This article appeared originally in August, 1995, in The Sudbury Star, a Thomson Newspaper, and is reproduced here with their permission. Additional details of the incident appear in an article written by a friend of those involved.
In 1967, residents of Kagawong salvaged the bow of a 30-foot pleasure cruiser from its resting place on the north shore of Manitoulin Island.
Over the next year, they cleaned and restored the boat fragment and transformed it into a pulpit for St. John the Evangelist Church on Main Street in their peaceful town. The act was ultimately one of respect, a solemn memorial to a tragedy which struck the area two years earlier.
The 30th anniversary of that tragedy passed virtually unnoticed on August 22 -- as unnoticed as the victims of the boating accident floated helplessly in turbulent Georgian Bay waters, which the date and the pulpit commemorate. Although the victims and rescuers are long deceased, and the survivors have since departed the area, their story deserves to be retold.
Thirty years ago -- on August 25, 1965, to be exact -- Bonnie Rhydwen, a cashier for The Sudbury Star, sat up in a hospital bed and recounted a 39-hour ordeal she had survived along the north shores of Manitoulin Island.
Exhausted, heart-broken, and suffering from exposure, the Sudbury woman told how she, her husband Wyn, then financial editor for The Star, and the Huffman family -- Jim, Shirley and their young children Kathy and Karen -- had left Little Current in Rhydwen's 30-foot pleasure cruiser "RHU" bound for Gore Bay. It was 6:30 p.m. Saturday, August 21. In a hard rain and increasingly violent waters, Bonnie steered the boat towards the shoreline just west of Mudge Bay. Moments later, the boat struck a rocky shoal and foundered. What began as a normal weekend cruise of Manitoulin Island -- a favorite pastime of the two families -- became a nightmarish struggle for survival.
Wyn Rhydwen, formerly a reporter with the Toronto Globe and Mail and a one-time Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy who was honored for bravery in a 1947 sea rescue, was convinced that a boat would come to their aid the next morning, if not sooner. The boat was damaged on the underside and immobilized.
"There didn't appear to be any real trouble," Bonnie Rhydwen recalled from her hospital bed 30 years ago. So they tried to wait out the night.
But the fierceness of Georgian Bay's unpredictable storms struck early Sunday morning. Waves washed over the vessel and it began to break apart.
"A porthole broke, and heavy waves came crashing in. Huge rollers filled up the outside deck and swamped us," Rhydwen said.
Secured in life-jackets, and tied together by rope, the six attempted to swim to shore. "We tried to joke and laugh, but we were worried inside," Rhydwen said. "Wyn was very brave. He tried to think for everyone, and not himself."
Although the pleasure craft floundered just one mile from shore, the strong seas made it impossible to make headway toward safety. The six drifted further from land.
Within a few hours, despite the frantic efforts of her mother, the first of the Huffman children, Kathy, died. Shock, exhaustion and exposure overcame the child. Within an hour, the second child perished. By late Sunday evening, Shirley Huffman, hysterical and having lost her will to live after the unbearable loss of her children, also succumbed to the elements.
Throughout the 18 hours she spent in the water, Rhydwen sustained herself through prayer. "I prayed so hard to God. I asked him to save us. I cried out inside that I wanted to be saved. Prayer is strong. Faith is a wonderful thing," said the woman, who just 18 months earlier had lost her 17-year old son in a traffic accident.
Incapacitated by cramps and exhaustion, unable to move his arms or legs, Wyn Rhydwen was kept alive through his wife's constant efforts. For several hours she kept the man's face out of the water by holding a spare life jacket under it. But just before 1 a.m. Monday, her efforts failed.
"I never let go of him. I pushed him along all the way. Before he died, he grabbed my arms. He couldn't talk. He took my two hands and placed them on his shoulders. He sensed he was going. He held me close. I tied him closer to me, clung hard to his hand and talked to him, held his head, and said all the things that were in my heart."
For five and a half hours, Bonnie Rhydwen and Jim Huffman pulled the four dead bodies through the storm. They traveled 12 miles across the mouth of Mudge Bay, and at 6:30 a.m. they spotted Blueberry Island in the distance. After a long deliberation, they agreed to cut the bodies free, and swim, unencumbered, to the island. Exhausted, bruised, and swollen from the pounding waves, they reached the island at 8:45 a.m. A native man, David Roy found them. The four bodies were found at noon the next day on the shoreline near Honora.
Austin Hunt, a longtime resident of Kagawong, help construct the memorial pulpit in 1967.
"I was one of ones who picked up the bow," said Hunt, who lives directly across from the Anglican church. Over the years, the historic building has become a kind of nautical museum, fitted with fisherman's boat models, anchors. and the steering wheels of seafaring vessels.
Inspired by Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick -- in which a church has a grand pulpit made from a ship's bow -- the residents of Kagawong retrieved the bow of the "RHU" and installed it at the front of the Main Street Church.
"It makes an impressive pulpit," said Hunt, who explained that people wanted to turn the fatal boating incident into something with meaning, with lasting value. Turning the wreck into a pulpit in what Hunt called "the house of God" was a fitting tribute.
Wyn Rhydwen was buried in a family plot in Don Mills. Shirley Huffman and her two daughters were laid to rest in Leamington, Ontario. David Roy, who found the survivors, passed away in West Bay several years ago. The two survivors of the disaster -- Bonnie Rhydwen and Jim Huffman -- lived until recently in the Sudbury area, according to Austin Hunt, but they could not be located at the time of this writing. St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church is open to visitors throughout the years.
Portions Copyright © 1995, 1996 by James W. Hebert. All rights reserved.
Last modified: October 21, 1996