The legend of The Flying Dutchman

This story of ghost sailors has inspired novels, songs and films.

A ghost ship ploughs through the waves. It gives off a supernatural light and can only be sighted in the distance. Its crew members have been dead for centuries and are desperate to communicate with the ships they encounter to send messages to their loved ones on land, even though they have been dead and buried for centuries.

This is the legend of The Flying Dutchman, condemned to wander the ocean eternally due to the pact with the devil signed by the ship’s captain, the Dutchman Willem van der Decken, in the 17th century. According to one version of the story, the skipper conjured up Satan to save the lives of himself and his crew when his vessel came up against a spectacular storm sailing round the Cape of Good Hope. Another version has it that Van der Decken deliberately implored Lucifer for the power to plough through the seas without being affected by weather events.

Some sources say the legend may be based on the Dutch captain Bernard Fokke, who was famous in the 17th century for attaining unusual speeds on his crossings between Holland and Java. Such was his prowess at the rudder that many of his contemporaries attributed it to some sort of pact with the devil.

In any case, in all of the different versions of the story, an omniscient god punishes Willem van der Decken to sail with no set course, doomed never to return to port, century after century.

The legend has inspired numerous artists, from Edgar Allan Poe, who tells this story in his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), to Richard Wagner, who devoted one of his most famous operas, The Flying Dutchman (1843) to this spooky ship. And popular 20th-century culture has drawn inspiration from the legend too, for example in the form of the progressive rock group Jethro Tull, who included a song entitled The Flying Dutchman on their album Stormwatch (1979).

In cinema, too, the cursed ship has made appearances, with movies such as Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), starring Ava Gardner and James Mason; or the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films starring the actor Johhny Depp.