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Well-behaved lightning does voyager no damage

Jan 1, 2003

While most sailors worry about being hit by a lightning strike, it seems that a hit doesn't always cause damage or threaten the crew's life. My 36-foot Swan sailboat was being skippered home from the 1997 Marion-Bermuda Race when she ran into severe thunderstorms off Cape Cod the night of July 3. The storms (and the resultant lightning) were continuous for the entire night. In the midst of the storm, Freedom was dealt a direct hit to the masthead, while three people were in the cockpit and three were below.

The strike and the thunderclap were simultaneous, and the cockpit crew looked up in time to actually observe the path of the lightning. After hitting the masthead, the bolt became "fuzzy," and traveled down the shrouds on both sides of the boat. The visible energy reached down to the chain plates, where it dissipated. After first checking the crew (all of whom were surprised, but okay), the entire inventory of electronics was tested and found to be working perfectly. At the time of the strike, none of the boat's electronics had been unplugged or protected in any way.

I can only attribute the lack of damage to boat or crew to luck, and to a good grounding system. All of Freedom's standing rigging, chain plates, etc., are well bonded to the keel with heavy-gauge wire. The keel itself is 7,000 pounds of non-encapsulated lead, and the mast is stepped directly to it. Whatever the reasons, there were no injuries, and no damage from stray electricity despite the direct hit.

Peter W. Stoops is an offshore sailor who owns a software company in Portland, Maine.