The Flying Dutchman

A little bit on the most famous ghost ship in the world.

On the third of August, 1942, H.M.S. Jubilee was on the way to the Royal Navy base at Simonstown, near Cape Town. At 9 p.m., a phantom sailing ship was seen. The second officer, Davies, was in charge of the watch. Sharing this duty was the third officer, Nicholas Monsarrat, author of The Cruel Sea. Monsarrat signalled to the strange ship, but there was no response. Davies recorded in the log that a schooner, of a class that he did not recognise, was moving under full sail, even though there was no wind. The Jubilee had to change course, to avoid a collision. During the war, Davies’ superiors would have been in no mood for nonsense, and he must have had to weigh that against the dangers, especially in wartime, of not recording the strange things that he saw. In an interview, Monsarrat admitted that the sighting inspired him to write his novel The Master Mariner. According to Admiral Karl Doenitz, U Boat crews logged sightings of the Flying Dutchman, off the Cape Peninsula. For most or all of these crews, it proved to be a terrible omen. The ghostly East Indiaman was also seen at Muizenberg, in 1939. On a calm day in 1941, a crowd at Glencairn beach saw a ship with wind-filled sails, but it vanished just as it was about to crash onto the rocks. During the war years, there was plenty of room for bad omens. Spectral ships in other parts of the world are sometimes generically called “The Flying Dutchman”, but the one that still tries to round the Cape of Good Hope is the original.

The ship’s captain is Hendrik van der Decken, who, in 1641, swore to round the Cape of Good Hope even if it took him till Doomsday. (Lawrence Green quoted a date of 1680 as appearing in records of the Dutch East India Company, but he was not writing at first hand. He later acknowledged that there was no record of Captain Van der Decken in the diary of the Cape Colony’s governors. However, the colony was not founded until 1652. The year 1729 is quoted even less frequently). Some sources say that the voyage was from Amsterdam to Batavia, in the Dutch East Indies, but the historian Eric Rosenthal was sure that it was on the return journey to Amsterdam that the ship was lost. In some versions of the legend, the ship’s captain is called Falkenburg.Sir Walter Scott wrote of the Flying Dutchman “She is distinguished from earthly vessels by bearing a press of sail when other vessels are unable, from stress of weather, to show an inch of canvas.” According to one account, the ship was painted yellow when it left Batavia, but it must have been 
much weathered by the time that it reached the Cape. All agree that Van der Decken tries to pass letters home to other ships, but to accept these letters is certain doom.In what was then the British Museum library, Lawrence Green found an anonymous account of passenger ship which did allow Van der Decken to send across a boat with four men. A Dutch seaman tried to hand letters to the passenger ship’s chaplain, who wisely declined to take them. The Dutch seaman left the letters on the deck, weighted down with an iron bar, and returned to his ship. Fortunately, the passenger ship lurched, dislodging the bar, and the letters were blown overboard. 
The passengers survived.

 The most famous Royal Navy sighting, however, was recorded by King George V, who in 1881 was a midshipman on H.M.S. Bacchante. In his diary, for July 11, he unequivocally wrote “At four a.m., the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows.” The lookout on the forecastle, and the officer of the watch, also saw the ghost ship off the port bow. Prince George described “… a strange red light, as of a phantom ship, all aglow in the midst of which light the mast, spars and sails of a brig two hundred yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up.” The ghost ship was sighted from other ships in the squadron, the Cleopatra and the Tourmaline. Thirteen crewmen, in all, witnessed the phenomenon. The squadron was commanded by Prince Louis of Battenberg, great uncle of the present Prince Philip. The seaman who first reported the ghost ship died from a fall, only seven hours afterwards. With the help of the Reverend John Neale Dalton, Prince George published his account as The Cruise Of H.M.S. Bacchante. Before publication, naval authorities at the Admiralty checked the manuscript, to ensure that it contained no errors.There is a story that the phantom ship entered Table Bay, and was fired on by the garrison, but there appears to be no record of this. Many other sightings have been recorded, however. Keepers of the Cape Point lighthouse often reported seeing her during storms. In 1835, R. Montgomery Martin, 
South Africa’s first statistician, described a personal encounter with Van der Decken’s vessel. In 1879, the steamer S.S. Pretoria changed course, after the passengers and crew saw lights which they thought to be a distress signal. A strange sailing ship was seen, but it vanished when the steamer approached it. In 1911, an American whaler almost collided with the ghost ship, off the Cape 
Peninsula, and as recently as 1959, the crew of the freighter Straat Magelhaen reported a near collision with the Flying Dutchman.

The Flying Dutchman is without a doubt the most well-known of all ghost ships. Although much of its story is legend, it is based on fact – a vessel captained by Hendrick Vanderdecken who set sail in 1680 from Amsterdam to Batavia, a port in Dutch East India. According to the legend, Vanderdecken’s ship encountered a severe storm as is was rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Vanderdecken ignored the dangers of the storm – thought by the crew to be a warning from God – and pressed on. Battered by the tempest, the ship foundered, sending all aboard to their deaths. As punishment, they say, Vanderdecken and his ship were doomed to ply the waters near the Cape for eternity. What has perpetuated this romantic legend is the fact that several people claim to have actually seen The Flying Dutchman – even into the 20th century. One of the first recorded sightings was by the captain and crew of a British ship in 1835. They recorded that they saw the phantom ship approaching in the shroud of a terrible storm. It came so close that the British crew feared the two ships might collide, but then the ghost ship suddenly vanished. The Flying Dutchman was again seen by two crewmen of the H.M.S. Bacchante in 1881. The following day, one of those men fell from the rigging to his death. As recently as March, 1939, the ghost ship was seen off the coast of South Africa by dozens of bathers who provided detailed descriptions of the ship, although most had probably never seen a 17th century merchantman. The British South Africa Annual of 1939 included the story, derived from newspaper reports: “With uncanny volition, the ship sailed steadily on as the Glencairn beach-folk stood about keenly discussing the whys and wherefores of the vessel. Just as the excitement reached its climax, however, the mystery ship vanished into thin air as strangely as it had come.” The last recorded sighting was in 1942 off the coast of Cape Town. Four witnesses saw the Dutchman sail into Table Bay… and disappear.

The legend of the Flying Dutchman is said to have started in the year 1641, when a Dutch ship, of that name, sank off the coast of Southern Africa, while attempting to round the Cape of Good Hope:The Captain, a man of evil repute, named Henrik van der Decken was pleased. The trip to the Far East had been highly successful and at last, they were on their way home to Holland. As the ship 
approached the tip of Africa, the captain thought that he should make a suggestion to the Dutch East India Company (his employers) to start a settlement at the Cape on the tip of Africa, thereby providing a welcome respite to ships at sea. He let out a scream out in terror, did he realize that they had sailed straight into a fierce storm. The captain and his crew battled for hours to get out of the 
storm and at one stage it looked like they would make it. Then they heard a sickening crunch – the ship had hit treacherous rocks and began to sink. As the ship plunged downwards, Captain van der Decken knew that death was approaching. He was not ready to die and screamed out a curse: “I WILL round this Cape even if I have to keep sailing until doomsday! God, himself, cannot keep me from rounding this cape…” So, even today whenever a storm brews off the Cape of Good Hope, if you look into the eye of the storm, you will be able to see the ship and it’s captain – The Flying Dutchman. Don’t look too carefully, for the old folk claim that whoever sights the ship will die a terrible death and be damned to join van der Decken’s crew… sailing forever into the teeth of a raging storm. It is also said that the Flying Dutchman appears to those who have led particularlly evil and debauched lives… with the same terrifying result. Many people have claimed to have seen The Flying Dutchman, from the crew of a German submarine during World War II to cruise boats filled with vacationers. On 11 July 1881, the Royal Navy ship, the Bacchante was rounding the tip of Africa, when they were confronted with the sight of The Flying Dutchman. The midshipman who logged the initial sighting… a prince who later became King George V… recorded that both the lookout and the Officer of the Watch had seen the Flying Dutchman and he used these words to describe the ship: A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the mast, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief.” It’s pity that the lookout saw the Flying Dutchman, for soon after on the same trip, he accidentally fell from a mast and died. Fortunately for the English royal family, the young midshipman survived the curse. In June, 1944, Jack Loggins, then Chief Machinist’s Mate on the U.S.S. Knight, a United States Navy Destroyer, serving as a convoy escort en route to South Africa from Norfork, Virginia, was standing on deck, smoking with a friend when they saw the Dutchman sailing directly toward their convoy. This sighting of the Flying Dutchman is unusual, in that it occurred in broad daylight, rather than at night, when such sightings usually take place. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon… We were making seventeen to twenty knotts, I guess,” he stated… “and were zig-zagging. We had just sailed out of a pretty bad blow. I looked up and saw her… an old sailing ship with tattered, ragged sails… She looked like she was beating into a force five gale. I motioned to my buddy… a deck ape named Jackson… and pointed it out to him… He saw it too. As we watched, she came within about two thousand yards of us… and then… just vanished…”Loggins still has chills when he recounts sighting the “ghost ship”. He is convinced that he and his friend actually saw the Flying Dutchman… “We didn’t report it…” he continued. “Nobody would have believed us… I wish we had, now. Maybe somebody else saw it (the ship) too.”Jack Loggins now spends much time thinking about this experience of some half a century ago… concerned with the fate of his soul… The difference in the fate of the witness seems to lie in the nature of the sighting. If one only sees the ship, then results could range from simple bad luck to the disastrous.. but not necessarily to damnation. If one is unfortunate to see van der Decken, or any of his phantom crew, the fate of the victim, in both this world and the next, seems to be sealed. It is widely reported that famed U-Boat Ace Otto Kretchmer, now nearing his ninetieth birthday, once sighted the Flying Dutchman… but unlike another, less fortunate officer in his “wolfpack”… did not see van der Decken or any of his crew. Recent reports of sightings of the Flying Dutchman range from an Australian Aircraft Carrier, HMAS Anzak, which sighted the infamous ghost ship in the fall of 1996, and promptly warped a propeller shaft, causing major at-sea repairs and several injuries, to a South African excursion boat full of holiday sightseers which foundered and sank after sighting the “Dutchman”, killing some 17 of the hapless vacationers in the Summer of 1999. Is the Flying Dutchman real, or is it just another “legend” of the sea? Those who ride the waves, in the parts of the world that she is said to frequent, tend to think it better not to look too closely into the eye of a storm or the dark of the night… unless it is absolutely necessary…


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