If you’ve seen Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, or if you’re a fan of nautical lore, you’ve probably heard the tale of the Flying Dutchman at some point. This story tells of a ghost ship that has been cursed to sail the oceans forever. It is even said that seeing the ghostly ship means that you will soon meet your own doom.
But what is the supposed story behind the spectral vessel? Several different stories have been attached to the legend, but the most popular concerns a Captain Hendrick van der Decken, who was employed by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s.
Captain van der Decken was traveling back to Amsterdam from the Far East on a trading mission, when he ran into a severe storm off the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The storm was so bad that his crew begged him to turn around, but he refused. He even challenged god at one point.
The crew, in their terror, mutinied, but Captain van der Decken killed the leader of the mutiny and threw his body overboard. At this point, a voice supposedly spoke to the captain, telling him he was now cursed to sail the oceans forever with a crew of dead men, and that anyone who saw his ship would die. At this point, van der Decken became the Flying Dutchman (it is the captain and not the ship who carries this name).
In the nearly 400 years since the ship’s disappearance and supposed curse, many people have reported seeing it. Obviously, then, it does not mean certain death to catch a glimpse of it. Several stories tell of near collisions with a frightening ship with blood-red sails, only for the ghostly ship to vanish at the last moment. Some of these stories result in various individual crew members dying in mysterious circumstances in the days following a sighting, but there are few stories that claim that entire crews died after seeing the Dutchman’s ship.
There is also a tale of 19th-century beachgoers near the Cape of Good Hope spotting the ship from the beach. They all reported seeing what appeared to be a 17th-century style ship, and were surprised by the strange sight. Then, as soon as they saw it, it disappeared into a mist. They were able later to describe the ship in detail, though none of them had ever seen a picture of such a vessel.
Even royalty have claimed to see the ghost ship. On July 11, 1881, Prince George of Wales (future King George V of England) and his brother Prince Albert Victor said they saw the boat while they were sailing off the coast of Australia. They described a phantom-like ship that glowed with an eerie red light. The sailor on their yacht who had first reported seeing the Flying Dutchman fell to his death the next day.
So, if you’re ever out boating and see an old sailing ship that appears to have a red glow, be warned. It could be the Flying Dutchman.