Thursday, July 2, 2009

Flying Dutchman

If you have heard of Captain Jack Sparrow in relation to At World's End, chances are you have at least heard the name, "Flying Dutchman". Although the movie gives scant detail of the actual legend, it does play it out at least in part. More than just the magnificent brainchild of screenwriters and the "magicians" at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the Flying Dutchman has roots in folklore as old as the pirates themselves-perhaps much older.
In keeping with "campfire ghost stories", the legend of the Flying Dutchman is one of those stories that crews might pass along during a nerve-itching fog or in waters where veteran sailors may have warned of horrendous beasts and ghosts of shipwrecked sailors. True maritime mysteries like the Marie Celeste would-in their day-only add to the mystique and fear of the Flying Dutchman's reputation. Like many legends, the story of the Flying Dutchman has many versions, all with certain similarities. Those similarities, in turn, share some commonality with legends and myths that precede it. As an overall principle, the legend states that the Flying Dutchman is a ghost ship that serves as a warning of impending tragedy. The first of such legends was written in 1795, when Irish pickpocket George Barrington wrote Voyage to Botany Bay. According to his report, sailors told a story of a Dutch Man-of-War (a type of ship) lost at sea during a horrendous storm. That same ship was later imagined to harrass and wreck other ships in bouts of ghastly fog. A suspected personage for the ship's captain was Bernard Fokke, a captain known for what some would call "devilish" speed on trips from Holland to Java. Some quite seriously postulated that Fokke was aided by the Devil, and thus he became ideal for the legend of the Flying Dutchman. Others claim to have seen the ship at the Cape of Good Hope, and the tutor of Prince George of Wales claimed to have seen the ghost ship near Australia in the late 19th century.
Despite the descriptions of ghoulish glows and the like, scientists have offered a more, well, scientific explanation. Called Fata Morgana (named for the legendary sorceress half-sister of King Arthur), the mirage would occur when warm air rested (in calm weather) right above dense, cold air near the surface of the ocean (though the effect also takes place on the ground in mountainous regions). The air between these two masses acts as a refracting lens, which will produce an upside-down, distorted image of the upright object within these masses of air. Even though a ship may be beyond the horizon, the observing ship may see an inverted, blurry image of the "mirage ship". The mirage ship could appear several times larger than its actual size, it may appear much closer, and the colors (due to the sun's position) may be distorted.
Despite modern scientific explanations, legends of the Flying Dutchman serve to stimulate the imaginations of sailors, movie audiences, authors, and others in the creative arts. Like the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow or the creatures of The Village, such legends can serve to entertain us or frighten us into submission. Unlike Pirates of the Carribean, very few of the tales of the Flying Dutchman involve a giant sea beast, but instead serve as a warning of coming disaster. Whatever their intent at their advent, such tales-as benign as they seem in the modern world of scientific explanations-serve well to keep even the most veteran sailors on the lookout for true-to-life maritime dangers.

Flying Dutchman, Selected Sightings

While most people agree the “history” of the ship is a legend, the Flying Dutchman has been sighted by reliable witnesses. All of these were in the Cape of Good Hope. Lighthouse keepers reported seeing her.
  • 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.
  • 1881: Three HMS Bacchante crewmembers, including King George V, saw the ship. The next day, one of the men who saw it fell from the rigging and died.
  • 1879: The SS Pretoria’s crew saw the ghost ship.
  • 1911: A whaling ship almost collided with her before she vanished.
  • 1923: Members of the British Navy saw her and gave documentation to the Society for Psychical Research, SPR. Fourth Officer Stone wrote an account of the fifteen minute sighting on January 26th. Second Officer Bennett, a helmsman and cadet also witnessed the ship. Stone drew a picture of the phantom. Bennett corroborated his account.
  • 1939: People ashore saw the Flying Dutchman. Admiral Karl Doenitz maintained U Boat crews logged sightings.
  • 1941: People at Glencairn Beach sighted the phantom ship that vanished before she crashed into rocks.
  • 1942: Four witnesses saw the old ship enter Table Bay, then vanish. Second Officer Davies and Third Officer Montserrat, HMS Jubilee, saw the Flying Dutchman. Davis recorded it in the ship’s log.
  • 1959: The Straat Magelhaen nearly collided with the ghost ship.

The Legend

The legend of The Flying Dutchman is said to have started in 1641 when a Dutch ship sank off the coast of the Cape of Good Hope: Captain van der Decken was pleased. The trip to the Far East had been highly successful and at last, they were on their way home to Holland. As the ship approached the tip of Africa, the captain thought that he should make a suggestion to the Dutch East India Company (his employers) to start a settlement at the Cape on the tip of Africa, thereby providing a welcome respite to ships at sea. He was so deep in thought that he failed to notice the dark clouds looming and only when he heard the lookout scream out in terror, did he realise that they had sailed straight into a fierce storm. The captain and his crew battled for hours to get out of the storm and at one stage it looked like they would make it. Then they heard a sickening crunch - the ship had hit treacherous rocks and began to sink. As the ship plunged downwards, Captain VandeDecken knew that death was approaching. He was not ready to die and screamed out a curse: "I WILL round this Cape even if I have to keep sailing until doomsday!" So, even today whenever a storm brews off the Cape of Good Hope, if you look into the eye of the storm, you will be able to see the ship and its captain - The Flying Dutchman. Don't look too carefully, for the old folk claim that whoever sights the ship will die a terrible death. Many people have claimed to have seen The Flying Dutchman, including the crew of a German submarine boat during World War II and holidaymakers. On 11 July 1881, the Royal Navy ship, the Bacchante was rounding the tip of Africa, when they were confronted with the sight of The Flying Dutchman. The midshipman, a prince who later became King George V, recorded that the lookout man and the officer of the watch had seen the Flying Dutchman and he used these words to describe the ship: "A strange red 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." It's pity that the lookout saw the Flying Dutchman, for soon after on the same trip, he accidentally fell from a mast and died. Fortunately for the English royal family, the young midshipman survived the curse.

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alwaf said...

A Great story of the past coming farward.

W C said...

I have read this story many times. People are always imagining/reacting from tales spread before them.

werwer woe said...

I heard that in spongebob

Starlet King said...