The Flying Dutchman (Dutch: De Vliegende Hollander) is a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. The myth is likely to have originated from the 17th-century golden age of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The oldest extant version has been dated to the late 18th century. Sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries reported the ship to be glowing with ghostly light. If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.
The first print reference to the ship appears in Travels in various part of Europe, Asia and Africa during a series of thirty years and upward (1790) by John MacDonald :
The weather was so stormy that the sailors said they saw the Flying Dutchman. The common story is that this Dutchman came to the Cape in distress of weather and wanted to get into harbour but could not get a pilot to conduct her and was lost and that ever since in very bad weather her vision appears.
The next literary reference appears in Chapter VI of A Voyage to Botany Bay (1795) (also known as A Voyage to New South Wales), attributed to George Barrington (1755–1804):
I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions and doom, but had never
given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man-of-war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.
The next literary reference introduces the motif of punishment for a crime, in Scenes of Infancy (Edinburgh, 1803) by John Leyden (1775–1811):
It is a common superstition of mariners, that, in the high southern latitudes on the coast of Africa, hurricanes are frequently ushered in by the appearance of a spectre-ship, denominated the Flying Dutchman … The crew of this vessel are supposed to have been guilty of some dreadful crime, in the infancy of navigation; and to have been stricken with pestilence … and are ordained still to traverse the ocean on which they perished, till the period of their penance expire.
Thomas Moore (1779–1852) places the vessel in the north Atlantic in his poem Written on passing Dead-man’s Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Late in the evening, September, 1804: “Fast gliding along, a gloomy bark / Her sails are full, though the wind is still, / And there blows not a breath her sails to fill.” A footnote adds: “The above lines were suggested by a superstition very common among sailors, who call this ghost-ship, I think, ‘the flying Dutch-man’.”
Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), a friend of John Leyden’s, was the first to refer to the vessel as a pirate ship, writing in the notes to Rokeby; a poem (first published December 1812) that the ship was “originally a vessel loaded with great wealth, on board of which some horrid act of murder and piracy had been committed” and that the apparition of the ship “is considered by the mariners as the worst of all possible omens.”
According to some sources, 17th-century Dutch captain Bernard Fokke is the model for the captain of the ghost ship. Fokke was renowned for the speed of his trips from the Netherlands to Java and was suspected of being in league with the Devil. The first version of the legend as a story was printed in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine for May 1821, which puts the scene as the Cape of Good Hope. This story introduces the name Captain Hendrick Van der Decken for the captain and the motifs (elaborated by later writers) of letters addressed to people long dead being offered to other ships for delivery, but if accepted will bring misfortune; and the captain having sworn to round the Cape of Good Hope though it should take until the day of judgment.
She was an Amsterdam vessel and sailed from port seventy years ago. Her master’s name was Van der Decken. He was a staunch seaman, and would have his own way in spite of the devil. For all that, never a sailor under him had reason to complain; though how it is on board with them nobody knows. The story is this: that in doubling the Cape they were a long day trying to weather the Table Bay. However, the wind headed them, and went against them more and more, and Van der Decken walked the deck, swearing at the wind. Just after sunset a vessel spoke him, asking him if he did not mean to go into the bay that night. Van der Decken replied: “May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment.” And to be sure, he never did go into that bay, for it is believed that he continues to beat about in these seas still, and will do so long enough. This vessel is never seen but with foul weather along with her.
There have been many reported or alleged sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nicholas Monsarrat, the novelist who wrote The Cruel Sea, was said to have seen the phenomenon on the Pacific Ocean when serving in the minesweeper HMS Jubilee as a Royal Navy officer during the Second World War. He made no mention of this in his two volume autobiography or other works and HMS Jubilee did not, in fact, exist. Monsarrat’s connection probably stems from his book “Master Mariner” which was partly inspired by this tale (he lived and worked in South Africa after the war) and the story of the Wandering Jew. Another sighting was by Prince George of Wales, the future King George V. He was on a three-year voyage during his late adolescence in 1880 with his elder brother Prince Albert Victor of Wales and their tutor John Neill Dalton. They temporarily shipped into HMS Inconstant after the damaged rudder was repaired in their original ship, the 4,000-tonne corvette Bacchante. The princes’ log (indeterminate as to which prince, due to later editing before publication) records the following for the pre-dawn hours of 11 July 1881, off the coast of Australia in the Bass Strait between Melbourne and Sydney:
July 11th. At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her … At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.
Explanations as an optical illusion
Probably the most credible explanation is a superior mirage or Fata Morgana seen at sea.
The news soon spread through the vessel that a phantom-ship with a ghostly crew was sailing in the air over a phantom-ocean, and that it was a bad omen, and meant that not one of them should ever see land again. The captain was told the wonderful tale, and coming on deck, he explained to the sailors that this strange appearance was caused by the reflection of some ship that was sailing on the water below this image, but at such a distance they could not see it. There were certain conditions of the atmosphere, he said, when the sun’s rays could form a perfect picture in the air of objects on the earth, like the images one sees in glass or water, but they were not generally upright, as in the case of this ship, but reversed—turned bottom upwards. This appearance in the air is called a mirage. He told a sailor to go up to the foretop and look beyond the phantom-ship. The man obeyed, and reported that he could see on the water, below the ship in the air, one precisely like it. Just then another ship was seen in the air, only this one was a steamship, and was bottom-upwards, as the captain had said these mirages generally appeared. Soon after, the steamship itself came in sight. The sailors were now convinced, and never afterwards believed in phantom-ships.
Another optical effect known as looming occurs when rays of light are bent across different refractive indices. This could make a ship just off the horizon appear hoisted in the air.
There is a 20-foot one-design high-performance two-person monohull racing dinghy named the Flying Dutchman (FD). It made its Olympic debut at the 1960 Olympic Games and is still one of the fastest racing dinghies in the world.