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The Flying DutchmanThere are ghost ships in other parts of the world that are often called "The Flying Dutchman", but the one that still tries to round the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa, is the original. She was an Amsterdam vessel. Her master’s name was Captain Willem Vanderdecken. He was a staunch seaman, and would have his own way in spite of the devil. For all that, it is said never a sailor under him had reason to complain. Around 1676 while on one of his journeys, he disappeared. A rumour started about how the ship’s crew had tried for days to get through the traitorous waters where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean meet at the southern tip of Africa, known as Cape of Good Hope. However, with the wind against them, they were forced to retreat and seek shelter in a nearby bay.


As Vanderdecken walked the deck, swearing at the wind, he threw his bible (which every captain wore on him) overboard and shouted: “Even if I should beat about here till the day of judgment, I will round the Cape!” As it happened, the following day brought Easter, a holy day, but still the captain was determent to sail out again. This ultimate sacrilege invoked the curse he had set upon himself the previous day. A (heavenly) voice said: ”Till the day of judgment!” on which the ship became completely blackened, and its sails turned blood red. He was condemned to forever try, but never succeed to round the Cape of Good Hope. It is said this Flying Dutchman could move though other ships like a ghost. For any ship encountering this grim vessel it meant certain doom.

Letter of doom - Vanderdecken would try to send letters back to his (long since deceased) family by handing them over to passing ships. On such occasions a boat with three or four pale men would be rowed over to the passing ship and the letters would be offered to the Captain. It was said that whoever accepted the letters would not see land again. The Englishman Sir Walter Scott wrote of the Flying Dutchman "She is distinguished from earthly vessels by bearing a press of sail when other vessels are unable, from stress of weather, to show an inch of canvas." According to one account, the ship was painted yellow when it left Batavia, but it must have been much weathered by the time that it reached the Cape. All agree that Vanderdecken tries to pass letters home to other ships, but to accept these letters is certain doom. An anonymous account found in the British Museum library tells of a passenger ship which did allow Vanderdecken to send across a boat with four men. One of these Dutch seamen tried to hand letters to the passenger ship's chaplain, who wisely declined to take them. The ghostly seamen left the letters on the deck, weighted down with an iron bar, and returned to his ship. Fortunately, the passenger ship lurched, dislodging the bar, and the letters were blown overboard. All passengers survived the journey. 

The well-organized British Royal Navy is not short of official accounts of the Flying Dutchman. A Captain W.F.W. Owen, Royal Navy surveyor, made a record in the log of H.M.S. Leven, in 1823, about some strange events. Twice a phantom ship was sighted, and on one occasion it was seen to lower a boat, to attempt communication. Aware of the dangers, Captain Owen did not respond. Other Royal Navy records of the same period show that a group of mutineers rigged their ship to resemble the Flying Dutchman and took up piracy. However, they surrendered themselves at the Cape, after being terrified by a real ghost ship. The most famous Royal Navy sighting was recorded by King George V, who in 1881 was a midshipman on H.M.S. Bacchante. In his diary, for July 11, he unequivocally wrote "At four a.m., the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows." The lookout on the forecastle, and the officer of the watch, also saw the ghost ship off the port bow. Prince George described "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 two hundred yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up." The ghost ship was sighted from other ships in the squadron, the Cleopatra and the Tourmaline. Thirteen crewmen, in all, witnessed the phenomenon. The seaman who first reported the ghost ship died from a fall, only seven hours afterwards.

 

 

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