Saint Elmo's Fire

Haha, so I was tuning through different radio stations and heard this catchy old song from before my time. Something…something saint elmo’s fire. Being the millenial that I am, I decided to google it, and low and behold! It’s a nautical term!

Has any one ever seen this “Saint Elmo’s Fire” phenomena?

Start weird sci-fi music now:

Way back when, way way back, one dark and humid night on the sail of a diesel sub running north in the Bermuda Triangle off the Florida coast, four of us (two watchstanders, two of us grabbing some fresh air) were talking about being in the “Triangle.”

The seas were calm and the boat was rolling lightly in the swell, the exhaust note rising and falling with the roll. It was very dark but the moon occasionally peaked through a hole in a low layer of cloud just enough to illuminate the sea surface. A light mist formed and with the mist a faint blue glow began to dance around the periscope shears and radio antennae. For most of us it was the first time we had ever seen St. Elmo’s Fire. It was beautiful in a slighly disconcerting way. It brought to mind Starbuck’s experience on the the Pequod. We could raise an arm and the glow would flicker and flow on our fingertips.

In our awe of the phenomenon talk of the Triangle moved from purely fantasy to maybe a bit more belief … particularly when the lookout said he thought he saw a brief flash of light just below the cloud layer astern. There had been scattered thunderstorms earlier and a bit of lightning but we had seen none for a while so the “sighting” just added to the mystery of the Triangle and the role of UFOs in the Triangle was added to the conversation.

A minute or two later a blinding beam of brilliant white light appeard below the clouds directly off the port side about a mile away at eye level and grew in size as it closed at (literally) blinding speed! We were frozen in the beam until a tremendous roar passed at what felt like only a few feet over our heads. The lookout had not imagined seeing a UFO, he had seen the reflection of moonlight on the wing of a Navy P2V submarine hunter banking into a run onto its target … us. While we rose to our feet shaking from the experience we could almost hear the laughter in the cockpit of the Neptune as it returned to base in Jacksonville.

That is the only St. Elmo’s Fire experience I have had at sea but years later when flying commercially I often experienced the aeronautical version while flying in precipitation or ice crystals at night. That was a much more intense version with fantastic scenes outside the windshield from which a fingertip could draw a long and very visible arc that would have sent the crew of the Pequod over the side.


Often Saint Elmo’s fire is present but cannot be seen as it’s too dim. It’s common in areas of thunderstrom development.

At night if I step out on wing the crackling, hissing sound similar to bacon frying can be heard coming from the antennas. If you stay outside a bit to let your eyes get better night adjusted a dim “ball” of fire can be seen at the tip of the antennas and anywhere else an electrical charge is building up. The longer you stay outside the more it can be seen

Bear in mind that if you do go outside, according to Bowditch the fire is a sign that a lightning strike is imminent.


Does St. Elms fire also pertain to firefighting. Seem to remember it’s visible right before flashover.

The movie had a good soundtrack.

I only saw Saint Elmo’s Fire twice in four decades of going to sea. The first time was in 1981 as an Able Seaman on a Waterman LASH ship in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of India. It was the mid-night watch and the OS on lookout on the bow reported a “weird glowing” around the bow. The 3rd Mate and I watched as the bluish green glowing spread, over the course of a half hour or so, along the gunwales on the bow and up the stays and shrouds of the foremast.

The next time I observed this phenomenon was in 2005 while slow steaming in the Gulf of Oman waiting to deliver military cargo to Kuwait. There was only a slight bit of glowing in the rigging but as this photo of one of our ABs shows, there was a great deal of static electricity in the air.


I’ve seen the glow in the rigging and antennas several times in the 39 year that I sailed. Corona discharge is not uncommon. You can hear it on HF. Sometimes it’s a constant buzz and can be a buzz ramping up to a pop. And the ramp up cycle starts again. Weird.