The Flying Dutchman

views updated May 29 2018

The Flying Dutchman

Sailors in Holland long believed that a Dutch skipper named van Straaten was condemned as a penalty for his sins to sail for year after year through the seas around the Cape of Storms (an early name for the Cape of Good Hope). Crews returning to the Zudyer Zee (the northern coast of the Netherlands) after voyaging in this region used to declare that they had seen van Straaten's mysterious craft and fled from it in terror. The legend is a very old one, although its exact date is not known. The story is found in Dutch, German, and other folklore.

Several German versions call the ill-fated seaman von Falkenberg and maintain that it was not near South Africa but in the North Sea that his spectral ship commonly hovered. Others contend further that the devil paid periodic visits to the captain on board his ship and frequently the two were seen playing dice on deck, the stakes being von Falkenberg's soul.

The tale soon found its way from folklore into actual literature; among the greatest of writers utilizing it was Heinrich Heine. In his rendering the sailor has a chance of salvation; that is, the fates allow him to walk on land again once every seven years. If during his brief period of respite he contrives to win the affection of a pure maiden, liberation from perennial sea-wandering will be granted him as reward.

Heine's form of the story appealed greatly to the composer Richard Wagner, who always regarded women devoutly as a regenerating force, and the great composer based his opera Der Fliegende Holländer on Heine's version. It is set in the North Sea, and the sailor is called van Derdecken; the maiden to whom he makes advances is Senta. This opera was first staged at Dresden in 1843, and although it did not win speedy appreciation, it became popular in the course of time. The novelist Frederick Marryat also wrote his story The Phantom Ship (1839) on the subject of the Flying Dutchman.

During the nineteenth century, there were reliable reports of sightings of the Flying Dutchman. An English ship's log of 1835 stated that the captain and ship's crew saw the vessel bearing down on them "with all sails set" during a heavy gale. Another entry in the log of the Bacchante in 1881 reported that the Flying Dutchman crossed their bows, glowing with a strange red light before suddenly disappearing into a clear, calm night. Thirteen persons saw the phantom vessel, and two other ships in the vicinity reported seeing a strange red light.

(See also sea phantoms and superstitions )


Basset, W. Wanderships. Chicago, 1917.

Jal, A. Scènes de la vie maritime. Paris, 1830.

Rappoport, Angelo S. Superstitions of Sailors. London, 1928. Reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Gryphon Books, 1971.

Flying Dutchman

views updated May 14 2018

Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship in several maritime legends, was a sign of bad luck, particularly for sailors. In most versions, the ship appeared off the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa. The legend was inspired by the story of a Dutch sea captain named Vanderdecken who boasted that he could complete the journey around the cape during a fierce storm. He swore that he would do so or keep trying forever. As punishment for his rashness, he was condemned to sail around the cape until the end of time. A similar version of the legend involves another captain who was forced to sail across the ocean forever because he had sold his soul to the devil. In 1843 the composer Richard Wagner wrote art opera based on the tale of the Flying Dutchman, which spread the story's popularity.

Flying Dutchman, The

views updated May 23 2018