Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Fiery Phantom Ship of Northumberland Strait


For two hundred years countless people who have lived near the Northumberland Strait that runs between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have witnessed a very unique phenomenon. 

All these witnesses, whether they were on the water or on land, have reported seeing a three-masted brigandine moving fast through the Strait. As they watch this ship it catches fire and then just disappears.

The ship has been seen year-round but it is most often spotted in the fall months just before a northeaster blows in. Because of this many feel this fiery ship is a harbinger, which foretells a storm’s arrival. 

Many witnesses have written accounts of what they saw. What is amazing is that all of these accounts are eerily similar even though some were written hundreds of years apart. Here is a recent account:

“One October night as I was returning home from visiting a neighbor; I was walking along and as I looked out over the Northumberland Strait I saw a ship burning. It was a clear night and I could make out the outline of the ship quite distinctly. I watched it for about twenty minutes and then it just disappeared.”

One witness who lived near Murray Harbour on Prince Edward Island in 1912 reported that she and her eight-year old son watched the ship for thirty minutes as it approached where they stood on shore on a clear bright day, she stated that it was a three-masted schooner. 

She recounted that it stopped when it reached where they stood. She described its crisp pure white sails and black shiny hull, she saw the ship catch fire and then numerous crewmembers came up on deck and were engulfed in the flames, to her amazement the ship then just disappeared.

Besides individual reports many large groups have witnessed this phenomenon. 

Ferries that crossed the Strait on a regular basis before the Confederation Bridge was built between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island often encountered the phantom ship only to then lose sight of it. 

“Late one evening, approaching dusk, a ship was sighted in the harbour which appeared in peril… Some distance out in the channel was what appeared to be a large three-masted sailing vessel ablaze from the bow to stern. A group of men boarded a small boat and rowed toward the flaming ship, in hopes of rescuing as many of her crew as possible. While they were still some distance from the craft, it disappeared into the mist and appeared to vanish completely.” 

Later a thorough search was conducted, including explorations by divers, but it failed to reveal any trace of the mysterious ship.

Another group crossing the Strait on a ferry reported that “a burning vessel appeared, they stated the ship was aglow with fire and was moving fast.” 

Two nights later another group reported seeing this burning ship again but it was sailing through the strait in the opposite direction quickly. Its fast movement has perplexed more than one witness because it is often spotted when there is no wind stirring the water.

Over the years people have attempted to reach the burning ship only to have it disappear at close range into thin air. A ferryboat captain reported sailing straight through the flames finding nothing. 

A group of rescuers even disappeared themselves during their attempt to help the burning ship. This rescue crew in 1885 was lost and never heard from again.

No one knows for sure the identity of this phantom ship or where it came from but there have been many theories put forth over the years. Here are just a few. 

One theory states this ship was lost in a violent storm, in Nova Scotia. Many coastal residents at the time felt that the ship must be the Isabella, which set sail with a cargo of lumber in December of 1868 and was last seen by a light-keeper on Amet Island, thereafter no trace of the ship or crew was ever found.

Another theory is this phantom ship must be an old immigrant ship of Highland Scots who were lost at sea while searching for new land. 

Yet another theory is that she was a pirate ship sunk near Merigomish by a British warship during the Napoleonic War. 

The most colorful explanation is about a pirate ship that pillaged a vessel from the old country and then got in a drunken brawl with another pirate ship over their ill-gotten booty. It is stated that both ships caught fire and all hands were lost.

Even though the origins of this fiery ship are not known-- one thing is for sure-- the overwhelming eyewitness reports of this phantom ship over a large span of time, plus the remarkable consistency of these accounts make it hard to ignore this phenomenon. 

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