The Flying Dutchman: The ship that never came home

An artist rendering of The Flying Dutchman. Image: Ancient Origins

It would probably be a mistake to think the ship has made its last appearance.

It is spooky to imagine what all may go on out there in the vast expanses of ocean.  There may be eerie events that are never even witnessed. Other bizarre events are witnessed.  Mirages, the Fata Morgana, and the mysterious St. Elmo’s Fire—these are all reasons offered up for the specters of ghost ships appearing out of nowhere on ocean waters.  Other reasons could, of course, be hallucinations caused by heavy imbibing or massive illnesses of the crews viewing the other-worldly sights.

In 1680 a Dutch East Indiaman was sailing from Amsterdam toward a Dutch East India settlement, Batavia.  The captain, Hendrick Vanderdecken was an unsavory and boastful character, but he was a skilled seaman.

He was determined to return with a boatload of riches for the backers of the voyage and owners of the ship.  He seemed to almost be accomplishing that, as they sailed on through balmy tropical seas.  Then, as they neared the Cape of Good Hope, heavy gales ripped the sails into tatters and the rudder was wrecked.

The stubborn Vanderdecken was determined to round the Cape and he pushed on, straining his injured ship and punishing his crew.  It is a legend that the Devil challenged him to go against God’s wishes that he turn back.

Vanderdecken used every trick in his arsenal to push forward…and the ship would founder as a result of his stubborn pride and the crew would die.  The legend goes on to say that the Angel of the Lord brought retribution and commanded that Vanderdecken should “roam the seas forever until the trump of God shall rend the sky.”

A quote is attributed to Vanderdecken about his plight, but no one knows how the quote was handed down:


With frantic mien the appalling oath he took,

And loudly cried above the tempest’s din:

“My destined course and resolute career

The power of God I thus defy to stay

Nor shall the Fiend of Hell awake my fear

Though I should cruise until the Judgment Day.”


Since 1680, hundreds of sightings of his ship have been reported, and many of those who sight The Flying Dutchman have been cursed with bad luck.  In 1880, the future George V was a midshipman on the HMS Bacchante.  When the Bacchante was fifty miles off the Cape, George reportedly saw the ghost ship and on her poop deck was a figure in ancient dress.  The next day a crewman fell from the rigging of the Bacchante and died.

In March of 1939, sixty beach-goers were relaxing on the sandy beaches of Glencairn, next to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, a playground at False Bay off the coast of South Africa.  Out of the haze appeared a full-rigged East Indiaman—of a type that had not been seen in centuries.  A newspaper reported what the excited people saw:  “a ship with all her sails drawing well, although there was not a breath of wind at the time, appeared to be standing toward Mizenberg.”

The British South Africa Annual of 1939 went on to state, “with uncanny volition the ship sailed steadily on as the Glencairn beach-folk, shaken from their lethargy, stood about keenly discussing the whys and wherefores of the vessel which seemed to be bent on self-destruction somewhere on the sands of Strandfontein.  Just as the excitement met its climax, the mystery ship vanished into thin air as strangely as it had come.”

Skeptics pointed to the possibility of mirages and such, but those who had been witnesses at Glencairn pointed out that it was with out a doubt a seventeenth-century merchantman with a broad squat hull, high poop, and ancient rigging.  Helen Tydell, a witness that day stated, “Let the skeptics say what they will, that ship was none other than the Flying Dutchman.”

Though the Flying Dutchman has been seen by many sailors on many seas, the last cape sighting of record was in September of 1942 when people sitting on their balcony in Cape Town saw the East Indiaman sail into table Bay and disappear behind Robben Island.

The Flying Dutchman is such a magnificent enigma that it inspired Wagner to write the opera, Der Fliegende Hollander.  It would probably be a mistake to think the ship has made its last appearance.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of the award-winning Quite Curious, true tales of the unknown and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the short story collection on Amazon.

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