed to prevent them being injured in the stormy seas.
The Conway set sail before the Rhone but was caught by the back end of the storm, and foundered off the south side of Tortola. All hands were lost.
The Rhone was struggling to get free, as its anchor was caught fast. The fateful decision was to cut it loose. It lies in Great Harbor to this day, with its chain wrapped around the same coral head that trapped it a century and a half ago. Now, time was critical, and the Captain decided that it would be best to try to escape to the shelter of open sea by the quickest route. This was between Black Rock Point of Salt Island and Dead Chest Island. Between the two islands is Blonde Rock; an underwater reef which cannot be seen from the surface but is normally at a safe depth of 25 feet (7.6 m). But the hurricane swells meant there was a risk that the Rhone might founder on that. The Captain took a conservative course, giving Blonde Rock a wide berth.
It wasn’t enough. Just as the Rhone was passing Black Rock Point, less than 250 yards (230 m) from safety, the second half of the hurricane came around from the south. The winds shifted to the opposite direction and the Rhone was thrown directly into Black Rock Point. It is said that the initial lurch of the crash sent Captain Wooley overboard, never to be seen again. Local legend says that his teaspoon can still be seen lodged into the wreck itself. His or not, a teaspoon is clearly visible entrenched in the wreck’s coral.
The ship split in two and cold sea water made contact with the red hot boilers that had been running at full steam. The explosion was seen on the Island of Tortola and brought the inhabitants of Salt Island running to help.
The ship sank quickly. The bow section in eighty feet of water, the stern in thirty. Originally there was 146 aboard, plus an unknown number of passengers transferred from the Conway, only 23 people (all of them crew) survived the wreck. The bodies of many of the sailors were buried in a nearby cemetery on Salt Island. Due to her mast sticking out of the water, and her shallow depth, she was deemed a hazard by the Royal Navy in the 1950s and her stern section was blown apart. Now, the Rhone is a popular dive site, and the area around her was turned into a national park in 1967.
The Rhone is one of the top recreational wreck dives in the Caribbean, for both its historical interest and the marine life, but also because of the open and relatively safe nature of the wreckage.
Her bow section is still relatively intact, and although the wooden decks have rotted away, she still provides an excellent swim-through for divers. Her entire iron hull is encrusted with corals and overrun by fishes, the cracks and crevices of her wreckage provide excellent habitats for lobsters, eels, and octopi.
The wreck was also featured in the 1977 filming of The Deep, including a scene of Jacqueline Bisset diving in a T-shirt.
It has also been well treated over the years. There is a full set of wrenches, still visible on the deep part, a few brass portholes, and even a silver teaspoon. The wreck also features the “lucky porthole”, a brass porthole in the stern section which survived the storm intact and remains shiny by divers rubbing it for good luck.
Today the wreck is visited by thousandsof tourists every year, and is not considered a difficult or dangerous dive – the maximum depth is 85 feet (26 m) of water, and only very small parts of the wreck represent any kind of overhead environment to swim through. This is the main swim through section.
The picture left is of the Crows nest.
To see another blog I did about diving called Under the Sea click here. BSB author Jove Belle invited me to write a guest blog for her. She didn’t know what she was letting herself in for!