Shipwrecks as a Part of BVI History

The history of the Caribbean is filled with nautical
adventures and shipwrecks. Nowhere is this more true than in the British Virgin
Islands. Since moving to the Virgins some 20 years ago, I have enjoyed
collecting information on the numerous wrecks that dot our shorelines and
reefs. Of all of the islands in the BVI, Anegada claims the largest number of
sinkings due to the numerous reefs that surround the island. According to Tage
Blytmsnn, a true expert on shipwrecks in our area, Anegada means "the
drowned island" (loosely translated from Spanish) with the highest point
on the island being only 30 feet above sea level. Given the location of
Anegada, close to a major north-south shipping lane, and with extensive reefs
extending all around the island and up to about 11 miles seaward towards the
southeast, it’s no wonder this chain of reefs has claimed so many unsuspecting
and ill-fated mariners.

The earliest
recorded sinking is a Spanish vessel wrecked on Anegada in 1523 with many more
since. The very deceitful Horseshoe Reef extends some 17 miles into the Anegada
Passage, one of the major trade routes of the Caribbean. Over the centuries,
hundreds of wooden ships have gone to the bottom on its brutal coral shoals
with only a few murky piles of ballast stones and long-removed cannons to show
for their passing. The remains of more modern iron ships, such as the
Rocus
(also known as the "bone
wreck" sunk in 1929) and the Paramatta
(a paddle-wheel predecessor to the Rhone
that sunk in 1859) bear silent testimony to Horseshoe Reef’s history of
obliteration. Even today, Anegada and its reef are off-limits to most
charterers and all but the most experienced sailors.

The wreck of the
Royal Mail Steam Packet Ship R.M.S. Rhone,
one of the most popular and highly rated shipwrecks in all the Caribbean, is
situated on the lee side of Salt Island, and is visited daily by local dive
boats, daysail boats and charter yachts as well as by snorkellers and scuba
divers alike. In the almost 130 years it has been underwater, the
Rhone
has been transformed by the sea
and is now as much a natural reef as it is a wreck.

A 310-foot long
iron-hulled steam-sailer, constructed at the pinnacle of the Industrial
Revolution and built in Southampton, England in 1865, the Rhone was a crossbreed powered by both sail and one of the earliest
steam-driven propellers. It was sunk by a hurricane on October 29th, 1867.

Not quite as
notable or easily reached as the Rhone
is the wreck of the Chikuzen, one of
the BVI’s best adventure dives. In August 1981, the decrepit
Chikuzen
, part of a Korean fishing fleet
in St. Martin, was set adrift in front of an oncoming hurricane, which sent the
246-foot-long hull into BVI waters where it eventually sank halfway between
Beef Island and Anegada. Today it lies on its port side at a depth of 75 feet.
The wreck is a refuge for large numbers of gray snapper, sea bass, barracuda,
stingrays, cobia, amberjack and spadefish. Oddly enough, the
Chikuzen
‘s solitude and exposure to
rough sea conditions actually helps to preserve it.

Another popular
wreck is that of the 100-foot-long Fearless
– intentionally placed at the bottom of a black coral wall at the mouth of
Great Harbour, Peter Island. The Willie T,
formerly a popular bar and restaurant anchored in the Norman Island Bight, was
also sunk intentionally on the sea floor near the Fearless. I happened to actually see that one go down. However,
for all of you elbow benders out there,
the Willie T II, located at the same spot in The Bight, replaced the
Willie T
and is a 2nd home to
BVI sailors.

The ships listed
here are just a small portion of maritime history located at the bottom of the
sea in the BVI. I hope that this information has just whetted your appetite for
a great all day dive in our beautiful waters.

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