Thursday, November 15, 2012

Is There A Flaming Ghost Ship?

This is one that I went into absolutely cold. Knew Nothing. Fortunately I found a good local guide, Roland Sherwood.

I suppose that almost all of us who have curiosity about mysteries have heard about things like the Flying Dutchman or the Marie Celeste, and that's about where I stood when I picked a small monograph off Ivan Sanderson's SITU archives shelves. Sometimes such activity is a dead end disappointment, but, in my opinion, not this time.

This is the book. Less than 50 pages --- and, even though I've now seen it cited several times, it must be pretty rare. But such is the privilege of "hosting" an unusual archive like Ivan's, you never know what you might bump into.

The front cover says "Years of research and interviews ... " For a change, he's RIGHT! Sherwood moved when a young man to Pictou, a small city in Nova Scotia at the eastern end of the Northumbrian Strait where all this strangeness takes place. Having a writer's and newsman's mind, he naturally became curious about this "tall tale" [he thought] that he was regularly running into. It did not take long before "The Flaming Phantom Ship" of the Northumbrian Strait became a bit of a hobby obsession. And he DID spend at least 4o years gathering information, when he could, about the phenomenon. Reading the small book, I thought: boy is it nice to read a piece of work by someone intelligent and right on the spot, who really wants to learn what IS and IS NOT true about something. This is a good book about a true unsolved mystery.

It is hard to locate the beginnings of this anomaly, which is very often true when speaking of an on-going mystery connected to a place and not a person. Sherwood thinks that the first credible witnessing of the phantom flaming ship happened in 1880 off the coast of Pictou Island. A boat had recently sailed out of Pictou city harbor and gone its way. Pictou is on the coast and the Island of the same name [a 2x5 mile nearly uninhabited piece of land] is easily seeable off the shore to the north. There near the island, it seemed as though a boat was burning at sea. Many saw this, and assumed that it was the earlier departing craft. A rescue boat, a tug, set out to do what they could; many reliable citizens were on board. They never could reach their objective. The flaming ship outsailed them for a while, and then.... disappeared. The pursuers were stunned of course, but gamely went on searching the waters ahead for what they assumed must be there --- wreckage from the burning ship. Nothing. No sign that a boat had suddenly gone down. The following day, they received word that their own departing ship [which they feared the burning ship to be], was seen safe and well on its journey.

That alone would be enough for a major mystery, but there is of course much more. There might even have been a much earlier report, as one historian says that the first sighting was actually by a lighthouse keeper at Sea Cow Head [near Summerside on the Prince Edward Island side] in 1786. Sherwood knew nothing of that claim. And the Mi'kmaq indians might want to claim that they are in fact first as they have an old "fireball crossing the waters" legend about this area.

I don't know if I could say that there is a typical sighting, but perhaps this is pretty close: witnesses see a red-orange light some distance away which comes nearer. As it does so, it resolves itself to be a fiery glowing old three-master sailing ship. No crew are ever visible. The ship will sail, always west to east, for a while, and either disappear behind a small island or just vanish. Some sightings are always distant; some are fairly close. All are more than a "rapid glimpse and gone"; a few minutes is usual. The location can be anywhere west to east in the Strait. Vincent Gaddis did some shoddy reporting on this [so did Eric Norman] and stated that the ship appears regularly off the shore at Merigomish [east of Pictou] and on the same evening!! Sherwood said that this is pure crap by Gaddis [and Norman] and is typical US-style sensationalist pop-culture writing. Gaddis later tried to make this gaff not seem as bad by saying that he made the error of trusting a US wire service report. However you slice it, it's bad scholarship, and why none of us should ever give serious credibility to what we read in certain authors [ ex. Berlitz, Frank Edwards, Wilkins, Binder, Steiger, Keel, ...] unless there is back-up information somewhere. Ivan himself falls into this sometimes, but as to facts is usually a more trustworthy reporter.

Thankfully, Sherwood is a better man.

I've plotted the specific sightings listed in Sherwood's book, augmented by a handful found on the internet and in Larry Arnold's two-part article in SITUs PURSUIT journal ["AHOY Mate! Which Flamin' Phantom Ship Sails Thar?" Part one= Summer 1978; and part two, Fall 1978]. Arnold's articles are good reviews of the general mystery of the phantom burning ships.

On the map are the locations, at least roughly [I'm doing the best I can here], of the cases. You can see the 1786 and 1880 locations. Gaddis' favorite Merigomish is at "M". "CJ" is Cape John a site of several good witnessings. The two "S's" are the spots where Sherwood himself had sightings. I probably don't need to say that my map does no justice to the number of sightings reported here.

Here for your [hopefully] enjoyment is an actual commentary by a witness:

"At the time I first saw the Phantom Ship it was early evening in the fall of the year, November 26, 1965, just turning dark. I was busy with my housework, having no thought of such a thing as a Phantom Ship. I was standing near my kitchen window, and when I looked up, I was so startled that I could hardly believe my eyes. There was this ship, on fire and sailing down the Strait. The telephone was right beside me on the wall, so as I watched the ship, I called some of my neighbors up the road that keeps close to the shore. Those others looked and saw what I was seeing, and the word spread up the Cape {this sighting is from Cape John}. Many, as they told me afterwards, stood at their back doors and saw for the first time in their lives the Phantom Ship of which they had heard. As we watched, the ship just seemed to disappear. There was no mistaking it for a real ship.

"But that wasn't the end of it. Two nights later, almost under the same circumstances, I saw the Phantom Ship for the second time. Again I phoned others to make sure I wasn't seeing things. They, too, as before, saw that same ship. Word was flashed to River John, some six miles away, and soon our Cape road was crowded with cars, loaded with people eager to catch their first sight of the ghost ship.And they weren't disappointed. That time the Phantom was visible to hundreds of people for a half hour, and then, like the other time, it just seemed to fade away, and where the bright light had been, there was only the blackness of the water."

Well, not bad. If it was a UFO sighting, we'd be raving about the 30-minute long many-witnessed near close-encounter high strangeness "anchor case" we'd just been told.

Sherwood saw the phantom twice. One was at Caribou, near Pictou, and he says that it was a typical sighting like everyone else has, but that he was alone. The second he was accompanied by a friend of high skepticism. They were near the shoreline near Wallace [I may have misinterpreted which side, west or east, they were on from Wallace on my map, but it was on the south shore of the strait]. Sherwood was not driving when he saw the light. He remarked on it, but was rebuffed by the comment that it was just the lighthouse. Sherwood kept watching. He could see the lighthouse elsewhere. He remarked that it is a strange lighthouse which can move. His friend told him impatiently to "go to sleep". Sleep was not on the agenda however, and the light soon resolved itself into the Phantom Ship. He yelled that it was the ship, and his friend braked abruptly and they jumped out.

"Sure enough, there it was. A vessel outlined in a glow, and most certainly moving over the water. As was his custom, my friend watched without comment. For some minutes we looked at the unusual light. ----." Sherwood then thought that if they got back into the car and drove around a nearby point they'd get a better longer look. Mistake. When they got there--- no ship anymore. His friend forever after refused to say one word about this event.

Many other reports exist. The most recent seems to be from 2008 from Tatamagouche. There a visitor to Nova Scotia, 17-year old male, saw an inexplicable thing on the Strait. This was a sailing ship, an old three-master, but although glowing was apparently not "traditionally reddish-orange". Its glow was however very bright. The real oddity was that this old glowing Schooner was sailing in a FROZEN Strait. He'd never heard of the legend but reported the ship sailing in frozen ice as a [to say the least] strange thing. A local historian showed him a picture of what the people generally think the Phantom looks like, and he said: yes, that's what I saw.

So... what is this thing? Back in 1905, the debunking began. A Maritimes area botanist named William Ganong wrote a paper explaining to a no-doubt-nervous anomalies-adverse science community, that the Phantom and all such things like it in the environs [there are at least four other prominent legends in the Canadian Maritimes waters] are the results of methane gas releases from underwater coal beds, which rise to the surface playing Jack O'Lantern tricks on unwary humans.

Hmmmm.... the fact that there is no evidence for "underwater coal beds" there  leaking methane COULD be a difficulty for this hypothesis if it weren't constructed to debunk an anomaly. SHOULD such a thing be found, then the happily burning gas releases staying alight and sailing the Strait for thirty minutes over several miles MIGHT be a difficulty. Or if that were somehow rationalized, these playful gases, despite their diffuse chaotic nature looking to multiwitnesses as a firmly seen sailing ship in detail MAY present a problem. But NOOOOO. This stupidity is mindlessly repeated to this day.

But do we have ANY hypotheses which might make any sense at all?

I don't think so. The only other "scientific" theory is that these are optical illusions... mirages of something else elsewhere. But WHAT? Where? What looks like a burning ship? How does the mirage move over a wide arc of vision? No sale, my friends.

People of a non-physical bent naturally go to ghosts. Well, Nova Scotia is nearly the Wrecked Ship capital of the world. There are certainly plenty of candidates for ghostly ships refusing to stay in their watery graves. But no such burning ship really fits the description and the sailing pattern, even if one would want to grant such a fantastic idea. Plus, for what little it's worth: this feels more like one of those apparitional things which doesn't seem to have much that is "personal" about it. It's just an odd thing; an odd almost "holographic" type of thing, which gets replayed in slightly different spots along the Strait for God alone knows what reasons. Larry Arnold sees something holographic in this too, but proposes a hypothesis WAY beyond my ability to credit it.

Skeptics remark that if this thing has appeared so many times, and sometimes lasts so long, why aren't there any pictures? Believers might respond that the two things above are such. In this, the skeptics would be correct. Neither photo is of the Phantom Ship of Northumbria Strait. Both photos might be good ones, but they are of something else.

The top photo was taken from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, but not the Strait. It is of one of the other mystery lights of the Maritimes, called the Young Teazer, after a US mischief-making ship of c. 1813, which was burned at sea.

The second photo was taken by a high school teacher, alarmed while up late grading papers, [something perfectly believable to me], but from his home in Chaleur Bay, New Brunswick, and therefore of a third watery anomaly, The James Craig Light. So, yes, we have no pictures to my knowledge. When challenged by this, a gruff local said: how do you take pictures of a phantom?

As always lots more could be said, like the fishermen's pub story of them going hastily to sea to try to give assistance to the burning boat, and caught up to it, AND PASSED RIGHT THROUGH. The burning vessel then was to their rear... and, as is its way, vanished thereafter.

That would be good for a holographic theory, but our guide Sherwood thought they were pulling his leg with that one. But it's a good tale and worth buying a beer under some circumstances... and we'll leave our phantom there.

A rollickingly good anomaly, methinks...and one deserving of a good Halloween Pumpkin to celebrate it.

Till next time, folks ---- watch ---- there's always something to see if you just open your eyes.


  1. I really enjoyed this post, particularly the 1965 account where the teller is aware of the local lore, and then sees it themselves. What an excellent find, right down to a "swamp gas at sea" explanation.

  2. My Grandfather, John William McIntosh (b. 1880) grew up on PEI and used to tell stories of Ghost ships.