A Very Deceiving Night: The Flying Dutchman

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The Flying Dutchman.

When light rays cross in miraging conditions, inverted images of a ship can appear above that ship:

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Ship in a superior mirage © Pekka Parviainen  

These strange, distortive effects have been known to sailors for hundreds of years:

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A 19th Century drawing of miraging ships.  This drawing is inaccurate as the mirrored images are in fact always the same size as the object being mirrored, in the horizontal direction, and mirages always appear lower in the sky – closer to the horizon – than is shown here.

The myth of The Flying Dutchman has its basis in miraging and there were many reported sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries. During his late adolescence, in 1880, Prince George of Wales, the future King George V, was on a three-year voyage with his elder brother, Prince Albert Victor of Wales, and their tutor, Dalton.  Transferred to HMS Inconstant due to a damaged rudder in their original ship, the 4,000-tonne corvette Bacchante, and whilst off the coast of Australia, between Melbourne and Sydney, Dalton records:

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 up on 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 … At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.

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The Flying Dutchman imagined as a pirate ship © Mary Evans Picture Library

That this phenomenon was in fact a mirage is well-explained in this 19th Century text:

The news soon spread through the vessel that a phantom-ship with a ghostly crew was sailing in the air over a phantom-ocean, and that it was a bad omen, and meant that not one of them should ever see land again. The captain was told the wonderful tale, and coming on deck, he explained to the sailors that this strange appearance was caused by the reflection of some ship that was sailing on the water below this image, but at such a distance they could not see it. There were certain conditions of the atmosphere, he said, when the sun’s rays could form a perfect picture in the air of objects on the earth, like the images one sees in glass or water, but they were not generally upright, as in the case of this ship, but reversed—turned bottom upwards. This appearance in the air is called a mirage. He told a sailor to go up to the foretop and look beyond the phantom-ship. The man obeyed, and reported that he could see on the water, below the ship in the air, one precisely like it. Just then another ship was seen in the air, only this one was a steamship, and was bottom-upwards, as the captain had said these mirages generally appeared. Soon after, the steamship itself came in sight. The sailors were now convinced, and never afterwards believed in phantom-ships.

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In this photograph by Mila Zinkova, it’s easy to see how even a small sailing boat, mirrored and inverted in a superior mirage, can look like The Flying Dutchman of legend.

I hope by blogging chapters from my book, A Very Deceiving Night, it will contribute to the ongoing discussions regarding the atmospheric conditions on the night of the tragedy and the true causes of the disaster. At the moment, the book is only available as an e-book. If you wish to purchase it then you can do so in Amazon Kindle format here and other formats, including Apple, Kobo and Nook, here. Thank you.

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