Updated: Sep 23
By Jim Withers
With its survivors long gone, the sinking of the Wawinet – 80 years ago – is fading into history.
Long part of local lore for those of us who grew up on the southern shores of Ontario’s Georgian Bay, I’ve heard the story retold countless times:
Around 10 p.m. on Sept. 21, 1942, the Wawinet – a 27-metre yacht owned by ex-Montreal Canadiens defenceman Bert Corbeau – hit a sandbar and sank within two minutes, claiming the lives of 25 men, including Corbeau. Seventeen survived.
Penetanguishene native Bertram Orion (Pig Iron) Corbeau was a local hero. Not only was he a member of the first Canadiens team to hoist the Stanley Cup (1916), Corbeau was the first NHLer to play for both the Habs and the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs. Tough as nails and despised by fans of opposing teams, Corbeau once had a frozen turnip hurled at his head.
On the night of the Wawinet’s sinking, he was at the helm on a cruise with fellow employees of the Midland Foundry & Machine Company, plus a few guests. As plant superintendent, Corbeau had invited co-workers to “a stag party” aboard his launch to celebrate the early completion of a major contract in Canada’s war effort. His invitation said there’d be a buffet and refreshments, and prizes would be awarded to the best fishermen.
They sailed from Penetanguishene at 4 p.m. to Honey Harbour on the Muskoka side of Georgian Bay, stopping at the landmark Delawana Inn for food and drinks. It was a balmy, moon-lit night and the water was calm as the yacht began its return trip to Penetanguishene before foundering near Beausoleil, one of the Thirty Thousand Islands (and islets) that comprise the world’s largest freshwater archipelago.
The Wawinet struck a sandbar, but accounts vary as to what happened right before and after. According to some, it had turned too sharply, heeling until water flooded in through open portholes. Some said the yacht rocked violently and started taking on water when frantic passengers rushed from the listing starboard side to the port side.
Those who dived into the water from the starboard side and swam toward Beausoleil Island, roughly 400 metres away, had the best chance of survival because they found themselves on the sandbar only a few metres from the sinking yacht. Not so fortunate were those on the port side, who attempted to swim to the more distant Present Island. (It was so named because it was there that the British government, two centuries ago, regularly distributed blankets, knives, kettles and guns to indigenous people in exchange for their supposed ceding of prime land to colonists, similar to the Dutch putatively acquiring Manhattan Island for $24.)
Some of the partiers were trapped inside the yacht and others clung to the few available life preservers before being helped ashore by the better swimmers.
Every telling of the Wawinet story, in my memory, included mentions of bravery in the terrifying confusion that unfolded, including by the yacht’s owner.
“Corbeau evidently died a hero’s death,” said Dr. Smirle Lawson, chief supervising coroner for Ontario. “His clothes were picked up at the shore. It seems that he reached safety himself and plunged back in again to help others.”
Aimé Lalumière (a.k.a. Ernie Light) is said to have saved more than one life before losing his when he was pulled under by a panicking non-swimmer, leaving behind a wife and 11 children.
Gord Eakley also reportedly rescued men before drowning, only a couple of months before the birth of twin boys he’d never see, one of whom would work as a mechanic in my father’s garage.
Ernie Robins was offered a life-time job security at the Midland foundry after saving plant owner Elmer Shaw.
I knew Robins and another survivor, Orville McLung, but never heard them talk about their harrowing escape from the Wawinet, nor how they huddled in a cabin that awful night on Beausoleil Island, which just happens to be home to the endangered massasauga rattlesnake – all the ingredients you’d need for a horror movie.
Nor did I ever hear the late Lorne Carruthers, who like my father owned a garage in the hamlet of Wyebridge, ever recount how close he came to being on the ill-fated cruise. According to legend, his wife had failed to dissuade him from going, but he arrived by taxi at the Penetanguishene dock only to see the Wawinet and its party-goers sailing away.
Today, the Wawinet lies mostly intact in about 10 metres of murky water, visited occasionally by amateur divers.
(In an astounding coincidence, Bert Corbeau’s 15-year-old second cousin Jack Corbeau, also from Penetanguishene, drowned the same night when he and two others were washed overboard in stormy weather from the S.S. Collingwood in Lake Michigan. At the time, Jack Corbeau was a deckhand, his father a fireman and mother a cook on the Midland-bound steamship.)
Sometimes referred to as the sixth Great Lake, Georgian Bay is officially part of Lake Huron – a very large part. With its southern shores lying only an hour-and-a-half drive north of Toronto, it extends into Northern Ontario. It’s cottage country, known for its alluring beaches in the south, and elsewhere the wind-swept pines and rocky Canadian Shield beauty that inspired Canada’s celebrated Group of Seven landscape painters. Samuel de Champlain called it “la Mer douce” (the Freshwater Sea) when he explored and mapped the region in 1615-1616, only to have the British rename it 200 years ago in honour of King George IV, the then-current monarch whose 10-year reign was marked by scandal and extravagant spending.
Georgian Bay is also known for its shipwrecks.
As horrible as the Wawinet sinking was, Georgian Bay’s greatest nautical tragedy occurred 60 years earlier on Sept. 14, 1882, when the Asia, a passenger-freight steamship, went down in a hurricane. All but two of the 122 passengers and crew perished, plus the horses and other livestock that were pushed overboard in a frantic attempt to lighten the ship’s load.
The marine disaster that touched me most, though, occurred 50 years ago this summer – another grim anniversary – when I was just beginning my modest journalistic career at the twice-weekly Midland Free Press.
One of my first assignments was to cover the drowning of 10 people – three adults and seven children, ranging in age from two to nine – in a small, overloaded aluminum boat that sank in choppy waters on the night of July 23, 1972. They were from two Toronto-area families. One of the two survivors was a 10-year-old girl who managed to stay afloat for two hours without a life preserver before being rescued by a man who’d been dozing in a cabin cruiser nearby and heard her cries for help. The girl’s mother, a non-swimmer, also survived, by somehow floating two kilometres to shore after losing her grasp on her four-year-old daughter in the metre-high waves.
“My babies are still out there,” the woman screamed repeatedly while banging on the door of a cottage.
The following day, I took photos of an Ontario Provincial Police diver preparing to search for bodies, and one of my shots got picked up by the Canadian Press. It wasn’t anything special – I just happened to be at the right place at the right time – but the photo appeared in newspapers across the country.
Had it not ceased publication in 2013, after 117 years of reporting local news to the community, the Midland Free Press – the paper where I got my start – would most assuredly be marking today’s 80th anniversary of the Wawinet’s sinking, not to mention July’s half-century anniversary of the stormy night 10 people in an aluminum boat lost their lives.
Often when I’m back to region for a visit and find myself looking out into beautiful Georgian Bay, I wonder whatever became of that little 10-year-old girl and her mom. I also think about how easily, through carelessness or just plain bad luck, everything can be lost in an instant.
As someone who, long ago, narrowly escaped drowning – thanks to quick action by schoolboy friends Pete, Wayne and Ralph – I haven’t forgotten how precarious and precious life is.