Shipwrecks have fascinated the adventurous from time immemorial. Their stories have the power to turn any young child into a high seas adventurer. Maybe that’s why we as divers have an almost dogmatic attraction to submerging ourselves upon wrecks and exploring every nook and cranny. The Caribbean is home to many of the most legendary names in shipwreck history including the RMS Rhone. Her ill-fated journey begins in June 1863 when the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company commissioned the Rhone and her sister ship RMS Douro for a Southampton to Rio de Janeiro service route. Both ships would suffer similar fates on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
On October 9, 1865, two-years and four-months after her commission, RMS Rhone’s boilers were fired, her smoke stack was billowing, her sails were awaiting a brisk trade wind, and her maiden journey from Southampton to Brazil was about to commence. By all accounts, RMS Rhone was an elegant and innovative ship. The fine lines of her 310-foot iron hull, her well adorned first class state rooms, her use of a bronze propeller (only the second ship to use bronze alloy), and surface condenser for a longer range in her boilers, all contributed to RMS Rhone’s world-class status in ship standards during the mid-19 th century. The Rhone was so impressive that when she made port in Brazil, the current Emperor, Pedro II, made a special visit just to tour the technical innovations of the ship. As the RMS Rhone steamed away from Southampton on that October day, little did anyone know that her eventual fate would occur on a small chain of islands half a world away.
From October 1865 to January 1867, the RMS Rhone diligently carried out voyage after voyage between Southampton and Rio. She weathered many storms including one in 1866 that destroyed two lifeboats, damaged the mail boat, and injured crew members. In 1867, the Rhone was reassigned to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s Caribbean route. Eight months later she would be at the bottom of the ocean.
Iron hull steamers needed to occasionally take on more coal for their furnaces at coaling stations in a process called bunkering. Yellow fever was ravaging parts of the Caribbean during the 1860s forcing many of these stations to be moved from one island to another. If it wasn’t for the mosquito borne disease ravaging the island of St. Thomas, possibly the RMS Rhone would have been bunkering there on the fateful day of October 29. 1867. Instead, the Rhone was bunkering at Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands alongside another steamer, the RMS Conway. The dark clouds started rolling and the ship’s barometer began to drop rapidly. A storm (later known as the San Narciso Hurricane) was quickly approaching.
Around late afternoon on October 29 th the tempest had past and the eye of the hurricane was over Great Harbour. The decision was made to transfer the passengers of the Conway to the Rhone as she was then seen as “unsinkable” while both ships would pull anchor with the Conway seeking safe haven in nearby Road Harbour and the Rhone making a beeline for open ocean (a tactic used often in those days). The RMS Conway was first to pull anchor only to be foundered off the coast of Tortola with a loss of all hands. The RMS Rhone was struggling to dislodge her anchor when the decision was made to cut the line (the anchor still sits in the same position today in Great Harbour). The RMS Rhone was just 250 yards away from safety and the jagged coast of Black Rock Point when a powerful wind shift threw her directly against the point with such force it broke the Rhone in two. The boilers, still running at full steam, came into direct contact with cool seawater causing them to explode and sink the Rhone even faster. Towards the end of the day on October 29, 1867, only 23 souls survived the onslaught with a loss of life over 200 and two beautifully crafted ships at the bottom of the ocean.
October 29, 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Rhone. The Rhone has served as a popular dive site and national park in the British Virgin Islands since 1980. The 1977 movie “The Deep” even featured her in many scenes. She has been well preserved over the years and divers are able to glimpse her ill-fated past still in great detail. A set of spanner wrenches, brass portholes including the “lucky porthole”, and even a silver teaspoon somehow lodged in the wreck can all be seen by the curious diver. Her immaculate bronze propeller is still visible and one can even find the ships vacuum cleaner. The site is best for divers but many snorkelers make the trip to see this historic site from the surface as the visibility can be excellent. The story of the RMS Rhone and her ultimate and tragic fate are the substance of legend. There is no wonder why this amazing dive site is coveted in the log books of divers, why not log it in yours.