Tragic tale of the Rhone

Me snorkeling the Rhone

Me snorkeling the Rhone Coming up for air at the Rhone Grating of the Rhone Favorite photo of the Rhone

The date was October 29, 1867 and life aboard the Royal Mail Ship Rhone was idyllic. The weather was settled and the sun was shining while the 310 foot sailing/steam ship was anchored in Great Harbor on Peter Island in the BVI. The passengers were relaxing while the crew was taking on coal for the steam engine.

The captain was beginning to worry about the dropping barometer and darkening clouds, but since October was considered outside the hurricane season at that time the operations continued. Once the Category 3 hurricane hit the Virgin Islands directly the Rhone and another ship, the Conway, rode out the first half with relative ease although both ships did drag anchors.

As the storm raged on it was decided that the passengers from the Conway would be transferred to the “unsinkable” Rhone (FYI – I would advise you to never board any ship claiming that title…just saying) and it would sail for Tortola 5 miles away as the Rhone would head for the open sea. Once it was time for the Rhone to weigh anchor it was discovered to be wrapped around a coral head and unretrievable , so after valuable time was wasted the captain finally ordered the anchor to be cut free and to this day it sits in 80-90 feet of water still wrapped around the same coral.

The captain made for open seas by using going between Peter Island and Salt Island to the east. On the way he had to give Blond Rock a wide berth, because it sits close to the middle of the passage and is 25 feet underwater. Even on sunny days the water color does not change until you are on top of it. As he passed Black Rock on the tip of Salt Island, and only 250 yards from the safety of open water, the second half of the storm hit.

The wall of wind drove the stern onto the rocks with such force the captain was thrown overboard and never seen again. With the stern suck on the rocks and the waves coming from the sea the bow was bend back and the hull cracked allowing the cold sea to flood the boiler, which exploded and broke the ship in two halves. The Rhone sank quickly and of the original 146 passengers and crew, plus an unknown number of passengers from the Conway, only 23 survived even with Salt Island right there. This is due to the Rhone following the practice of lashing passengers down to their beds so they would not be harmed in the rough waters good choice huh?).

Today the Rhone is National Park and the stern section rest in 20-40 feet of water and the bow is in 40-80 feet. Due to the historic nature of the wreck and the National Park status you are not allowed to take anything from it, but in the Royal Navy’s infinite wisdom the stern section was deemed a navigational hazard in 1950 (never mind that it had sat there for 80-90 years and was less than 200 feet from shore) and they blew it up. THEY BLEW IT UP! The stern is still a wonderful snorkel spot, but the hull is laid open and not intact like the bow section. In fact the bow is such a great scuba dive site it was used as the setting for the underwater portion of the 1977 movie The Deep. You can also see some great artifacts in the store at Saba Rock.

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