|Ghost Ship RMS Rhone
One of the Worst Storms to Hit the Area in Centuries Sank the RMS Rhone
The RMS Rhone was a
British Ship owned by the British Mail fleet. One of the worst storms to
hit the area in centuries sank the RMS Rhone off the coast of Salt
Island in the British Virgin Islands on October 29th, 1867. One hundred
and twenty-four passengers and crew lost their lives, only 23 survived.
The RMS Rhone was a British packet ship owned by the Royal Mail Steam
She was wrecked off the coast of Salt Island in the
British Virgin Islands on 29 October 1867 during a hurricane. It is now a
leading Caribbean wreck dive site.
The RMS Rhone was a royal mail steam packet ship that transported cargo
between England, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.
She was one of the first iron hulled ships, powered by both sail and
steam. Built in 1865 at the Millwall Ironworks on the Isle of Dogs,
London, she measured in at 310 feet (94 m) long and had two masts with a
40-foot (12 m) beam.
Her propeller was the second bronze propeller ever built,
and she was one of two ships deemed unsinkable by the British Royal
Navy. Her first voyage was in August 1865 to Brazil, which was the destination
of her next five voyages. There, she proved her worth by weathering
several severe storms.
She was then moved to the West India route. The Rhone was a favourite
among passengers due to her then lightning speed of fourteen knots, and
her lavish cabins. She sported 253 first class, 30 second class and 30
third class cabins.
On October 19th, 1867, the Rhone pulled up alongside
the RMS Conway in Great Harbour, Peter Island to refuel. The original
coaling station they needed had been moved from the then Danish island
of St. Thomas due to an outbreak of yellow fever.
On the fateful day of the sinking, the
captain of the Rhone, then Robert F. Wooley, was slightly 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 Harbour.
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 decided to transfer the passengers from the Conway to the
"unsinkable" Rhone; the Conway was then to head for Road Harbour and the
Rhone would make for open sea. As was normal practice at the time, the
passengers in the Rhone were tied into their beds to prevent them being
injured in the stormy seas.
The Conway got away before the Rhone but was caught by the back end of
the storm, and foundered off the south side of Tortola with the loss of
all hands. But the Rhone struggled to get free, as its anchor was caught
fast. It was ordered to be cut loose, and lies in Great Harbour to this
day, with its chain wrapped around the same coral head that trapped it a
century and a half ago.
By this stage time was critical, and captain Robert F. Wooley decided
that it would be best to try to escape to the shelter of open sea by the
easiest route, between Black Rock Point of Salt Island and Dead Chest
Island. Between those two island lay Blonde Rock, an underwater reef
which was normally a safe depth of 25 feet (7.6 m), but during hurricane
swells, there was a risk that the Rhone might founder on that.
The Captain took a conservative course, giving Blonde Rock (which cannot
be seen from the surface) a wide berth. However, 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. Whether or not it is his, 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 which had been running at full steam, causing them to explode.
The ship sank swiftly, the bow section in eighty feet of water, the
stern in thirty. Of the original 146 aboard, plus an unknown number of
passengers transferred from the Conway, only 23 people (all 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 has received a number of citations and awards over the years
as one of the top recreational wreck dives in the Caribbean, both for
its historical interest and teeming marine life, and also because of the
open and relatively safe nature of the wreckage (very little of the
wreckage is still enclosed; where overhead environments do exist, they
are large and roomy and have openings at either end permitting a swim
through, so there is no real penetration diving for which divers usually
undergo advanced training).