Tag Archives: British Virgin Islands

The Wreck of the Rhone

Whether you are a diver, a snorkeler, a history buff or just along for the ride; the 145 year old Wreck of the Rhone is one of the rare treasures of the British Virgin Islands and should not be passed by! The RMS Rhone was built in 1865 and was one of the first iron hulled vessels powered by both sail and steam. She was the 310 foot Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s flagship that carried cargo and passengers between England, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Similar to the Titanic 45 years later, The British Navy deemed her “unsinkable”, a ship that embodied the new marine technology of it’s time.

The Rhone met her demise in October 1867. The ship had just picked up it’s passengers and it was estimated there were around 300 people onboard, she was anchored off of Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands when a dark storm rolled in. Without the technology we have today the captain and crew were quickly caught off guard by a hurricane. They rode out the first half of the storm on their anchor. As the storm grew more fierce the captain was faced with a difficult decision: stay put or head for open seas. The decision was made to run for it as the eye of the storm passed over. This proved to be more difficult then they had anticipated as the anchor had become deeply embedded in the coral. Wasting precious time they struggled to pull up the large anchor and ended up cutting the chain. Finally, they raced for the Salt Island Passage. Valuable time wasted, the storm hit them at full force right as they approached the passage. The waves were estimated to be 70-100 feet tall and pushed them up against the rocks on Salt Island. The rocks pierced the hull of the ship allowing the cool seawater to rush onto the red hot boiler in the bowels of the ship. The unsinkable Rhone exploded into two pieces and found her final resting place on the sea floor. Only 23 people survived the wreck, all of which were crew members.

Today the Rhone is considered one of the best wreck dives in the Caribbean. The wreck is best done in two dives, one on the bow, one on the stern. The bow section is 80 ft. deep and still relatively intact. As you drop down the first thing you will notice is the beautifully encrusted bowsprit of the ship. Although most of the wooden decks have rotted away the iron skeleton remains, providing roomy swim-throughs for divers. The stern section ranges from 20-50 ft. deep due to the fact that it is broke up in many pieces and is a great dive as well as snorkel. The stern also provides a great swim-through into the huge propeller shaft.
The iron ship’s frame has become encrusted with all sorts of tube sponges, wire, brain and encrusting coral, anemones and more. You will find all sorts of critters hiding in the cracks and crevices such as crabs, green morays, huge lobsters (one locally known as “lobzilla”) and octopus. The Rhone is also teeming with squirrelfish and legions of snappers that love to hide in the shadows. Angel fish galore and turtles who love to stop and pose for the camera. Along with all of the amazing marine life that flourishes on the Rhone there are still vestiges from the era that can be spotted throughout the wreckage. A canon lies next to the hull, there is the drive shaft and huge brass propeller, a piece of tile from the dance floor, one single remaining brass porthole known as the lucky porthole which you rub for good luck, and finally a silver teaspoon perfectly encrusted in the coral which is said to belong to the captain himself!
In 1967 the Rhone was turned into a National Park and has been beautifully preserved and protected. If you would like a preview of the wreck you can watch the movie The Deep, which was filmed on the Rhone in 1977. So set your heading to Salt Island – it’s safe to say that the Rhone is the single most beautifully decorated wreck in the British Virgin Islands, a masterpiece of 145 years and still in the making.
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William Thornton, a.k.a. “Willy T”: The Man vs. the Myth

Dr. William Thornton (May 20, 1759 – March 28, 1828) was an British_American physician, inventor, painter and architect who designed the United States Capitol building. He also served as the first Architect of the Capitol and first Superintendent of the United States Patent Office. Born into a Quaker community on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands where he was heir to large sugar plantations, he was sent to England at age five to be educated. Once in England, there was never any question of his pursuing the fine arts professionally—he was to be trained for a useful life, according to the Quaker ways.
By the time he returned to the British Virgin Islands in 1786, Thornton was a gifted Practical Physician, accomplished Writer and very talented Architect. Once there, he came face to face with the source of his income—half interest in a sugar plantation and ownership of some 70 slaves, the possession of which had begun to trouble him. Late that same year he immigrated to the United States, in large part to pursue the cause of anti-slavery. During a visit to Tortola between 1790 and 1792, Thornton submitted plans to the design competitions for the U.S. Capitol Building. By April of 1793, his design was named winner. Thornton went on to design many now famous buildings in the Young Capitol.
Thornton was buried in Congressional Cemetary on Capitol Hill.

In life, William Thornton’s accomplishments were many. While he is probably most famous for being the designer of the U.S. Capitol building, among the local boaters of the British Virgin Islands he is known for something else altogether. Of course, just about anyone who has been to the British Virgin Islands has heard of the floating pirate bar called “The Willy T”. Many even know who the bar was named after… Few however, have heard the myth that ties the two together.
Many believe that the The Willy T is in fact haunted by the rebellious spirit of Dr. William Thornton himself.
For some, the irony of this might be too much to swallow— Why would William Thornton; a man of so many great accomplishment’s in his life, a man with a strict Quaker upbringing, a valuable member of society throughout his life, haunt (arguably) the most infamous watering hole in all of the Virgin Islands?
Believers will tell you that this is precisely why he has taken up residence. They will say that it is because of William Thornton’s staunch Quaker beliefs and strict adherence to a proper and honorable life, and that after his death in 1828, his rebellious soul returned to his native land of the Virgin Islands to let loose and leave the rules and regulations of his life behind.
Believers will tell you that to board the The Willy T, is to momentarily hand yourself over to Thornton and leave inhibition behind. They will tell you that even the most reserved are no match for the ghost of Willy T.
Some may argue that the Soul of William Thornton does not haunt the Willy T. They might argue that it is not Willy T’s spirit that holds some inexplicable power over the inhibitions of it’s guests but rather some other “unknown” spirit (no pun intended).
Some might say what they will. You will have to decide for yourself. Myself, I believe in the rebellious spirit. I believe in William Thornton.

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