rare marine phenomena 4 st elmos fire

22 March 2010 03:40:00 AEDT

The Sunda Strait, 2001

'…in all my voyagings seldom have I heard a common oath when God's burning finger has been laid on the ship…

—Ch. CXIX, "The Candles", Moby Dick'

One of my fondest memories as a child is pouring through a comic book adaptation of Melville's Classic - Moby Dick for the first time. Under the covers with a torchlight, sitting there fascinated at the 48 page mid 70's colour process treatment of the great work. There was a double page ad for Joe Namoth's signature model sneakers in the middle. In the end, the format just didn't matter; I still saw the jagged scar that traced Ahab's cheek, Queequegs tattooed face and the stories of Rokovoko in the dark Pacific. Through it all though, there was one page I kept coming back to - the sighting of The Corpusants on The Pequod, blue flame blessing the lost ship and her sailors in their moment of need - St Elmo's Fire.

Some years later I was to join the Navy, and in standing thirteen years of night watches, there was not a time I came out on deck that I didn't look for The Fire.

By 2001 I was on a submarine transiting on the surface though the Indonesian Islands. As darkness fell, the pale drifting smoke from Anak Krakatoa slipped astern - The Sunda Strait behind us and the Indian Ocean opening up ahead. The weather was calm, so we opted to stay on the surface

I always liked the Middle Watch on an open bridge. Midnight to 4 AM was almost always a quiet time. Close to the equator it was generally calm and that night was no exception. I went up to the bridge in boardshorts and a black Rip Curl T-Shirt, lifejacket tied off at the waist. It was quite a lightshow topside. The Southern Cross was still low on the horizon but the great northern stars were in clear view, brilliant Vega and Sirius framing an endless deep field of main sequence stars that I hadn’t seen for years. Diesel hum and cigarette smoke, warm oceanic air beading as moisture against the slick black metal, forward masthead steaming light arcing out into the night ahead, parting the silent waters of a great ocean.

About then I checked my headset, there was the faintest sound of an electrical hiss bouncing across the circuit, it happened a lot in the tropics. I took the set off and planned to dry some moisture off the connector points. There was a faint tug on my sleeve from the lookout next to me. Turning to face him I saw his face bathed in the smoothest shade of blue I have ever witnessed. His eyes were transfixed on something behind us. The humm of the diesels faded out as the higher frequency of deep blue overcame everything. Slowly turning aft I saw it; the tops of the masts and periscopes behind us burning white hot without heat, on the extreme edges, blue plasma pulsed and sparked across the fin, jetting out into the ether across an infinite starscape. The pitch of the hissing changed with unseen frequency shift. It burned like that for three minutes .

Switching off our own navigation lights, the full range of the effect became clear. A radius of ocean 100 yards ahead of us illuminated in the aura, the boat and her passage blessed by St Elmo. The faintest of showers passed across the bow and the fire flickered, then as the rain came down in sheets, each pass beat across the flame, slowly extinguishing it as sure as a thunderstorm coursing across a brush fire.

I broke the silence on the bridge, "Corpusant"

Never seen it before

Me neither...It's beautiful

Are you supposed to wish or something?

No..I don't think so, you just watch it..it's a good omen


Good shit will happen

Ah right...it's beautiful.

Together we watched the pale blue fire burn down, the hissing frequency pass through to ultrasonic and past our hearing range. The arcing plasma passed out of the visible spectrum into the next.

When I came below I made two short entries in the Ships Log:

0054 Observed Corposant (St Elmo's Fire)

0057 Corposant faded

Crawling into my rack I had an incredible dream. I dreamt I was a young Ahab in Moby Dick. The ship was entering an enormous storm and the crew were terrified. Everyone turned to me for advice and I didn't know what to do...didn't want to let them down. In one deft movement I pulled down the blue light of the fire with my bare hand. Everyone gathered close behind the light as together we pushed on and entered the dark heart of the maelstrom.

Sory 6 of 365 (359 days and 359 stories to go)

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