Ships 2


Ships 3

Steamer Rhone in Background

Haunted Caribbean Dive Wreck Rhone

By James Donahue

The remains of the iron steamship Rhone lie in only 30 feet of water off Salt Island, in the British Virgin Islands. Thus it a popular visiting site for sport divers. But divers that visit the 1867 disaster site where an estimated 123 people perished believe the wreck is haunted.

Divers exploring the wreck sometimes say they experience the sensation of someone tugging on their arms or shoulders, but when they turn to see who is touching them, no one is there. Other divers report hearing groans, screams and other strange noises. Divers say they never hear these kinds of noises while exploring other wrecks.

National Geographic featured the haunted ship in its television series, Is It Real. The wreck also was featured in the 1977 horror film, The Deep. The wreck has consequently gained such national and international publicity that it has become among the most popular dive sites in the world. In 1967 the wreck site and its surrounding area was declared the Wreck of the Rhone Marine Park.

The 310-foot-long iron steamship was only two years old and making its sixth voyage on October 29, 1867, when it was driven on the rocks and sunk by a hurricane. The steamer was launched as a royal mail ship for the Royal Mail Packet Company for mail and passenger service between England and the Caribbean.

In its day the Rhone was believed to be the fastest and most modern ship in the fleet. The ship boasted a speed of 14 knots, considered very fast in 1867. The vessel sported 253 lavish first class cabins. There were also 30 second class and 30 third class cabins.

On October 19, the Rhone, under the command of Captain Robert F. Wooley, entered Great Harbor on Peter Island to take on coal. Normally the ship would have called at St. Thomas but altered its route because of an outbreak of yellow fever. Also at anchor at Great Harbor that day was the British packet Conway.

The two captains worried about a dropping barometer and building storm clouds. Because it was October and they correctly guessed that they were in the path of an approaching hurricane the two skippers decided to remain at anchor to ride out the storm.

The hurricane hit the two ships with such veracity that the anchors dragged and the steamers had to use their engines to power against the wind and sea to keep from being driven aground. When the eye of the storm arrived the two captains knew they had to do something to avoid the consequences of a looming change in the wind direction. They believed the two ships would be driven to the shore of nearby Peter Island.

The decision was made to move the passengers to the larger and “unsinkable” Rhone, and Captain Wooley made the fateful decision to put to sea where he thought his ship would have a better chance of riding out the second half of the hurricane. To keep them from getting tossed wildly around in their cabins and possibly getting hurt, the passengers on the Rhone were tied into their beds, which turned out to be a serious mistake.

The Conway steamed off for Road Harbor in an attempt to find safe shelter there. The eye passed and this ship got caught in the back end of the storm and foundered off Tortola with the loss of all hands.

The Rhone, however, found its anchor caught on coral and for a while could not get underway. By the time the decision was made to cut the chain, critical time had been lost and the back side of the hurricane was upon the doomed steamer. Wooley chose the shortest route to the open sea, steaming between Black Rock Point at Salt Island and Dead Chest Island.

The Rhone was just passing Black Rock Point and less than 250 yards from the open sea when the second half of the storm was upon them. The winds shifted around to the south driving the Rhone directly into Black Rock Point. The force of the crash cracked the iron hull, the cold sea flooded the engine room and the hot boilers exploded.

The ship sank so fast it was impossible for anyone to untie the passengers from their beds and they all perished. Out of an estimated 145 people aboard the Rhone there were only 23 survivors.

That hurricane, which some analysts today have estimated may have been as powerful as a Class Five, also wrecked the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s ships Dewent and Wye and caused extensive damage to the Solent and Tyne. It is said that no other shipping company has ever sustained a loss of so many ships in a single day.

There were about 60 vessels anchored in the island chain that day. Only two of them survived the storm.