By Jim Birchall
It’s often said sailors spin a good yarn. For hundreds of years, long journeys have been broken up with tales of Ghost Ships stalking many a terrified crew of mortals.
The most famous of these apparitions The Flying Dutchman is described as a glowing spectre, which is unable to ever make port and acts as a harbinger of doom for those unfortunate enough to cross her path on the seven seas.
The genesis of the legend has its likely origins in the late 17th century during a period of trade dominance by Dutch interests in the East Indies. One theory speculates the stories were imagined by mariners to scare away rogue traders from proprietary routes.
Looking deeper, there are anecdotal reports of a Dutch Man-of-War sinking off the Cape of Good Hope in the late 1700s. The narrative suggests the ship sank as a result of no shore pilot coming to her aid, and the subsequent loss of all souls onboard damned her for eternity, appearing as a terrifying vision during similar inclement conditions -often prefaced by a mysterious thick fog.
Prince George of Wales, latterly King George V, solidified the legend when in 1881, whilst on a three-year right-of-passage voyage with his brother Prince Albert, reported encountering the Flying Dutchman while limping to port in Australia, via the Bass Strait, to repair a damaged rudder.
The ship’s log contained an entry from one of the prince’s which stated,
‘July 11th. At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came upon the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her’.
Aside from evidence advanced by the royal crew, to date, the mythos of the Dutchman has remained elusive to contemporary scientific examination.
Some analysts of the paranormal (including this writer) have suggested the luminous vision of the Dutchman may be a result of a mirage phenomenon known as a Fata Morgana.
An excellent example of a Fata Morgana was captured right here in New Zealand off a Bay of Plenty Beach in April 2020. The New Zealand Herald reported that a woman named Monika Schaffner was travelling through Mount Maunganui when she glanced out into the sea and saw what looked like a large object hovering in suspended animation.
“I filmed this optical phenomenon that made a ship look like it was floating in the air” said Schaffner. She went on to say, “it was like seeing something unreal. I thought my eyes are playing a trick on me, I had to ask my partner if he sees the same as me. So, I asked him to pull over so I could take a photo.”
A Fata Morgana is a complex form of superior mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon.
The eerie image, which is enough to make any sceptic question the supernatural, occurs when a layer of warm air sits on top of a layer of cold air causing the light from the ship to bend as it passes through the air gaps displaying an often contorted (and inverted) image of a vessel or structure that could be several kilometres away.
This type of mirage could also explain New Zealand’s version of The Flying Dutchman, the alleged sighting of a phantom waka (canoe) on Lake Tarawera in 1886. Several eyewitnesses reported seeing what they perceived as a Maori war canoe approaching their boat at a distance of some 500 metres, only to vanish into a mist as it came into proximity.
Witnesses included a local clergyman and a member of the local Te Arawa Iwi (tribe) who confirmed no one local owned such a canoe. Like the Dutchman, the story of the waka has been inextricably linked to disaster and misfortune falling upon those unfortunate enough to encounter an otherworldly maritime presence.
Some 11 days later, Lake Taraweras’ namesake maunga, erupted, resulting in the loss of over 100 lives, and entombed for eternity the aesthetic silica deposits known as the Pink and White Terraces.
This article first appeared in the September/October 2021 edition of Professional Skipper magazine