Dutch ghost stories: Ghost ships

Dutch ghost stories: Ghost ships

The Netherlands and the netherworld are more closely connected than you may think! Since the Dutch have a rich history of braving the seas, there are quite some scary and fantastical stories based on captains, ships and sea battles.

Ghost ships

This edition of Dutch ghost stories presents some old tales about nautical nightmares from the Netherlands.

The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman is not originally a Dutch ghost story, as the first written texts were from English pens, but it is a story about a Dutch ghost, so we figure it still counts. And of course, this legend is so famous that we can hardly ignore it! The English and the Dutch had some rivalry when it came to seafaring, so it is no surprise that this English tale is about a stubborn and manic Dutch captain. There are various versions of the story, one of the most famous of which is about VOC captain Willem van der Decken.

Against common sense, Willem sailed his ship out on an Easter Sunday. When he neared Cape of Good Hope, he was hit by a heavy storm. His crew begged Willem to turn around, but Willem was foolhardy and cried, "The devil knows I’ll sail the cape, even if it takes me until judgement day!" At that, the storm swallowed the ship, Willem and all his crew.

Sailors tell tales of seeing the Flying Dutchman when the sky thunders and the sea is rough. The ship sails among the clouds, with blood-red sails and a dead crew that slaves away under the rabid rantings of their mad captain.


Ghostship de Zeerob

De Zeerob suffered a fate similar, but less well-known, to the Flying Dutchman. The ship was sailing from Dordrecht by captain Jurriaan Jacobszoon, and headed for Greenland. The ship never arrived at its destination, but it is said that it is still out there on the waters somewhere, floating around as a desolate wreck. Those who encounter de Zeerob are said to be cursed with bad luck and ruin.

The giant ship of Sinternuit

The giant ship of Sinternuit is a different kind of mythological ship. Its tales describe a vessel that sails across the world’s seas and is of impossible proportions. Sailors who claim to have seen it delight in thinking of creative and poetical comparisons to give listeners an idea of the vastness of what they have witnessed. The tall tales say that it takes an hour’s sailing to read the ship’s name on its side. It takes the captain six weeks to ride from the bow to the stern, and two ravens are the ship’s lookout.

Sailors on board took so long to get to their bunks that they returned as old men, so the mast contained an inn where they could sleep. Inside the cook’s cauldron is a rowboat to get across the pea soup. The cliffs of Dover are white because the ship once got stuck in the Channel. So they greased it up with soap to get through. England and France used to be connected until the giant ship sailed through them and tore the land down.

In North Friesland, the ship is called Mannigfual. Their version of the tale says the ship ended up in shallow waters and was stranded. The crew had to throw their cargo overboard to lighten the load, and this cargo became the island Bornholm.

The Kijkduin Sea Battle

This story tells of a bloody sea battle that occurred in the waters by Kijkduin. Whole chunks of ships flew around in the cannon fire, blood flowed, and many vessels sank. But whereas on land the slain stay down, the sea doesn’t seem to work like that.

On nights where the storm whips up the waves, the waters can throw up the battle once again, to repeat earlier events. Whole galleys with blazing sails are said to appear and engage once again in the deadly battle. Any unwary fisherman caught in the middle of this ghostly war is sure to perish, so most sailors stayed away from these waters when the weather was bad.

Halloween in the Netherlands

Blistering barnacles! Shiver me timbers! Will you be going as a pirate this Halloween? Or maybe a drowned sailor? Whichever it is make sure you sail over to our lifestyle page where you can get all the latest information on what's going on this Halloween! 

Want to indulge in more spooky stories? Check out the other articles in this series:
Dutch ghost stories: Haunted castles
Dutch ghost stories: Witches and wenches
Dutch ghost stories: Spirits and apparitions

Alexandra van Kampen


Alexandra van Kampen

English and Japanese theatre and culture are my forte. My mother was raised in England, and my grandmother in Japan. I studied Japanese Language and Culture, and Film and Photographic...

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