Of all apparitions the mariner may encounter at sea, none is more famous nor more full of foreboding than the Flying Dutchman. As with nearly all legends of note, there is more than one version of this story, but perhaps the most commonly accepted one tells of the Dutch skipper Captain Cornelius Vanderdecken, who, on a voyage home to the Netherlands from Batavia in the era of Admiral Maarten Tromp (1597–1653, perhaps Holland’s most famous seaman), ran into foul weather in the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope. After many weeks of thrashing hopelessly westward the crew begs Vanderdecken to wait until the weather moderates, but the Dutchman is adamant: he intends to carry on. Then God appears in the midst of a particularly violent gale; the crew throw themselves to the deck (seamen have always been pious, albeit hopelessly naive, unlettered, and sometimes coldly brutal) but Vanderdecken remains standing on his poop deck, defying the Almighty, going so far as to fire his pistol at the vision in the clouds and swearing by Donner and Blitzen (a teutonic oath, Donner und Blitzen, “thunder and lightning,” somewhat stronger than the English “hell’s bells”) that despite God’s wrath he would beat his way into Table Bay, where Cape Town lies.
God, willing to accept only so much impious passion, exacts retribution on the Dutchman by making him sail the seas “forever without rest.” No sooner are the words out of Vanderdecken’s mouth than the vessel founders beneath him, leaving only a phantom ship condemned to sail for all eternity, beating back and forth in a (futile) attempt to reach Table Bay.
Other variations include the Flying Dutchman pursuing other ships until they are overtaken, whereupon Vanderdecken can be seen leaning across the rail of his quarterdeck, holding aloft a letter and screaming that he wishes to have it posted. But nobody will accept the commission, it being a firm belief among sailors that to do so would doom them to perpetual bad luck; hence the universal insistence among seamen that the phantom ship, if ever sighted, be given the widest possible berth.
Another belief is that any seaman setting eyes on such a ship will be struck blind. Rogers remarks that there has been no dearth of witnesses who insist that they themselves have laid their very eyes on this ghost ship as it endlessly battles its way round the Cape of Good Hope—the Cape of Storms in the old parlance. Other similar stories include the German legend that has a Herr von Falkenberg and the devil on board his ship as they sail forever around the North Sea without so much as a rudder, let alone a helmsman, while the devil is playing dice with von Falkenberg for his soul, the German captain having apparently once committed a murder. (Coleridge uses the same motif in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,”wherein the mariner sights a ghost ship on which two figures, “Life” and “Death in Life,” throw dice for his soul.)
Wagner’s operatic version of this story, Der fliegender Holländer (1843), allows Vanderdecken to go ashore once every seven years so that, if he can find a woman who can love him, he will be released from his awful curse. A Dutch legend has the ghost of van Straaten, a Dutch seaman, as master of the Flying Dutchman. Kemp suggests the legend may ultimately derive from a Norse saga in which the Viking Stöte steals a ring from the gods, his skeleton later found wrapped in a robe of fire and seated at the base of the mainmast of a black ghost ship. However, the reported sighting in more or less modern times of this most famous of maritime apparitions by a person noted for his sobriety of character must give us pause, at least to shake our heads in wonder rather than in dismissal.
In 1881 Prince George of Britain, later George V, the “sailor king,” was making a flag-showing cruise round the world in a squadron under the command of Vice Admiral the Earl of Carnarvon in the Inconstant. The squadron visited Melbourne in June and Sydney in July 1881. At four o’clock on a morning in early July 1881, in the Southern Ocean, south of the southeastern tip of Australia, the lookout on the corvette HMS Bacchante reported a strange sight, what seemed to be a spectral ship crossing the bows of the Bacchante. Bridges quotes from the ship’s log:
"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 two hundred yards distant stood up in strong relief. [“On arriving there, 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, but whether it was Van Diemen, or the Flying Dutchman, or who else, must remain unknown. The Tourmaline and Cleopatra, which were sailing on our starboard bow, flashed to ask whether we had seen the strange red light."
It is interesting that two other vessels in company with the Bacchante also saw something. One notes another incident, too: the lookout who first spotted the phantom ship died six hours later in a fall from the foretopmast crosstrees to the deck, and the Hardwicks tell us that at the next port—presumably Sydney—the admiral of the squadron became fatally ill (and our ancient mariner would have nodded knowingly: hadn’t thirteen people claimed to have seen the apparition?).
In 1911 a whaler, the Orkney Belle, is said to have encountered this phantom ship in Icelandic waters, “her sails swelling in a non-existent breeze, her bows almost ramming the side [of the Orkney Belle]. Then, from her depths, three bells sounded and, heeling to starboard, she drifted away.”There are, according to maritime legend, not one but two vessels hammering back and forth in the seas around the Cape of Good Hope.
This second Flying Dutchman (the name has long since become a generic description for spectral ships) was under the command of one Bernard Fokke, a Dutch sailor in the latter half of the seventeenth century, notorious for his reckless courage and boastful manner. Fokke let it be known that no other vessel afloat could beat his, and to make good this claim he encased his ship’s masts in iron so they could withstand the heavy press of sail that he customarily crowded on, a procedure that, he claimed, enabled him to make the Rotterdam– East Indies passage in ninety days by way of the Cape of Good Hope (this compares more than favorably with the six months that were still common for ships making the run from England to the Australian colonies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).
Inevitably Fokke overreached himself; in an effort to beat his own record for this route he is said to have made a compact with the devil: sailing supremacy in return for his soul. The story is that when he died, Fokke and his ship vanished into thin air, destined to reappear until the end of time in the seas he once ruled, battling endless gales as his ship tries to forge ahead and is just as relentlessly driven back, with Fokke accompanied only by his bosun, cook, and pilot from earlier and perhaps happier days. Bridges adds this note:
Whether the phantom ship be that of Vanderdecken or of Fokke, the fact remains that nine-tenths of all reported appearances of phantom ships are between the fortieth and fiftieth latitudes [south of the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope]. Nor has the age of steam killed the tradition, for rarely a year passes without some vessel sighting one of these ghostly wanderers of the ocean.
(Source : Seafaring, Lore & Legends by Peter D. Jeans)