Story of tragic boating accident near Manitoulin told at annual Blessing of the Boats ceremony

In photo, Pauline Biggley the guest speaker at the annual marine service Blessing of the Boats at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, stands with her husband Bill.

KAGAWONG—On August 25, 1965 Shirley Hoffman and her children Katherine and Karen perished after a tragic boating accident off Maple Point in the North Channel, near Manitoulin Island.

It was with this story that Pauline Biggley, sister of Shirley Hoffman, was introduced as the guest speaker at the annual marine service Blessing of the Boats at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Kagawong, this past Sunday.

“It is my pleasure to introduce Pauline (Biggley) and her husband Bill, who are from Wisconsin,” said Dianne Fraser, of St. John’s.

“I am Pauline Biggley. I came from Burlington, Ontario and went to the United States in 1963 to live in Maryland. Today I wish to take you through a sad journey through a dark tunnel, but it has a light at the end. I need you to help me through it. Please stay with me.”

“Every summer, we spent time with my parents in Burlington. During the summer of 1965, we stayed with my mom and dad at Colling House, a large seven gabled brick 17 room house in Burlington. My sister, Shirley Hoffman with her children Katherine four, and Karen two, were also staying there. Jim was taking a guidance course at University of Toronto as he was changing careers from teaching high school music in Sudbury.

While they were staying there, Shirley was preparing for a boating trip in Georgian Bay and Lake Huron area near Greater Sudbury where they lived. Shirley had all the navigation maps spread out on the dining room table. She was obsessed with them as she kept going over and over them saying over and over, ‘Something’s wrong, something’s wrong.’ She and her husband had complete training in the Power Squadron. Jim was commandeer and Shirley was a lieutenant.”

“Shirley’s behaviour was erratic and high strung. She seemed distracted from reality. When she talked to mother, she didn’t seem to make much sense. Shirley was highly intelligent,” said Ms. Biggley. “She was beautiful and her children were very special. She had everything you could desire, yet I sensed that something was very wrong.”

“Suddenly, Shirley said she had to go back home to Sudbury to finish making and hang some drapes in her living room. She said there would be a lot of people there! What people? This didn’t make any sense. Shirley took Karen and left Katherine with Mother and drove over 300 miles to finish the drapes. By this time I was really pissed off.”

“When she came back and Jim had finished his course at university, they left for their boating trip. She called me later from Tobermory and told us to join them. Bill had a cold so we decided not to go. That was the last time I heard my sister’s voice,” said Ms. Biggley. “When we got back to Baltimore, we got the phone call of all phone calls from my father—a fatal boating accident!”

Ms. Biggley explained, “Jim and Wyn Rhyden had bought a new cruiser ‘The Rhu’ between them. They had driven off course onto some rocks on a shoal off Manitoulin Island tearing the bottom and the engine out of the boat. There are always lots of boats out on the water, but a storm came up and they thought the boat was breaking up so they made the final decision to abandon ship and try to swim to land at nearly Maple Point, but the strong water currents in the North Channel carried them out into deep water. This was about 4 pm on August 24, 1965.”

“The life jackets didn’t keep the children’s heads up so the waves kept splashing in their faces,” said Ms. Biggley. “Karen died after about 30 minutes in the water and Katherine died in an hour. My sister became hysterical and never stopped crying. Wyn Rhyden just gave up from the enfolding tragedy. He was a Naval officer from Nova Scotia who advised them to abandon ship.”

“As dawn began to appear in the sky, Shirley went to Jim and said, ‘I guess I’ll never see my home in Sudbury again. My babies are gone,’ and then she died in Jim’s arms. August 25, 1965, 5 am. She was 31-years-old.”

Jim and Bonnie were rescued by some berry picketers on an Island and got help. On the rescue plane to Sudbury Hospital, Shirley came to Jim. She said, ‘Everything is alright now,’ and then she was gone,” continued Ms. Biggley.

“When we arrived at their home in Sudbury for the funeral, we were in the living room with a lot of people and there were the drapes she had finished to hang.”

Ms. Biggley said, “at the inquest into finding the cause of the boating accident, the marker was found to be in the wrong place. Summer storms had blown it off course. This explains what was wrong with the navigation maps that my sister obsessed over and over again.”

“When we were at Shirley’s house in Sudbury, Mother went into Catherine’s room to lie down. Shirley seemed to know she would do this. There on Catherine’s nightstand Shirley had typed out Edgar Guest’s poem ‘To All Parents’ about God loaning a child for awhile. For Mother, who was a poet, this poem would comfort her.”

“Some time later my family heard that a church on Manitoulin Island took the bow of my sister’s boat and made it into the pulpit,” said Ms. Biggley. “Not having any information, I thought I’d try to find it. I just picked a place on Manitoulin, Gore Bay, off the map. I wrote a letter about my mission to the Gore Bay Post Office addressing a minister Somebody of a church somewhere on the huge island and shot it off into space!”

“People are amazing,” stated Ms.  Biggley. “The post office did its work. In two weeks, I got a phone call from Dianne Fraser from St. John’s Church in Kagawong. The church is noted for its nautical theme. Every summer they have a memorial service for sailors, including my sister and her children. They also have a plaque with their names as a memorial; and they never really knew her. I sent them a history of my sister, which they read to the congregation and kept in their archives.”

“The thoughts I want to leave with you is from this experience is that I believe that it is apparent that my sister knew somehow that she was going to die, yet she wasn’t able to stop it from happening. God has a plan for us. It seems that everything is predestined,” said Ms. Biggley. “The other message is that it was witnessed seeing my sister and it was her in real life. Our life is simply extended when we die and what we need to do here is to prepare to be the best we can be when we become extended into our new life. People who live by the rules are the happiest. Shirley was perfect and God wanted her. We need to make ourselves as perfect as possible before we are extended.”

“Death affects all of us differently,” said Ms. Biggley. “To me it was the end of communication. I could no longer talk to Shirley and tell her my feelings and tell her how I felt about her. For that reason I started to write to people. I found that the written word is more powerful. It gives us a lasting impression.

To prepare for your extended  life, you first have to love yourself before you can love others. You make yourself a better person. You always look for the best in a person and find out some way to praise them to make them feel good about themselves. You give out love and along with love coming back you trust. Start with cards with a brief message. Use hand written letters not typed as they are more personal and more powerful. It is coming from you. It makes you feel good to reach out to someone and you are making someone else feel good. You may not get a response, but you know you have touched someone.”

“As the skies darkened over Lake Huron on August 25, 1965 like the night skies over Jesus on the Cross, the words, “My God, my God Why have you forsaken me?” were said by Jesus.”

The surviving group had joined together in prayer, yet they felt they weren’t being heard. “My God why have you allowed this and taken away my little children? They were too good to be true!”

As the sky brightened with the early dawn, the words were heard from Heaven, “Everything is alright  now.”