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The Flying Dutchman: Ghost Ship or Optical Illusion?

© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved

Flying Dutchman In his 1832 book, Scenes from Life at Sea, French writer Auguste Jal relays one version of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, the best-known phantom ship of the seas:

An unbelieving Dutch captain had vainly tried to round Cape Horn against a head-gale. He swore he would do it, and, when the gale increased, laughed at the fears of his crew, smoked his pipe and drank his beer. He threw overboard some of them who tried to make him put into port. The Holy Ghost descended on the vessel, but he fired his pistol at it, and pierced his own hand and paralyzed his arm. He cursed God, and was then condemned by the apparition to navigate always without putting into port, only having gall to drink and red-hot iron to eat, and eternally to watch. He was to be the evil genius of the sea, to torment and punish sailors, the sight of his storm-tossed bark to carry presage of ill fortune to the luckless beholder. He sends white squalls, all disasters, and tempests. Should he visit a ship, wine sours, and all food becomes beans - the sailor's bete noir. Should he bring or send letters, none must touch them, or they are lost. He changes his mien at will, and is seldom seen twice under the same circumstances. His crew are all old sinners of the sea, sailor thieves, cowards, murderers, and such. They eternally toil and suffer, and have little to eat or drink. His ship is the true purgatory of the faithless and idle mariner.
In Holland, the country from which the tale originated, the story is told this way:
Falkenberg was a nobleman, who murdered his brother and his bride in a fit of passion, and was condemned therefore forever to wander toward the north. On arriving at the seashore, he found awaiting him a boat, with a man in it, who said, "Expectamus te" - "We are waiting for you." He entered the boat, attended by his good and his evil spirit, and went on board a spectral bark in the harbor. There he still lingers, while these spirits play dice for his soul. For six hundred years the ship has wandered the seas, and mariners still see her in the German ocean, sailing northward, without helm or helmsman. She is painted gray, has colored sails, a pale flag, and no crew. Flames issue from the masthead at night.
There are countless other versions of the tale including the most recognized rendition: an opera composed by Richard Wagner. Indeed, all peoples have their spectral ships. Even Viking folklore includes mention of a Norseman who stole a ring from a god. His punishment was to sail the seas for eternity, engulfed in flames, seated on the mainmast.

Some say the legend of the Flying Dutchman is based on a real captain named Bernard Fokke. Fokke was a 17th century seaman known for his daring and recklessness. It was reported that he encased his masts in iron to protect his sails from even the strongest winds. Supposedly he could reach the East Indies from his home port in Norway in 90 days. It was an almost supernatural feet for that time, and one that convinced many that Fokke was in league with Satan. When he disappeared during a voyage, more than a few who knew him assumed he had been carried off by the devil.

Sightings of the Flying Dutchmen are plentiful, and continued on for centuries. In 1911, an 18-year-old seaman's apprentice named Edward Montgomery relayed his encounter to the Chicago tabloid The Day Book. En route from Australia to London, and with a storm brewing dead ahead, Montgomery was shocked to see a ship bearing down on his vessel. It passed so close that the two nearly collided. There was no crew on board the phantom ship. He and other crew members saw only a greenish-yellow light that seemed to drift around the ship as it moved. Once it passed, the storm clouds dissipated and bright sunlight returned.

In 1906, the United States Hydrographic Office sought to end the legend with scientific analysis. The Flying Dutchman myth, according to these experts, was all a trick of the eye. What superstitious sailors near Cape Horn actually saw, this bureau announced, was a rock which, under certain atmospheric conditions, looked very much like a ship.

The "rock looks like a ship" phenomenon is certainly nothing new. Hawaii's French Frigate Shoals is often mistaken for a vessel. Likewise, St. Paul Island, in the middle of the Atlantic, has fooled many sailors approaching it from just the right direction.

Still, there are those for whom science is not convincing. Why, many sailors ask, do the sightings around Cape Horn come from different places? If it really is a rock causing the confusion, wouldn't all reports originate from the same spot?

We don't know the answer to that question - but, we suspect the thousands of sailors who swear to seeing the Flying Dutchman believe they do. It is a "ghost ship," after all, and no amount of scientific evidence can convince lifelong seafarers to trust the opinions of men who spend the bulk of their days on land.