Cruising

Sudden Exposure

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This story originally appeared in the December 2009 issue

We were on the return leg of our round-trip cruise from Florida to the Dominican Republic. The crew included my wife Lucy and our sailing friends, Joe and Mary Merchberger, and we had all enjoyed the beautiful countryside and friendly people of the Dominican Republic. Our sleigh ride back north had all but erased the memory of the slog to windward we had endured to get there. I was proud of Caretta, our 12-year-old Catalina C-380 sloop; she had handled the boisterous tradewinds with aplomb.

I was also pleased with the performance of our electronics. While other cruisers had run aground entering the anchorage at Luperon, our chartplotter had guided us safely in. And our radar and AIS-B receiver had eased much of the anxiety of sailing at night. It had actually been fun contacting ships by name on the VHF radio during those lonely night watches. But in the back of my mind I wondered if I had become too dependent on Caretta’s electronics.

On departing the Dominican Republic, we had favorable southeast winds, but they gradually diminished. By the time we reached Nassau in the Bahamas the wind had died completely. We knew a high-pressure ridge had moved south of the Bahamas and that light and variable winds with occasional squalls would be the routine for the next several days. We topped off our fuel tanks in Nassau and got underway for Florida in a dead calm. There wasn’t even enough wind to justify raising the main as a steadying sail as we motored toward Great Bahama Bank. I didn’t like the thought of crossing those shallow banks at night, even with all our navigational electronics.

That’s why I decided to anchor for the night at a recommended spot on the banks. There was no land in sight, but the shoals around us would provide good protection if the prevailing southeasterlies began to build up. We anchored in about 12 feet of water, and even though I felt we were in a good spot I kept the plotter running so I could make sure we weren’t dragging.

After an excellent dinner I went forward to my berth to read. About an hour later, around 2200, Lucy announced that a nasty- looking squall was headed our way. I wasn’t particularly concerned, because Caretta was well anchored and our ground tackle had proven itself capable of handling tradewind conditions. So Lucy and I lay down and watched the lightning flashes through the forward hatch.

But it was clear that the intervals between the lightning flashes and the thunderclaps were getting much shorter. Suddenly there was an incredibly loud bang, followed by the sound of something heavy hitting the deck. I started to climb out of the berth, but Lucy grabbed me and insisted that I wait until the lightning stopped. We called to the Merchbergers and were glad to hear them say they were fine. But after three minutes had gone by I couldn’t wait any longer. I went aft to check the bilge and was relieved to see we were not taking on water and that the cabin lights still worked. Grabbing a flashlight, I went on deck for a cautious reconnaissance, ducking at every lightning flash.

Caretta’s mast and rigging appeared to be intact, although debris from the steaming light was scattered on the foredeck. When I went back below, I found the diesel engine would start but that the alternator was not charging the batteries. When Lucy asked me whether our anchor light was still working, I noticed the anchor light switch had blown off the distribution panel. When none of the electronics would power up, I opened the panel and saw that the power lead from the single-sideband transceiver was completely melted and the plastic inline fuse holder had been pulverized. Apparently a few wires had also been shorted, because I could see arcing and smoke at the bottom of the panel.

My first reaction was to get a fire extinguisher, but Joe suggested turning off the main breaker first. Sure enough, the arcing stopped after I turned the battery selector switch to off. We located the offending wires and taped their ends. At this point everyone had had enough excitement for one night and we all tried to get some sleep.

The damage assessment next morning revealed that though all the electronics, including the running lights, were inoperable and probably fried, some things were still working. The windlass and fridge still worked, the solar panels were recharging the batteries, and the ship’s compass and the hand-bearing compass agreed with each other. We started to think about getting underway again. I didn’t trust the rig after the strike so I resigned myself to motoring all the way home. Besides, there was no wind. We were about 115 miles from Fort Lauderdale, the diesel worked fine, and we had plenty of fuel. I also had a good compass, all the appropriate paper charts, parallel rulers and a set of dividers. But with no electronics I was going to have to proceed on a dead reckoning (DR) basis.

As soon as we were underway I instinctively began glancing at the chartplotter and depthsounder mounted directly in front of me on the pedestal. But all I saw were blank screens. The water around the boat never looked so thin. Eventually I regained my confidence and settled the boat at an estimated running speed of about 5 knots. We hand-steered and set up a watch system where everyone swapped one–hour tricks at the wheel with two in the cockpit at all times. I plotted an estimated position (EP) every 45 minutes even though, with no knotmeter, it really was just an estimate.

There was a handheld GPS on board, but it was damaged in the strike; it turned on, but then promptly turned off. However, it sometimes stayed on long enough for me to confirm my DR positions. Because things were going so well we decided to cross the Gulf Stream at night, though we had no running lights. That’s when we discovered that our hand-held spotlight was also inoperable.

Lucy and I stood the first night watch, and she was convinced every big ship she saw was deliberately heading straight for us. Eventually things settled down, and the crossing became almost anticlimactic. The night was clear, the seas were calm, and there wasn’t much traffic. When we were about 25 miles offshore we finally saw the loom of Fort Lauderdale right ahead of us. The challenge now was to locate the channel entrance. I had done it at least a dozen times before, but with no chartplotter to help this time, I became obsessed with finding the Lauderdale sea-buoy. I spotted its blinking white light, but then lost it in the runway lights of the nearby airport. Finally I gave up on the sea-buoy and concentrated instead on getting lined up with the channel’s range markers. Our approach brought us so close to the sea-buoy that we almost ran into it. Finally we made it past the breakwater and when we were safely inside, it was rum drinks all around.

About a month after the strike I had Caretta hauled and the mast pulled. It was clear she had suffered a direct hit; there was a hole burned through the masthead cap large enough to poke a finger through. But where had the strike exited? Because the steaming light had been blown off the mast, it seemed clear part of the strike had run down the mast section. There also were scorch marks on the headstay’s foil joints, the disconnect at the retractable depth transducer had been blown apart, and the wires running through the bow pulpit to the running lights were shorted. But the only damage to the hull and keel was a small crack in the fiberglass encasing the lead keel.

Our insurance adjuster observed that most strikes exit a boat by way of the prop shaft. Sure enough, when I disassembled the boat's feathering prop I found the grease had been baked to the sides of the spinner. My guess is the strike ran down the mast and compression post and the stays and there were side flashes to the pulpits, keel bolts and prop shaft.

The experience gave me a heightened respect, not only for the overwhelming power of lightning, but for the old-fashioned way of navigating. Never again will i grumble about the cost of updating my paper charts, and I plan to turn off my new chartplotter every now and then and get out my paper charts, dividers and parallel rulers.

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