For centuries, we’ve been left spellbound, listening to stories of ships disappearing without a trace. With bated breath, we hear of boats that have been sighted, eerily surrounded by glowing lights, on fire, or sailed by men rowing and screaming. It sends a chill down our spines. We have entered into a troubled world, one where stories such as the Flying Dutchman ensure that everything we thought we knew is quietly turned on its head. We are riveted.
Placentia Bay is not unaccustomed to the strange and mysterious. It is home to many stories of what are known as “phantom ships.” Stories emerging from centuries past speak of unworldly sightings. One told of a ship with black sails that was seen on a calm night. The crew on another ship apparently remarked on the white foam flying from her bow. Another near Harbour Buffett, spoke of how two men on night watch aboard a schooner saw a dory rowed by two men in oilskins. The dory travelled beside the schooner all night, before it “withered away into thin air.”
These accounts come from a time when many customarily travelled by boat. So, many of the stories tied to the phantom ships were actually used practically. Often, they foretold of the weather. There was a phantom ship that would appear near Davis Cove (near Castle Gut), in western Placentia Bay. It is said the appearance of the phantom steam-powered pirate ship would warn of an oncoming storm. In Brule, the sight of a phantom ship and its lights accompanied by the sound of men working and an engine also foreboded of bad weather.
So, here we had stories of mysterious ships that were a part of the thoughts and ideas people exchanged. They complemented well with the workaday life of the people, speaking of valuable information they could use while on the sea.
Given that more people were on the sea, there would’ve likely been numerous sightings. One can imagine everyone discussing the weird things they had seen or heard while busily unloading their catches. Then, as now, people would’ve been fascinated by stories that left them with a question of what happened. “It disappeared?” they would’ve said, aghast at the thought and no doubt, now intrigued.
No one likes unanswered questions or unknowns. The only option would’ve been to imagine what likely could’ve occurred. We do that all the time as we try to fit the pieces together in what appears to be the most sensible way. Every new sighting would’ve added a dash of spice to the story. By our nature, we instinctively seek an explanation, answers to somehow fill in the empty spaces to the story.
For some, these stories allowed people to exercise their deductive reasoning, to derive a conclusion from something that is known or assumed. What made sense, they would ask. We are all eager to understand the inexplicable. Near Lear’s Cove on the eastern shore of Placentia Bay came the story of the Ada Maud Best (more likely the Ada and Maud). It apparently left with three men, but returned empty, drifting alone. As a result, many believed it to be haunted. It was owned by the Best family of whom Clarence, Kenneth, and George Best, sons of Joshua Best, the owner, were among those lost.
There is little doubt that most would’ve likely deduced that a horrible accident had indeed claimed the lives of the fishermen. Perhaps an unexpected storm. Members of the community likely exchanged possible stories of what had likely occurred. However, time and story are commonly required to soften the details of a rather unpleasant affair. So, casting it with a light of intrigue and mystery may have somehow helped to diminish the very harsh realities of the sea.
Ultimately, we are often left with the unknown, a situation that is as alarming as it is alluring. We may shrug our shoulders, accepting how there are countless things we will neither ever understand, nor comprehend. In our blissful ignorance, with starlit eyes, we are left to merely wonder.