There is something about a sinking ship that pricks the imagination, which stirs the emotions: wind and waves lashing a stricken vessel when the pumps can't keep up with the encroaching water and life or death hang precariously in the balance. When strength or weakness, courage or cowardice plays such a great role it's undoubtedly the stuff of Hollywood. And here in the B.V.I. we have just such a wreck in the RMS Rhone, probably the most famous wreck in the entire Caribbean.
Much has been written about the Rhone. In many ways her demise was not dissimilar to that of the Titanic. Her end came as a result of unusual weather conditions; she was relatively new with luxury accommodations; she was an elegant ship with fine lines and the pride of her builders, and she broke in half while sinking. A great and tragic loss of life occurred in both instances and both captains succumbed.
It was late October, 1867, the Rhone was tied alongside the steam driven sidewheeler RMS Conway, off Peter Island's north shore, in order to transfer cargo and supplies. Suddenly the barometer dropped, the wind increased and black clouds rolled over the hills of Tortola. Both captains conferred briefly and the Conway decided to head for protection under the lee of Tortola, whilst the Rhone, after slipping its cable under duress, headed for the open sea between Dead Chest Cay and Salt Island.
It is hard to imagine the last hour of the Rhone's life. The winds shifted quickly through west to south as the eye of the storm passed close by. With huge waves battering the ship's starboard side and howling winds driving her shoreward, both passengers and crew must have been terrified. Visibility would have been only yards in the driving rain and spume. Legend has it that crew members were ordered to lash hysterical passengers into their bunks.
The end of the Rhone probably came quickly as she came ashore at Black Rock on Salt Island's southwest promontory. In those hurricane driven seas she would have struck and holed fast. The boilers would have been at full steam, coal fires white hot, so when the seawater flooded the boiler room a massive explosion resulted. Enough to blow the ship into two pieces immediately and cause great loss of life. The stern section lodged against the rocks and sank, but the bow still maintained buoyancy and drifted a short distance away from the stern sinking in deeper water at a 90-degree angle from the bow. The stern section remained upright for sometime with her aft mast yards and topmasts above water enabling four survivors to cling to them. There were 147 souls on board. 22 seamen survived and one passenger. A few survivors made it to shore, 10 others including the 4th officer were found in Salt Island Sound clinging to a lifeboat.
The Rhone is much more famous today than she ever was afloat. She lies in normally calm water at a depth of 80-feet or less and her iron hull is remarkably well preserved. The underwater flora and fauna that surround her are prolific – a scuba diver's dream. She starred in the 1977 movie The Deep, with Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte, as well as hundreds of amateur underwater movies
Another historic shipwreck is the 14-gun sloop HMS Nymph, a ship of the line that succumbed to an accidental fire in the harbour of Road Town on the 28th June, 1783. The fire was discovered at 11 pm and aid was sent from the shore and nearby merchant ships but the fire was too fierce and the ship had to be abandoned to burn out. She eventually sank near the Road Town jetty. Three men died in the accident.
In 1969 a dredger working in the area disgorged a quantity of silver spoons, swords and cannon balls; a total of some 400 artifacts were recovered. It is likely that more valuables are buried at the site, possibly even gold. The ship's crew had to be paid and the purser needed funds for expenses.
Rather less romantic but never-the-less a story of derring-do is that of the Chikuzen, which also sank as a result of fire. The Chikuzen, a 256-foot refrigerator ship, was designed to serve the Japanese fishing fleet. In 1981 a hurricane was approaching St. Martin and the abandoned vessel, now no more than a hulk, imposed a threat to that island's harbour. It was decided to tow her into deep water and sink her by setting her on fire. But the Chikuzen refused to sink and drifted all the way to the B.V.I. where she threatened the reefs and island of Marina Cay. Whilst being towed clear by ocean-going tugs a cable snapped and severely injured a crewman who had to be airlifted to a hospital in Puerto Rico. She finally sank some seven miles northwest of Virgin Gorda in 80-feet of water. Described by divers as an "oasis in the desert" the Chikuzen lies on a sand bottom miles from any reefs or rocks and as such provides a haven for many pelagic fish and a 600 pound Jewfish. She is only accessible on calm days.
Three hundred of the B.V.I.'s wrecks met their watery fate on Anegada's treacherous and infamous Horseshoe Reef. The HMS Astrea was one of them. A 5th rate, 32-gun British frigate, the Astrea had a formidable history before foundering on the island's reef in 1808. She first saw action in the latter stages of the American War of Independence. She captured a 43-gun French frigate in 1795 when Britain and France were again at war. Only two months later, as part of a 25 vessel fleet, she helped capture three French ships and soon after she was instrumental in the retaking of St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Grenada from the French. In Alexandria she was part of a mopping up exercise some years after Nelson's great victory at the Nile and five more Frenchmen were taken.
In May, 1808 the Astrea, having just completed the escort of a packet bound for England, was heading south for Puerto Rico. At 7.30 in the evening she was preparing to heave to when foaming breakers were sighted dead ahead. She tried to bear off but, too late, she struck the reef near Anegada's eastern point and immediately took on water. When she threatened to capsize, her cannons were jettisoned and the masts cut away. Eventually the keel broke in two and by morning the crew abandoned ship escaping to Anegada on two makeshift rafts that had been built during the night. Four sailors died. One sailor, George Wright, accused the captain of neglect and threatened to run him through with the captain's own sword. He was later charged, at a court martial in Barbados, with mutinous conduct and was hung from the yardarm of one of His Majesty's ships.
In 1967 a diving team, with famed underwater explorer and wreck diver Bert Kilbride, found the wreck site and salvaged many artifacts. The wreck site is extremely hazardous except in flat calm conditions and the cannons and anchors were not recovered.The Paramatta was one of the last great side-wheel steamships. Carrying a cargo of coal on her maiden voyage, she was finally abandoned to the reefs of Anegada in July 1859 after almost a month of salvage efforts failed to refloat her. She lies off the island's eastern shore on the windward side of the reef and is only accessible in calm conditions. Apparently local Anegadians, long known for their skills at wrecking, wasted no time in stripping the ship.
It is interesting to note some remarks made by an archeologist, Robert Schomburgk, visiting the island in 1832, "... the indolence of the inhabitants (of Anegada) is only thoroughly roused by the cry of 'A Vessel on the Reef.' Then all roused to activity, scarcely is the news announced than boats of every description, shallops and sailing vessels, are pushed off with all haste toward the scene of action. Arms which have been idle for weeks are brought into exercise; and both skill and intrepidity are tasked to the uttermost to get first on board. The scene indeed baffles description; and it is to be feared that only few are attracted by motives of humanity…"
A later report in a 1851 St. Thomas newspaper relates: "the schooner Vigilant of Bermuda struck the reef and was immediately boarded by the ever watchful Anegadians, who soon stripped her from truck to keelson…" In those days of poverty and want a stranded vessel was considered fair game.
The 380-ft steel steamship, MS Rocus is Anegada's famous "bone wreck." This large freighter foundered on the southern tip of Horseshoe Reef in 1929 and was carrying a cargo of cattle bones from Trinidad to Baltimore for the glue industry. The stern of the wreck lies in about 40-feet of water with the bow almost breaking the surface. Due to many hurricanes in the ensuing years the vessel is now largely broken up but the engine, boilers and winches are recognizable. On the port side of the bow stacks of chain are attached to a massive anchor. Her cargo of bones is strewn along the reef intermingled with fine stands of elk horn and stag horn coral.
The reefs of Anegada were indeed a perilous trap for unwary vessels and even today with modern radar and GPS scarcely a year goes by without a vessel stranding.
At Virgin Gorda's Saba Rock, a small museum displays artifacts from some of the islands' more important wrecks. There are many exhibits from the Rhone, including the second anchor that was thrown down in a last desperate attempt to save the ship. Other anchors and cannons are on display in an aquarium. There is also jewellery and other artifacts from treasure found on the Atocha, the famed shipwreck found by Mel Fisher off Key West, Florida. Similarly on Anegada at Wilfred Creque's Pomato Point restaurant, a room full of artifacts from wrecks and salvage from the beaches of the island can be seen. Other artifacts from the RMS Rhone can be seen at the VI Folk Museum in Road Town.
Julian Putley is the author of the Virgins' Treasure Isle, the story of treasure buried on Norman Island. He also wrote Sunfun Calypso and the Drinking Man's Guide to the B.V.I.