Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Lightning Strike

We had been anchored near Nuinudup for two nights - about where the monohull is in the center of the photo below. We had enjoyed swimming, snorkeling, and chatting with the local Kunas; Justino and his sister Ermelinda who we had met on a previous trip. (We had given him a cell phone and he stopped by to tell us he had gotten it to work with a new SIM card.)

There were at least ten other boats anchored all around us. It was a calm night, but about 12:30 we awoke to rain and got up to close the hatches. The rain became a deluge and we put the dinghy (which was suspended at deck level) in the water because it was quickly filling with rainwater. Lightning could be heard in the distance and it got closer and closer. Most of it was cloud-to-cloud, but some hit the surface of the sea.

We stayed up watching, listening, and estimating the distance of the lightning from us. At about 2:00am I went back to bed and Malcolm was standing at the nav station when our boat got a direct hit. Malcolm immediately said, "We've been hit! There's smoke back here". Not only was there smoke, but some of the electronics had turned on by themselves.

We both started opening cupboards and floorboards to determine if there was a fire because the smell of burning electrical components was quite strong. After determining that there was no actual fire, we worked to evacuate the smoke and toxic fumes then tried to get some sleep.

We were up again at 5:30 (I don't think either of us actually slept) and proceeded to take inventory of the damage. We started at the top of the mast where Malcolm discovered that the VHF antenna was totally melted off and the mount was bent down at a 45 degree angle. He also found scorch marks on the coaxial cable. The tri-color light was cracked so he brought that down. The wind speed/point didn't work at all, so he brought that down too.
Next we inspected all the systems on the boat and discovered that the inverter was only putting out 30V instead of 120V. The old GPS was dead. Three expensive Caframo fans that hadn't been working right for some time now wouldn't work at all. We found the cause of all the smoke and smell. It was the shower sump sensor: it was black, bulging, and stinky. But the biggest bummer was that the autopilot didn't work.
We put new bulbs in the tricolor and it worked again. Malcolm removed the electronic switches from the Caframo fans and they worked again. We even went in the water and checked the hull; it needed cleaning anyway, and we usually scrub it about once a month. We couldn't see any damage and all the through-hulls worked properly. And the good news was that the main engine, generator, battery charger, water maker, refrigeration, pumps, small electronics, computer, chart plotter, depth sounder, and VHF radios still worked. And in the wonderful spirit of generosity that other cruisers display, a boat named Points Beyond gave us a handheld VHF and simply asked that we mail it back to them when we got ours repaired. So we intend to carry on to Cartegena, Columbia and make repairs there. We need to haul out for bottom paint and wait for the Caribbean cruising season anyway, so Cartegena, here we come.

So now we naturally wonder WHY US?
We are just an average cruising sailboat: 44' fiberglass monohull, aluminum mast with a 3' antenna at the top, chain rode, the usual number of electric gadgets aboard, nothing special. So why did the lightning hit us?

And why so little damage?
Could it be because our boat has huge copper straps wrapping around the inside of the hull bonding together all the through-hulls and ground wires? Could it be because the captain used eight million zip ties and all the wires are tightly bundled and secured?

I guess we will never know the answer to those questions, but you know what? I'm suddenly just a little gun shy when I hear a thunderstorm approaching!

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