The Flying Dutchman: A legend of a ghost ship lost in time

Have you ever heard of the legend of the Flying Dutchman? Perhaps yes! A legend so famous that it has been replicated in literature, in opera and has even been the subject of the big screens. But this legend has an aspect of reality, in fact, many sailors claimed to witness the famous ship and its crew, and that is what has made this ship a mystery.

Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman ghost ship © Pycril, Public Domain

Flying Dutchman, in European maritime legend, spectre ship doomed to sail forever; its appearance to seamen is believed to signal imminent disaster. Do you want to know everything about this ghost ship? In Curiosm we have done an exhaustive investigation, and today we bring you a summary about everything that is heard about the legendary ghost ship Flying Dutchman.

The legend of the Flying Dutchman and the ghost ship

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The Flying Dutchman by Albert Pinkham Ryder c. 1887 © Smithsonian American Art Museum

The legendary ghost ship, Flying Dutchman, appears during stormy nights, in the middle of the sea, sailing aimlessly because that is what it was condemned to do, and that appears to travellers on the edge of the shipwreck to remind them of its destination.

It cannot touch land, the Flying Dutchman will never reach a port, like Sisyphus climbing the hill in Greek mythology, this ship and its history are doomed to repeat itself, over and over again, throughout the centuries. It’s a curse of eternity, from which no one can save it; and the ship will only remain alive in the eyes of those who come across the ship adrift and then disappear.

An unfinished legend

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The Flying Dutchman: An unfinished legend © Pxhere/CC-0

Hendrik Van der Decken is the name of the sailor who was the captain of the ship that later became known as the Flying Dutchman. It was the year 1641 when Captain Hendrik was returning to Amsterdam, from India, and ran into a merciless storm that ended up sinking the ship.

The legend varies from this point, some say that in reality the ship was not destroyed and they didn’t loss their lives on that disastrous night. Instead Captain Hendrik made a pact with the devil to save himself and his crew, and that for this reason God cursed him: he would be saved, yes, but he could not step on land, and his whole life would be spent at sea, wandering restlessly.

You are destined to sail across the ocean forever with a team of the dead, bringing death to everyone who sees your ghost ship, and you will never dock at any port, and you will not know even a second of peace. “Bile will be your wine and red-hot iron your meat!”

Others say that it was not Van der Decken, but Bernard Fokke, also a sailor of the same century, the fastest sailor of his time and who was believed to have made a pact with Lucifer himself. One day he was no longer seen, so it was assumed that the devil had taken him. In any case, be it Van der Decken or Fokke, unlike what happens in Wagner’s opera, the Flying Dutchman has not found his redemption, so it is assumed that he continues to roam the ocean, and any sailor may witness him one day.

And the ship will always wander in the dark, in the midst of the most violent storms. And anyone who crosses this terrifying ship, would see his own imminent death, because the Dutch would feed only on red-hot iron and bile. Terrifying, there is no doubt.

What the science says

Science, always eager to explain the inexplicable, has tried to explain this myth with its advances. Or, well, while science has not specifically devoted itself to the legend of the Flying Dutchman, it has made an effort to explain the sightings of ghost ships that sailors have reported for centuries: ships that are seen as soon as they disappear.

According to science, everything is due to a phenomenon of light refraction called Fata Morgana. This is, in essence, like when you go down a long road during a tiring sunny day, and when the figures move or unfold on the horizon. Only, in the case of ships, the light unfolds in the water, which gives the impression that a boat is moving in the distance, and soon disappears.

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A Fata Morgana is a complex form of superior mirage visible in a narrow band right above the horizon. © Wikimedia Commons

But there is an issue that science does not solve with this, and that is that most of the encounters that sailors have had with the famous ship have been at night, and in times of storms, which would nullify this theory.

The Flying Dutchman, Wagner’s opera

As a popular myth, the legend of the Flying Dutchman dates back to the 18th century, but it was in the 19th century that it was first immortalized, in a Wagner opera. It is said, in fact, that Wagner himself almost ran into the Flying Dutchman during a stormy voyage to Paris that nearly ended in shipwreck, and that it was during the storm that he first heard of this ship.

This inspired Wagner to write the famous opera which would immortalize this legend, not only because it was a fantastic composition, but because it carried to all corners of European culture a myth that, until then, belonged to the sailors. This opera, as well as many phrases by Richard Wagner, would be remembered for a long time.

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Depiction of Richard Wagner’s Opera Der fliegende Holländer. Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman (1843) is adapted from an episode in Heinrich Heine’s satirical novel The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski (1833), in which a character attends a theatrical performance of The Flying Dutchman in Amsterdam. © Wikimedia Commons

Did you know about this fantastic legend? Would you like to one day run into the Flying Dutchman? What would you do if you saw it? Leave us your opinion in the comments, we will be looking forward to reading you!