Hurricane Irma struck the Virgin Islands in September 2017 with gusts of wind at 200 kilometres/hour. Homes, hotels and marinas flew away and boats were submerged, broken and sunk. Irma was a terrible surprise for the residents of these islands who thought they were safe and had forgotten the hurricane that had hit this area 150 years ago and caused a serious maritime tragedy. In 1867, as a result of a ferocious hurricane, the RMS Rhone sunk
The Rhone was built in 1863 and put into service for The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSP), delivering mail, passengers and cargo on scheduled routes between Southampton England, The Caribbean and Brazil. The Rhone travelled the Brazilian route and later to the Caribbean.
The Rhone was a sail-steamer. It was one of the first great sailing ships with a fast engine, a bronze propeller and two masts. It was a luxurious vessel with fine lines and a marvel of technology. Furthermore, it had weathered many storms and was reputed unsinkable, like the Titanic.
October 19, 1867, The Rhone was anchored in Great Harbour, Peter Island, a sheltered and relatively calm mooring. Captain Woolley was delivering his cargo of precious wood and unloading his passengers when he noticed that the pressure of his barometer was falling rapidly. Black clouds barred the horizon and there was no wind. The atmosphere had become oppressive.
The hurricane season was over but as a precaution Woolley decided to hasten his departure before the possible arrival of a hurricane. He believed it more prudent to leave his anchorage so as not to be surprised in the bay. He even embarked on board passengers from another boat which was not as sea-worthy as the Rhone.
To prevent the passengers from being injured or swept away by the waves at sea, Woolley ordered the cabins locked and the passengers tied to their beds. The Rhone was ready to sail but the anchor was stuck, wrapped around a coral head.
Time was ticking and the storm progressing so the Captain decided to cut the chain of the anchor. Confident in the power of his engine, he chose to take a short-cut through the narrow passage between Salt Island and Dead Chest Island, a risky manoeuvre. Unfortunately, the hurricane swells shifted and the boat was thrown directly onto the tip of Black Rock Point. On contact, the ship broke into two and the steam engine exploded and the Captain disappeared overboard. The panicked crew tried to launch boats in the raging sea and in their cabins the passengers screamed in terror.
The next morning, when the sea calmed, the inhabitants of Salt Island found dozens of passengers stranded on the rocks and 123 corpses strewn on the beach. The bodies of these 123 victims where later buried on Salt Island and today, we can still see the wooden crosses planted among the stones.
The mast of the Rhone was visible from the surface and the stern of the wreck sat shallow 30 feet of water. According to historical accounts, part of the cargo carried by the Rhone was gold coins. Divers were apparently hired to salvage the ship’s cargo.
In the 70s, the movie The Deep was shot on the Rhone with actress Jacqueline Bisset and a giant moray eel, hidden in the wreck, ready to devour the divers. This movie popularized the Rhone and turned this wreck into a famous dive site that has attracted hundreds of divers each year.
Treasure hunters were attracted to the Rhone, hoping to find gold coins that were not found in the initial salvage.
It seems that from time to time, divers are finding treasures on the wreck - dishes, cutlery, bottles and even some gold coins. After a new hurricane upsets a wreck, moving pieces of the hull or rocks, objects buried in the sand move to the surface and divers sometimes find beautiful surprises.
On our dives on the wreck, we found the best treasure of all - witnessing and photographing this fantastic historic shipwreck!
The wreck of the Rhone is located within a marine reserve and so it’s resident groupers, snappers, moray eels and lobsters are protected on this artificial reef.
In the 1950s, the wreck was judged a navigational hazard and the Royal Navy dynamited the stern section of the Rhone. Now the wreck’s bow and stern section are spread apart and takes two separate dives to see the complete wreck.
The bow, the most intact part of the wreck, is sitting in deeper water at 80 feet. The metal shell of the wreck is encrusted with colourful coral and sponges. Rigging dead-eyes, laden with coral, adorn the edges of the hull. The bowsprit of the ship proudly points forward. The hatch in the bow leads to a dark and mysterious corridor covered by orange cup coral. Caribbean spiny lobsters populate the wreck. The mast and the crows nest lie on the sand and provide a home for a large school of snappers.
The mid-section has metal beams still standing, like Greek columns in the Parthenon. A cannon lie at the base of the columns.
A second shallow dive on the stern of the Rhone is also worth while. In just 30 feet of water, the stern has a wonderful propeller with 3 huge bronze blades and a beautiful swim through.
And why not a third night dive on the wreck…. beautiful and mysterious!