RMS Rhone Wreck Diving BVI
Wreck diving BVI? The most famous wreck dive in the Caribbean, it should not be missed.
This is the story, as I know it! The RMS Rhone was built in 1865 and is 310 feet long, and her beam was 40 feet.
She was a Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Ship, an iron-hulled steam sailor built in Southampton England.
The RMS Rhone was cross powered by both sail and propeller-driven steam engines.
The propeller was the second bronze propeller that ever produced, and the oldest one in existence that you shall see.
The oldest one had been melted down a long time ago.
History of the Wreck of the Rhone
The Rhone had accommodation 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.
This vessel made her first trip in August 1865, and after six successful voyages to Brazil, she navigated the West Indies route.
Also, a favorite among passengers as her speed with the steam-driven propellers could get up to 14 knots with the accommodation and cuisine excellent.
The Rhones 10th voyage, she usually pulled into St Thomas in the USVI. (Opens in a new browser) . Unfortunately, the coaling station moved to Great Harbor at Peter Island, as St Thomas was having yellow fever outbreaks.
On August 29th, 1867, the RMS Rhone and the RMS Conway were alongside at Great Harbour.
Why did the RMS Rhone sink?
The weather started deteriorating, 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. The Conway 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 overboard to try and lighten her.
Now the Rhone was without its main anchor.
Her option was to run to the comparative safety of the open sea. The quickest way to the 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 topmast and killed the first officer. His body was found on Salt Island the next day.
Where did the RMS Rhone Sink?
The Rhone has almost cleared Black Rock Point on Salt Island, 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 judgment, 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.
Were there any survivors RMS Rhone Wreck Diving BVI
Altogether there were 146 people on board the Rhone, and out of the 23 that survived. Only one was a passenger! One crew member 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 across the channel to Beef Island.
The residents of Salt Island helped rescue who they could. The queen, in gratitude to them, gave the island in perpetuity, to the residents and their heirs. They pay rent to her of one bag of salt per year. The governor takes the bag of salt back every year on his vacation in May.
The only part of the captain that was ever found was a couple of pieces of his shirt sleeve.
There were barely any houses standing in the BVI (Opens in a new browser), and in the USVI, there were only two 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. Since it is mostly seagrass there, she survived and eventually 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.
Salvaging the RMS Rhone Wreck Diving BVI
It was not that long afterward that the Rhone became salvaged by Irish brothers using hard hat equipment. The stern section was blown open by US Navy underwater demolition teams in the 1950s. The Rhone became a National Marine Park in 1967.
Before being established as a marine park, local diver Bert Kilbride salvaged quite a bit of china, both on the wreck and from where she anchored in Great Harbor.
Bert Kilbride invented the “resort course” for SCUBA diving back in the 1960s but that is a tale for another day. Here is a clip from our friend Chris Juredin of We Be Divin who was good friends with Bert (opens in a new browser). There used to be a museum on Saba Rock by Virgin Gorda that Bert Owned which displayed treasures from the wreck.
Did you know?
What is the RMS Rhone Wreck Diving BVI like today?
Today, a multitude of coral, fish, and marine life cover this BVI wreck. Her shallowest part where the propeller is in 20 feet and the bow section is still relatively intact. There is a great swim through about 70 feet. The swim-through finally took a beating in the hurricanes of 2017 and mostly collapsed.
Summer storm seasons uncover new pieces of the RMS Rhone. The sea urchins, traveling just under the sand, are always revealing old bottles, particularly small medicine bottles and pieces of china.
At the anchorage on Salt Island, there is a small cemetery that holds residents, and passengers and crew who died. Unfortunately, it also barely survived the hurricanes of 2017.
Today, the RMS Rhone is a National Park and a top-rated dive site in the British Virgin Islands.
The Law of Storms: The True Story of the RMS Rhone and the Great Virgin Islands Hurricane. You can take a look at it here on Amazon (opens in a new browser).
I am currently reading this book.