Scuba diving in the British Virgin Islands/RMS Rhone
Like many great wreck dives, the Rhone has a great shipwreck story behind it.
The RMS Rhone was a royal mail steam packet ship that transported mail cargo between England, Central America, and the Caribbean. She was one of the earliest iron hulled ships, and was powered by both sail and steam. She was built in 1865 in London, and she measured in at 310 feet/ 94 meters long. Her propeller was only the second bronze propeller ever built, and she was regarded as unsinkable. During her maiden voyage she weathered several severe storms.
On 19 October 1867, the Rhone pulled up to a temporary coaling station in Great Harbour, Peter Island, alongside the RMS Conway. The original coaling station had been moved from nearby Saint Thomas due to an outbreak of yellow fever. The captain of the Rhone was one Robert F. Wooley. On that day Capt Wooley noticed his barometer dropping precipitously, and was concerned it might mean a possible hurricane, despite it being very late in the year for storms. But he elected to remain at anchor. However, a hurricane it was, and a ferocious one it was too - stronger than the instruments of the day were capable of measuring. The Rhone weathered the first half of the storm, and then the 'eye', a patch of calm weather at the storm's epicentre, passed over.
The Captains of the Rhone and the Conway conferred. The ferocity of the storm had dragged their anchors, and they were both worried about being driven up onto the shore. A decision was taken to transfer the passengers from the Conway to the safer vessel: the Rhone. In accordance with standard maritime practice, the passengers were lashed to their bunks to prevent injury.
The Conway then weighed anchor and sailed up the channel, but was caught when the storm swung around, and foundered off the south side of Tortola with the loss of all on board. The Rhone struggled to raise her tangled anchor, and Capt Wooley eventually ordered it to be cut loose. It lies in Great Harbour to this day, its chain still entangled around the same coral head. Time was by now critical, and Capt Wooley decided to shoot for open sea, passing between Salt Island and Dead Chest Island. Between those two islands lay a deepwater pinnacle known as Blonde Rock. Fearful of hitting the shallow pinnacle in the swells, Capt Wooley ordered it be given a wide berth.
She almost made it to safety. Just as the Rhone was passing Black Rock Point, less than a boat length from open water, the storm came back around, and the winds drove the Rhone onto Black Rock Point. The hull cracked against the rocks, allowing cold water to flood into the superheated boilers, which then exploded upon contact, sinking the vessel with almost no chance for anyone to save themselves. Even over the noise of the hurricane, the explosion was heard over Salt Island, and the local salt workers rushed to try help the victims through the raging hurricane, a feat of courage for which Queen Victoria bequeathed the island which the worked upon to them and their descendants in perpetuity.
Local legends say that Capt Wooley was thrown directly onto Black Rock Point on first impact, never to be seen again, although this seems improbable. But his ship sank swiftly, and his body was never recovered. Of the original 146 souls aboard, plus an unknown number of further passengers transferred from the Conway, only 23 people (all crew) survived. The bodies of many of those who perished were later recovered and 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 by explosives.
The Rhone was actually dived as early as the late 1800s by a trio of Irish salvage divers known as the Murphy brothers, one of whom became the first (and believed to be the only, so far) death on the wreck relating to decompression sickness.
The wreck is located on Black Rock Point on the West side of Salt Island. The site is only accessible by boat, and is served by eight National Park mooring balls for boats to moor up to. Because the site is a designated dive site, anchoring on the wreck or hooking into the wreck with a grapnel is prohibited by law.
Maximum depth is about 85 feet/26 meters. At its shallowest the wreck structure reaches to within 15 feet/5 meters of the surface.
The visibility on the site is normally good, in between 50 and 75 feet/15 and 22 meters, but can be higher on very calm days.
Prevailing seas tend to come from the Southeast, and so the wreck is normally in reasonably calm waters. However, when the sea comes from the south, it can be rougher. The wreck also has a periodic and highly variable current, which usually flows due north.
The site is dived year round.
The site is only accessible by boat.
The wreck has a number of features which divers can look out for:
- The condenser is the deepest part of the wreckage, at 85 feet/25 meters.
- The propeller is the shallowest part of the wreck, at about 35 feet/11 meters. When built it was the largest in the world, and is so large that often divers swim across it without recognising it for what it is. Snorkellers on the surface actually get a better overview.
- Signalling canon, on the bow section near the mast.
- "Lucky porthole", a porthole on the stern section which divers touch for luck, and as a result of which the brass has kept its shiny lustre.
- Captain Wooley's teaspoon, on the stern section. Although unlikely to actually be the unfortunate Captain's spoon, a teaspoon is nonetheless embedded in the coral.
The Rhone has been a protected marine preserve for nearly 50 years, which has had a predictable effect on the burgeoning marine life. Nurse sharks, spiny lobster, dog snappers, stingrays, Goliath grouper and moray eels are some of the more commonly seen mega-fauna. Turtles are also commonly seen, and there are reported to be two very shy sea horses living under the very tip of the bow.
Macro, wide angle, and anything in between. Artificial lighting will bring back the true colour.
The Rhone is normally dived as a two tank dive, although divers who have low consumption rates could conceivably do the entire wreck on a single tank. The deeper bow section is normally dived first, followed by the shallower stern section.
The Rhone is a relatively safe wreck. Having been blown open by the explosion which sunk it, there are relatively few entrapment hazards. The only real swim through is in the main part of the bow section, but the openings are large and roomy, and light is visible from both ends. Even the most claustrophobic diver ought to be comfortable swimming through.
Because the wreck is a marine preserve, no fishing lines or nets are on the wreckage to present an entanglement hazard.
Good buoyancy control recommended. Specialist wreck diver training is not necessary.