The Rhone

The RMS Rhone has an interesting place in history and it is quite a fascinating dive site. Like the Titanic it was deemed unsinkable, yet met a similar fate. Unlike the Titanic it is in shallow water and is a popular dive location.

I recently had the opportunity to dive one of the most famous ship wrecks in the Caribbean. Yet, before making the dive, I had found relatively little written about the RMS Rhone or its present condition.  Although I did find a few written descriptions, some photographs of parts of the wreck, and a few underwater videos, I did not find any publication which necessarily talked about, or showed me the things I wanted to know about the RMS Rhone – such as what was it like to dive the RMS Rhone. And, so I write to describe what I have found and what I observed on this spectacular dive.

HMS Rhone

Basic Facts: The RMS Rhone was a steam packed ship that transported cargo between England, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. She was built in 1865 at the Mill wall Ironworks on the Isle of Dogs, London.   She measured 310 feet (94 m) long with a 40-foot (12 m) beam. Her propeller was the second bronze propeller ever built. She had two masts. She was one of the first iron hulled ships. She was powered by both sail and steam. Perhaps regrettably, she was one of two ships deemed unsinkable by the British Royal Navy. She was owned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Her first voyage was in August 1865 to Brazil, which was the destination of her next five voyages. During these voyages she weathered several severe storms. She was then moved to the West India route. The Rhone was a favorite among passengers based on her lightning speed of fourteen knots. Her cabins were lavish. She had 253 first-class, 30 second-class, and 30 third-class cabins.

A Hurricane is Brewing: On October 19, 1867, the Rhone pulled up alongside the RMS Conway in Great Harbour, on Peter Island to refuel. The original coaling station for refueling had been moved from the then Danish island of St. Thomas to Peter Island due to an outbreak of yellow fever. On the day of her sinking, the captain of the Rhone, Robert F. Wooley, was worried by the dropping barometer and darkening clouds. But because it was October and hurricane season was thought to be over, he and the captain of the Conway decided to remain anchored in Great Harbour.

 

The first haIf of the hurricane passed without much damage, but the ferocity of the storm worried the captains because their anchors had dragged and they were concerned that when the storm came back after the eye of the storm had passed over they would be driven up onto the shore of Peter Island. They decided to transfer the passengers from the Conway to the "unsinkable" Rhone.  The Conway was then to head for Road Harbour and the Rhone would make for open sea. As was normal practice at the time, the passengers in the Rhone were tied to their bunks and locked in their cabins to prevent them being injured in the stormy seas.

The Conway got away before the Rhone, but was caught by the back end of the storm.  The Conway foundered off the south side of the island of Tortola with the loss of all hands. The Conway foundered on a sandy bottom and was later able to be righted and put back in service. In contrast, the Rhone struggled to get free from Great Harbor. Her anchor was caught on a coral head. Captain Wooley gave the order that the anchor be cut loose.  The Rhone’s anchor to this day lies in Great Harbour with its chain wrapped around the same coral head that trapped it almost a century and a half ago.

With the back half of the hurricane approaching, Captain Wooley decided that it would be best to try to escape to the shelter of open sea by the easiest route, between Black Rock Point of Salt Island and Dead Chest Island. Between these two islands lay Blonde Rock. Blonde Rock is an underwater reef, which is normally in a safe depth of 25 feet of water. However, with hurricane swells there was a risk that the Rhone might founder on Blonde Rock. Captain Wooley took a conservative course, and gave Blonde Rock a wide berth.

Just as the Rhone was passing Black Rock Point, the second half of the hurricane came around from the south. The winds shifted to the opposite direction and the Rhone was thrown directly into Black Rock Point. Ironically, the Rhone was only about 250 meters from safety before it hit Black Rock Point. It has been said that the initial lurch from the crash sent Captain Wooley overboard, never to be seen again. (According to local legend, Captain Wooley dropped his teaspoon as he was pitched overboard, and his teaspoon can still be seen today lodged into the wreck itself. Whether or not the teaspoon in the reef is his teaspoon, is debatable, but there is a teaspoon in the reef that while entrenched in the reef’s coral, is still visible).

After hitting Black Rock Point, the Rhone split into two pieces and cold sea water made contact with the red hot boilers which had been running at full steam.  The boilers exploded and, the ship sank swiftly.   The bow section was in about ninety feet of water, the stern in thirty.

Of the original 146 aboard the Rhone, plus an unknown number of passengers transferred from the Conway, only 23 people (all crew) survived the wreck. None of the passengers who had been tied to their bunks and locked in their state rooms escaped. The bodies of many of the sailors were buried in a nearby cemetery on Salt Island. The queen of England recognized the bravery of the people living on Salt Island who helped save the members of the crew.  She gave Salt Island to them on the condition of receiving a bucket of salt from the island's salt ponds each year. (This tradition of taking salt from the island and delivering it to the queen continued until recently when the last inhabitant of Salt Island became too sick to carry the salt to the queen).

After the Rhone sank, one of her masts was sticking out of the water. She was deemed a hazard by the Royal Navy, and in the 1950s, almost one hundred years after she sank, her stern section was blown apart and her mast sunk. Today, the Rhone is a popular dive site.  The reef and the area around her were turned into a national park in 1967.  The Rhone has received a number of citations and awards over the years as one of the top recreational wreck dives in the Caribbean.  The Rhone has both historical interest and is teeming with marine life.  The remains of the Rhone are for the most part open and relatively safe.   Very little of the wreckage is still enclosed.   (Where overhang environments do exist, they are large and roomy and have openings at either end permitting a swim through, so some say, there is no real penetration diving for which divers usually undergo advanced training).

Our Dive of the Rhone: On the day we were to dive the Rhone, the weather started to get rough.  Originally Captain Francois had planned on mooring our 15 meter catamaran in the Rhone’s national park so that some of our group who wanted to snorkel around the stern of the Rhone could do so.   And, those of us who wanted to dive to see more of the wreck could do so.  Captain Francois, because the weather was quite rough, chose to moor the catamaran in the protected waters in the lee of Salt Island.  Those of us who wanted to dive would take a dingy several hundred meters over to the dive site for the Rhone.

Even with the weather deteriorating, and the waves becoming bigger, the water clarity was incredible. If we did not have 100 feet of visibility underwater it was very close. The water temperature was very warm. I was quite comfortable diving without a wetsuit. Francois who is much thinner than I am wore a "shorty" 3mm wetsuit. From the surface to the bottom the temperature remained the same. I was comfortable in just my swimsuit from top to bottom and back.  After mooring the catamaran, but before we had gotten into the dingy, we were visited by a rather large barracuda.  He was almost 2 meters in length and was quite hungry.  He ate parts of sandwiches, a few vegetables and several chicken wings, swallowing them whole.

HMS Rhone HMS Rhone

For me, diving the Rhone was a new experience in many ways.   It was the first dive I had made from a dingy in three foot or greater seas.  Diving in three foot or greater seas from a dingy is quite exciting. In our dive, we had three divers which meant three sets of tanks, buoyancy control devices, weight belts, regulators, and other equipment, which when taken together added up to a significant amount of weight. Our dingy was relatively low in the water and we had to shift our weight around the boat in order to keep the bow about the waves.

The other aspect of the dive that was new to me was that we would be swimming through one part of the wreck with an overhang.  One of the aspects of diving that had been drilled into my mind from the first time I started to scuba dive was: “you need to receive special training to do penetration diving”. Penetration diving is going inside of a structure that is sunk. The danger is that if you get inside a wreck many bad things can happen. You can get caught on an overhang. Unless you or your buddy can get you free, you drown. If the wreck is not well preserved, the ceiling or walls can collapse and trap you, making it very difficult, if not impossible to escape and swim to the surface. Finally, because silt often builds up in the confines of a wreck, visibility can be lost and a diver can become disoriented and not find his way back to the surface.   The risks associated with “penetration” diving generally are significantly greater than other forms of sport scuba diving.

As we were mooring our dingy in three foot seas all of these thoughts plus my usual check list of things that I needed to double check before entering the water raced through my mind.  On our first approach to the mooring line we were unable to get the line secured to the dingy.  On our second try we got the line into the boat, but were not able to tie the dingy to the line before a wave tore the line our of our hands.  Bobbing up and down in the dingy made getting the line secured to the dingy like trying to thread a needle while jumping up and down on a trampoline. On our third attempt my dive partner Chris, caught the line and was able to tie the line to the dingy. After the dingy was attached to the mooring buoy we started to get all of our gear on. Since I was the least experienced diver the captain wanted me set and in the water first. I got all of my gear on and rolled over the side of the boat. 

After I came back up the captain handled me my camera in its underwater case.  I swam to the front of the boat and began checking out the manual settings I had previously set while I was in the dingy.  I wanted to see if I had guessed right about the amount of light that was available and whether the settings I had set on the two strobes would be sufficient to light the subjects underwater or if the power needed to be increased. My main light was set at 7/8ths of full power and my secondary light was set at about half power.  I took a shot or two of the dingy rising up in the water from beneath the surface of the water just to see if the strobe setting I had selected were useable.

Meanwhile, while I was checking the settings on my camera, Chris, the former navy and salvage diver was next in the water. Chris was very quick to get to the mooring bouy and was ready to descend.  We both hung on to the mooring line and bobbed up and down in the water while we waited for Captain Francois to enter the water. It was rather interesting holding on to the mooring line and watching the boat bob three feet up into the air. The mooring line was slack for a moment and then would quickly become taught as the boat was thrown up in the air with the next wave.

HMS Rhone

Once we were all in the water we began our descent to the midsection of the ship. Chris descended as if he was on an elevator rapidly dropping from one floor to the next.  I was quite envious of the ease with which Chris descended.  For me, descending is always a struggle.  I start to try to equalize my ears at the surface and I have to re-equalize every few feet.  Many times I have to paddle back up a foot or two, equalize, and then start to descend again.  Descending is rarely a straight line process for me, which when I think about it, is probably consistent with much of my life.  On a good day I am usually among the last if not the last person in the group to reach the bottom.  Fortunately, I was having a pretty good day as we descended to the bottom. I was last but I was only maybe a minute of two behind Chris and Francois.

Ordinarily, when you dive, you descend to the deepest part of the dive and then swim up to the exit point. Francois had seen from previous dives with me that my ears are slow to equalize.  So he designed the dive so we went to 45 feet in depth first at the midsection of the wreck.  We would eventually make our way down to the bow in about ninety feet of water. Based on the stormy weather at the surface there was only one other group diving that day. Once we were at depth the reef structure of the wreck began to unfold.

HMS Rhone

One of the first things we saw of the midsection were gorgonians(a sea whip or sea fan) growing on a mound of wreckage. There were some fish around, but not a super abundance.

HMS Rhone

We began making our way down towards the bow of the ship. We came across a portion of the deck pushed up at an odd angle from the bottom.

HMS Rhone

As we swam along, we followed the remains of the hull into deeper water.

HMS Rhone

Fortunately for me, the descent was gradual so I did not have to spend much time equalizing.  Because we were going to almost 90 feet in depth we could not spend much time in anyone place.  I began firing off pictures as fast as my strobes would recharge.

HMS Rhone HMS Rhone

I was quite surprised by the variety of sponges.

HMS Rhone HMS Rhone

I was also quite surprised by how much of the or the metal structure of the Rhone remained intact. When we did find schools of fish, the fish seemed to school around the various pieces of wreckage.   They used the wreckage for protection as if it was a natural reef. Much of the ship was lying on its side. This seemed to make seeing large portions of the wreck somewhat difficult to investigate.

HMS Rhone

Amongst the wreckage you could see fish hiding in the various small openings. Coral and sponges were growing over most of what was the midsection of the deck of the ship. Fish seemed to casually swim back and forth within the structure and seemed to enjoy the protection that the iron hull, even after all these years, afforded. At various times we saw fairly large schools of fish taking advantage of the protection provided by the wreckage. Without the strobes replacing the red orange and yellow light waves I would not have realized just how colorful the sponges and corals were.

HMS Rhone HMS Rhone  

We continued to work our way down to the bow of the ship.  The hull of the ship and the various parts of the supports that had once help strengthen the hull were strewn across the bottom in no particular order.

HMS Rhone

At about 65 feet in depth we paused so I could take a picture of Chris next to a piece of the deck.

HMS Rhone

We had been diving for about 20 minutes.  I had continued to check my dive computer, my air supply and my depth meter.  I began to realize that it was decision time.  I was either going to dive through the enclosed wheelhouse or I was going to have to wave it off and take an alternative route and risk missing the view of the wheelhouse.  I decided I would go through the wheelhouse if I the ceiling was at least 10 feet and the visibility was good. When we reached the wheel house the visibility was good. I suspect in part because there had not been any divers who had been around the wreck at least in the wheel house while we were submerged. The distance from the ceiling to the floor looked like at least ten feet tall so I decided to follow Francois into the wheel house. The wheel house was not quite what I expected.  It was dark and I had to change the light on my strobe to continuously throw a beam of light so I could see where I was going.  Francois had a large beam on his flashlight so we swam forward. Between our two lights we could see relatively well.

The steel structure of the wheelhouse had a sizeable bend in some of the steal trusses.

HMS Rhone

Francois pointed his beam deep into the rows of trusses and all the way on the far wall I could just make out the largest lobster I have ever seen.  He was easily a meter long, but he was so well ensconced in the fallen steal trusses that it was impossible to get a picture of him.  I had heard there was a large lobster known as “Lobzilla” that lived on the Rhone, and I had now seen him.

We continued to swim through the wheelhouse. I was glad that there was relatively little silt which otherwise could have destroyed the visibility.

HMS Rhone

Perhaps a minute or so later, I was extremely happy to see the exit point.

HMS Rhone

No one was more relieved to leave the confines of the wheelhouse than I was. 

HMS Rhone

It was interesting to swim through the wheelhouse, but I think before I do it again, I may take that penetration diving class. As we exited the wheelhouse there was quite a lot of wreckage from the ship.  Only by using the strobes was I able to see the colors of the coral and sponges that had attached themselves to the wreck. And, even with dual strobes turned up to full power the light dropped off very quickly so that the structures remained a green color. 

HMS Rhone HMS Rhone

We continued to swim towards the stern.  On the way we saw many sections of the structure of the ship that seemed to stand alone like tombstones for the lost. 

HMS Rhone

I looked back and Chris seemed to appear from around the corner of a set of support structures.

HMS Rhone

 It was only later that Chris would tell me that after we stopped for a picture, the fin strap on one of his fins had broken and he had had to try to re-attach the fin to the strap.  When the strap would not re-attach, he jammed the fin on his foot with no strap and flexed his foot so the fin would not come off. Now that is the ingenuity of a navy diver!

We continued to swim back towards the stern and as we approached the stern Francois signaled that it was about time to end the dive and rise to the surface.  Before we began our ascent, I managed to get one picture of the stern rising in front of us.

HMS Rhone

I hope that I will get a chance to return to the Rhone to dive it several more times so that I can see more of the stern and other parts of the ship.

 

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The dive of the HMS Rhone.