One of the most outstanding features about embracing the Beach Boy and Beach Girl lifestyle is meeting the visitors that arrive from all walks of life. Many of the folks that visit our islands are well traveled and ready to share knowledge and experience in ways we can scarcely imagine. On many occasions, what we think we already know about folklore, myths, and legends can be redefined and explained – if we only have the patience to listen.
Recently offshore, on a truly inspired February afternoon, the sails of our catamaran were set and capturing a warm and balmy southwesterly breeze. The path of the boat moving over the water seemed drawn by the horizon and away from the shadows of the sails reaching toward the beaches and pines of Roy Cannon Island.
Everyone onboard was in the quiet zone waiting for a course change that would bring the sails across and the boat on a new heading, when a young lady with an obvious inspiration offered a comment: “The sunset should be great tonight. I wonder if we’ll see the Green Flash.”
Her friend asked, “I wonder if the flash is real? I’ve only heard about it.”
Across the boat, another passenger spoke up for the first time. “The Green Flash is real enough,” the older man said. “I see it all the time. I’m an airline pilot.”
Blessed with the privilege of leading sailing excursions along our beaches and barrier islands, and quite often the most unnoticed in semi-private conversations, I settled in to listen about something I might remember from childhood, and to learn the truth about an island myth that has been a mystery for decades.
The aviator on the boat that day explained that he was a commercial airline pilot with over thirty years’ experience. He went on to share that with a cruising altitude of 33,000 to 38,000 feet, the Green Flash is always visible. Always, because flight deck crews on airliners have the best sunset and sunrise vantage points possible.
“When you’re that high up,” our pilot explained, “you can see everything. When flying west, we actually chase the sunset, and at 600 miles-per-hour, the setting sun scenario lasts much longer. The colors are brighter than at ground levels, and the clouds more majestic, but when the sun finally slips below the horizon there is only a second of dusk before a bright Green Flash lights up the sky.”
Everyone onboard was captivated. It was obvious everyone had heard about the Green Flash, but were unsure whether it was fact or fiction, until now. We were drawn together and hanging on every word.
“When flying east,” our pilot continued, “the sunrises are almost better, but just before the first sliver of sunlight, the Green Flash arcs across the horizon. Even though you know it’s going to happen, and you might have a first-time flight attendant on the flight deck to watch, it is always surprising when that bright Green Flash pops and the sunrise begins faster and more beautiful than you can ever believe possible.”
The professional aviator paused and then continued. He was impressed that we were impressed and clearly decided to share more.
“Astronauts see the Green flash too,” he explained. “Orbiting in space at 18,000 miles an hour, astronauts and cosmonauts see multiple dawns and sunsets every day. Even the astronauts that orbited the moon would see a lunar Green Flash.”
The boat sailed on in silence, as everyone was absorbed and intrigued by our pilot’s remarks. Then after a moment, he looked around to all of us watching and laughed. “Why do you think pilots keep working?” he said. “Even after pay cut after pay cut, it’s the adventure and finding out what makes the adventure happen.”
At sunset or sunrise, scientists tell us that the top edge of the sun will sometimes be bright green. The green lasts only a second as the full spectrum of color increases or decreases. The before or after result is the Green Flash, but the flash is only visible on very clear days. The legendary Flash of Green is most often seen over a distant horizon such as a large body of water or a flatland desert. The one rule is clear, the higher you are the better the chance you will see the Green Flash.
Ernest K. Gann is a novelist who wrote “The High and the Mighty” and “Gentlemen of Adventure,” both works of fiction inspired by aviation and the individuals compelled to pursue the fine art of the aviator.
As all the sailors listened that day to our own gentleman of adventure, he continued as we turned again with the sun behind us and the Marco River waiting to bring us home.
“For beach, boat, or dockside observers, to see a Green Flash, the sky must be perfectly clear with no clouds all the way down to the horizon. Remember the higher the better. A person in a building seven or eight stories tall might see the flash, while their friends on the beach will not.”
“Old sailors from a time-gone-by believed that a Green Flash after sunset was God taking the souls of shipwrecked mariners to heaven.” The pilot paused. “I like to think it’s God taking up the lost pilots, too.”
Our pilot shrugged as we turned into the channel on Marco Bay and the riverside shadows crossed over the boat.
“It is also believed if you see the Green Flash you will never go wrong again on matters of the heart. Another popular, but untrue myth, is that the Green Flash is caused by the setting sun shining through the green waves of the ocean. A final thought from Scottish folklore claims after one has seen the Green Flash, that person can see into the hearts and true thoughts of future sweethearts.”
Just before we landed at the dock, our newfound friend and aviator wished all his new friends, “Good luck tonight and every night with the Green Flash!”
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books: Lost and Found and Surrounded by Thunder—the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men. Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.