Sailors can entertain the lovers of legends and folklore with many eerie stories of the deep. There is the story of the Kraken, the giant sea monster said to lurk in the depths, surfacing, with giant tentacles, to feed off passing ships. There is the fable of the giant sea of weed, the Sargasso Sea, where hundreds of ships are said to have become becalmed in the motionless waters, their crews dying a lingering death from thirst and hunger. However, of all the tales of mysteries of the oceans, nothing causes such terror as the sighting of a ghost ship, and none is more famous than the Flying Dutchman.
The ship, later immortalized by Wagner in his opera, the Flying Dutchman, was a seventeenth century brig, capable and seaworthy, but owned by an unscrupulous captain whose greed was to cost him the vessel. Captain van der Decken was reputed to have set sail in the accursed ship, sailing from its home port of Amsterdam bound for the East Indies, where he hoped to pick up a valuable cargo to sell in Europe and make his fortune. Legend has it that the ship was battered so badly by gales off the Cape of Good Hope that the ship's sails were torn off, she began taking in water and the rudder was badly damaged. The gales blew day after day, says the legend; then the unfortunate mariner is said to have been visited by the Devil.
Satan posed van der Decken a challenge: was he willing to earn his patronage by challenging God and setting sail into the eye of the storm? The Dutchman did so, and he was never seen again... but his ship was. It had been cursed to roam the seas for eternity as the captain's punishment for having taken up the Devil's challenge. Sceptics say this alone is enough to prove that the whole affair is hogwash, the work of over-active minds feeding on a legend, which they have turned into fact. However, a look at the number of sightings of the Flying Dutchman over the years does pose the question: is it true? Moreover, the second part of the curse on the phantom vessel - that those who see it will come to grief has often come frighteningly true. There were numerous sightings of a glowing phantom ship on oceans as far apart as the Pacific and the Arctic during the nineteenth century. Penny journals of the day regaled their readers with lurid tales of sailors who went mad after gazing upon the ghostly, glowing apparition. But the sightings in July 1881 by the man who was to become King George V of England gave credence to the believers.
On 11 July of that year sixteen-year-old Prince George recorded this historic entry in his logbook aboard HMS lnconstant as she sailed off the coast of Australia. He wrote:
At 4.00am the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. She emitted a strange, phosphorescent light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the mast, 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 saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle, but on arriving there 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 others aboard witnessed the eerie sight, and like the curse of the pharaohs, destined to strike down those who disturbed the tombs of the long-dead rulers of ancient Egypt, so the curse of the damned ship seemed to come true. Later that day the sailor who had first spotted the ghost ship fell to his death; the admiral of the ?eet died shortly afterwards, and many of the sailors on board became ill.
In all, there are over three dozen reported sightings of the ghost ship, many of them in the Cape of Good Hope region, where she is supposed to have defied God and sailed on into the storms. One of the most bizarre sightings came not from sea, but land, in 1942 at Moule Point, Cape Town. A family relaxing on the terrace of their home watched as an old sailing ship in full sail moved into view heading for Table Bay. All four testify that they saw it for a full fifteen minutes before it slunk into the shelter of Robben Island, and vanished, leaving an incandescent glow.
A similar sighting had occurred three years previously, when almost a hundred bathers at Glen cairn beach in False Bay (False Bay, near the Cape of Good Hope, so named because many seafarers landed there - thinking they had reached the Cape) testified seeing the brig, in full sail again, floating gently across the water, although there was no wind at all that day. As they gazed at it, it vanished.
There has been one further sighting since then, over 300 kilometres up the Indian Ocean coastline of South Africa in 1957, when a party reported seeing an old-fashioned ship drifting eerily across the horizon. It vanished before they had time to comprehend what they had seen. Fact or fiction? Many would argue that the word of the future king of England was good enough. Others say that the 'illusions' were created by the play of light on water. The mystery goes on.
Holland is not the only country to spawn a 'Flying Dutchman' legend. Britain has one in the shape of a schooner called the Lady Lovibond, wrecked on the 'ships' graveyard' of the Goodwin Sands, which has claimed the lives of 254 vessels over the years. Legend has it that the mate on the ship, inflamed with jealousy - because he was in love with the woman who had recently married the captain deliberately steered the ship to its doom on the notorious sandbanks in the English Channel, killing everybody, including himself. That happened on 13 February 1748; and on 13 February 1798, a schooner identical to the Lady Lovibond was shipwrecked at the same spot. The vision of a shipwreck was seen exactly fifty years later; but since then... nothing.
This is another mystery that the waves will shroud forever.