Lightning Strike Chaos

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In the middle of the night, 400 miles away from the Marquesas, my eyes snapped open.Something had changed; Shapeshifter, our Beneteau Oceanis 423 was heeling to a new breeze. I hopped out of my bunk and looked up the companionway. Colin, Shapeshifter’s owner, was flying around the cockpit like an angry tomcat in a tornado, ensuring the sails were reefed for the quickly building wind. It was pitch black; heavy clouds obscured any trace of the stars and moon.

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I stood for a brief moment watching Colin finish reefing the main. Water flew off the dodger in thick sheets. The storm was building. Lightning no longer hid behind the clouds but streaked across in defined jagged lines. Thunder joined with the chaotic sounds of the surf and sea. After throwing Colin his lifejacket, I went down to check all of the hatches and seacocks. A nervous chill started to creep up my spine. There was no way I was going back to sleep.

While I made my rounds, Colin set our autopilot to sail by the wind to protect the sails from any sudden gybes with wind shifts in the storm. We had recently named the autopilot “Iron Armed Einstein,” out of respect for his brilliant steerage. I looked at the plotter screen at the nav station. Two smaller storm cells on either side had merged together so that we were now in the dead center of a larger storm eight miles in diameter.

My eyes darted to the portlight as it flashed with a nearby strike, illuminating the sea as clear as day. The color had changed from its usual royal blue to a sickly lime green coated with a matte veneer of pattering rain. I grabbed our logbook and jotted down our coordinates and course, since it was the top of the hour, 2300. I looked at the floor and noticed it was damp from the rear head hatch that I must have missed in my rounds. I grabbed a towel to clean up the mess when suddenly a positive and negative charge across the sea and sky found our mast and discharged in a furious arc.

I lost all sense of vision beyond a blinding white light. A sound like a shotgun pressed against my temple exploded into my ear. All synapses were consumed with the sheer illumination and freight-train roar. There was not enough space left in my brain to perceive the passage of time. Weeks could have passed in that split second. I couldn’t tell if I was sitting or standing or even still alive. For all I knew I was already floating in heaven’s sitting room waiting for my number to be called. And then it was over.

Even with my headlamp beaming in front of me, my vision went completely dark. My ears rang with a high-frequency whine. With these primary senses dulled, I could smell a tang of ozone and burnt plastic. I was crouched on the floor like a crazed caveman. It took a minute to piece together my name and my identity, and remember that I was on a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific.

After promising the powers that be that I would (one day) atone for my sins, I stumbled up the steps to the cockpit. Colin was hand-steering. We yelled at each other over the din of the storm. Direct hit! The autopilot is down! No instruments! Go turn off everything!

I bounded down the steps and started throwing breakers and switches like a madman to prevent any shorts from starting a fire. The red lights of the switchboard popped off one by one. I noticed the sour smells from earlier were wafting from the control panel, so I cracked open the back with my multi-tool, ready to grab the fire extinguisher should I see any hint of flames.

Emily came out of the cabin wearing her life vest and a concerned look. I could tell she was scared. I wanted to tell her I was also scared, but instead we shared a small, silent hug while pinned in the doorway as the boat swayed back and forth in the storm, a rare intimate moment in a stressful situation on the high seas. I told Emily that Einstein was dead as I slithered into my foulies. It was at this moment I realized our entire voyage had just taken a drastic turn. It was going to be a long few days to the Marquesas.

Back on deck, Colin started the engine and prepared to drop the mainsail. “What’s the windex showing at the top of the mast?” he asked. I shone my light up toward the sky. “There is no windex!” I said. “There’s not much left at the top of the mast.” We lowered the sails and motored through the last hour of the storm, lightning still streaking across the sky all around us. We sat mostly in silence, shellshocked from the strike, occasionally offering up some detail of the incident. How bright. How loud. How sudden.

We talked about what this might mean for the trip, finding electricians and technicians in remote corners of French Polynesia. With the fried sat-phone, we worried about family members’ reactions when they realized we were no longer responding to messages. The night seemed to last forever, with each hour spent either fitfully sleeping in the cockpit or staring at our heading, 260, painted red with the light of a headlamp. By the time the sun rose, my dreams were nothing but a big spinning compass. I could hardly tell if I was asleep or awake.

That morning Colin checked all our systems. Einstein was officially declared dead, after a heroic attempt at resuscitation, along with the rest of our instruments and the chartplotter. Defeated, we booted up Colin’s iPhone to use an app with downloaded charts. We then placed the phone in a small, yellow waterproof box, which quickly became known as the “Golden Oracle” as a result of our frequent consultations.

The list of broken electrical devices soon outgrew the list of things that worked. No navigation lights. No solar regulator. No generator. And no fridge for cold beer. The list went on and on. It was every yachtie’s worst nightmare. It was only after we tested the broken SSB and ship VHF that we realized just how alone we were. Using a handheld VHF we sent out a Pan-Pan. It was as if our signal bounced off a brick wall. Handheld VHF’s just weren’t powerful enough. It was like that for the next few days as well.

After that, we motored or sailed, whichever was faster. Strips of rags tied to the canopy served as a makeshift windex. Emily and I thanked our lucky stars for the helming practice earlier in the voyage. Colin hardwired a spare nav light to the battery, which we mounted to the rigging with a few cable ties. We were now visible to any ships that might pass us during the night. Eventually, we hit our stride, once again feeling comfortable enough to run our fishing lures and talk in non-hushed tones.

On the third morning, a giant green mountain slowly appeared out of the sea, Hiva Oua. Exhausted, we dropped anchor outside of the small port and immediately began to lick our wounds and work on Shapeshifter, one blown fuse at a time. s

Jake Pitts is a mechanical engineer currently traveling through New Zealand. Cutting his teeth sailing on inland lakes, he had never seen the Pacific Ocean before deciding to crew on a 43ft yacht from Panama to Tahiti

Lessons learned

• Have a plan in place for malfunctioning instruments and autopilots. Know how to safely operate your craft without them, and ensure all crew are able to man the helm in case of emergencies.

• Be wary of putting too much trust in weather forecasts in the Pacific. Our satellite forecasts consistently showed good weather with strong wind, but we were hit by a string of small squalls and generally low wind.

• Take time to celebrate and rest after long passages, especially when they containlarge calamities such as a lightning strike.

• In addition to our phone and iPad with electronic charts, we should have ensured the boat had proper paper charts.

• For such a long crossing we should have had a redundant autopilot in a safe, electrically insulated place or installed a windvane.

• We should have ensured the boat was properly grounded for lightning strikes

• All crew should have been wearing lifejackets while above decks at night

Got a good story to share? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

August 2017

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