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The wreck of RMS Rhone
|Owner:||Royal Mail Steam Packet Co|
|Operator:||Royal Mail Steam Packet Co|
|Port of registry:||Southampton|
|Builder:||Millwall Iron Works|
|Out of service:||29 October 1867|
|Fate:||sunk by hurricane|
|Length:||310 ft (94 m)|
|Beam:||40 ft (12 m)|
|Installed power:||500 NHP|
|Propulsion:||compound steam engine; screw|
|Speed:||14 knots (26 km/h)|
RMS Rhone was a British packet ship owned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSP). She was wrecked off the coast of Salt Island in the British Virgin Islands on 29 October 1867 in a hurricane, taking the lives of 123 people. It is now a leading Caribbean wreck dive site.
RMS Rhone was a Royal Mail Ship that carried cargo and passengers between England, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. She was powered by both sail and steam. Built in 1865 at the Millwall Iron Works on the Isle of Dogs, London, she was 310 feet (94 m) long, had a 40-foot (12 m) beam and two masts. Her propeller was the second bronze propeller ever built. Her maiden 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. RMSP then switched her to the West Indies route. The Rhone was a favourite among passengers due to her then fast speed of 14 knots (26 km/h), and her lavish cabins. She had 253 first class, 30 second class and 30 third class cabins.
On 19 October 1867 Rhone drew alongside 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 day of the sinking, the Rhone's Master, 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, Rhone and Conway stayed in Great Harbour. The storm which subsequently hit was later known as the San Narciso Hurricane and retrospectively categorised as a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Scale. 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 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 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.
Conway got away before Rhone but was caught by the tail end of the storm, and foundered off the south side of Tortola with the loss of all hands. But Rhone struggled to get free as her 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. Time was now critical, and Captain 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 islands 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 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 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 broke in two, and cold seawater made contact with her hot boilers which had been running at full steam, causing them to explode.
The ship sank swiftly, the bow section in 80 feet (24 m) of water, the stern in 30 feet (9 m). Of the 146 people originally aboard, plus an unknown number of passengers transferred from the Conway, only 23 (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 up.
Modern dive site
The Rhone is now 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, and 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.
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 coral and overrun by fishes (and the local barracuda named Fang), and the cracks and crevices of her wreckage provide excellent habitats for lobsters, eels, and octopi. Her wreckage was also featured in the 1977 filming of The Deep, including a scene of Jacqueline Bisset diving in a T-shirt.
The wreck has been well treated over the years. There used to be a full set of wrenches (spanners), still visible on the deep part (each wrench being about 4 feet (1.2 m) long and weighing over 100 pounds (45 kg)). In recent decades the largest of these were stolen by a collector, leaving only the smaller wrenches. Also remaining are a few brass portholes and even a silver teaspoon. The remaining wrenches are under 55 feet (17 m) of water. Similarly the wreck 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. This porthole is considered "lucky" because the glass still survives. For many years a popular resident of the wreck was a 500 pounds (230 kg) Goliath grouper, but a local fisherman was allowed to catch and kill it despite the area being a national park. Today the wreck is visited by hundreds of tourists every day, most of whom are more circumspect in their treatment of the site.
The wreck 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.
The Rhone National Park was closed for a short time from 29 August 2011 due to the container ship Tropical Sun running aground on rocks near Salt Island very close to the wreck. The site has since reopened.
- Lettens, Jan; Allen, Tony (1 April 2010). "RMS Rhone [+1867]". The Wreck Site. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
- Waters, Owen (2 July 2009). "The Rhone". British Virgin Islands Property and Yacht.
- "Ship Runs Aground at Wreck of the Rhone; Site Closed". 29 August 2011. Retrieved 30 August 2011.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to RMS Rhone.|
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for RMS Rhone.|
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