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Rhone In Background

The "Unsinkable" Iron Ship Rhone

By James Donahue

The British packet ship Rhome was among the first iron hulled ocean vessels powered by both sail and steam. Built in 1865 for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, she was touted by the British Royal Navy as one of two ships believed to be "unsinkable."

The Rhone, however, proved the proud shipbuilders wrong. The steamer wrecked in a hurricane off the coast of Salt Island in the British Virgin Islands on October 29, 1867, with the loss of an estimated 123 lives.

On the day of the storm, the Rhone and another British passenger ship, Conway, were anchored in Great Harbour, on Peter Island to take on coal. The storm, which went down in the record books as the San Narciso Hurricane struck while the ships were still in the harbor. The Category 3 storm delivered winds so strong that both vessels dragged their anchors. The captains worried that when the second half of the storm hit the ships would be driven into the rocks.

When the eye of the storm was passing over, a decision was made to transfer the passengers from the Conway to the "unsinkable" Rhone. The Conway then steamed for Road Harbor and the Rhone, under the command of Captain Robert F. Wooley, headed for the open sea. He believed the ship had a better chance of riding out the storm there then risk being driven into the island. The passengers were tied into their beds to prevent them from being tossed around and hurt in the storm.

Alas, neither ship survived that storm. The Conway foundered off Tortola with the loss of all hands. The Rhone found her anchor caught in the rocks below and could not get away. Wooley ordered the anchor cut loose. By this time the ship had lost critical time in getting away. To make up for the lost time Wooley steered the ship between Black Rock Point of Salt Island and Dead Chest Island in a rush to get into the open water.

The Rhone ran out of time. Just as the ship was passing Black Rock Point and was no more than 250 yards from safety, the second half of the hurricane struck, with winds coming from the opposite direction. The Rhone was quickly driven back into the point. There is a legend that says for impact of the crash threw Wooley overboard and he was never seen again.

The crash split the iron hull of the Rhone in two and when the cold sea water hit the hot boilers they exploded. The ship sank quickly in about 80 feet of water. Of the 146 passengers and crew members aboard, only 23 crew members survived. The passengers, all tied to their bunks, had no chance of escaping. Many of the dead now lie buried in a cemetery on Salt Island.

The wreck has since become a popular visiting site for sport divers. In fact the area has been declared a Marine National Park in the Virgin Islands. The remains of the Rhone also were used as a backdrop to the 1977 horror film, The Deep.

There is a story among some divers that the wreck of the Rhone may be haunted. Divers report the sensation of someone tugging on them, or hearing strange groans and screams while swimming at the wreck.

When launched at the Millwall Ironworks at London in 1865, the Rhone was among the largest ocean-going ships of that period, measuring 310 feet in length. In addition to her steam engines she sported two masts. Her propeller was the second bronze propeller ever built.

The ship was making regular trips between England, the Caribbean and Central and South America. She was on her tenth voyage at the time of her loss.