The wreck of The Rhone
Written by Missy Johnston
Salt Island in the British Virgin Islands, has always been owned by the government, and is a tiny little island that provided its namesake, salt, from shallow salt ponds found on the island. This salt was an important staple for the British Royal Navy. The harvesting of salt was an important annual tradition on Salt Island going back to the days of Queen Victoria, when the residents would gather once a year to harvest salt. It became customary for the Administrator of the Virgin Islands and later the Governor of the Virgin Islands to send one pound of salt to the Monarch on the Queen’s birthday as “rent” for the island, a tradition that fell away, but may have been revived in 2015.
At one time, over 100 people lived on this tiny island, only one mile long by one mile wide all engaged in the operation of producing salt. Today, one can hike to the salt ponds, the cemetery, outlined in rocks where those lost in the sinking of the Rhone are buried, and a wall commemorating those lost. For years, 3 people lived on Salt Island, however today, no one lives on the island, which still belongs to the government. Only able to be reached by private yacht, visitors are welcome to wander the island and hike the local trails, however the bigger draw, is the famous Wreck of the Rhone, just off the shores of Salt Island.
The Wreck of the RHM Rhone, Salt Island, British Virgin Islands
An excellent underwater location for snorkeling and scuba diving, 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.
Wreck of The Rhone
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.
Wreck of The Rhone
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.