The stories surrounding the so-called ghost ships are almost as old as seafaring itself.
Which should not come as a surprise. For without proper knowledge of healing arts and medicine, epidemics broke out at sea time and again, and no passing captain was crazy enough to take on the sick crew of such a ship.
They were also not allowed to land in the harbors, and so, after the crew had died, they drifted aimlessly on the oceans for years.
By the way, this did not happen as seldom as one might think today.
For the year 1869 alone, more than 200 cases are known in which the entire crew of a ship died and the ship was left abandoned at sea.
Of all the legends surrounding these “ghost ships”, the one about the “Flying Dutchman” is certainly the best known.
It is about a captain who was cursed to wander on the sea until the last day without ever being allowed to enter a port or find redemption in death.
The true background is the story around the Dutch captain Bernard Fokke, who one day failed to sail around the Cape of Good Hope.
He had already made this journey countless times. He was even known to cover the trade route between the Netherlands and the spice island of Java in half the usual travel time.
His secret was that he used iron yards and could therefore almost always sail under full sails.
But one day it was impossible for him to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, and full of anger he cursed God.
Since that day he was supposedly never seen again and it seems that he was condemned to sail the oceans alone forever and never find peace.
But not only that: for other sailors, the mere sight of his ship meant death and misfortune!
Therefore, everyone who saw the black hull and the red sails of the “Dutchman” only from a distance immediately took off and thanked God for his salvation.
The popularity of this legend is not only explained by the sailor’s yarn that frivolous sailors and old sea-bears used to spin after a jug of rum, but also by the fact that many poets have taken up this story.
Among them are such well-known names as S. T. Coleridge or W. Irving, but also German-speaking authors were inspired by it, such as Wilhelm Hauff or Heinrich Heine.
But the most famous adaptation of this story is certainly the opera “Der fliegende Holländer” by Richard Wagner, which was premiered in Dresden in 1843.
He wrote it under the impression of a sea voyage overcome with luck, enriched it with a desperate love story and moved the plot from the Cape of Good Hope to the sea off Norway.
Today it is regarded as the work that marks Wagner’s breakthrough to his own style and is performed regularly.