Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Explosive Sinking of the Unsinkable Rhone

For as long as man has traveled by ship, there have been shipwrecks, both big and small. Their names litter the history books: Titanic, Estonia, Carpathia, Mary Rose. But one of the most shocking shipwrecks was the sinking of the RMS Rhone, destroyed by a hurricane, its passengers drowned because they were tied to their beds.

The RMS Rhone, with her 40-foot masts
The RMS Rhone was a mail and passenger ship in the royal fleet of Great Britain, whose route routinely wound through England, the Americas, and the Caribbean. Built in 1865, the Rhone was a prized possession of England, measuring 310 feet in length and 40 feet wide, with two massive masts that topped out at 40 feet. The hull was made of iron and its propeller was made of solid bronze, only the second bronze propeller ever built. Inside, the Rhone was enriched with lavish cabins, 253 of the 313 them first class. The Rhone was the fastest and most modern ship of its time clocking in at fourteen knots. The British said it was unsinkable.

The Rhone proved her worth with several voyages to Brazil in 1865, where she weathered numerous storms.

On October 19, 1867, the Rhone rendezvoused with the RMS Conway near St. Thomas, in the former Danish Virgin Islands. Both vessels arrived to refuel, restock, and transfer cargo. While anchored, the clouds began to darken and the barometer dropped. The captain of the Rhone, Robert F. Wooley, was worried, since hurricane season was thought to be over. The Rhone and the Conway decided to stay in the harbor.

The storm that hit was a class-5 hurricane, a catastrophic-sized storm with winds over 157 mph. The ships kept their anchors down and remained at full steam, in order to combat the huge winds. The ships were tossed around, but managed to survive until the storm seemed to end. The Conway's passengers were transferred over to the Rhone, swelling the numbers to almost 300. Suddenly, Captain Wooley realized that the storm wasn't over; they were merely in the eye of the hurricane.

The Conway fled the harbor and got away safely. Inside the Rhone, Captain Wooley order all passengers tied to their beds, so they could avoid injury. Worried that she would be thrust against the rocks, the Rhone headed for the open sea.

Salt Island
Captain Wooley hoped to make it between Dead Chest Island and Black Rock Point on Salt Island, but as the eye moved on, the full force of the hurricane struck the vessel. The waves thrashed the Rhone, tossing it around like paper. Nearing the islands, the Rhone swung wide in order to avoid an underwater reef that could have been exposed during the storm. The route took the ship dangerously close to Black Rock Point.

A huge wave struck the ship so hard that Captain Wooley was thrown overboard, lost to the sea. The wave also knocked the Rhone into Black Rock Point. The sharp rocks spilt the ship in half. Ice-cold sea water flooded inside. When the water made contact with the smoking boilers, the boilers exploded.

The stern sank quickly in 30 feet of water. Passengers tied to their beds were helpless to do anything but drown. Four people were able to climb to the top of one of the forty-foot masts, and were later rescued. The aft of the ship floated away and sank in deeper water.

Of the 300 people aboard, only 23 survived: 22 crew members and one passenger. Eight bodies were recovered from the icy depths.

Her masts remained sticking out of the water for nearly 100 years. In the 1950s, the Royal Navy decided the masts were too much of a hazard and blew up the remains of the stern. Today, the rest of the wreckage has become a popular diving destination.

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