The phantom ship of Chaleur Bay
Some say specter re-lives the day natives attacked the explorers who kidnapped their people

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 side.
   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 themselves.
   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 ago.
   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 separate occasions.
   "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 logo.
   "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 Nessie."

   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.