In a heavy storm, a ship is seeking shelter on the coast. It is a Norwegian ship; its captain’s name is Daland. He orders his crew to sleep for the night, and even the steersman, who is supposed to be on watch, falls asleep. Suddenly a second ship lands at the coast, ancient-looking, with ragged red sails. Daland has heard some uproar. He is alarmed and comes on deck. He sees the unknown captain, also a strange-looking character, who explains to Daland that he is a homeless Dutchman. He offers Daland great treasures in return for accommodation in Daland’s house. He asks the Norwegian whether he has a daughter and if he could meet her. After being shown the Dutchman’s treasures, Daland invites him to his house.
In Daland’s house, all the girls besides Senta, Daland’s daughter, are spinning for their dowry. Senta ,however, is standing in front of several pictures showing the „Flying Dutchman“, an outcast, a heretic. While standing in front of these pictures she sings the ballad about the Flying Dutchman’s fate: once he had tried to sail around a cape; he had cursed God and was therefore condemned to sail the seas for all eternity, unless he can find the true love of a pure woman. For the rich young Senta this appears a highly desirable fate. Senta’s suitor Erik enters with the news that Daland’s ship is arriving. Being a mere huntsman, he does not appear to be a suitable son-in-law for Daland and thus he tries to extort a promise of marriage from Senta herself. When she is evasive about this subject, he tells her about a dismal dream he had: he saw her vanishing over the sea with the Dutchman. Daland arrives with the stranger and leaves him and Senta alone in the room. They both recognise that they are secretly meant for each other. But suddenly the Dutchman realises that he does not want the girl to sacrifice herself for him.
The Norwegian ship and the ship of the Dutchman both lie in the harbour, but there is no sign of life on board the foreign ship. The girls offer drinks to the Dutch crew, but nobody answers to their calls. They invite the Dutch crew to celebrate the safe return of Daland’s ship with them, but the only answer from the Dutchman’s ship is a ghostly chorus. When Senta’s engagement with the stranger is about to be celebrated, the huntsman Erik, rejected and enraged, provokes a scandal. Even though Senta shows her deep feelings for him, the Dutchman abandons all hope of salvation. He goes on board his ship again and gives orders to leave. He obviously does not want to bring disaster on her. She is the one who could save him from his fate, but he cannot see her sacrificed. He does not want her sacrifice, he would rather sacrifice himself. Thus he discovers what he has never known before and why he had to roam the earth all those years: love instead of salvation.