(Investigator 43, 1995 July)

On October 3 1955 the yacht Joyita left Samoa to take medical supplies to an island 300 km south. It was her last voyage.

A number of Samoans claimed they saw a fast moving ship, yet without lights or sound from any engine, following the Joyita. On previous occasions passengers and captain had also allegedly seen a 15th century galleon.

On November 10 1955 the Joyita was found north of Fiji, listing to port, her 16 crew and 9 passengers missing.

Perhaps the most persistent and famous ghostship story is that of the "Flying Dutchman". According to legend anyone who saw this ship would suffer bad luck, even death.

On July 11 1881 the future King George V, at that time a 16-year-old midshipman on a British warship, "Inconstant", claimed observing the Flying Dutchman:

"At 4 a.m. The Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. She emitted a strange phosphorescent 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…"

The name "Flying Dutchman" may be derived from a 16th century incident. A Dutch East-Indiaman captained by Hendrik van der Decken left Amsterdam for the East Indies but disappeared near the Cape of Good Hope.

French author Augustin Jal in Scenes de la Vie Maritime (1832) described a Dutch captain getting drunk during a gale near the Cape of Good Hope and laughing at the terror of his passengers. God approached the captain and said:

"You shall be the evil spirit of the sea and your ship shall bring misfortune to all who sight it."

Other accounts, similar, but with variations of detail were:

Perhaps Part III of the poem The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Colleridge (1773-1834) is based on the Flying Dutchman legend. In most sightings of the Dutchman we're told there "was not a breath of wind" and yet the ship moved with "incredible speed".

Similarly in Colleridge's poem we read:

"Without a breeze, without a tide"
"Off shot the spectre bark."

Some Dutchman variations include themes of gold and/or murder. In some the captain repents his evil ways. In some stories the Dutchman changes appearance from a four-masted galleon into a schooner or brig and even turns invisible. Some stories have the captain playing dice with the devil. In some stories the Dutchman's captain deliberately lures other ships onto rocks.

Ships which went to their doom supposedly after encountering the Flying Dutchman include:

Admiral Doenitz, Commander of Germany's U-boats, wrote:

"Certain of my U-boat crews claimed they saw the Flying Dutchman or some other so-called phantom ships on their tours of duty east of Suez."

To prove that something does not exist is often very difficult. The onus in every such case is on the believer to present decisive evidence.

The Flying Dutchman legend has so much variation and so much hearsay and so little hard fact that it is simply unbelievable. Doubtless, ships often do pass each other on foggy nights or in conditions when mirages form. Perhaps sailors on deck at night sometimes dream or even make stories up.

The supernatural and paranormal: