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On 11 July 1881 the log of the British Royal Navy vessel Bacchante sailing off the Cape of Good Hope record, “During the middle watch, the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. She . . . appeared as a strange, red light, as of a ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails . . . stood out in strong relief.” The following forenoon, the lookout who first sighted the ghost ship fell to his death. Later the squadron commander suddenly became ill and died.

The Flying Dutchman has often been seen in the past 400 years. Sightings occur most frequently south of the Cape of Good Hope. Black-hulled and luminous, the ship always has all sails set, even in the wildest weather. Occasionally a voice hails – but the wise do not respond, for trouble is certain to follow. Some sailors are convinced that merely to look at the ship means death by shipwreck.

Survivors of the Joseph Somers described how, on 29 February 1857, off Tristan de Cunha in the southern Atlantic Ocean, the Flying Dutchman sailed under their bow and they saw her captain, with eyes like hot coals and his white hair streaming in the wind. Ghostly laughter penetrated the fog and next moment their vessel was ablaze.

Even German U-boat crews in the Second World War feared the Dutchman, seen east of Suez. Admiral Karl Donitz wrote, “The men said they preferred the strength of the Allied Fleet in the North Atlantic to the terror of a second meeting with the phantom.”

The man from whom the ship takes her name is often identified as Vanderdecken, a Dutch shipmaster of the seventeenth century. Legend says that, while rounding the Cape of Good Hope on the teeth of a gale, he swore before God he would enter Table Bay or be damned. His ship foundered and for his blasphemy he was condemned to sail those waters for ever after. Novelists, poets, dramatists and film producers have used the story. In Wagner’s opera Der fliegende Hollander, Captain Vanderdecken is allowed ashore just once every seven years to seek a woman’s love, which alone can redeem him.

Another story identifies the captain as Bernard Fokke, who was said to have struck a bargain with the devil to reach the Indies in 90 days. For that he was condemned for ever to sail the waters off the southern capes. The captain stood on the deck of the ship, counting off the centuries on his hourglass.

There are several rational explanations for ghost ships. The foremost is bad visibility and mirage. But some of the spectres were undoubtedly abandoned sailing ships, floating about the sea-lanes, especially around the Cape of Good Hope, where they were called “Cape Flyaways.” After the 1930s, when the last such derelict was destroyed, the number of sightings fell rapidly.

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