The glow of Vanderdecken


Richard Wagner is not everybody's cup of Lapsang Souchong. One of his less Wagnerian offerings, however, was The Flying Dutchman, an opera which concerns a legendary ghostly ship which was said to haunt the waters of the South Atlantic in the vicinity of the Cape of Good Hope. It comes to mind today because it was on November 22nd, 1497 - exactly 500 years ago if you ignore a change or two of calendar - that Vasco Da Gama rounded what was then the Cape of Storms on his successful trip to rediscover India.

The Flying Dutchman, however, did not appear as such in Vasco's time. It was allegedly a 17th century ship that was captained by a stubborn Dutchman, Vanderdecken, who persisted, against all advice, in trying to round the cape in spite of violent gales. As the storms grew worse, so did Vanderdecken's obsession with the passage; he cursed and blasphemed against the Almighty even as his ship was sinking, and as a punishment he was condemned to sail the seas until the Judgment Day as a torment to ungodly sailors. His ghostly ship was said to lure all who saw it to their doom.

Reported sightings of the Flying Dutchman were very numerous in days gone by. The log of the British warship, HMS Bacchante, for example, had the following entry: "July 11, 1881. During the middle watch the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. She first appeared as a strange light, as of a ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails, seemingly those of a normal brig, some two hundred yards distant from us, stood out in strong relief as she came up." There are many similar reports of spectral vessels whose masts and rigging were surrounded by a ghostly bluish light.

Meteorologists, however, are inclined to suspect that alleged sightings of the Flying Dutchman involved nothing more ghostly than a nearby honest merchant ship whose extremities displayed St Elmo's fire. The phenomenon to which St Elmo, or St Erasmus, for reasons now unknown, bequeathed his name, is a faint, luminous brush-like glow that was often seen in stormy weather playing around the masts and rigging of the old sailing ships. It is electrical in origin. It occurs in thundery conditions when the electrical tension between the clouds and the earth below is such that there is a strong tendency for an electric current to flow from one to the other. An electric charge "dribbling" upwards in these circumstances causes the surrounding air to incandesce, and results in the phenomenon that is St Elmo's fire.