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RMS RHONE


Scotsman James MacQueen had not yet seen his 20th birthday when he was already a sugar plantation manager on the island of Grenada (inexplicably pronounced gren-ay’-dah).

By 1822, while still in his twenties, MacQueen had saved a tidy sum and traveled throughout the Caribbean basin and Central America. In his travels, he observed that there was no organized or scheduled shipping or mail service anywhere in the area. If, for example, one was on St. Kitts in 1830, there was no scheduled way to get back to England.

A local island vessel might get you to St. Thomas and then passage might be available within a few weeks to San Juan, a busier port; but there was no way to know when a passenger vessel might call on San Juan. Further, if there was a vessel bound for London, it might be on the first leg of its voyage and may be bound for Rio or Buenos Aires before turning for home.

RMS RHONE

As important as scheduled cargo and passenger service was, mail communication was paramount. Knowing when a recipient would receive a dispatch and when a reply might arrive was important. Such a level of communications did not exist except in England itself.

Immediately upon his return to Britain, MacQueen, who was respected for his wit, industry and imagination, began garnering legislative and financial support for his brainstorm.

He planned regularly scheduled steam packet routes connecting England with the Caribbean, South and Central America, the East Coast of the United States and the Canadian Maritimes. It was a grandiose plan but slowly investors signed on and finally on September 26, 1839, parliament granted a charter for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company.

Though MacQueen’s plan had been scaled back considerably by his investor group, the first shipyard order consisted of 14 steamers of 1,800– to 1,900– tons to cover 11 routes linking England with the Caribbean, Central America, New York, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. But the expenses incurred during the two years of fleet building nearly caused the company’s collapse.

In 1840, the company was granted an exclusive mail contract for its service area and things looked bright when in January 1842, RMS TAY and RMS THAMES, loaded to the gunwales, departed Southampton. Their sister ships had sailed in ballast for their western hemishere stations a month earlier.

The first ten years were plagued by operational problems. Scheduling was too tight and had to be relaxed. Permission for these changes came from the Admiralty, the final arbiter of all British maritime issues. Further, seven ships including five of the original fleet were lost during the first decade of operation. RMS FORTH, ISIS, MEDINA, SOLWAY and TWEED were all lost, along with a schooner and ACTAEION, a smaller steamer. But in spite of the setbacks, in 1864, the company returned 24 percent to investors, the highest profit rate ever to be enjoyed by RMSP. But darker skies were in the offing.

In 1865, RMS RHONE was built at the Millwall Iron Works in London and commissioned specifically for the Caribbean trade and with her modern design she became the flagship of the company’s fleet. She was sail-rigged as a brig and one of the first steamers to employ a cast-bronze screw propeller. She was 310 feet between perpendiculars and boasted 300 passenger cabins.

In 1867, under the command of Captain Fredrick Woolley, she made her annual fall voyage from Southampton to the Caribbean without mishap. Exchanging signals with a passing sister ship, she learned that yellow fever was rampant in Charlotte Amalie. At the time, St. Thomas was a major transshipping point for goods bound for the Lesser Antilles and coaling facilities at Havensight were modern and designed specifically to service packet steamers. But Captain Woolley, always mindful of his duty to protect his passengers, decided to stay away from St. Thomas and dropped the hook in Great Harbour on Peter Island. Cargo, passengers, and mail bound for St. Thomas were to be trans-shipped to Charlotte Amalie aboard CONWAY and coal was lightered from Road Harbour.

On the morning of October 19,, 1867, Captain Woolley’s luck, seamanship and judgment abandoned him en masse. When he arose, the glass was dropping like a stone; Tortola was covered in storm clouds, and a stiff breeze blew up from the north-northwest. RHONE’s anchor was set in the center but slightly outside the bay. The growing NNW gales streamed RHONE toward the southsoutheast parallel with Great Harbour Point and as the storm intensified, she was held in place by the anchor and her engine running at full speed.

When the eye of the storm passed over Peter Island, it fell dead calm and the smaller CONWAY quickly weighed anchor and gained sea room before the next blast hit, but she did sustain some damage; her funnel was blown off and rigging was damaged.

That’s when Captain Woolley started making remarkably bad decisions. The vessel held its own when the waves from storm-blown Drake’s Channel fetched about 4 miles. Hurricane winds and rain pelted the RHONE from approximately the direction of Nanny Cay. When the eye passed, the winds switched almost 180 degrees. This would have put him in the snug lee of Peter Island and in a much safer position than during the hurricane’s initial onslaught, which the RMS RHONE survived.

RMS RHONE Bell

But what did the captain do? Intending to return to retrieve it, Woolley ordered the anchor jettisoned along with four shots of chain and hightailed it out of Great Harbour. It was still calm as she rounded Dead Chest but just southwest of Salt Island, the RHONE was slammed by hurricane winds along with a monster wave out of the south-southwest. At that very moment, Captain Woolley was on the bridge enjoying a cup of tea laced with rum. The rain had returned and he stepped out through the portside companionway to get a better view of the situation when the huge breaker carried him overboard, teacup and all. His remains were never recovered.

The scream of the hurricane winds was deafening while the crew worked frantically to save the ship. But wind and wave lifted the RHONE inexorably closer to The Black Rock on the southwest corner of Salt Island. A last-ditch effort to save the RHONE was made when the secondary anchor was deployed to no avail.

She lifted then slammed down on The Black Rock and was immediately holed. RMS RHONE’s hull blew into two distinct pieces when the boilers exploded as cold seawater poured into her engine room.

Of the 147 passengers and crew aboard RHONE, only 23 survived. Two other RMSP ships sank in St. Thomas during the same hurricane. The hurricane of 1867 was so destructive that for years it was the storm to which all others were compared.

The evidence is clear that the loss of RMS RHONE was unnecessary and if Captain Woolley had simply stayed put, the tragedy, in all probability, would never have happened.

Woolley’s loss was our gain, however, as the RHONE is considered one of the best wreck dives in the Caribbean. It was featured in the late Peter Benchley’s movie, “The Deep,” starring Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset’s wet T-shirt.

Today, the RMS RHONE’s ship’s bell rests at the St. Thomas Anglican Church on South Caicos Island. How it got there is somewhat speculative but a South Caicos citizen, Jeremiah D. Murphy, was a hard-hat diver hired by Charlotte Amalie business interests to clear St. Thomas harbor after the 1867 hurricane. He also salvaged the RHONE and it is presumed that he filched the bell and kept it as a souvenir, donating it to the church before his death in 1895.

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