The Wreck of the RMS Rhone located in the British Virgin Islands between Peter and Salt Island is one of the best shipwrecks available to snorkel or dive in the Caribbean. As the wreck is in relatively shallow waters, anyone snorkeling can see a significant part of the wreck without diving. Those that do dive will enjoy this wreck as the diving depths are shallow, and the wrecked hull remaining has large unencumbered openings, allowing a diver to swim right through the wrecked hull. A snorkel or dive of the RMS Rhone is a nice morning or afternoon crewed yacht charter activity while chartering in the British Virgin Islands.
The British Royal Mail Steamer, “Rhone” was wrecked off of the shores of Salt Island, in between Salt Island and Norman Island on October 29, 1867, during a hurricane. The Rhone, built in 1865, was considered by the Royal British Navy to be one of two unsinkable ships, the other being The Titanic, with both ships, unfortunately proving the Royal British Navy wrong.
Built at the Millwall Iron Works in Southampton, England, the Rhone was 310 feet long with a 40 foot beam. Sporting two masts, the Rhone was a favorite with passengers, as she sailed along at 14 knots, an almost unheard of speed at that time. Carrying cargo, the Rhone also had lavish passenger staterooms, with 253 first class staterooms, 30 second class cabins, and 30 third class cabins. Just prior to the sinking, the Rhone had come alongside RMS Conway to refuel in Great Harbor on Peter Island. As the skies darkened and the barometer dropped, it was decided that all passengers would be transferred from the Conway to the unsinkable Rhone, and that the Conway would make way to Roadtown Harbor in Tortola and the Rhone would head out to weather the storm at sea.
The Conway never made safety in Roadtown Harbor and was caught by the tail end of the storm, foundering off of the south side of Tortola with the loss of all hands.
With all passengers strapped to their beds, as was the norm at that time for safety under hurricane conditions, the Rhone attempted to head out to the open seas. As the Rhone came around between Peter Island and Salt Island the tail end of the storm caught the ship and tossed it onto Black Rock Point. The Rhone split in half, causing cold water to come into contact with the hot boilers, which then exploded sending the rest of the ship to the bottom. Sadly of the 143 passengers on board, plus and unknown number that were transferred on board from the Conway, only 23 crew survived. Many of the dead were buried on nearby Salt Island.
As the waters were shallow, the mast of the Rhone was still to be seen sticking up from the water, until the 1950’s when the Royal British Navy deemed the mast and wreck to be a maritime hazard and sunk the ship further into the waters. In 1967, the area was named a National Park and now is one of the best snorkel and dive site to explore a wreck in the Caribbean. As the wreck is still in relatively shallow waters from depths of 20 to 80 feet, much is seen by snorkelers, and the diving is considered relatively easy.
The most popular and well known of all the BVI dive sites, the Royal Mail Steamer “Rhone” was also the setting for the movie “The Deep” with Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bissett. Today she is decorated by a wide variety of corals and is home to several resident barracuda, sea turtles, stingrays, angelfish, yellowtail snappers and other colorful, Caribbean sea life.
Nearby Salt Island lives up to its name as a once thriving location for salt harvesting from the salt ponds. Previously an important source of salt for the Royal British Navy, Salt Island now boasts one inhabitant overseeing the island and once active salt ponds.