flying dutchman

The Flying Dutchman

Maritime history is replete with many tales of ghost ships, stories and legends that have been passed down through the years by seamen and fishermen. These phantom vessels are said to be portents of doom and seafarers are wary of any apparitions. One of the most famous is that of the Flying Dutchman, said to be the most-sighted ghost ship in history.

The story

As legend has it, the Flying Dutchman was a vessel that sailed out of Amsterdam to the East Indies, captained by a man named Van der Decken. The ship was sailing around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa when violent storms assailed it. The crew recognised that the ship was in danger of sinking and beseeched the captain to turn around and head for safety. Van Der Decken refused and – possibly as a result of drinking or latent madness – vowed he would round the Cape ‘even if God would let me sail till Judgement Day’. The crew attempted a mutiny but the captain quelled it by shooting the first mate and holding his course. Some accounts claim that a shadowy figure then descended from the clouds to condemn the captain, but either way, the ship duly sank in the violent seas and was thus doomed to sail the oceans for all eternity.


The first record of the story was recorded in an eighteenth-century book called ‘A Voyage to Botany Bay’ by George Barrington. Various sightings have been reported over the subsequent years, including Prince George of Wales, who would later become King George V, who claimed to have spotted the ship off the east coast of Australia.


The legend of the Flying Dutchman has spread far beyond nautical circles. It has been the subject of several paintings and has been a part of a number of films, including Pirates of the Caribbean. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allen Poe included the vessel in poems, while Richard Wagner wrote a whole opera about the Dutchman.

Whether the story is a nautical myth (some claim that certain atmospheric conditions can lead to mirages of ships appearing to float in the sky, fata morgana) or a legend rooted in fact, seafarers today still fear sighting the ghostly glow of the Dutchman on the horizon.

the flying dutchman

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

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