Time is of the essence and its captain is keen to fill the hold with the treasures of the east and return home. The crew reach the most dangerous part of their journey in record time; the point where east meets west at the very edge of the discovered world.
To port is the stretch of Africa known as the Skeleton Coast where the wooden bones of a thousand wrecked ships lie broken and shattered on the rocks.
To the South is the Cape of Storms where the ice cold Atlantic and the warm Indian Ocean clash in a maelstrom of turbulent currents and massive waves.
As they reach the rocky headland a terrific storm blows in. The galleon is tossed and thrown about the sea. Petrified, the crew beg to head for the safety of the nearest port at Table Bay, but the captain refuses.
Arrogant and obstinate, he believes he can defy nature and beat the raging tempest. Inevitably, he loses the battle and the ship is lost.
This should be the end of the tragedy but it isn’t, the stricken ship is to be seen again, not once but many times. Far from being the end of a sad tale of loss and destruction, the Flying Dutchman ghost story has just begun….
The History of the Flying Dutchman
In 1641 the galleon Vargalde Vlamingh left the port of Amsterdam for the port of Batavia, now known as Jakarta, in Dutch East India.
The name of the ship roughly translated into English as The Flying Fleming and later became corrupted to the Flying Dutchman.
This was a period of great economic growth for the Dutch and they were keen to exploit newly discovered territories in the east.
The voyage to Batavia was hazardous and dangerous though. The most dangerous part was rounding the Cape of Storms, now known as The Cape of Good Hope.
Captained by the intrepid Hendrick Vanderdecken the crew was determined to make the trip in record time and return home safely to Amsterdam.
As they approached the southern tip of Africa, a turbulent storm began to buffet and toss the ship like a toy on the waves. Notorious for its tempestuous weather and unpredictable seas, the crew and captain had expected to be challenged on this part of their voyage.
Nothing could have prepared them though for the storm that met them. Terrified and mutinous, the crew begged to put into port but the captain refused. An arrogant man, he decided instead to take on the might of nature and continue onwards.
As the storm raged on, Vanderdecken is said to have screamed out ‘I will round this Cape even if it takes me to Doomsday’. In this act of defiance, his fate and that of his crew, was sealed.
The man who thought he could take on the might of nature and God, had failed. The consequences would be terrible. The ship was cursed to sail the seas forever, its ghostly crew condemned to be earthbound until other souls took their place.
Witnessed by hundreds over the centuries and recorded in the log books of many ships, to see the tattered red sails of The Flying Dutchman lit by the glow of an unearthly light, is a portent of death and destruction.
Sightings of the Flying Dutchman
Capetown 1689-90: The first recorded sighting of The Flying Dutchman came from Capetown in 1690. The small settlement of Capetown was caught up in a fervour of superstition and speculation during this period.
A comet had recently been witnessed streaking across the sky, a sign that death would follow. An unexplained sickness then gripped the settlement and many lives were lost.
On Christmas Eve a two headed lamb was born, another sign that something evil was afoot. Then, on January 29th 1690 a red sailed galleon was witnessed heading into port in the morning light.
Shrouded in mist and bathed in an eerie light, her approach was witnessed by many on shore. The sea was calm but the galleon was soon enveloped in a blanket of fog.
Later in the morning, those waiting on shore were astonished when the fog lifted and the ship had disappeared, so astonished that the incident was recorded in the history of Capetown as an evil omen.
H.M.S. Leven 1823: Many confirmed accounts of sightings of The Flying Dutchman have been meticulously recorded in the log books of the British Royal Navy adding further credence to the stories of witnesses.
In 1823 H.M.S. Leven was sailing near Capetown when it was approached by the ghostly galleon on two occasions. On the second occasion a small rowing boat was seen being lowered from The Dutchman.
Aware of the stories and superstitions surrounding the galleon, Captain Owen of H.M.S. Leven refused to acknowledge or contact the other ship and changed direction.
Another witness who also recorded his account of these two incidents was the respected academic and statistician, Robert Montgomery Martin, later to become the Colonial treasurer of Hong Kong.
S.S. Pretoria 1879: The crew of the steamship S.S. Pretoria witnessed strange lights in the distance, which they took to be a ship in distress.
Altering course, they sailed towards the lights convinced they would discover a stricken vessel. By the time they arrived at their destination, the lights and the vessel had disappeared.
King George V 1881: Perhaps the most convincing and credible of all witness statements is that of the (then) future King George V of England.
A midshipman on H.M.S. Bacchante on July 11 1871, he and others were alerted at 4:00 a.m. by the shouts of a lookout.
The lookout had spotted the red tattered sails of a galleon in the distance. The future King, as well as 13 others on the Bacchante clearly witnessed and recorded their contact with the ‘Flying Dutchman’. The King himself wrote:
“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 sighting was also recorded by the crew of H.M.S. Cleopatra and Tourmaline who were sailing in convoy with the Bacchante.
Sadly, in this story the sighting of the Dutchman was indeed a portent of tragedy. The unfortunate lookout who had been first to spot the ghostly apparition, fell to his death from the yard arm later that same day.
S.S. Waratah 1909: Known as The Titanic of the southern seas, the S.S. Waratah set sail from Durban in 1909 and disappeared into thin air.
Its wreck has never been discovered and all passengers were presumed drowned. The last person to see the Waratah was the captain of the SS. Clan McIntyre.
At a public inquiry into the Waratah’s disappearance Captain Phillips stated that on the day in question he first saw the ghostly apparition of The Flying Dutchman before its image evaporated.
Later in the day he saw the Waratah sail towards the point where the Dutchman had disappeared from view.
American Whaler 1911: The crew of an American whaling ship recorded having to change course when a red sailed galleon almost collided with them.
The Royal Navy 1923: On January 26th 1923, four crew of an unidentified Royal Navy ship witnessed The Flying Dutchman.
The four men identified as fourth officer Stone, second officer Bennett, a helmsman and a cadet were so astounded that they agreed to give an account to the Society of Psychical Research.
They clearly observed the ship for a fifteen minute period as it approached their own vessel. As it reached them the ship disappeared as suddenly as it had first appeared.
Muizenburg 1939: Muizenburg is a coastal suburb of Capetown. The Flying Dutchman was sighted here by German sailors on the eve of the Second World War.
After the war U boat commander, Admiral Karl Doenitz also confirmed that the crews of German U boats spotted The Flying Dutchman many times during the six year conflict.
Glencairn Beach 1941: On a calm day in 1941, a large crowd of sunbathers and swimmers enjoying the beauty of Glencairn beach near Capetown saw a galleon with red sails come close to the shoreline.
About to founder on rocks, the audience of bathers felt compelled to watch in horror as events unfolded. Just as the worst was about to happen the galleon vanished into thin air.
H.M.S. Jubilee 1942: In the midst of the Second World War, the British ship H.M.S. Jubilee was heading for the Royal Navy Base at Simonstown near Cape Town.
On watch were the second officer Davies and the third officer Nicholas Montserrat. Montserrat went on to become the famous author of ‘The Cruel Sea’.
At 9 PM the pair spotted a strange ship in the distance and signaled to it, to identify itself. The ship did not respond. Davies later recorded in the ship’s log that the vessel was a schooner of a type he did not recognize.
He also recorded that it was moving under full sail although there was no wind. To avoid a collision H.M.S. Jubilee had to change course at the last moment.
Both men were said to be profoundly affected by their experience .There is no question that they exaggerated the events which took place during wartime.
The Straat Magelhaen 1959: In 1959 the crew of the freighter Staat Magelhaen were sailing off the coast of South Africa when they were in a near collision with a sailing ship, later identified as The Flying Dutchman.
There are few people more superstitious than sailors. Who can blame them when their occupation is at the mercy of Mother Nature and fraught with danger and hazards?
It is no wonder that the Flying Dutchman ghost story has been embellished and added to over the years as the tale is told and retold.
A tale of a defiant captain challenging God and nature, the retribution exacted upon the Dutchman’s crew serves as a lesson to all of those sailing the seas.
Some sailors swear that Captain Vanderdecken comes ashore every seven years to search for a faithful woman. Others say that the crew of the Dutchman try to pass on messages to their loved ones.
Many believe that the restless souls of the Dutchman’s crew can’t move on until they find others to take their place. A fascinating and intriguing story, it is the subject of books, film and opera.
It would be easy then to dismiss the sightings of The Flying Dutchman as the fevered imaginings of superstitious sailors if it were not for one thing.
Sightings of this ghostly ship have been witnessed and recorded by the most impeccable of sources including, academics, writers, high ranking naval officers and even royalty.
These men have no reason to fabricate their experiences, indeed the opposite is true!