St. Elmo’s Fire

      Years ago, sailors in storms would occasionally see a blue or greenish glow on the top of the mast. They considered it a good sign or a blessing. The name for it eventually became St. Elmo's’ Fire.

     St Elmo was the patron saint of sailors and stomach troubles. He was disemboweled. I’m still not quite sure how the “What you are the saint of thing “works. But that’s what he is. And his fire is still seen today.

    Before I start you on this quest in the article I need to point out “I AM NOT A PHYSICIST!”. These are at best layman's terms for the physics involved. But you’ll get the gist of it. 

What is it

    As you know storms produce lightning. Those big blasts of electricity that shoot across the sky. You’ve seen them. Heard the thunder. Hopefully you never felt it. (They say the ones most likely to get hit are the ones most afraid of it.) But who knows who they are?

   Well, actually it’s plasma. Which is the fourth state of matter. That’s about as far as a fishing mathematician is getting into that one. Solid, LIQUID, blah, and blah. I’m really good with liquid. Fisherman and all. Sometimes the solid ground is nice. But the rest. IDK.

    Basically, the air gets charged, or really excited by an abundance of electrons. They are coming to party. The more show up the more excited they get. Until POW. Lightning strikes. There are a lot of other things involved with this. But it’s not exactly my area of expertise. The outdoors is. Even the hard to find naturally occurring phenomenon. More on this shortly.

      But what you don’t know is that it’s not just the bolt of lightning you see that’s excited. The air around it is too. That blueish glow isn’t just light from the bolt. It’s a party. This party has a name. ST Elmo’s Fire.

What is St. Elmo’s Fire?

       Glad you asked. Years ago, sailors would see a blue or greenish glow on the top of the masts. It usually occurred during storms. Being the superstitious people that sailors are, they saw it as a sign. A good luck sign. A blessing from St Elmo.

    St. Elmo is actually a shortened version of St. Erasmus of Formia. And yeah it is easier to say St Elmo’s Fire than St Erasmus of Formia's’ Fire. Sailors aren’t just superstitious, they're also practical. Kind of like some people in the southern US now. Y’all. 

The blueish glow was usually accompanied by a hiss or a crack. Like fire. 

Ahhhh now you get it. 

      Sightings of this go back as long as people have been sailing.  The Romans have lots of recorded sightings of it. So did the early Greeks. Julious Caesar made note of the glow. So did Charles Darwin on the Beagle. 

      But it wasn’t until the 20th century that it was remotely understood. For a long time, it was believed to be just a myth. Like sea monsters. Sailors were, and are, known to tell a tale. Point of fact, a lot of their myths have been found to be somewhat true. 

   Then we got a little thing called SCIENCE around the turn of the 20th century. That was when people like Nikola Tesla started playing with electricity.

    He produced corona discharges with his Tesla coils. Not the sparks but the glow. Sparks are more like lightning. All of it is plasma. That fourth state of matter again. My favorite is Liquid. FISHING!

     My knowledge of physics is limited at best. Never really been that interested in the how so much as the what. With physics anyway. You find a new way to catch fish and the first question I’ll ask is HOW?

   So, in the most basic terms, the air gets a lot of extra electricity in it. This is called ionization. The oxygen and nitrogen in the air fluoresce. Fluorescein is that glow in the air around lightning and St. Elmo's' Fire. The other place you’ve seen this is neon signs. Just a different gas ratio inside the neon tubes. Different gasses make different colored lights.

     The glow that you see is actually a corona discharge. All that extra electricity at the party showing off. This is NOT LIGHTING! 

    It does build up in the same places we would associate with lighting strikes though. The tall things. Like ships masts. It also builds up on things like chimneys and church steeples. And in modern times airplanes. 

    Oh yeah, there’s been more than one plane that reported the buildup and glow on the wings. But it has never caused any damage to a plane. Or a ship for that matter. Remember it was a good luck sign.

    It usually happens towards the end of a storm. Maybe that’s how the “It’s a good sign” thing got started. “Oh look, the glow. We made it through.”

It’s possible. 

     So, if you're out in a storm on a sailboat and you see a glow up on the mast. Good news, it's almost over. St. Elmo is watching over you. Or if you live somewhere with a barn. Look for that glow in the next storm. 

    It’s a truly amazing world out there if you're paying attention. Well, it’s still amazing even if you're not. You just might miss it though. I don’t want to miss anything. I love the world and the outdoors. I hope you do as well. Especially the parts that are still a little mysterious. Like St. Elmo's’ Fire. 

     Even though I come from a long line of sailors and am one myself, I have not seen this yet. But I am hopeful one day I will. It also is not the only sign you're blessed. I feel blessed every time I go fishing or in the outdoors, or just have a good day.

   Hope is also one of those little mysteries we need in the world too. There is always HOPE. There is in my world anyway. I HOPE there is in yours.

Enjoy the outdoors. Life is out here.