What's In a Name?
A Burning Phantom at Sea by Bruce Nunn
Rural myth? Legend or lore? Well, these eye witnesses span different generations, ages, genders and even provinces. They all report seeing the same thing that's been spotted over the centuries.
Some say she's an old immigrant ship of Highland Scots, lost at sea while seeking the new land; that the poor souls on board are trapped in time, suffering, and still searching.
The mystery might reach back to early Mi'kmaq days. Pictou, on the Nova Scotian side of the Strait is said to be a Native word meaning "fire on the water."
PEI's Acadian culture might also claim this tragic phantom apparition. During their 1755 deportation from what's now PEI, apparently six hundred Acadian souls drowned at sea.
As the songwriter Gallant puts it:
"Through time and tide they navigate, for the means to end their long exile."
It seems the questions surrounding this unusual ship in flames will go unanswered for as long as the doomed vessel burns; unextinguished and unexplained.
"It's a ship of fire they cry. Hard against the wind she sails. No one can say why."
One night near Cape John, Nova Scotia, drivers along the coastal road were startled to see a strange vision on the seaward horizon. One witness said, "It was a vessel, outlined with a fiery glow. I wouldn't say it was actually flames I saw... But the whole vessel was aglow and it was moving fast." The apparition lasted for two hours and was seen by dozens of people along the road.
1. Was there really a burning ship out there? No, it was a phantom ship. Stories of many different phantom ships cover the pages of history. Some are purely folklore, others are documented facts.
The burning ship of the Northumberland Strait has often been seen off the coast of Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island in Canada. Often it appears as a three-masted sailing ship on fire. Another witness observed, "One October night I was returning from visiting a neighbor; while walking along I was looking out over the Northumberland Strait where I saw a ship burning. It was a clear night and I could make out the outline of the ship quite distinguishably. I watched it for about twenty minutes and then it disappeared. I had heard so much about the phantom ship that I decided that it must be it."
Supposedly over the years several attempts have been made to reach the ship, but without success. One is detailed by Sterling Ramsay in his book Folklore of Prince Edward Island.
Late one evening, approaching dusk, a ship [was]sighted in the harbor which appeared to be in peril. Some distance out in the channel was what appeared to be a huge three-massed sailing vessel ablaze from 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 was possible. While they still were some distance from the craft, it disappeared into the mist and appeared to vanish completely.
The burning ship Northumberland Strait is probably an optical illusion of unknown mechanism. Mirages are common along these waters, and often atmospheric conditions will make the coast of Nova Scotia look impossibly close to the shores of Prince Edward Island. At other times, the coastline is nearly invisible in the distance.
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