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Home | Heritage & Culture | The Legend of the Phantom Ship

The Legend of the Phantom Ship

At the beginning of the past century, huge ships, coming from unknown regions, sailed in the Chaleur Bay and entered its farthest estuaries. They stopped there. When they approached the coasts, these ships lowered their sails and they flew their flag in order to have an experienced pilot to bring them as near as possible to the shore, as in these times, there was no lighthouse, or buoy, or any other indication for the sailers, and no wharf. After dropping the anchor, they boarded a small boat and they went looking for furs.

The Indian Villages, especially, were coveted by these sea marauders, who knew that the inhabitants were vulnerable, thus easy to exploit. After exchanging a few of their precious pelts for lancy goods and other items that had no value whatsoever, they gave them alcohol, then they stole all the furs that they owned.

The most notorious of these pirates was certainly Captain Craig. He spoke the Indian dialect quite well, as he visited them every year.

On a quiet morning, Captain Craig’s ship was seen in the Bay. Once the ship was at a certain distance from the coast, the eship flew it’s flag to call the pilot. He got under way with his small boat and succeeded in boarding the large ship that he piloted himself towards the place designated by the captain, i.e. towards an Indian Village. Then, he went back home and waited for the signal for departure.

Around the end of the afternoon, the crew had completed their business, so the ship sent a signal to the pilot so he would guid them out of the dangerous zone, towards the sea. They had just started to sail when the pilot heard someone crying and moaning. He ordered Captain Craig to lower the sail immediately and to drop the anchor. The captain and his first mate refused, but when the huge man threatened to throw them into the water, they finally agreed. The pilot was in for a big surprise; he found two Indian girls, tied up and completely covered with pelts. The pirates had kidnapped them, while their parents were drunk. The captain and his first mate intended to have their way with these two girls and to throw them in the sea afterwards. This is what they did, or tried to do, at each trip.

After freeing the two Indian girls, the pilot brought them back to the coast, so they could return to their tribe. They didn’t know how to thank him for freeing them from those bandits. Then, they advised him not to return to the ship, as a terrible misfortune would be happening to the ship. Unfortunately, he didn’t follow their advice.

In spite of everything, the anchor was lifted and the sails were pulled up. They had navigated for ten minutes only when a huge wash suddenly happened and the big ship broke in pieces on a rock. All crew members, except the captain and the first mate, perished instantly. As for the pilot, who swam like a fish, he returned to the coast that he had left a few minutes before.

The captain and his first mate drowned before they could reach the coast. They tried to resuscitate them, without success. The two Indian girls were still there, trembling; theye had witnessed the shipwreck and were praying God to spare their rescuer. After he recovered, someone gave him a boat so he could return home.

The same evening, when it was still quiet but the sky was announcing a storm, a huge red light slid on the surface of the bay. This ball of fire took the form of Captain Craig’s ship. People could even see crew members who were lowering the sails, throwing the anchor and lifting the flag, as a signal for the pilot. And it was not the only time that the ship was seen in a ball of fire.

To view the apparition, the weather has to be absolutely identical as it was the day of the shipwreck. Many persons, in the Bathurst area, can attest the existence of the phantom ship, because they have witnessed this legend many times! Some claimants, re-count the day-time viewing of the ship, sailing towards the coast and stopping at one hundred feet only from the shore, then disappearing completely.

Facts on the Phantom Ship

Tens of thousands have watched its performance, scientists have tried for half a century to unlock its secret, and adventurous fishermen have attempted to overtake it with their schooners. But the “Fire Ship” that cruises the Chaleur Bay, between New Brunswick’s north shore and Quebec’s Gaspe coast, is as much a mystery as ever.

Although it has been witnessed by more people than any other unexplained apparition in Canada, it has the elusive quality of the end of a rainbow. Those who have pursued it say it always remains the same distance away, and those who have studied it through telescope say a strong lens brings out no details not visible to the naked eye.

To most, it looks like a sailing vessel in flames. The Fire Ship is the undisputed queen of the shadow fleet – as far superior to the average ghost ship – as a passenger liner is to a smudgy tramp fraightier. It ranges New Brunswick’s north shore for one hundred and twenty-five miles, from the thriving pulp and paper town of Dalhousie, near the mouth of the Restigouche in the Chaleur Bay, to Bathurst and Miscou Island, where the Chaleur Bay joins the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It may hover for hours in one spot and gradually fade, or it may glow brilliantly and suddenly vanish, or it may whisk over the waves like the wind. Some claim to have seen the Fire Ship by day but most evidence indicates it appears only at night.

Nothing is easier than to drum up an argument among fishermen on whether the Fire Ship is a natural phenomenon or a supernatural manifestation. Many say that those who believe it’s a ghost are silly and ignorant. Yet hundreds of men and women of acknowledged standing in their communities insist they have seen a flaming ship that cannot be explained in scientific terms.

In fact, on a very hot July day several years ago, there was a heat haze over the water. At Youghall Beach in Bathurst, the beach was loaded with people so there were any number of eye-witnesses when – suddenly – the Phantom Ship appeared. Looking up the coast, it seemed to be off Belledune, about two miles from the beach.

The word very quickly went along the beach. There was plenty of time to get binoculars and pass them along to others, because they watched for more than half an hour. Some of our children saw it. Everyone was excited – everyone was talking – nobody was doing anything else but watching. It was just one of those marvelous apparitions.

The explanation offered by some scientist is that St. Elmo’s Fire – electricity slowly discharged from the atmosphere to the earth – ordinarily shows itself as a tip of light on a pointed object, such as a church steeple or a mast. In addition, it is accompanied by crackling noise. The Chaleur Bay’s apparition, the dissenters say, is not attracted by pointed objects, appears only over expanses of water and is silent.

Another theory is that the Fire Ship is inflammable gas, which could conceivably be released from a submarine seam that litters the white beaches with lumps of bituminous coal.

Still another idea is that the Fire Ship is some kind of phosphorescent marine life. Biologists chuckle at this, since the fire ship has been seen in the winter when the Chaleur Bay was frozen.

West of Caraquet, at the head of the Chaleur Baye and in Campbellton, the Fire Ship is generally linked with the Marquis de Malauze, a French frigate driven into the Restigouche River and sunk by the British in 1760. This version might be more acceptable if what’s left of the Marquis didn’t repose peacefully in a monastery garden at the Indian Reserve at Cross Point, Quebec.

And finally, there’s the phantom ship of Captain Craig, the most sensational explanation there is.


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