In June 1881, the Ship Oimara departed Liverpool for its long voyage to San Francisco. On August 3rd, as the iron vessel rounded "Staten Land" (modern Argentina) it met decidedly un-southern-like weather. Heavy gales buffeted the Oimara, bringing with them a succession of snow squalls. Around 1:30 a.m. on August 4th, the ship suddenly lit up, recalled one crew member, "like a music hall."
For 20 minutes, a large, blue ball of fire sat atop each of the mastheads. Fireballs dotted the yardarms. Small lights clustered on the riggings. Even the chain span was lined with star-like lights. Every rope on the ship was distinctly visible, and emitted a soft, blue glow. The snow swirling around the deck had no effect on the fiery luminescence, nor did the hail or sleet. Anyone sighting the ship from a distance may well have believed it was burning at sea.
For more than two weeks the ship and crew braved unusual weather. Some even suffered frostbite. The final snowstorm hit on August 20th and lasted 36 hours. Afterward, mild weather finally prevailed.
Upon safely docking in San Francisco, both captain and crew spoke freely of their frightening, yet fascinating experience. The tale was reported in newspapers and scientific journals around the world. Many onboard felt that the blue lights - St. Elmo's Fire, as sailors call it - had warned them of the dangerous weather to come.
The term "St. Elmo's Fire" is actually a mispronunciation of St. Ermo (or Erasmus), the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors. It is, in fact, neither fire nor lightning - although it usually appears just before severe weather. Simply stated, St. Elmo's Fire is the electrical discharge that occurs when there is a significant imbalance in voltage between the clouds and the earth's surface. These discharges generally occur on tall or peaked objects like ships' masts and church steeples. Although most closely associated with the sea, it can occur anywhere atmospheric conditions are right.
Several years before the well-publicized Oimara incident, a party ascending Austria's Grossglockner mountain found itself at the mercy of a violent electrical storm. When the huge cloud finally passed, all six men were cloaked in St. Elmo's Fire. Their hair, beards, coats - even the cords securing their hats to their coat buttons - glowed blue. Apart from the momentary shock and confusion, none of the men experienced discomfort or injury.
Considering how long it took modern scientists to fully understand the phenomenon, it's no surprise that ancient mariners attributed the lights to supernatural forces. The most widely held belief was that St. Elmo's Fire was produced by the demi-god Castor and his half-brother (and son of Zeus) Pollux.
Castor and Pollux were two of the Greek Argonauts who accompanied Jason on his quest to find the Golden Fleece. When Castor was killed, Pollux begged Zeus to let his brother share his immortality. Zeus turned them into the constellation Gemini. Whenever two tongues of St. Elmo's Fire appeared on the same mast, sailors believed that Castor and Pollux were assuring them of a safe and prosperous journey.
Seamen around the world use different terms for the uncanny blue glow. Welshmen refer to it as the Candles of St. David. Russians call it St. Peter's Lights. To English sailors, it is Davy Jones. Others, like Captain Roy of the Oimara, know the orbs as Jack-O-Lanterns. The common factor, however, is that nearly all those who have spent extended time at sea have witnessed the mesmerizing blue blaze.
Columbus, on his second voyage to find the new world, noted in his log seeing "seven lighted candles." Their appearance was followed by heavy rain and thunder.
Magellan also reported sighting St. Elmo's Fire "...on the summit of the mainmast, and thus remained for a space of two hours, which was a matter of great consolation to us during the tempest."
Modern recreational boaters are less likely to witness St. Elmo's Fire. It is a rare and beautiful light show, and one only nature can display. If you do happen to see two balls of blue light shining side-by-side, remember to thank Castor and Pollux for granting you Godspeed on your voyage.