The Truth Behind the Legends of the Flying Dutchman


The Flying Dutchman by Charles Temple Dix. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Sightings of The Flying Dutchman

On the face of it, the legend of The Flying Dutchman, sounds like a fable, warning against arrogance and reckless behavior at sea. However, many ship’s crews between the eighteenth and twentieth century have claimed to have seen the phantom ship. The first reference to a sighting of The Flying Dutchman appeared in John MacDonald’s “Travels in Various parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa during a Series of Thirty Years and Upwards” in 1790 when the author noted, The weather was so stormy that the sailors said they saw the Flying Dutchman.”

In the years to come, other sailors would log their sightings of the ghost ship. Perhaps the most compelling report of a supposed sighting of The Flying Dutchman comes from 1881. On July 11, a vessel containing the future King George V, his brother, Prince Albert Victor and their tutor John Neill Dalton lay moored in the Bass Strait off the Australian coast between Melbourne and Sydney. The royal party was on a three-year voyage around the globe. However, a 4am the Prince’s saw a sight they could not have expected when, as their log recorded, “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,” described the royal report. “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.

George V when Duke of Cornwall and York’. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The log entry has a sinister postscript that seems to lend credence to the Dutchman’s ill-omened reputation. For the Princes also recorded that “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.”

In 1939, beachgoers saw the Dutchman for the penultimate time on the South African coast. The British South Africa Annual drew upon local newspaper stories to reports how “With uncanny volition, the ship sailed steadily on as the Glencairn beach folk stood about keenly discussing the whys and wherefores of the vessel. Just as the excitement reached its climax, however, the mystery ship vanished into thin air as strangely as it had come.” Three years later, four witnesses saw the Dutchman sail into Table Bay, off Cape Town. It vanished-never to be seen again.