My grandfather once saw the Phantom S hip of the Northumberland Strait from his farm above the red shores of Burnt Point, Prince Edward Island. He never oversold his tale and even laughed it off at times, but he maintained. the simple truth of it until he died. I have always imagined him glimpsing the ship for the first time—the early morning, up before everyone else, going about his farm work, or maybe in the evening just before bed. He looks out over the strait toward a place called Boughton Island, where his own grandfather lived in the 19th century. Then there it is, a three-masted, square-rigged ship, aflame on the horizon. I imagine my grandfather watching it calmly until it disappears. Later he tells my grandmother about it over coffee, in his gentle, matter-of-fact way, as if talking about any other household business.
For people throughout Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, the story of the Phantom Ship is more than a folktale. It’s a living tradition. Experiences like that of my grandfather have been written down for centuries. In his 1948 book Story Parade, relating “people, places, and events in Canada’s Maritime provinces,” folklorist Roland H. Sherwood writes of “a ship outlined in fiery design against the velvet backdrop of the night” and links one sighting to the appearance of a mysterious “woman in white.” According to local historian Julie V. Watson, the earliest recorded sighting of the Phantom Ship was in 1786, during a “northeast gale.” A lighthouse keeper witnessed a three-masted schooner about to crash against the rocky shore below him, but the ship “turned into the storm” at the last moment and disappeared. Watson also writes of a famous sighting from around 1900, when “a group of sailors in Charlottetown saw a ship on the horizon with white sails and crew members climbing up the masts as they tried to escape the growing flames.” Although the sailors attempted to come to the vessel’s aid, it disappeared before they could approach. These panicked crew members appear in many stories of Phantom Ship sightings. I remember once a cousin asked my grandfather about that day at Burnt Point and whether he had seen the people running up the ghost ship’s masts. But my grandfather always chose to retain an air of mystery about the experience.
Stories of the Phantom Ship are told in families on both sides of the strait, though the tales can vary, and not all of them have been recorded. Family friend Richard Toms lives in Georgetown, Prince Edward Island, where I spent my childhood summers with my grandparents. He recalls driving across the Confederation Bridge that links Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick and seeing a ship illuminated “from stem to stern with white lights.” He describes “an apparition in the dark water down below. A very large ship appeared suddenly out of the mist below the bridge and just ahead of me.” The ship “floated silently like a white ghost out of the night … I looked in my rear-view mirror as I passed it, but the night was dark and empty.” Like many who have seen the Phantom Ship, Richard also insists he doesn’t believe in ghosts.
The Phantom Ship of the Northumberland Strait is not the only vessel said to haunt the waters of the Atlantic. In 1647, more than 800 miles down the North American coast in New Haven, Connecticut, a ship set sail loaded with cargo for trade in England. After struggling through the ice-choked harbor, the ship vanished into a thick fog, never to arrive at its destination. Six months later (or was it a year and a half ?), witnesses claimed to see a ghostly craft—identical to the lost ship—battling and eventually succumbing to an invisible storm. These events were reported by the Reverend Cotton Mather, infamous as a prosecutor of the Salem Witch Trials, in his 1702 treatise Magnalia Christi Americana. Mather’s account inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1858 poem “The Phantom Ship,” in which the citizens of New Haven are given a vision of a “Ship of Air” to grant them closure and knowledge of their loved ones’ fate. Unlike the stories of the burning ship from the Maritimes, the New Haven sighting happened only once.
Across the Atlantic at South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, there comes the story of the world’s most famous ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman, whose legend dates back at least to the 18th century. Perhaps the most famous version of the tale appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in May 1821. In that story, the ship’s captain, Van der Decken, called down eternal damnation on himself should he allow his ship to sink in the waters off the cape. He got his wish. According to the story, “it is believed that he continues to beat about in these seas still, and will do so long enough. This vessel is never seen but with foul weather along with her.” Sightings of the Flying Dutchman have been documented as recently as World War II, when the ship was seen by the crew of a German U-boat. The Flying Dutchman is the subject of Frederick Marryat’s 1839 Gothic novel, called (of course) The Phantom Ship, in which Captain Vanderdecken’s son fights to redeem his father’s soul and the fate of the Dutchman’s crew by means of a holy relic. The novel unaccountably also includes a werewolf. Redemption is also among the themes of Richard Wagner’s 1843 opera The Flying Dutchman, from Heinrich Heine’s novel of the same name.
As for the Phantom Ship of the Northumberland Strait, there are almost as many origin stories as there are sightings. Singer and Prince Edward Island native Lennie Gallant has listed some in his song “Tales of the Phantom Ship,” in which people claim the vision to be that of either an immigrant vessel carrying Highland Scots or a shipload of Acadian deportees bound for Louisiana, or perhaps “a ghostly American privateer” bent on plunder. As reported to American folklorist Edward D. Ives in 1958, some Maritimers have suggested that the passengers of the Phantom Ship were nuns and the fire aboard was set by pirates. Others even suggest that the ship belonged to the infamous Captain Kidd, who may have sailed the Atlantic as far north as Cape Breton in Nova Scotia.
As with the Flying Dutchman and other ghostly manifestations, many people have suggested logical explanations for the Phantom Ship of the Northumberland Strait. These include the electrical phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire, or the fata morgana, a mirage caused by the meeting of warm and cool air. Other people attribute the sightings to various optical illusions, to simple flights of imagination, or of course to too much drink on a Saturday night. But these explanations miss the point of the stories and the value of folk culture. Writing in 1975, Sherwood says, “I too have seen the Phantom Ship, not once but twice. But like many others, I make no effort to explain its appearance. If anyone wants to believe that it is only phosphorescence on the water, or gas rising from submarine coal beds, well, that’s all right with me.” He continues, “I have never met anyone who has seen the Flying Dutchman … But I have met, talked with, and compared notes with many who have seen the Phantom Ship … What matters is the interest in the story that arose years ago and continues to this day.”
That interest continues. Stories of the Phantom Ship of the Northumberland Strait don’t just live on in songs and written records. They continue to be shared and loved by people from Burnt Point, Prince Edward Island, to Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. There, as late as 2010, seventeen-year-old Mathieu Guiguere, visiting from Quebec, witnessed a schooner glowing white and gold in ice-bound Tatamagouche Bay. He related his experience to the Truro Daily News, and the story spread across the internet. In 2017, writing for the Port Hawkesbury Reporter, journalist Grant McDaniel interviewed a group of people in Chestico, Nova Scotia, many of whom reported seeing the burning ship, and all of them had witnesses.
My grandfather was not the only person in my family to claim a Phantom Ship sighting. My father saw it too, he says, although his description is characterized by the self-deprecating humor shared by so many in the Maritimes: “The one I saw was a square-rigged schooner. I was with Dad, and we drove by where Uncle Waldron used to live and turned toward the water. When we turned, I saw it plain as day. Dad said that he doubted it. I guess he didn’t want to say I was crazy.” Yes, my grandfather, who’d had his own encounter with the ghost ship, stopped short of encouraging his son in similar fancies. I, on the other hand, choose to believe they both saw it. After all, the Phantom Ship is our heritage.
World events and daily obstacles have kept me away from Prince Edward Island for the past five years, but I will return this summer with my husband and children. And when I do, I will make my way to Burnt Point, where the old farm used to be. I will stand at the end of the swamp road and look out over the fishing grounds named for my family. My eyes will scan the horizon, past tiny Boughton Island and out toward the strait. I will watch a while, careful and calm, for a glimpse of that ship of flame.