The British Virgin Islands’ most popular dive is far and away the magnificent wreck of the Royal Mail ship Rhone launched in 1865 at Millwall Ironworks in England. The ship was massive for its era featuring two main masts to spread a fully rigged sail plan as well as a steam powered engine driving a single bronze propeller nearly 20 feet in diameter. The ship was 310 feet in length with a 40-foot beam and displaced nearly 3000 tons. Her 500 hp engine was capable of pushing the ship to a top speed of 14 knots and even faster with a good breeze and the entire sail inventory flying. Her graceful clipper bow and long bowsprit gave her a rakish profile and she quickly became the company’s most popular passenger vessel.
Passengers were accommodated in 253 First Class, 30 Second Class, and 30 Third Class cabins and after initial service between England and South America; the Rhone was put on the West Indies route where she proved a seaworthy and fast performer. On her tenth voyage, and only the fourth to the West Indies, she called at Peter Island marking the first visit in the British Virgin Islands by a Royal Mail line ship. A protected anchorage was found in Great Harbor after Capt. F. Wooley decided to bypass the popular port of St. Thomas due to an outbreak of Yellow Fever.
The morning of October 29, 1867 began with no outward signs of danger. A fine morning sky transitioned to a heavy humid atmosphere but Capt. Wooley dismissed the unseasonably hot weather to the vagaries of fall in the tropics. He shared tea with the purser and discussed the transfer of provisions and passenger baggage to the Rhone from a smaller Royal Mail paddle wheel steamer, the Conway, that was moored alongside. Wooley was determined to get all cargo stowed efficiently so the return voyage to England could proceed on schedule.
By 10:00 am however, Wooley’s attention was drawn to the darkening sky and freshening wind that had shifted to the north. The trade winds usually blew like clockwork from the east and the veteran captain was surprised as the Rhone pivoted on her anchor and swung closer to the rocky shore of Peter Island. Leaving the main deck, he entered his cabin to check the barometer and found that it had fallen precipitously since his morning rounds. With the wind now whipping up white caps in the bay and under increasingly threatening sky, he ordered fires to be lit in the boilers to get up steam in case he needed to maneuver.
The mate was sent to fetch Capt. Hammock on the Conway and they huddled in discussion while some early raindrops cooled the torpid air. Wooley didn’t like the look of the weather but both captains agreed that it was too late in the season for any significant storms or hurricanes. Nonetheless, Wooley anxiously watched the sky and ordered the passengers from the Conway to be transferred to his ship. Perhaps it was only a brewing Norther, he mused, but the ships would fare better in Roadtown, Tortola’s harbor as it offered better protection with its high mountains to the north. And the passengers would likely appreciate the ride aboard the larger ship if heavy weather developed.
Wooley nodded to his counterpart on the Conway as they prepared to get underway. As fate would have it, when the gangway was pulled in between the ships, The Conway’s first officer, was stranded on the deck of the Rhone. Wooley casually said he would return the embarrassed officer when they rendezvoused in Roadtown, a distance of only five miles or so.
With little warning a sudden surge of wind rocked the vessels savagely from the North-Northwest and a crewmember urgently reported that the barometer had fallen suddenly to 27.95 inches. Now Wooley knew something was terribly wrong. He was in a full-blown hurricane with no warning. The once-protected anchorage of Great Harbor was now beaten by rising swells and the wind blistered the wave tops causing pelting spray to lift off the water and douse the ship. As the howling wind tore the shrouds and rigging, Wooley stared into the full fury of the storm as the ocean turned white with foam.
He ran forward to find that the ship was dragging anchor and ordered full steam and maximum rpm in forward gear to hold position. The Rhone continued to drag aft into the southern area of the harbor where she would be dashed on the rocky beach less than half the ship’s length away. He frantically ordered the windlass crew to haul anchor so he could clear the harbor and make for the relative safety of the open sea. Events again conspired to slow his escape as a shackle fouled in the hawse pipe and let go, dropping the 300-pound anchor and 300 feet of chain to the bottom.
With the rising wind and raging sea, visibility was severely reduced as Wooley drove his ship onward into Drake’s Channel seeking room to maneuver as he tried to get his bearings and turn south for the passage between Dead Chest Island and Salt Island. Blonde Rock, a shallow shoal, threatened the Rhone’s deep draft and Wooley was determined to favor the east side of the passage and he would hug the west side of Salt Island in his race for open water.
The storm peaked as the Rhone passed abeam of Blonde Rock and the ship severely rocked in the wild seas. A savage gust pitched her nearly 40 degrees to starboard and a spar from the foremast broke loose and crashed to the deck killing the chief officer, Darby Topper. Meanwhile aboard the Conway, Capt. Hammock had his hands full as well. Lacking the power of the Rhone, the Conway had effectively lost all headway in the raging storm and wallowed dangerously in the channel. He peered into the obscured visibility and could see nothing. The electrical field generated by the intensity of the lightening and thunder had rendered the magnetic compass useless and it swung madly in all quadrants. Navigation, he realized, was impossible. He was determined to simply hold position in the deeper water until he could get a fix and run for cover in nearby Roadtown. But which direction did the harbor lay?
Suddenly at 12:15 the storm stopped. The wind ceased and the sky began to clear. Both Wooley and Hammock grimly knew that they had entered the eye of the hurricane and the brief respite only delayed the next onslaught. At 12:30 it was nearly calm but ten minutes later the sky closed in and it was nearly dark. At mid-day the switch from bright sunlight to darkness was surreal. Wooley expected a wind shift and knew his only chance was to clear the passage before the next fury was upon his ship.
The Rhone was driving under full steam desperately hoping the clear Salt Island when the storm renewed its destructive power with even greater force than the first wave. This time, as expected, the wind did shift: into the worst possible quadrant for the Rhone’s course, South-Southeast! Visibility dropped again to less than 100 feet in the rain and blinding spray. As the bow pitched wildly to the heavy swells, Wooley heard his warrant officer, George Holdman, scream a warning that land was close by on the port side. A glance from his position at the helm confirmed the worst and he frantically struggled with the wheel to go on starboard tack and dodge the southwest rocky shore of Salt Island.
An intensified gust nearly flattened the ship to her port beam-ends and she swept sideways onto the rocks. A massive wave came over the rail and wrenched Wooley from the helm nearly washing him overboard. As the water streamed away he was last seen clutching the top of a cabin skylight as he grimly held on against the wind and seas. The towering swells drove the Rhone savagely against the rocks and holed the ship. Tons of water swept in and she bounced again on the bottom as the port side began to cave in under the beating. As cold water cascaded into the steam boiler, a violent explosion resulted and the ship was broken in two. The decks were covered with the panicked passenger and crew struggling to maintain a grip on any rail or lifeline. In less than a minute, the Rhone’s stern section keeled over and sank. Secondary explosions in the other boilers rocked the ship and a 150-foot section from nearly amidships to the bow was severed as neatly as though from a surgeon’s scalpel. The bow swung wildly back to north and plummeted to the bottom 90 feet below on her starboard side taking 123 crew and passengers to their deaths.
The Conway fared better. Although her masts and funnel were blown completely off, Capt. Hammock managed to coax the sinking ship on to a mostly sand and mud shoal where she lodged without further harm. The remaining passengers and crew were unharmed. She was later re- floated and returned to service for many years.
Of the 146 people aboard the Rhone, only 23 survived. Just one passenger, an Italian immigrant from Pennsylvania, made it to shore. The other survivors were crew. Capt. Wooley and the ill-fated chief officer from the Conway, who had dallied too long aboard, were among the dead. One of the Rhone’s firemen was trapped below decks when the ship first struck the rocks and would almost certainly have drowned had the boiler explosion not blown him on deck as the ship broke in two. Miraculously, he found himself careening down the deck just as the bow section began to drop beneath the sea. As the foretopmast sheared away, he climbed the remnants that remained above water and clung there for 17 hours until help came to rescue him. Six other crew hung together on a section of wooden wreckage and were also rescued the next day.
As the storm subsided and the skies cleared, only 18 buildings remained standing on Tortola. The islands had been swept clean by the storm’s fury. At least 75 vessels were sunk or seriously damaged. Over 500 lives were lost.
The few inhabitants of Salt Island heroically assisted in saving the handful of survivors of the Rhone. For their efforts in handling the injured and burying the dead, the queen of England granted them ownership of the small salt producing island for life. Their yearly taxation, still collected to this day, is a single bag of salt. A monument to the Rhone’s dead along with the graves of several may be found on a slight bluff at the west end of the north bay on Salt Island.
Asleep in the depths, the Rhone has earned the reputation as the Caribbean’s most famous and fascinating wreck. It is annually
visited by thousands of divers.
Author Notes: I first dove the Rhone back in March 1971 before it was designated a BVI National Park. Along with the late legendary wreck explorer Bert Kilbride, we were able to recover a significant amount of old bottles and other artifacts. Most of these are now on display in a mini-museum located on Saba Rock Resort up in North Sound, Virgin Gorda. But my most treasured artifact is a completely intact bronze porthole (nearly 30 inches in width) complete with opening hatch flange and the original glass. It took three days of diving with a cold chisel and nine-pound hammer to pound out the bronze fastening pins that had then been anchoring the porthole to the wreck for over a hundred years then in 1971. And all this in nearly 90-foot depths with no nitrox back in that era. I averaged one bolt removed per one-hour dive. Then ridiculous long deco hangs. I tried to squeeze in four dives a day and would surface feeling like my arm would fall off from all the pounding with that hammer.
It was exhausting and Bert took great delight in watching my effort from a distance while he scooped up bottles, coins, remnants of clothing, nautical instruments, tools, small pistols, etc. All far easier to recover and swim with. He confessed to me later after I finally hauled the 80-lb. trophy to the surface that he didn’t think it was possible to remove a porthole intact from a shipwreck submerged that long. He then promptly tried to swap me some swag from his own pile of stuff but I declined. The porthole hangs proudly in my house along with a painting of the ship under full sail. It always provokes comment from visitors and fond memories.
Five years later, a Hollywood film crew came on location to use the Rhone as the real-life set for the movie The Deep based on Peter Benchley’s novel. I ended up working on the film and Bert’s wife Jackie was the underwater stunt double for leading lady Jackie Bissette. Bert did a nice revenue business on the side selling artifacts to the Columbia Studio executives. This was also the big career break for Al Giddings and Stan Waterman in Hollywood as they served as co-Underwater Directors for the film. Both went on to glory.