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The Rhone

The Rhone Inspires Stories from the Depths  –  I’m always amazed how history is presented. BVI history, in particular, seems a little cloudy at times. This is evident when visiting the infamous wreck of the Royal Mail Ship Rhone. Storytelling is an ancient art. There are those that let the imagination run, and there are others that are, well, more factual.

Taking advantage of a dive assignment with Virgin Gorda’s Dive BVI, I catch the ferry from Tortola to VG then ride with Dive BVI over to the Rhone. I’m already getting an eerie feeling— on my last visit a few years back, I sailed past tiger sharks devouring a dead whale over the same spot. The wind on that day was a southwest hurricane wind, and as we sailed through in overcast conditions after a long trip with a broken boat, the world, or rather the familiar, seemed upside down. The Rhone has a certain mystique, and I am drawn to this area as I am drawn to the tales told over the years and tales to come.

Three certified divers are on board setting out from Dive BVI’s Virgin Gorda location. The shop is impressive, complete with every watersport outfitting imaginable. Managing partner Casey McNutt explains to me that this is only one of several operations. They have sites at Leverick Bay, Little Dix and one soon to open at Scrub Island. The service is impeccable. Everyone is welcomed and goes through the safety checks on the Newton 36. Within 20 minutes, we are by the Rhone, instructor Anna Janczewska hooks a mooring ball and then the map of the Rhone is pulled out. It’s a map I have seen before but never heard explained in such depth.

 

As most of Dive BVI’s guests are either on Virgin Gorda or rendezvous pickups from a resort, the Saturday afternoon session over the Rhone and down to 75 feet is reserved for certified divers. That rules me out, and there is no time to redo a resort course, so I instead grab the trusty snorkel and fins. As Anna recaps what they might find during the 40-minute dive through the Rhone, I feel teased like a kid in a candy store with only a nickel but hoping for the big chocolate bar.

Anna tells us how, after the severing of the anchor (still down there) off Peter Island, the Rhone’s sister ship RMS Conway offloaded their passengers onto the “unsinkable” Rhone, leaving the headcount of the tragedy still unknown. Conway sailed back to Tortola only to break up outside the harbour and join the other 200 vessels that perished in the storm.  I had always, probably like many sailors, imagined that some human error by Captain Wooley of the Rhone had caused the collision with Black Rock that blew the steam engines and caused the explosion aboard and ultimately its fatal sinking. In those days, in cases of storms, passengers were strapped to their bunks, and cabin doors were locked from the outside for fear of passengers wandering round deck and falling overboard. Perhaps that explains why all 23 survivors of the Rhone were crew.

In envisaging the ferocity of the storm, I realize the doomed mail ship had no chance. The odds were certainly against the crew and its passengers, it seems. Dive BVI tells us that the bodies of those washed ashore at Salt Island were buried in a mass grave of stones which we pass, their possessions returned to the Queen, who, taken by the honesty of the people of Salt, instructed them to cease returning the dead's flotsam and send a bag of salt once a year in lieu. Further rumours indicate that a silver spoon embedded in coral once belonged to the captain. It is there to be seen, not touched, for fear of Captain Wooley returning at night to see who dares disturb the underwater tomb.

 

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We’re also told a story of one of the 23 that did survive, an Italian man who apparently was in cabin 26, his porthole still visible at the bottom, who clung to the mast all night till the settlers from neighbouring Salt Island pulled him free. The mast stayed erect until the early 1960s when the British Navy dynamited the vessel, leaving the wreck of the Rhone as we find it today. The story goes that the governments, tired of fighting over treasure and attempting to stop bounty hunters, blew the ship to smithereens to end the pirating. The dynamite was too much and the Rhone, once again took another explosive charge and blew across the ocean floor. I ponder over the decision to have done such a thing.

When the divers surface, they have a look of bewildered calm and their own tales of lobster, ray and types of fish that I have never heard of but now am curious to see for myself. After only 40 minutes of diving, they express something I recognise – enlightenment from another source, in this case nature.

On our return, Casey informs me of other fantastic dive spots, in particular the Dogs and by the side of the newly constructed airport. Favouring reefs, it seems to me that diving is an adventure every time and never easier to learn. As Casey explains, “Most theory can be done online, and we can certify people within four days now. No one wants to do theory when they are on the Islands. They want to hit the water ready.”

I leave the boat and thank everyone for their time, sit on the wall by the ferry that will take me back to Tortola and soak in the slow sunset over the Channel.  As for Captain Wooley, his body was never found, and he remains the elusive Captain of the depths with many an answer. For me at least, that’s the way it should be, and I tip him a salute and a respectful nod as the ferry passes him and ploughs on towards Road Town. 
 

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