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"There's a burst of flame and flash of light, And there on the tide is a frightening sight, As a tall ship all aflame lights up the sky." ~Tales of the Phantom Ship, PEI songwriter Lenny Gallant

1. A flaming ghost ship sailing off PEI has been burning for over 200 years. People still see it today; a three masted square rigger on fire from bow to stern and every mast. Frantic sailors fall from the rigging, on fire. It's the phantom ship of the Northumberland Strait and to numerous eye witnesses, past and present, it is absolutely real. Tragically real.

The first sighting (according to PEI writer Julie V. Watson in Ghost Stories and Legends of Prince Edward Island) was made in 1786 by a lightkeeper at the island's Sea Cow Head light.

I spoke with 93 year old Mrs Angus Brown of Wood Islands, PEI, who recalled seeing the flaming phantom many years ago.

"I remember it very vividly" she said, "it was early in the evening, so it was still light outside."

Mrs. Brown confirmed to me what Watson's book describes. Her husband, ferry Captain Angus Brown, an experienced mariner, took the PEI ferry out one day to rescue those poor burning sailors he saw dying on the flaming ship. He said he saw men scrambling desperately about the deck of the floating inferno. But as he and his ferry crew approached, they sailed right through the flames. Nothing there.

"They got quite agitated about it," said Mrs. Brown.

"They felt they'd been fooled!"

Tricked by the spirit world perhaps.

The author, Watson, also reports that Elaine Monteith of Cornwall, PEI, claimed that her grandfather, a schooner crew member, often saw the phantom ship before a storm; usually in October.

Reg Forbes of Denmark, N.S., told me he saw the bright burning ship on a summer's night in 1959. A boy of 11, he watched from the Nova Scotia side of the Strait. He'd never heard the phantom ship stories. But he saw the reality.

"It looked like a pirate ship on fire," he said. He and friends were camping out in a cabin on the shore facing PEI. The boys were amazed.

"It was dark out with fire on the water!"

The grown man remembered it clearly decades later.

"It made quite an impression on me," said Forbes.

"Out of the east though the wind blows west, she plows the Strait like a ship possessed."

Carol Boylan, another Nova Scotian witness I found, was fourteen when the blaze of glory sailed by her wide eyed glare. She was with a Mrs. Hickman, age seventy-five, who also recalled seeing the flaming ship when she was young.

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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