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1881, July 11: King George V sees a Phantom Ship

        On July 11, 1881, Prince George -- later to become King George V [1865-1936] of the United Kingdom -- was one of many people to witness a phantom ship. He was on the ship Bacchante, traveling between Melbourne, Australia, and Sydney, when the strange event occurred. In his own words, as taken from his journal of the trip published five years later, is what he and the others experienced:

        July 11th.—At 4 A.M. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows [note: the "Flying Dutchman" is a legendary phantom ship in sailor lore. -- Garth]. 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. The look-out man on the forecastle reported her as close on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did also the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there 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, but whether it was Van Diemen or the Flying Dutchman or who else must remain unknown [I don't know what the reference to 'Van Diemen' is meant to signify. -- Garth].

        The Tourmaline and Cleopatra, who were sailing on our starboard bow, flashed to ask whether we had seen the strange red light. At 6.15 A.M. observed land (Mount Diana) to the north-east. 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. At 4.15 P.M, after quarters we hove to with the headyards aback, and he was buried in the sea. He was a smart royal yardman, and one of the most promising young hands in the ship, and every one feels quite sad at his loss. (At the next port we came to, the Admiral also was smitten down).

        The "Flying Dutchman" of legend, is a phantom ship that is said to be an omen of doom if seen. It was likely a chosen name for the phantom the Prince George saw simply because it was then currently a popular topic of poems, novels, and even an opera by Wagner... so it's unlikely that George literally thought it was the Flying Dutchman in particular he saw. It was just a good, descriptive name for the strange vessal.

A Brief Note

        Many later re-tellings of the account above incorrectly name the ship that Prince George was serving on as the HMS Inconstant, but this appears to be due to a mis-understanding. The Bacchante was initially part of a squadron that included the Inconstant, and at that time a relation of the Prince's was serving aboard that ship, Prince Louis of Battenberg. By the time of the encounter with the phantom ship, however, the Inconstant was no longer part of the same squadron as Bacchante. It appears that the fact a prince was on board the Inconstant has gotten it confused by someone as the ship that Prince George must have been on... and that error has since been repeated. I don't know where this started yet, but I'll keep my eyes open as I dig for other information.