St. ELmOs FiRe

This year I witnessed an amazing weather phenomenon that I have been curious about for years, St. Elmos Fire.  Most people have never heard of this mysterious electrical energy.  This electric arc has created religious awe and fascinated sailors into creating folklore to help explain what seems to be supernatural. The glowing ball of light is a coronal discharge that creates luminous plasma from a sharp pointed object by an electric field in the atmosphere.

This weather phenomenon is named after the patron saint of sailors, St. Elmo.  I was lucky enough to witness St. Elmo’s Fire while underway at 21 knots on a 950 foot container ship that was crossing the North Pacific.  I was sailing on a merchant vessel in a heavy snow this past Winter while working as a mate. The funny thing is that the name of the container ship I was working on was the Sea-Land Charger.  I was the watch officer on the bridge with an able seaman and a cadet under my command during a four-hour watch in the middle of the night between midnight and 0400.   The Able Seaman was an unreliable, lazy sailor that made me keep a closer eye on the seas at night because he was a poor lookout, his primary duty.  I have eyes like a hawk when I need to have them, but I also closely monitor 24 miles around the vessel during night passages because I analyze the sea for traffic with my radars finely tuned.  The cadet on my watch was from the Merchant Marine Academy, my Alma Mater.  He was very observant and sometimes his constant questions could be exhaustive, but I found him to be inquisitive of his natural surrounding which made him useful at times and will eventually develop him into an excellent mariner.  He was a star-gazer just like me, often asking for a break to rest outside on the bridge-wing.  Frequent shooting stars are seen when the sky is as clear, dark and wide as possible.  The stars never shine as wide and as bright for me as when they are on the open sea.  But this night he wanted to walk outside as the snow beautifully covered the ship because we were sailing in a heavy snowfall for a few days.  The cadet immediately returned into the bridge and secured the heavy, steal, sliding bridge-wing door.  “Mate, there is this strange glow of fire buzzing on the end of the bridge-wing on the bare steel.”  He had no idea what it was, but I immediately knew it was St. Elmo’s fire, even though I have never actually seen it in my life.  I walked out there and approached carefully as I could hear and feel the static charge in the air.  I saw a violet and florescent glow of fire similar to a taser gun which creates an elecric arc and buzzes.  There were two distinct electrical glows buzzing a few feet from each other on the end of the heavy steel bridge-wing.  Just as we approached St. Elmo’s fire, the snow started coming down even heavier.  The cadet and I were full of mysterious glee.  He was fearful of getting to close, but I was curious if I could feel heat from this powerful electrical charge.  As I placed my hand about six inches above the charge, the energy from the charge transferred into my hand and I had St. Elmo’s fire shooting through every single one of my fingertips.  The cadet and I were in awe and couldn’t believe what was happening.   It was magnificent to stand in a heavy snow fall at the end of a ship’s bridge wing while plowing through winter seas with electrical charges shooting out all my fingertips. I had to place my hand in a certain position to have every finger shoot out an electric arc and sometimes it would be only a few fingers when positioned slightly different.  It was awesome as it was painless, but I still didn’t dare touch any of the surrounding metal as I thought I had a chance of being shocked.  Although It was painless, I did suspect some minor arthritic pain in my hand afterwards.  The heavy static charge in the air would flicker sparks off the back of my jacket.  Although it was in the middle of the night, I called the Captain because usually they love to witness something beautiful that only a mariner can see – although St. Elmo’s fire does occur on land.  Experience is what makes you an old, salty dog.  Later on that day, the radio operator told me of a rare trick that I wish I could have performed.  If you hold a penny near the fire, and hold a light bulb in the opposite hand, further away, the energy will transfer through the body and light up the lightbulb.  I will definitely try this next time if there ever is a next time.  Approximately 1000 volts per centimeter induces St. Elmo’s fire, and I had the power of it in my hand.  I haven’t really told my friends or family what has happened to me since my experience after the Patron Saint of Sailor’s held my hand with all it’s magnificent energy.  When I returned home, I was naturally playing piano like I have never before.  My fingers were dancing along the keys and playing original, fast melodies that I did not know I could play.  Call me crazy, but it happened. Thank you for the visit St. Elmo, I really hope I get to meet you again.

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