Wreck of the Rhone - Part 1
Location: Wreck of the Rhone - Salt Island, BVI
Day 3 - Dive 1
by Wayne & Karen Brown
After an hour's boat ride from Leverick Bay, we arrived at Salt Island. We will be diving off the southwest point of Salt Island, called Black Rock. This is not just a single rock, but a jagged black rocky point that sticks out of the water like the fin of some gigantic shark! Black Rock really is black because it is a volcanic rock.
This rocky point sank one of the most luxurious and modern ships of its time, the R.M.S. (Royal Mail Ship) Rhone. The Rhone sank October 29, 1867. This was over 50 years before the Titanic sank, but the sinking of the Rhone was as shocking to the world as the sinking of the Titanic. The R.M.S. Rhone was the first steel-hulled, propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic. It was 310 feet long and faster than anything afloat. It carried mail and rich passengers to and from England to the Virgin Islands.
The R.M.S. Rhone sank during a hurricane even though it had an experienced captain and had a strong steel hull. The Rhone was at neighboring Peter Island when the hurricane hit. The captain tried to take the Rhone out to open ocean to ride out the storm and prevent his ship from being pushed up on the rocky shore of the island. As the strength of the storm was growing (winds over 100 miles per hour and seas 20-30 feet high!) he cut away his anchors and took his ship, as fast as he could go, between Peter Island and Salt Island to reach the safety of the open sea. The height of the storm hit as he was passing Salt Island. The clouds, fog, and wind-driven rain made it had to almost impossible to see anything. The captain could not see the island. He could not even see the front of his ship! The lookout at the front of the ship shouted that there were rocks next to the ship. The next thing that happened a big wave pushed the Rhone on top of Black Rock. As the ship lurched the captain was tossed off the ship, never to be seen again. As the Rhone was slammed down on Black Rock it split the ship in two. The cool water rushing into the hot steam boilers caused them to blow up and finally sink the ship.
Unfortunately the passengers had no chance of survival. For their own safety the crew had tied them to their beds and locked them in their cabins! Even if they could have gotten out of their cabins, they still would not have had much of a chance, because in those days most people did not know how to swim! 124 people died here, but surprisingly, 23 people did survive.
As we prepare for our dive we think about this tragedy and about what we will find when we see the wreck on the bottom. Divemaster Cori has tied our boat to a mooring line that we will use to descend to the bottom. We enter the water and descend down the line. Everything is blue. We can't see the wreck or the bottom. Getting closer to the bottom we can see a shape appearing out of the blue below us. It is definately man-made! It is the ship's anchor. Cori told us the anchor points to the wreck. So we take our DVs and cruise in the direction the anchor points.
Another much larger shape takes form in front of us. From the pointed front we can see this is the bow of the R.M.S. Rhone! The Rhone is laying on her right side (starboard side). The left side (port side) looks like a sloping reef. After being underwater for over 135 years the Rhone's huge steel hull has been covered by corals, sponges, algae, and other marine organisms.
We find a an open door in the side of the hull. (This was the hatch where the divers in the movie The Deep entered the wreck.) We cruise through the hatch to explore the inside of the Rhone. There are no rooms or passageways to explore. After being underwater for so long anything wood has been eaten away. The only things left are the steel beams of the wreck. The beams have collapsed in a tangled maze inside the remains of this once grand old ship. The tangled beams makes it difficult for us to explore the insides, but the fish seem to like this as a place to hide. Schools of fish swim around us, in and out of the maze of beams.
We zoom back through the hatch we came in and circle the outside of the ship. Because the ship was broken into two sections we only see the front half of the ship. Our diving computers show us we are getting low on air. The sea floor here is 84 feet underwater and at this depth we use air faster than if we were shallower. We cruise back to the dive boat above. Even though we are ending the dive it is not time to end our exploration of the Rhone. We will now take a break and then make another dive to show you the back (stern) half of the Rhone.
Wayne & Karen
Wreck of the Rhone, Salt Island
Position: 18º 23' N / 64º 29' W
Air Temp: 85ºF
Weather: light breeze, sunny with scattered clouds.
Sea Conditions: calm seas, slight current
Dive Time: 45 minutes
Maximum Depth: 84 feet.
Water Temp: 81ºF
Underwater Visibility: 80 feet
Black Rock is the jagged rock that sank the Rhone.
This anchor points to the wreck of the Rhone.
80 feet underwater - In the distance, Karen cruises up to the pointed bow of the Rhone laying on its right side.
The steel hull of the R.M.S. Rhone is covered with corals and sponges and looks like the reef.
Karen zooms out the hatch in the hull of the Rhone.
The insides of the Rhone have collapsed into a tangle of steel beams. This has become a home for many fish.