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Haunted Locations: Atlantic Canada

The Ghost Ship of the Northumberland Strait

Welcome back to another weird Wednesday!


This is an exciting issue for me because, instead of being on the receiving end of this blog, I’m the one bringing it to you! This week tells a ghostly tale, one that has mystified people for over 200 years.


Since 1978 there have been numerous accounts of people seeing a large schooner with three or four masts (this detail varies), fully ablaze in the waters that separate Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick, on the east coast of Canada. The sightings have occurred year-round, but most of the documented accounts occurred in the fall. The ghost ship is said to precede a northeast wind and is the foretelling of a storm. Although the details vary from tale to tale, there are major commonalities.


Some say they catch only a glimpse of what looks like a large pirate ship on fire before it vanishes right before their eyes while others describe a detailed ship, sailing at highspeed along the strait, before they lose sight of it. There are accounts of sailors attempting rescue missions, taking rowboats out to the blazing ship to search for survivors, only for the entire ship to disappear before they reach it. There have even been more detailed accounts from people who claim to have seen the ship with its crew on board, scrambling unsuccessfully, to put out the fire. I am one of those people.


One August night, when I was ten or eleven, my mother, brother, and I were out on the ocean side deck of our summer cottage, hoping to witness a meteor shower, something we are lucky to experience often in the sky above Caribou Island, Nova Scotia. I honestly don’t remember if we even saw one shooting star that night, since we witnessed something even more spectacular.


It was a clear, quiet night, and as we sat looking up at the sky, we heard something out on the water. It was the sudden lapping of water against the side of a ship. We were confused because no boats were moored off our beach that day, and any boat out on the water at that time of night should have had lights on to help them navigate. On top of that, it was low tide, so a ship as large as the one that seemed to appear before our eyes, would not have been able to come that close to shore. It was dark, the kind of dark only the most rural of areas experience, and so we all leaned over the railing to get a better look. I remember asking my mom, “What is that?” to which she responded in a whisper, “Shh, just watch.”


I could just make out the shape of a large three masted schooner, my child’s mind screaming silently, “Is that a pirate ship??” What I remember most vividly were the sounds it made. I could hear the lapping of the water against the hull, along with the creaking of the wood, and the metal cleats banging against the masts. And then suddenly at the base of one of the masts, a light appeared, it was small, but it grew with increasing speed. In an instant the ship was alight with fire and noise. I saw crew members coming up on deck from the cabin below and heard them yelling, “FIRE!”


It was chaos, and as the men ran around, I could hear someone calling out orders. I remember distinctly hearing someone call, “Lower the sails!” just as the fire seamed to jump to the next mast and in a blink, all three masts and sails were ablaze. The man shouting orders to put out the fire, quickly changed his stance, “Abandon ship!” The men launched themselves over the side, some of them screaming as they too were completely engulfed in flame. I remember thinking it was like watching a movie. My brain continuously telling me, “This can’t be real.” Then as suddenly as the fire started, the ship seemed to sink, disappearing completely, right before my eyes.


The ocean was again still, and the dark fully encompassing. My brother broke the silence saying, “Mom, seriously, what was that?” She said, “That. Was the Ghost Ship of the Northumberland Strait.” Over the next few days, she told us the legend, and all the stories she had heard as a child. She took us to the McCulloch Heritage Centre and Museum to let us investigate the lore further. She had seen the ship once before, as a teenager, walking the beach one evening with a friend at her parent’s cottage in Toney River, Nova Scotia.


As far as explanation, depending on where the ship is sighted, some believe it was a pirate ship sunk by the British Navy, or the consequence of a drunken pirate brawl. Others believe it to be one of many ships lost at sea. In our cottage community in Pictou, NS, legend says it’s the ghost of the Melmerby, a ship sailing out of Quebec, bound for Scotland. It became shipwrecked near Roy Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, in 1890. I’ve also heard some of the old men in our cottage community say that it was Captain Kidd’s ship!


Is it the same ship or are there more than one ghost ship haunting these waters? That’s up to you to decide.


There is no official scientific explanation for the ghost ships seen on these waters. Some scientists claim that it could be St. Elmo’s Fire, an electric phenomenon that causes a purplish-blue light to surround an object, in a mast like form, and is often accompanied by an electrical buzzing or hissing. They go on to say that people can interpret this as the burning rigging of a ship.


The other main scientific explanation is moonlight reflecting off a fog bank, causing a mirage. If that is the case, then I have to say, moonlight and fog are INTENSE!


That concludes this week’s Weird Wednesday post. And as always, if you chose to go exploring, remember the rules:






See you next week!



If you would like to read more on the legend of the Ghost Ship of the Northumberland Strait, visit:


Other personal accounts can be found here:


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