March 13, 2012


David Ellis

BIZARRE as it sounds, when a Royal Mail Ship, the Rhone smashed onto rocks in the Caribbean's British Virgin Islands in 1867, over 200 passengers perished – because they'd been tied into their bunks by the crew.

And equally strange, the little island on which the Rhone foundered is today owned by the descendants of those who lived there at the time: Queen Victoria was so impressed with the way their forebears had gone to the aid of the stricken vessel, even though their own homes were being trashed by a hurricane, that she signed ownership of the island from the Crown to the islanders in exchange for a simple bag of sea salt per year.

That bag of salt is still sent to England annually to this day.

The Rhone was a 94m steam packet that was much-favoured by the more-wealthy to travel between the UK and the West Indies: she was just two years old, was considered unsinkable as one of the world's first iron-hulled ships, she could travel under combined sail and steam at a then-unthinkable fourteen knots, and even for her Third Class passengers her cabins were luxurious.

On October 19 1867 the Rhone pulled into Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands to top-up her coal bunkers, and her Master, Captain Robert F. Wooley mentioned to the master of another vessel already there, the Conway that he was concerned about gathering storm clouds and a fast-dropping barometer.

Although the hurricane season was officially long over, within hours both ships were dragging their anchors, so the captains decided to put the Conway's passengers on the "unsinkable" Rhone that would head to sea to ride-out the  storm, while the smaller Conway would somehow seek safety elsewhere.

When Captain Wooley tried to raise his huge 1350kg anchor it snared, and he quickly ordered that it, and nearly 100m of massive chain, be jettisoned; it still lays on the harbour floor today.

And then as he rounded Black Rock Point on Peter Island's neighbouring Salt Island – and with open water only 230m away – Captain Wooley found himself heading straight into 10m waves and hurricane winds. His ship was hurled onto rocks with such force that a falling spar killed the First Officer, while Captain Wooley himself was swept overboard and his body never found.

The iron hull of the Rhone split open and sea water rushed in, trapping all 200-plus passengers in their bunks where crew had tied them down to prevent injury in the potentially violent seas.

And the moment the cold sea water collided with the ship's boilers that were cinder-hot from the engines being run at full speed, these boilers exploded in one catastrophic blast, breaking the ship in two and sending her to the bottom of the sea.

The Rhone had 146 of her own passengers on board but it was not known how many had been transferred from the Conway, although contemporary newspaper estimates suggested around 100.

Twenty-two crew survived the sinking, but just one passenger.

Today the remains of the Rhone are considered the Caribbean's finest recreational wreck dive. With her stern section laying in just 7m of water and her bow at a deeper 23m, she is easily accessible, has many safe swim-throughs  where timber decking and interior walls have rotted away, and her iron frame and parts of her hull now rainbows of coral encrustations and home to myriad marine life.

Bizarrely a silver teaspoon – reputedly that of the ill-fated Captain Wooley – can still be seen embedded in the coral, together with massive 45kg wrenches used in the engine room, porcelain items, bottles, and other treasures still uncovered by shifting currents, together with occasional human bones, and a brass "lucky porthole" that remains shiny from divers constantly rubbing it for luck.

The wreck of the Rhone was also used in filming the 1977 thriller, The Deep.

SeaDream Yacht Club has 7-day and a 6-day sailings to dive sites in the Caribbean in December this year, including to the wreck of the Rhone. Prices start from US$2,635pp twin-share (excluding optional scuba fees) and include 5-star dining, open bars, wines with lunch and dinner, 95 crew for a maximum 112-guests, onboard gratuities and government fees and taxes.

For details see travel agents or visit



[] A DIVER gets up-close with the wreck of the Royal Mail Ship, Rhone. (Photo: British Virgin Islands Tourism)


[] DIAGRAM showing how the Rhone now lays on her side, blown apart when her boilers exploded. (British Virgin Islands Tourism)


[] MODERN day cruiser, SeaDream II sails into the British Virgin Islands: she'll take guests on a specialist dive holiday that will include the Rhone in December this year. (Photo SeaDream Yacht Club)


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