Every summer I visit my grandparents in Bathurst for a big family reunion on Youghall Beach.
One of my favourite things to do during these visits is to have a bonfire at night, roasting marshmallows and sometimes watching fireworks while we listen to the powerful crash of the Bay de Chaleur waves on the shore. It was around one of these bonfires that I first heard the legend of the Bathurst phantom ship.
And it is indeed a legend — there are academic papers about the ship, news articles and business venture plans. The ship has even inspired a beer from a local brewer: the “Chaleur Phantom” from Savoie’s Brewhouse in Charlo.
All I remember being told as a child was that sometimes at night when you look out in the bay, you can see the glowing flames of a burning ship on the water. In zoomed-in photos or through a telescope you can even make out the masts or burning sails. There were a few different stories the locals told about the origins of the phantom ship that I learned later in life.
Some believe that the ship is a pirate boat, cursed by a deceased victim of the pirates to sail the area for eternity; others say a murder of a crew member aboard the ship created bad luck, causing a fire that we still see today. No matter the origin, many agree that in order to see the ship, the weather has to be the exact same conditions as the day the ship caught fire and sank.
Perhaps the most popular story of the burning ship is the tale of Captain Craig, for whom Distillerie Fils Du Roy in Paquetville named one of their beers on offer. The city of Bathurst’s official website explains that Captain Craig was a thieving scoundrel who took advantage of the locals by trading them goods and stealing them back, as well as kidnapping people to force them into slavery. On one trip into the area, a crewmember had a change of heart, rescuing some of the kidnapped locals and setting them free. The ship was immediately caught in a violent storm that sank it and its villainous occupants. Within hours, a ball of fire resembling the ship appeared in the bay.
Naysayers claim the apparition could be due to natural gas, phosphorescent marine life, or St. Elmo’s Fire. All of those theories have good arguments for and against.
I spent the summer after I graduated from STU interning at Bathurst’s weekly newspaper The Northern Light. I covered a story about a couple who came to visit and saw the ship. I managed to find an old copy of that article. In it, a visitor to Bathurst that summer spotted the phantom ship from Beresford Beach on the final night of her family vacation. Luckily, she managed to snag a photo. You can see the lights from the houses, but to the left, lights like three glowing masts in the bay.
I worked for a local TV show for a while called “Trekkit TV”, a series on Bell’s TV1 channel about getting outdoors. I made an episode about haunted places in the Maritimes. Here’s a segment from that episode that covers — you guessed it — the phantom ship.
The phantom ship is a lesser known “haunted” legend, but New Brunswick is home to plenty more talked-about tales of fright. Other than the spooky Partridge Island spot in Saint John, there’s the infamous Dungarvon Whooper (a murdered wood camp cook who haunts the area of his demise), and of course the ghost story of the “headless nun” in Miramichi — though scary, these have become tourist attractions for the cities and towns they’re associated with. This Halloween even more so, as people are already checking out the area for Canada 150.