The phantom ship of Chaleur Bay
say specter re-lives the day natives attacked the explorers who kidnapped their
By Gail MacMillan
Some ghost stories are based purely on
legend, others on eyewitness reports, and yet others explained as simple
scientific phenomena. The Phantom Ship of Chaleur Bay has all three on its
For more than 200 years the Phantom Ship has
kindled the imaginations of visitors and area residents alike with sparks from
a romantic past: a past filled with wooden ships and iron men, with pirates and
buccaneers, with dark deeds and their dire consequences.
Some eyewitnesses have described a ball of fire far out
on the bay. Others claim to have seen the distinct outline of a threemasted
ship engulfed in flames. And still others describe sailors climbing the rigging
and scurrying about burning decks in a last, desperate attempt to save
The legends surrounding.the Phantom Ship are
numerous. The most credible story centres on Gaspar Cort-Real and his brother
Miguel, two Portuguese explorers who are believed to have made voyages to the
Chaleur Bay region around 1500.
In her book Will O'
the Wisp ... Folk Tales and Legends of New Brunswick Carole Spray describes
Gaspar Cort-Real as a crafty trader who traded cheap trinkets, guns, and whisky
to the native people in return for valuable furs. Finally, greedy for more
profitable booty, he enticed a group of them aboard his ship, offered all the
food and whisky they could consume, then once they were thoroughly inebriated,
chained them below deck and set sail. Back home in Portugal, he sold his
victims as slaves.
Pleased with the success of this
venture, Gaspar soon returned to Chaleur Bay with plans to gather more human
booty. Apparently, however, news travelled among the local population. They
quickly learned of the kidnapping of their brothers by the unscrupulous visitor
and were ready for revenge.
One moonless night, they
boarded Gaspar's ship as it lay at anchor and killed all but Gaspar himself.
With a special death in mind for this Judas, they bound the trader to a large
rock at low tide, then hurried to shore to watch the traitor's terror as the
water slowly rose up his body and closed in over his head.
Two years later Gaspar's brother Miguel came to Chaleur
Bay in search of him. Overjoyed when he saw Gaspar's ship riding at anchor,
Miguel and his men hastily boarded it and rushed into the hold to view the
spoils. They were no sooner below deck when dozens of native people clambored
onto the ship in an all-out attack.
The Portuguese soon
realized their position was hopeless but, determined to fight to the death,
they set the ship afire and made a solemn vow to haunt Chaleur bay for a
thousand years. According to the story, only one person, a native, survived the
bloody battle to tell the tale. But over the years since that night, there have
always been witnesses who declare they have seen figures desperately climbing
the rigging of the Phantom Ship as the Portuguese sailors might have done as
they struggled to avoid the flames to the very last.
It is here, on the
Chaleur Bay, that people report seeing a three-masted ship engulfed in flames.
Another legend declares the Phantom Ship
to be the ghost of one of the casualties of the Battle of the Restigouche, the
last North American naval encounter of the Seven Years War. Others say it is
the spirit of a ship wrecked in a storm at Green Point near Bathurst 300 years
More fanciful and tragically romantic is the tale of
a young bride abducted and ravaged by pirates. In retribution for their
despicable act, the picaroons found their ship engulfed in flames and their
souls doomed to forever sail the waters of Chaleur Bay aboard the fiery vessel.
Over the years there have been numerous sightings of the
Phantom Ship. Former Bathurst Mayor Kevin Mann has seen the specter on two
"The first time I saw the Phantom was
in the early 1960s on a hot July afternoon at Salmon Beach," Mann recalls. "I
spotted a burning mass on the water near the Gaspe shoreline. It appeared to be
a three-masted ship totally engulfed in red-orange flames with the bow pointed
directly at us. And it never moved. It remained there until we tired of looking
at it with our binoculars. It was not visible to the naked eye."
The second time Mann spotted the Phantom proved to be a
benchmark in the history of the ship's many appearances. On that occasion he
actually managed to photograph it. A high school teacher at the time, he was
marking essays at the family cottage at Youghall Beach late in the evening of
October 10, 1980, when he happened to glance out a window.
"About three or four miles out, there was a fiery
mass that seemed to bob in the water," he recalls. "Looking through my
binoculars, I was able to identify a structure with three spires that had the
appearance of being entirely engulfed in redorange flames. Intrigued, I grabbed
my camera and began clicking away."
Of course there are
several scientific explanations for the Phantom Ship. Some believe it is a
combination of escaping gases, atmospheric conditons, and changing currents.
Historian W. F. Ganong suggested it was a version of St. Elmo's Fire.
Several years ago, an artist's conception of the Phantom
Ship became the logo of the Bathurst Tourism Commission. According to Mal
Rogers, former executive director of the Downtown Bathurst Revitalization
Corporation, there's a valid defence for using the Phantom Ship for a tourism
"Other regions have their unsolved mysteries that
draw tourists even though these apparitions or creatures don't appear on a
given schedule ... sometimes not for months or even years at a time," he
explains. "Their unpredictability only makes their sightings all the more
exciting. One famous example is the Loch Ness Monster. In the presence of the
Phantom Ship, Bathurst has the same type of drawing card - its very own
Gail MacMillan lives in Bathurst. She
wrote `Biography of a Beagle' which was awarded a Maxwell Medal at the Dog
Writers' Association of America Banquet in New York City as the Best Dog
Fiction Book of 2001.