The Flying Dutchman:
The Ultimate Ghost Ship
At the height of Second World War, on 3 August 1942, HMS Jubilee was off the South African coast, making her way on a calm sea to the Royal Navy base at Simonstown, near Cape Town. At 9 p.m., a strange phantom sailing ship was sighted. On the bridge on watch was Second Officer Davies, together with the ship’s third officer, the author of The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat. Monsarrat signalled the mystery ship, but there was no response. Filling in his report in the ship’s log, Davies recorded that a schooner, of an unrecognized rig, was moving under full sail. This was all rather odd, as there was no wind. To avoid collision, HMS Jubilee had to change course. Then the strange ship vanished. Interviewed in later life, at the height of his fame, Monsarrat admitted that the phantom ship was the inspiration for his novel The Master Mariner.
The legend of the Flying Dutchman is a classic yarn from the days of sail, an age when the Bible was as important as the ship’s logbook. An irreverent skipper has trouble on board. He indulges in blasphemy. There’s a massive storm, God punishes the ship, the crew all perish and the Master is doomed to a spectral existence for all eternity. The Flying Dutchman is South Africa’s most famous spook, but the ghost ship can be seen in various locations, for example Goodwin Sands, as well as cropping up in stormy weather off the Cape of Good Hope . . . or just about anywhere on the rolling sea. The sightings usually involve a fully rigged sailing ship, sometimes engulfed in a luminescent green mist. Fully lit cabins have been reported, and occasionally there have been reports of a shindig in progress on board, singing, even women laughing. Those saucy spectral sailors . . . no wonder they got into trouble; never mind the compass, crack open another barrel.
So who was this irresponsible, libidinous mariner who was doomed to scare the bejesus out of future generations of hapless matelots? Richard Wagner (1813–1883) knew who he was back in 1843 when he wrote his opera, Der Fliegende Holländer. Four years earlier Captain Frederick Marryat had published his entertaining version of the yarn, The Phantom Ship (1839).
During the Second World War, the German Kriegsmarine’s Admiral Karl Dönitz reported that his U-Boat crews logged sightings of the Flying Dutchman off the Cape Peninsula. Seeing the Dutchman was an unwelcome omen, and usually preceded disaster for a boat. The ghostly East Indiaman was also seen by
witnesses at Muizenberg, a beach-side suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, in
1939. On a calm day in 1941, a large crowd at the Cape coast’s Glencairn Beach
saw a ship with wind-filled sails, but it vanished just as it was about to
crash on to the rocks.
Of course, if a monarch sees a ghost, then it must be true. Prince George (later King George V, 1865–1936) saw the Flying Dutchman. The two oldest sons of the Prince of Wales had entered the navy in 1877 and by 1879 it had been decided by the royal family and the government that the two should take a character-building cruise. George was just fifteen when he sailed on a three-year-long voyage aboard the 4000-ton corvette HMS Bacchante with his elder brother Prince Albert Victor. Accompanying them was their tutor, Canon John Neale Dalton (1839–1931), who was a chaplain to Queen Victoria. The squadron that set sail was commanded by Prince Louis of Battenburg, great uncle of today’s Prince Philip. Off the coast near Cape Town, George, together with Dalton and other officers on the bridge on 11 July 1881, witnessed the spectral Dutchman. George’s diary entry describes the encounter, with its grisly aftermath. (Some sources claim this report as that of Dalton):
At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her . . . At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.
OLD SALTS HAVE ALL SEEN IT ...
The phantom was seen by other ships in the squadron, Tourmaline and Cleopatra.
Kings and pirates, deckhands, landlubbers and lighthouse keepers all have reported seeing her. Here’s a selection of sightings:
• 1823: Captain Owen, HMS Leven, recorded two sightings in the log.
• 1835: Men on a British vessel saw a sailing ship approach them in the middle of a storm. It appeared there would be a collision, but the ship suddenly vanished.
• 1879: The SS Pretoria’s crew saw the ghost ship.
• 1881: King George V saw the ship whilst another report from a Captain Larsen of an unnamed Swedish ship tells of a near collision with the phantom, which disappeared. The crewman who spotted her, an English sailor called Landersbury, died shortly afterwards.
• 1911: On 11 January, the whaling ship the Orkney Belle almost collided with her before she vanished.
• 1923: An officer aboard a British steamer saw her on 26 January and reported the event to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Fourth Officer N. K. Stone wrote an account of the fifteen-minute sighting. Second Officer Bennett, a helmsman and cadet also witnessed the ship. Stone drew a picture of the phantom. Bennett corroborated his account. Stone wrote this: “It was a very dark night, overcast, with no moon. We looked through binoculars and the ship’s telescope, and made out what appeared to be the hull of a sailing ship, luminous, with two distinct masts carrying bare yards, also luminous. No sails were visible, but there was a luminous haze between the masts. There were no navigation lights, and she appeared to be coming close to us and at the same speed as ourselves . . . when she was within about a half-mile of us she suddenly disappeared. There were four witnesses of this spectacle, the Second Officer, a cadet, the helmsman and myself. I shall never forget the Second Officer’s startled expression – ‘My God, Stone, it’s a ghost ship.’”
• 1939: People on South Africa’s Cape shore saw the Flying Dutchman. Admiral Karl Dönitz maintained logged sightings by U-Boat crews in the area.
• 1941: People at Glencairn Beach sighted the phantom ship that vanished before she crashed into rocks.
• 1942: In September, four witnesses sitting on their balcony at Mouille Point saw the Dutchman enter Table Bay, then vanish behind Robben Island.
• Second Officer Davies and Third Officer Monsarrat, HMS Jubilee, saw the Flying Dutchman. Davis recorded it in the ship’s log.
• 1959: Captain P. Algra of the Dutch freighter Straat Magelhaen reports that he nearly collided with the ghost ship.
Of course, as with all reports of unexplained phenomena, amidst all the sense of wonder and credulity that gathers around them over the decades, the fine details of provenance become blurred. For example, “a Swedish ship” – the skipper’s name survives, but where’s the ship? Then there’s “men on a British vessel” – which vessel? Look in the Ships List for “SS Pretoria” and you’ll not find one in 1879 – the nearest candidate is the USS Pretoria. That’s not to say these ships did not exist but, as we shall see, some become almost synonymous with the phantom they’ve reported. Lists are laid down and copied out ad infinitum – going back to sources is often a blind alley, but it doesn’t spoil the fun in the long run. These are justifiably the areas on to which the sceptics will eagerly latch. Paranormal atheists, when the chronicles seem fuzzy, may be able to add to their demolition by combining a yarn’s historical sloppiness with a hypothetical approach. So, for example, if the Flying Dutchman isn’t a ghost, what is it?
It could be a mass hallucination, an optical illusion or a mirage. Lights and mist on the horizon can fool the sharpest eyes. A couple of stiff rums and a touch of insomnia on a nightwatch on the bridge can produce visual hallucinations. They are all factors worth considering. Dr Frederick Meyers, the respected Society for Psychical Research parapsychologist, interviewed Stone and Bennett, the officers on the 1923 sighting. He came up with an interesting theory, widely rejected by other parapsychologists, that a type of consciousness survives physical death and has the ability to telepathically project images to the living who see them. So could the Flying Dutchman be the result of some form of an as yet unexplained energy imprinted in time and space? It seems odd that a tragedy or disaster is usually at the root of a haunting. Yet they are just appearances, apparitions and have no intelligence; might they be an indelible, sporadic projection of permanent grief? Or are we at long last facing a new revelation in physics, CERN style – are we periodically peering through the matrix between our dimensions and the ones awaiting discovery?
Or could the Flying Dutchman could be a “Fata Morgana”, a mirage that occurs in calm weather when warm air rests above dense, cold air close to the sea’s surface. The air between the two masses acts as a refracting lens, producing a distorted upside-down image of an upright object. Even though a ship could be over the horizon, the observing crew may see an inverted, blurry image of the “mirage ship” appearing much closer and several times larger than its actual size.
Back to Charles Fort; we offer the data, you decide.
DISCOVER MANY MORE YARNS LIKE THIS IN MY BOOK, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF UNEXPLAINED PHENOMENA (Constable & Robinson, 2013) and look out for the follow up volume dues out this November, The Mammoth Book of Superstition.