IT’S MY FIRST DIVE in the British Virgin Islands, and I’ve forgotten a cardinal rule. If you’re going to lose or break your kit, injure yourself, or do something totally daft, the first dive is when it’s going to happen.
“There’s a bit of a current, so don’t hang about on the surface, and keep hold of the shotline,” warns the dive guide. My diver-senses should have been tingling at this point, but I was so keen to get onto the world-famous Rhone...
I’m aware that I’m not functioning on all cylinders. I had spent the previous afternoon staring at the pale green plastic chairs at Antigua airport before retching into a clear plastic bag.
Throwing up in transit is never a comfortable experience. My face and the contents of my improvised sick-bag co-ordinated perfectly with the décor.
Fellow-tourists steered a path around me and studiously looked the other way. The woman responsible for cleaning the toilets eyed me dolefully and sucked her teeth.

JET-LAGGED, SLEEP-DEPRIVED and nauseous is not a great way to start a dive trip. I barely have the energy to greet my dive group, but the prospect of a dive always perks me up. I know that as soon as I hit the water, I’ll feel better.
And I do. But something is wrong on the shotline. The green tinge of blood under water is a not-so-subtle warning sign. Green is not a happy colour on this trip, and I can see that the divers below me have unknowingly ripped their hands to shreds on the sharp edges of tiny shells that inhabit the descent line.
Ouch! That’s going to be super-sore when you’re diving every day for the next week. But the guys appear far more interested in getting photos – we’ve arrived on the mast. It’s still attached to the bow section and lies along the seabed, welcoming us onto the wreck.
I descended cautiously and have escaped injury, but just as I’m feeling pleased with myself, I notice that the wide-angle lens is missing from the front of my camera. Doh!
Fortunately I can still see our boat, and by swimming till I get beneath it, I manage to retrieve it. Disaster averted.

MOVE OVER SAMUEL L JACKSON, the Rhone is possibly the biggest celebrity in the BVI. As soon as my friends heard that I was going, they wanted to know if I would dive it.
A flagship Royal Mail steam-packet ship, the Rhone was built in 1865 and – much like the Titanic – was considered unsinkable. But just two years later, on her 10th voyage, she was caught in a ferocious hurricane and dashed against Black Rock. As seawater flooded in, her boilers exploded, tearing her apart.
The passengers were below decks, tied into their bunks, which is why only one survived, along with 22 crew.
The captain had reputedly been washed overboard as the hurricane struck, and the first officer was killed by a spar from the topmast. This left the rest of the crew in a desperate, losing battle against wind and waves to reach the relative safety of the open sea.
Tragically, a number of people from RMS Conway had transferred onto the Rhone, considering it safer, but Conway survived the storm. In all, 123 people perished when the Rhone went down.
The violence of the incident is evident at the dive site, with the bow section separated from the rest of the wreckage. And it was here that I landed on my “virgin” BVI dive. Wow!
The bow section is relatively intact, complete with masts, signalling cannon and a great swimthrough. When I’m not squealing at the features of the wreck, I’m delightedly pointing out a cute nudibranch thingy perched on a fan coral to anyone who will pay attention.
After a few bemused looks, I realise that these flame tongues are common as muck. Ho hum, my BVI “newbie” status is definitely showing.

The second dive took in the shallower stern section – which is far more broken up and features a giant prop, a teaspoon wedged in the wreck, and the “lucky porthole” – number 26, said to be the cabin of the only surviving passenger.
If parts of the wreck are beginning to look familiar, it may be because The Deep was filmed here, though I see no sign of a grumpy giant moray or a wet T-shirt.
The third dive was a night dive; the guide now knew that all the divers were good with their gas, so we could tour the entire site in one big loop.
I’m not a great fan of night dives, but this being BVI there was drama aplenty: sleeping sharks, confused sting rays and a kamikaze turtle that dive-bombed us in slow motion from above. Sheer magic “We can dive Wreck Alley or – weather allowing – we might be able
to get on the Chikuzen,” says Ben, our dive operator at Bitter End.
He looks a bit anxious: apparently some divers can get freaked by being somewhere “a bit remote”, with nowhere to hide from the elements. They need a few more Brits out there!
The Chikuzen was a knackered refrigerator vessel and a bit of a lump. She was harboured in St Maarten until, in 1981, with a storm approaching, she was judged to be too much of a liability.
Her owners towed her out to sea, abandoned her and set her on fire. Unloved and unwanted as a ship, she initially refused to sink. But the wreck has become massively popular with divers and marine life alike. I like to think the Chikuzen had the last laugh.
Lying on its side on the sand in 24m, the wreck is in the middle of nowhere. It has become a playground for barracuda, grouper, sharks, rays – and photographers.
I’m hovering above the hull, mesmerised by the sight of huge shoals performing a ballet with the approaching camera-heads below me.
An unseen ray sweeps past behind their heads. The drama unfolds before me; I barely have to move a fin. As I turn my head, a reef shark idles across the hull and disappears.
The only other person watching is our dive-guide; we exchange knowing smiles and shrugs. The boys below are still chasing the fish.

PLACES TO CONSIDER basing yourself in BVI include Cooper Island, a fabulous eco-resort set on a sensational beach, with a wonderful restaurant and bar.
It’s run by a nice English couple who both dive. Get 20 friends together and you can have the island to yourselves! It’s a short boat-ride out to the Rhone.
Jost van Dyke is a titchy island with its own picturesque dive shop, complete with diving cat, and one of the few places where nitrox is routinely available.
We were taken to a couple of well-known but less frequently dived sites from Jost van Dyke – Playground and Twin Towers. These big, scenic dives attract rays and big schools of predatory fish, though most of my group spent the Twin Towers dive tussling over the best position to photograph an octopus.
The island’s other claim to fame is that most of its buildings seem to be bars. Most entertaining of these is the Soggy Dollar, named because it has no jetty, so most people swim ashore from their boat to visit.
It claims to be the birthplace of the Painkiller cocktail. Nobody who has sampled one can subsequently recall any plausible alternative, so it has to be true.
Cocktails on BVI are notoriously generous on the alcohol. There’s no Happy Hour here – just Happy Days/Nights/Mornings. Visit the floating bar Willy T post-lunch and you’ll encounter the dregs of the BVI tourist trade. Grannies can be seen guzzling shots and cheerfully flashing their withered bits at anyone hapless enough to glance over.
This behaviour can be mildly alarming and deeply unappealing – unless you neck down some alcohol sharpish, and start to see the funny side. Which, of course, is how it all starts.
Then there is the Peter Island resort, which we reached after a lovely dive
at Angelfish Reef on gleaming white catamarans, and moored up in the marina.
This is an upmarket resort with great facilities and a stonking 3:1 ratio of
staff to guests. It’s also a honeymoon destination. Non-diving partners may love you for taking them there.

THE BITTER END at Virgin Gorda is the last stop if you’re sailing further down the chain of Caribbean islands, and within spitting distance of Richard Branson’s Necker island.
It’s a yachtie paradise with beautiful bungalows run by the Bitter End Yacht Club above the sweep of the main bay. It was from here that I dived the Chikuzen.
I’m completing my stops under the boat after my second dive on that wreck, and I have that warm, contented feeling you get after a fantastic dive.
The water is a mind-blowing turquoise. As I stare into it, I realise that I’ve found the right colour. It’s here. This is the colour of happy.
I dived several pretty reefs, but it was the wrecks of the Rhone and Chikuzen that made my trip so memorable. And I never even made it to the four wrecks in Wreck Alley. So perhaps that gives me a great excuse to go back to BVI soon.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: BA and Virgin fly direct from Gatwick to Antigua. Liat is the most prolific local airline to the largest BVI island, Tortola, though the flight may be via St Maarten, St Kitts or Puerto Rico. www.caribbeanjet.com has details of local airlines
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: There are 60 islands to explore, so a liveaboard is an easy option. The spacious Cuan Law feels more like a luxury hotel than a boat, says Louise Trewavas, www.bvidiving.com. Sunsail offers skippered yacht charters from Tortola, www.sunsail.co.uk. Dive operators rent dive gear to visiting yachties, as many BVI visitors are water- rather than land-based. Cooper Island/Sail Caribbean Divers, www.cooperislandbeachclub. com, www.sailcaribbeandivers.com. Jost Van Dyke, www.jostvandykescuba.com. Peter Island, www.peterisland.com. Bitter End, www.beyc.com
WHEN TO GO: The weather is usually hot, but hurricane season runs from June to the end of November, with September seeing most hits. Water temperature is 26-28°C, so a 3mm wetsuit is fine.
MONEY: Eastern Caribbean dollar.
HEALTH: Use good insect repellant. The nearest decompression chamber is an airlift away at St Thomas.
PRICES: Return flights to Antigua cost £600-650, and return flights from there to Tortola US $290. Fourteen nights’ full-board (two sharing) at Cooper Island costs from US $2175pp in low season, including ferry from Tortola. Room-only rate is from $200 per room per night. Ten dives with Sail Caribbean cost $465, including dive gear. A week’s Sunsail yacht charter for a group of six starts at £2000.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.bvitourism.com and bviscuba.org, official website of BVI dive operators. Check here for details of the 2012 Wreck Week in early June. BVI weather and other unfolding dramas have their own website at bviddm.com