Ghost Ships

During the cold, dark, foggy evenings, there is no better time for a good ghost story; and ghost ships or phantom ships make up a large portion of seafaring lore that has been passed down by sailors and fishermen throughout the ages. They are said to be spectral apparitions which appear on the horizon and then disappear just as quickly, bringing a warning of doom and disaster. Some are based on real happenings, while others are legends and some are probably a mixture of both. Here, to get you in the mood is one of the most famous.

The Flying Dutchman

The story of this Dutch warship comes from the 17th century and is thought to be based on fact. The vessel, captained by Hendrick Vanderdecken, set sail from Amsterdam in 1680, bound for Batavia, in Dutch East India. Whilst rounding the infamous Cape of Good Hope it encountered a sudden, severe storm and instead of heading for a safe harbour, the captain is said to have sworn that he would maintain his heading until Judgment Day even if he was eternally damned for his actions. He is even said to have gone mad and murdered his first mate. As conditions worsened the vessel floundered and all the crew perished. The ship was never seen again, except that many sightings of a ghostly vessel have been reported in the area of the Cape and it is believed by some that as punishment for his stupidity, Vanderdecken and his ship were doomed to sail those waters for eternity. The apparition of the ship is supposed to be the worst possible omen of doom and always happens in the worst of weathers.

One of the first sightings of the phantom vessel was in 1835 when the captain and crew of a British ship recorded that they saw it approaching them in a violent storm. It was so close that they were afraid of a collision, until it suddenly vanished as quickly as it appeared.

In March 1939 there were sightings off the coast of South Africa by dozens of people on the beach. Although many of them probably did not know what a 17th century vessel looked like, they were able to give detailed descriptions of the boat. Just as before, the phantom ship vanished into thin air as they watched.

Even George, Prince of Wales, the future King George V, claimed to have seen the Dutchman in 1880. He and his elder brother were on a voyage with their tutor when the vessel appeared close on their bow in a red glow. Thirteen people on board were said to have seen her before she disappeared and the sighting was followed by tragedy as the seaman who had first reported the sighting fell to his death from the crosstrees.

One of the last recorded known sightings was in 1942 off the coast of Cape Town. The HMS Jubilee was on its way to the naval base at Simonstown near Cape Town when four witnesses saw it sail into Table Bay and then disappear from view. One of these is said to be the third officer Nicholas Monsarrat, who is thought to have been inspired by the sighting to write his novel The Master Mariner.

Many authors and poets have included the story of the Flying Dutchman in their writings. Thomas Moore (1779-1852) writes of a phantom ship gliding with full sails even though there was no wind. Sir Walter Scott refers to it as a pirate ship upon which some dreadful act of piracy or murder had been committed. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" has an account of a ghost ship, which seems to have been influenced by the tale of the Flying Dutchman.

Artists too have been inspired to paint the ghostly ship, including Albert Ryder, known, amongst other things, for his gloomy seascapes and Howard Pyle, famous for his paintings of pirates.

On stage and in film the Flying Dutchman has provided inspiration. The story was dramatised in the 1951 film "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Here the Dutchman is not a ship, but a man, condemned to roam the seas after killing his wife, until he can find the true meaning of love. He is allowed ashore once every seven years to search for a woman who will love him enough to die for him. He eventually finds Pandora whose love releases him from the curse. Wagner, in his opera "The Flying Dutchman", uses a similar theme, although he set his work off the coast of Norway. The Dutchman, suffering the same curse, persuades Senta, daughter of a Norwegian sea captain, to marry him, not knowing then that she is already engaged to someone else. When he finds she is already betrothed he leaves her and returns to his boat in despair. She throws herself into the sea, but in doing so, redeems him from the curse. More recently the ship made an appearance in the first of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, "Dead Man's Chest" (2006), but here it was under the command of a fictional captain, Davy Jones.

Are there scientific explanations?

There are always those who put forward theories to explain unlikely happenings. Certainly the phenomenon of phosphorescence in the ocean will glow and light up a vessel from below, giving it a ghostly tinge. Some people try to explain the sightings as mirages, where the apparition could have been caused by the reflection of some ship that was actually sailing below the image, but so far away that it could not be seen. Another explanation is that the sighting was caused by an effect called "looming", where the rays of light are bent across different refractive indices, making a vessel, just off the horizon; appear as if it were sailing in the air.

Whether or not these theories can explain away the phenomenon of the Flying Dutchman, it remains a thoroughly good story and, who knows, you may be the next to see the ghostly apparition if you are sailing in the area of the Cape of Good Hope.

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