What follows is an excerpt from material written by Jim Lee, a boating friend of the Huffmans. It appeared originally in an article in a Canadian Power Squadron publication. A copy of the article is posted in the vestibule of the St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, which is where I first became aware of it. Unfortunately, I don't have any further citation of the author or original publisher. The title shown here was added by me. You should also read a recent newspaper article that recalls these events.
In August, 1965, Jessie and I and our five year-old son were nearing the end of our vacation on our power boat GEM. We met Jim and Shirley Huffman at Pointe au Baril. Jim was our (Power) Squadron commander and Shirley a very active member (of the Power Squadron). They were on their power boat RHU with their two daughters, aged three and five. We were all traveling north along the east coast of Georgian Bay, so we decided to cruise together. We vividly remember those three pleasant days: good weather, berry picking, swimming, watching the three children having so much fun together. At Beaverstone Bay, the Huffmans had to leave us, to pick up the Rhydwens in Little Current that afternoon.
We arrived in Little Current the next day, Sunday, August 22nd, and drove home to Copper Cliff, unaware of what was happening to our friends. We read the shocking news in The Sudbury Star the next day.
Wyn and Bonnie Rhydwen had boarded the RHU at Little Current on Saturday, as planned. Wyn was our squadron training officer. He had four years of service in the Royal Canadian Navy during the war and was a lieutenant when discharged. In Halifax, in 1947, he had been given an award for rescuing a man at sea and attempting to rescue another. The Rhydwens and Huffmans had done much cruising together.
The RHU, a 26-foot wooden Chriscraft, a few years old, headed west. On board were four adults and two children. She did not have a dinghy. (Although one had been purchased but not received.)
Passing through the Clapperton Channel, the glare and reflection from the low sun directly in their path made it hard for the crew to see the buoys. As a result, they did not see the red spar buoy at Middle Bank, at the west end of the channel, and ran onto the shoal.
The crew calmly examined their situation and found the boat lodged on a cobblestone shoal in about a foot of water. They tried unsuccessfully to push the boat off. It was just as well that they did not, because they soon found that the bottom was damaged. The Manitoulin shore was nearly a mile away, and all they could see was bush, so it did not seem prudent to have someone swim to shore to find help and get lost in the dark. The lake was calm. They were optimistic that a boat would come along this popular route. The decision was made to stay with boat and the night passed without incident.
In the morning, the weather was deteriorating. A strong wind and sea came in from the west, which was wide open to the horizon, and it rained. Soon the boat was being pounded and swept by huge waves. The windshield broke and the waves soon filled the boat "above the stove." The children were held in the upper bunk. There was concern that the hull was breaking up and being driven back into deeper water. (Apparently no anchor had been set.) They suffered this intolerable situation until about 5 p.m., when they decided to abandon ship. They donned life jackets, tied themselves to a line so that they would not become separated, and started swimming for the Manitoulin shore.
Their ordeal had begun. The water was chilling, as well as extremely rough. Wyn suffered cramps almost immediately. The waves and the current took them southeastward, away from the nearest shore and across the top of Mudge Bay. The youngest child succumbed after one hour, the older one lasted two hours. Wyn suffered terribly with cramps, but, with much help from Bonnie, hung on to life for eight hours. Shirley became hysterical when she lost her children and wanted to die, but with Jim's pleading she endured twelve hours. The four bodies remained attached to Bonnie and Jim.
At daybreak, they saw a small island a mile or so away. They untied the four bodies so as to give themselves a better chance. The situation was still formidable. Jim was suffering from cramps and was very weak. Bonnie kept them moving. About nine o'clock they crawled up on Gooseberry Island, totally exhausted after enduring sixteen grueling hours. They were seen shortly after by two berry pickers, and taken to Hideaway Lodge. The bodies of the four victims were not found until the next day in Honora Bay. The rough water had made the search difficult.
The above account is largely from reports and interviews in the Sudbury Star. The coverage was very copious. Wyn and Bonnie had been working at The Star. A sad sidelight is that Bonnie and Wyn had lost their seventeen year old son in a traffic accident two years previously.
Jessie and I visited the wreck site two weeks later. The Clapperton Channel was marked by spar buoys on each side. The Middle Bank was marked by a red spar buoy which was not very conspicuous. The next red spar to the east was nearly a mile and a half from Middle Bank, making it easy to stray from the channel when visibility was poor. (The bank is now marked by a highly visible red buoy with a flashing light.) We anchored GEM close to the bank and explored it by dinghy. The shoal was composed of several acres of cobblestones and small boulders, least depth about a foot. It was evident from the paint marks and depression where the RHU had come to rest. Nothing else remained there. The RHU could be seen on the beach on Manitoulin, nearly a mile away.
Just east of the shoal, there were several outboard boats with people in scuba gear diving for salvage. I saw some kitchen plates being passed onto a boat. I let it be known that I was a friend of the owner and would like to return anything of value to him. A boat from North Bay offered, for a fee of ten dollars (to help pay for his trip, he said) to hook the chain from our "come-along hoist" onto RHU's engine in twenty feet of water. We hung the hoist over the bow and hauled up the engine as far as the arrangement would permit. The engine was clear of the water, but there was some wooden bottom still attached and partly submerged. After a slow trip to Little Current, we got a tow truck to back up to the dock and lift off our load. We took it to McGregor Marine, leaving instructions to salvage the engine for the owner.
The next day we drove by car to Maple Point to see the hull. After a long walk along the beach we saw it, looking like a boat wanting to be launched. As we got closer, the damage became obvious. A man from a nearby farm joined us. He said the boat had remained on the shoal for about a week, until another storm brought it here, probably the very spot the crew hoped to reach. The engine and the damaged bottom had dropped free as soon as the boat left the shoal. The hull lay on the beach for several years.
After this time, some local people found a use for RHU's remains: a pulpit for the St. John Anglican Church in Kagawong. The little church, close to the government wharf, has been a place of worship for people from passing excursion steamers and private boats. It has collected many marine-related articles, giving it a definite nautical decor.
A visiting bishop told members of the church that they needed a better pulpit, and suggested getting something that would enhance the nautical touch. Someone remembered the hull lying on the beach.
The bow of the RHU is now a handsome memorial pulpit. The topsides and deck have a shinning natural finish. No damage shows; the forefoot has been cut off.
The church brochure, available at the door, recounts the tragedy. It ends with the words: "May our prayers be directed in the hope that no further such tragedy befalls those who use these waters." The church door is always open for visitors.
Portions Copyright © 1995, 1996, 1998 by James W. Hebert. All rights reserved.
Last modified: July 13, 1998