The Phantom Ship of the Northumberland Strait

There are certain haunted locations where several people report seeing the same exact apparition or paranormal event. These people may be together at that moment in time, or the apparition may appear to different people, but in the same manner, during a different date or time. One could believe that this would serve to make the story more credible. Alas, it is not always so easy to convince someone who is skeptical, and who would rather point to matters of psychology, science, or over active imaginations as the reason behind the repeat paranormal activities. This may be true in some cases, one could question those who see a group of soldiers fighting or marching on the Gettysburg Battlefield; or those who have bared witness to the headless phantoms of the Tower of London. In those cases, there may be times that the skeptics are correct.

But then seeing a person is one thing, leaving open the question as to how much can be explained? What about those who see mysteries lights barreling down train tracks, the unexplained cars that disappear on country roads; or, larger yet, the phantom images of entire ships sailing from a different time all together, particularly a sizeable vessel that is seen time and time again by numerous people for several centuries?

The first recorded account of what is known as the Phantom Ship of the Northumberland Strait is left up to interpretation as to how real the ship was at that time. It is recorded by several paranormal authors and enthusiasts as the first encounter with the phantom ship; others can believe that at this point it was not quite a ghost ship yet. The date was 1786, a strong gale was blowing in, and turning the salty water into a weapon that only nature could create. In full view of Sea Cow Head Island, the lighthouse keeper saw a three-masted schooner, its sails full, headed towards the rocky cliffs of the island. With bare seconds to spare, the ship turned away from the rocks and back into the storm. Undoubtedly, the ship was lost to sight because of the storm; but then the question remains, was it the phantom ship or a doomed vessel ready to send her men to a watery grave? There are no reports to lead to the conclusion that the ship survived the storm.

Over a hundred years passed until the next reported account. Around the year 1900, as tradition goes, a group of sailors witnessed a burning ship in the Charlottetown Harbour, with the crew of the ship frantically running around the deck trying to put the fire out. In an attempt at a rescue effort, the men set sail in a small rowboat. Before they reached the vessel, it had vanished. This was followed by another sighting in 1963 at Brea Harbor. Sailors could be seen on the decks of the ship, scrambling around as if they were preparing to ready a life boat. The sight lasted for several hours before the ship gradually disappeared.

In January of 1988, another burning ship was spotted from a ferry boat off of Borden. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ferry’s radar did not pick up on the second ship. Finally, in mid-January of 2008, at approximately 10 pm., a 17-year-old visitor to the Tatamagouche Bay area witnessed a brightly white and red colored three-masted schooner. The entrance to the bay was blocked by ice, making it impossible for a ship to be in the area. He went back inside the house and when he checked on the ship around 11p.m. it had vanished.

The accounts do not end with those above, that which has been stated on only those with listed dates. Of the undated reports, one was of a flaming ship at Canoe Cove. Supposedly the fire department was dispatched for a rescue. Of course, by the time they arrived, they were too late. Further undated accounts include sightings off of Borden, around where the ship was seen in 1988, with the ship either sailing out of sight or sinking in a gulf of flames. If the ship is close to the shore line, witnesses can hear screams coming from the deck. The time period for the length of these sightings is approximately ten minutes.

There are many more accounts, though some are repetitions of the above stories. The locals have come up with several theories as to why their famous phantom ship still sails the waves, repeating over and over again the final horrible scene of its sailor’s deaths. Most of these local tales speak of piracy and pacts with the devil, both of which doomed the men to their fate.

The golden age of piracy occurred during the late 1600s into the early 1700s, nearly eighty years before what is considered the first sighting of the phantom ship. This does not necessarily hold much bearing for it not to have been a pirate ship since it is not known when the ship sank; though there is other evidence to push out the theory that the ship was cursed as a means of retribution for the sins of the crew. Pirates traveled the seas in search of treasure and unhappy, restless fishermen to join their crews. The area around the Northumberland Strait did not offer much in the way of either of those aspects. The likes of these types of men could be found on the other side of Nova Scotia.

Liverpool, for example, was practically built for privateers. Then there is the consideration of the first account, it is one of the only accounts that tells of the ship not being engulfed in flames. Leading to the speculation that the sighting in 1786 was an account of the last moments of the physical ship before some tragic accident caused it to be lost to the sea.

The true origins and history of this particular ghost ship may never be known, there are quite a few contenders for the basis of the sightings. That is, if indeed it is paranormal. The top choice for the ship is the Chameau or Le Chameau, it translates to The Camel. It was a French flute built out of wood and with the type of sails that are seen on the flaming ship. It was carrying passengers, coins, and cargo from France and was lost on August 27th, 1725. She was blown into rocks during a storm; a few more miles and the ship would have reached its destination. Everyone onboard was lost in the wreck, the total number reaching between 200 and 316 people. About 180 bodies washed ashore and were buried in a mass grave. The bow of the ship was found on the shore west of Cape Breton Point.

With such a large number of accounts, complete with details and dates, it is quite believable that people are witnessing some type of phenomenon on the waters of the Northumberland Strait. There are those who do try to answer the question of the phantom ship with science. For example, a crescent moon setting over the waters of the Northumberland Strait can create an illusion of a flaming ship. The brightness of the moon creates the bright light, while the ripples in the waves create an appearance of flames.

Another explanation is the weather phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s fire. Webster’s Dictionary defines this occurrence as “A flaming phenomenon sometimes seen in stormy weather at prominent points on an airplane or ship and on land that is of the nature of a brush discharge of electricity —called also Saint Elmo’s light”. The fire is said to be either bright blue or violet; and it moves like fire. Sometimes, a hissing or buzzing electrical noise accompanies the light.

St. Elmo is a name variation of St. Erasmus, the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors. Some sailors have considered it a sign that their Saint is guarding over them; certainly hope and good fortune are sea-faring necessities, especially during the early years of naval navigation. The scientific theories are interesting, and they do offer an explanation. The question is, does one believe that such phenomenon’s account for all the eye witness reports, or is there something more mysterious to the waters of the Northumberland Strait?

 

References:

Andrea Nemetz. “Pirates Sailed Far from the Carribbean.” The Chronicle Herald. https://thechronicleherald.ca/artslife/69469-pirates-sailed-far-caribbean

Published March 3, 2012. Accessed April 14th, 2014.

William B. Hamilton, “Ghostly Encounters of the Northumberland Kind.” Folklore. Island Magazine. https://vre2.upei.ca/islandmagazine/fedora/repository/vre%3Aislemag-batch2-58/OBJ, accessed April 10th, 2014.

Sherry Martell. “Phantom Ship Spotted by Visitor.” Truro Daily News. Published February 23, 2008. Accessed February 12th, 2014.

Webster’s Dictionary. “St. Elmo’s Fire”

Will R. Bird, This is Nova Scotia. (McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1972). 180-189.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ghost Ship of 1921

All around the world there are legends of ships rising from their watery graves to haunt those who are still living; some come in the form of a flaming phantom, others look how they did when they sank. Most of these are meant to be symbolic, serving as a reminder that not all justices have yet to be served. Not all ships need to rise from the ocean, and neither are they phantom images. Some ghost ships come to claim this title simply because they were abandoned on the open water. Whenever a floating, vacant vessel is found, one predominant question quickly arises, what happened to the crew?

Roughly 580 nautical miles west of Bermuda lay a graveyard of a thousand shipwrecks. At least, it is believed to be a thousand; a total accumulation of the effects of storms, wars, ever-changing geological features, and human error. Beyond the grave bed lies a flat, thin chain of barrier islands called the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The largest of the islands being: Hatteras and Ocracoke. Bodie Island is also one of the larger portions of the chain, and sits to the north of Hatteras; due to the changing coastal landscape, Bodie Island is now a peninsula. Cape Hatteras is located in a bend on Hatteras Island; near which, two major Atlantic currents meet: the cold Labrador Current that flows south and the warm Florida Current, from the Gulf Stream, that flows north. Such a mix of two polar currents causes turbulent waters and a large expanse of shifting, shallow sandbars called shoals.

The Carroll A. Deering was found stuck on the Outer Shoal at 6:30a.m. on January 31st, 1921 by C.P. Brady of the Cape Hatteras Coast Guard. Rough waters made it impossible to reach the ship until February 4th, when a wrecker aptly named Rescue, along with a cutter named Manning, arrived at the Deering at approximately 9:30 in the morning. The captain of the Rescue, Captain James Carlson, went aboard the ship and verified that it was indeed the Carroll A. Deering, a five-masted schooner on a scheduled return from Barbados to Hampton Roads, Virginia.

According to accounts from those who boarded the ship, she was devoid of crew. Food had been laid out, as if in preparation of a meal. Among the missing items from the ship were her anchors, the navigational equipment, some papers, all personal belongings of those on board, and the lifeboats.

The last documentation of the ship’s crew was on January 29th, when she passed the Cape Lookout Lightship. A crewman aboard the Lightship found the Deering’s appearance to be unusual. One the crewman aboard the passing ship stated the ship had lost both of its anchors, when the ship was found a few days afterwards, the anchors were missing. What truly sparked the curiosity of the documenter on board the Lightship was that the crewman on the ship did not present himself as an officer nor did he look the part.

If true, this would mean that the veteran shipmaster and navigator, Captain Willis T. Wormell was not the man with whom the crewman aboard the Lightship would have spoken to about the anchors. Wormell was filling in for the first captain of the ship, Captain William M. Merritt, part owner of the ship, who had taken ill during the journey and had disembarked; the first mate, S.E. Merritt, Merritt’s son, chose to remain with his father. At some point, while harbor hopping before embarking on the voyage home, it is rumored that Captain Wormell spoke with a friend and fellow captain, stating that he distrusted the Scandinavian crew of nine aboard the ship. It was mentioned in passing that the ship’s engineer, Herbert Bates, could be trusted. What fate could have befallen either the captain or the engineer between the ship’s departure for home on January 9th and the meeting on the 29th?

The Deering was seen again on January 30th near the Diamond Shoals Lightship by the SS Lake Elon. This point was marked as occurring at approximately 5:45 p.m. Once again, something strange caught the eyes of those passing the ship; because of the Deering’s unusual route. Bearing in mind that the waters in this area are quite treacherous and that a ship’s crew must always be on guard for changes in the sandbars and of the currents and weather conditions around the island chain; there would have been a specific route that the ship should have been taking during its journey.

In July of 1921, Agent Thompson of the FBI came to the Outer Banks region to investigate any and all possible leads as to what happened to the ship’s officers and crew. Among the various theories as to why the ship was abandoned were: pirates, rum-runners, and a mutiny. Due to the rough weather conditions when the ship was found, it is believed that a mutiny is quite unlikely. A knowledgeable sailor would have risked using the lifeboats in such settings. To note, the rough seas were not due to a hurricane sweeping through the area, which also crosses out the idea that the men would have been swept overboard by the strong storm.

Despite an FBI investigation, no legitimate evidence ever came to light. There was a bottle that was found by a local resident named Christopher Columbus Gray, with a handwritten note claiming pirates; it was viewed as a hoax by the federal government. This was in contradiction to the handwriting experts who claimed that the handwriting on the letter matched that of the ship’s engineer.

Oddly, the Carroll A. Deering was not the only ship to meet a mysterious fate during this time period. The S.S. Hewitt, a freighter, disappeared around January 25, 1921. This second ship was steering along a similar route as the Deering, having left Texas on January 20th headed towards Portland, Maine; the Deering had been built in Bath, Maine. The last known communication with the Hewitt was on January 25th, and it was a standard check-in call. The Hewitt has never been found.

In March of 1921, the Deering made its final voyage, being towed further out onto the water before being dynamited. The investigation into the disappearance of the Deering’s crew officially closed in 1922, with no explanation as to what happened or any indication as to the whereabouts of the crew. Nearly a century later, the mystery remains unsolved.

 

 

 

Noa, M. (2010, March 8). The Carroll A. Deering Schooner. Retrieved January 1, 2015, from https://www.historicmysteries.com/the-mystery-of-the-carroll-a-deering-schooner/

The Ghost Ship of the Outer Banks. (2015, January 1). Retrieved March 12, 2015, from https://www.nps.gov/caha/learn/historyculture/theghostship.htm

The Mysterious Ship Disappearances. (2007, January 1). Retrieved March 12, 2015, from https://maritime-connector.com/the-mysterious-ship-disappearances/