Truth or Fiction?
So do these sightings mean that The Flying Dutchman is indeed a ghost ship whose sad tale has a basis in fact? If it is, those facts are hard if not impossible to verify. A real-life sea captain named Hendrick Van der Decken does not seem to have existed. Some sources have attempted to link Van Der Decken to the seventeenth-century Dutch captain called Bernard Fokke whose suspiciously speedy sea voyages between Java and the Netherlands led to rumors that he was in league with the devil. This link, however, is as much a thing of conjecture as to the legend.
However, what is true is that the Cape of Good Hope was a notorious place for shipping disasters. First navigated in 1488 by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias, the treacherous stretch of sea at the tip of South Africa was known for its unpredictable weather, strong currents, and treacherous rocky outcrops. Such was the Cape’s reputation that it was first named “The cape of storms” before being renamed “The Cape of Good Hope“ by John II of Portugal because of the dubious shortcut it offered to India by sea.
Many ships did recklessly risk this shortcut for the same reasons as Captain Van der Decken in the legend. So, perhaps the legend of The Flying Dutchman does indeed immortalize them and their reckless Captains. However, the concept of ghost ships and souls doomed to wander the earth is as old as time. For shipwrecks off the coast of South Africa notwithstanding, some of the motifs found in the tale of The Flying Dutchman have been around since Classical times.
Ulysses’ seemingly endless ten-year quest to return home to the love of a good woman and the cursed roaming of “The Wandering Jew” both echo the Dutchman’s never-ending voyage. Then there is the idea of the ghost ship, which seems to have its basis in the Teutonic belief that the dead crossed the water to the afterlife in boats.
So, if the Flying Dutchman is nothing more than a fable, how do we explain how and why so many people have recorded seeing the phantom vessel? Optical illusions or mirages known as Fata Morgana seems to be one explanation. Such illusions are caused by the reflections of ships sailing some distance away from the viewing vessel. If the atmospheric conditions are correct, the sun’s rays can form a distorted image of these ships in the air and project it miles away from the original ship. The decline of sailing ships means that the likelihood of seeing a mirage based on one of them is slim- thus explaining why there have been no sightings of The Flying Dutchman since the first half of the twentieth century.
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