Flying Dutchman: Wikis


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The Flying Dutchman by Albert Pinkham Ryder

The Flying Dutchman, according to folklore, is a ghost ship that can never go home, doomed to sail the oceans forever. The Flying Dutchman is usually spotted from far away, sometimes glowing with ghostly light. It is said that if hailed by another ship, its crew 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.



Versions of the story are numerous in nautical folklore and related to medieval legends such as Captain Falkenburg, who was cursed to ply the North Sea until Judgment Day, playing dice with the Devil for his own soul.

The first reference in print to the ship itself appears in Chapter VI of George Barrington's Voyage to Botany Bay (1795):

I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions, 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.[1]

According to some sources, the 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 Holland to Java and suspected of being in league with the devil. However, the first version in print, in Blackwood's Magazine for May 1821, puts the scene as the Cape of Good Hope:

She was an Amsterdam vessel and sailed from port seventy years ago. Her master’s name was Captain Hendrik 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: 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 to 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.[2]

There have been many reported sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries. One was by Prince George of Wales (later King George V of the United Kingdom). During his late adolescence, in 1880, with his elder brother Prince Albert Victor of Wales (sons of the future King Edward VII), he was on a three-year voyage with their tutor Dalton aboard the 4,000-tonne corvette Bacchante. Off Australia, between Melbourne and Sydney, Dalton records:

"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."[3]

Possible explanation

Probably the most credible explanation might be a superior mirage or Fata Morgana seen at sea. [4]

Book illustration showing superior mirages of two boats
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.

The captain should have used the word refraction and not reflection while explaining the phenomenon to his crew. Folklore associates the Flying Dutchman with the North Sea. Its icy water is one of the best places to see a superior mirage.

A superior mirage (Fata Morgana) of a ship might take different faces. Even if a boat does not seem to fly, it looks ghostly, unusual, deserted and ever changing appearance. Sometimes Fata Morgana makes a ship float inside waves, other times an inverted ship sails above its "real" companion. Sometimes it is hard to say what is real and what is not. If a real ship is behind the horizon Fata Morgana would bring it up, and then everything seen by the observer is a mirage. If a real ship is above the horizon, its image will still be distorted by Fata Morgana.

Scientists have offered a more recent explanation. An 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.[5]


This story was adapted in the English melodrama The Flying Dutchman (1826) by Edward Fitzball and the novel The Phantom Ship (1839) by Frederick Marryat. This in turn was later adapted as Het Vliegend Schip (The Flying Ship) by the Dutch clergyman, A.H.C. Römer. Another version is that the captain and crew were struck with bubonic plague. When the captain tried to dock they were turned away - nobody would risk allowing a plague-ridden ship. Their water and provisions ran out and all on board died. Their souls are doomed to sail the seven seas for eternity.

Richard Wagner's opera, The Flying Dutchman (1843) has a convoluted genesis. It appears adapted from an episode in Heinrich Heine's satirical novel The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski (Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski) (1833) in which a character attends a theatrical performance of The Flying Dutchman. This imaginary play appears to be a pastiche by Heine of Fitzball's play, which Heine may have seen in London. However, unlike Fitzball's play, which has the Cape of Good Hope location, in Heine's account the imaginary play is transferred to the North Sea off Scotland. This seems the reason Wagner's play is also set in the North Sea, although this time off Norway. Another adaptation was The Flying Dutchman on Tappan Sea by Washington Irving (1855).

Edgar Allan Poe makes a likely allusion to the Flying Dutchman in Chapter 10 of his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Pym and his fellow Grampus crew members encounter a Dutch brig in the South Seas. It initially appears that one of the brig's crew is leaning over the bow, smiling and nodding toward the Grampus with great interest. Upon drawing closer, Pym realizes that the "smiling man" is in fact a corpse whose back is being pecked by a seagull. Pym further observes some twenty-five or thirty corpses scattered on board.

Captain of the Dutchman

The captain is called Van der Decken (of the decks) in Marryat's version and Ramhout van Dam in Irving's. Most versions say the captain swore he would continue round the Cape of Good Hope in a storm even if it took until Judgment Day. Other versions say some crime took place on board, or the crew was infected with plague and not allowed to sail into port. Since then, the ship and its crew were doomed to sail forever.

In Marryat's version Terneuzen in the Netherlands is described as the home of Captain Van der Decken. In Fitzball's play, the captain is allowed ashore every 100 years to seek a woman. In Wagner's opera, it is every seven years, and in the film series, Pirates of the Caribbean, every ten years.

Italian author Emilio Salgari depicts the Flying Dutchman in one of the tales of his compilation Le novelle marinaresche di Mastro Catrame.

Modern adaptations

Film and television
  • A 14 January 1965 episode of the radio drama Theater Five featured a similar tale set around a space station[citation needed]
  • De Vliegende Hollander is a Flying Dutchman-themed roller coaster at the Efteling theme park in the Netherlands[6]
  • Dutch symphonic black metal band Carach Angren's 2010 concept album Death Came Through A Phantom Ship deals entirely with the ghastly story of The Flying Dutchman (called Van Der Decken in their version).

See also


  1. ^ Barrington, George (2004 [1795]). Voyage to Botany Bay. Sydney: Sydney University Press. pp. 30. ISBN 1920897208. 
  2. ^ Music with Ease (2008). "Source of the Legend of The Flying Dutchman". Music with Ease. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  3. ^ Rose, Kenneth (1988) King George V
  4. ^ Round-about Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy by Frank R. Stockton
  5. ^ Meyer-Arendt, Jurgen (1995 [1972]). Introduction to Modern and Classical Optics. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.. pp. 431. ISBN 0-13-124356-X. 
  6. ^

External links

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary


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Proper noun

Flying Dutchman

Flying Dutchmen

Flying Dutchman (plural Flying Dutchmen)

  1. (nautical) a Dutch-flagged clipper that is very fast sailing, and never makes it to port, seen on the high seas, where upon being hailed, occupants request information on persons long dead, or leave messages for said people. It is considered bad luck to meet said ship.
  2. (idiomatic) a ship of similar qualities to the Flying Dutchman
  3. a ghost ship


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