Lightning strikes twice
A voyager’s story of two different boats hammered by lightning
Lightning does strike twice. I know because I am in the unenviable position of having not one but two of my boats blasted by the beast.
The first was on my 42-foot Fountain Pajot catamaran, Jangada, which was in the water moored in front of a friend’s house for the summer in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico. Since my friends were gone for most of the summer, Jangada was being cared for by their gardener, José, who faithfully washed her once a week.
One day I got a phone call from José who did not speak any English. He was rattling excitedly in rapid Spanish and since my command of the language starts with “buena vista” and ends with “cerveza,” I could only make out a few words, including “Jangada” and “relámpago.” Having no idea what he was talking about, I thanked him, hung up the phone, and went to my Spanish/English dictionary to look up “relámpago.” Uh oh… “lightning.”
Still not sure what he had actually been saying, I called my friends to see if they knew anything about a lightning strike or damage to Jangada. Nope, nothing. Perhaps I had misunderstood José. Well, nothing I could do about it anyway until I returned there in a month.
When I arrived, I hopped aboard and looked around. Everything looked normal. José pointed to the top of the mast where there were only the remnants of the Windex. “That must be it,” I naively thought as I thanked him for looking after my boat. A small lightning strike to my mast that sparked the Windex. No big deal.
No visible damage
I went inside and turned on the lights. Nothing. I flipped on the inverter. Nothing. Fridge, VHF, chartplotter, SSB, autopilot, water pump, watermaker, wind instruments and depth sounder … nothing. Hmmm, perhaps the lightning tripped the main breaker — strange, since there was absolutely no visible damage to anything.
I spent a couple hours going over all the breakers, fuses, wiring, connections and bus bars. Everything looked fine. No charred wires or blown fuses. I tried to start the motors. Nothing. It was as if my boat had been abducted by aliens who had sucked the heart out of everything electrical. Everything.
I spent several hours methodically going through anything with a diode, resistor, transistor, transformer, solenoid or relay. Everything with any sort of internal electronics was inoperative. I took apart the VHF, assuming I’d find a melted mess inside. Nope. Everything looked perfect. It was like looking at a used car that didn’t run, but the salesman had meticulously pressure washed and detailed it to look perfect until you turned the key and it wouldn’t start. Aliens.
Over the next day I tested every system on Jangada to no avail. Apparently the mast had been struck by lightning. The initial strike had splintered the Windex, traveled down the mast and shrouds, entered the boat and spattered around infiltrating everything with any sort of electronics — meaning, in this day and age, everything from toaster to toilet. Then, without leaving a trace of its mischief, it simply slipped overboard and disappeared, leaving me with a still-beautiful but completely unusable boat.
What surprised me as well was that Jangada was parked right in the middle of perhaps a hundred sailboats, many with masts much taller than mine, yet only she was hit. Was I just special? I don’t like being special, especially with a boat that looked perfect but was actually quite damaged.
Fortunately my insurance company stepped up and covered it all, but it took two hectic weeks (included a flight to LAX to meet with the West Marine delivery van) to repair even the most basic equipment.
Lightning strike triage
Since I had friends coming down to cruise south with me, I had to perform “lightning strike triage.” It ultimately took almost a year to get everything replaced. Much to my great dismay there is NO fixing anything electronic these days, just replacement. In the process I learned four things. First, you can get along without a lot of your electronics. Second, unfortunately most electronics are linked to each other. Third, there are electronic components in many things you wouldn’t consider, and if a lightning strike has occurred, you can be certain that they have been damaged. Finally, even if something appears to work, if there has been a lightning strike it will ultimately fail in the near future since it has been stressed far too much.
My triage yielded a priority repair list that, in itself, was a good exercise and somewhat of a surprise. I could get along without my fridge but not my autopilot. I didn’t need my watermaker but did need a water pump and new alternators. Chartplotter, depth sounder, VHF and wind instruments seemed necessary (or at least really nice to have!) but not my SSB. Stereo? Nope. Oil change pump? Nope. Solar panels and charge controller? Nice but not necessary. Navigation lights? Yup. Windlass? Nope. And so on.
In the course of my survey, I realized that some things not directly linked to the boat wiring were damaged. Undoubtedly my EPIRB was fried. The same for handheld VHF radios, autofocus binoculars, weather radio and, yes, even my high-power spotlight. 100,000 volts flying around seems to have a way to mess up a lot of stuff.
After my repairs, I checked to see if there was any sort of reasonably reliable lightning protection system I could install. What I found was an assortment of ideas and approaches, but in reality if a boat takes a direct lightning strike, all bets are off. What I also found is that this happens frequently!
But on to the point of this story: strike number two.
I sold Jangada in 2008 and was boatless for a while. I realized I needed another big cat and, after three years of looking, I found the perfect answer in May of 2013: a 46-foot 2008 Leopard sitting in St. Petersburg, Fla. I made a deal with the owner that he would complete some work on the boat, keep it moored in front of his house until November (after hurricane season) and keep it insured during that time. I gave him a deposit and headed back to Oregon, excited about the upcoming cruising season in the Caribbean.
The second strike
Then in September I get a call. “Um, well, I’ve got some bad news,” the owner began. Oh great, I’m thinking: he’s decided not to sell the boat and I’m back to square one with my boat shopping. “The boat got hit by lightning…”
What? Really? Again? What’s with me and boats and lightning?!
“What’s the damage?” I asked. “What happened?”
It turned out that my new boat, Indigo, was out of the water in the yard getting bottom paint (part of my seller’s “to do” list before taking possession). As is usual in Florida (pretty much every day in the summer), there was a thunderstorm and sure enough, Indigo, sitting high in the air with its 70-foot aluminum mast, was the perfect landing zone for an errant bolt of lightning. The strike hit the mast, blew apart everything on top, zipped down the shrouds and, not being in the water where it could somewhat dissipate, came exploding out the side, just below the port chainplate, connecting with one of the big steel jackstands that supported the hull before entering the ground. In the process it left a splintered blackened thumb-sized hole as if someone had fired a .357 Magnum shell in the fiberglass hull. I know because he sent me a photo.
Well, I told him, I’ve gone through this before and everything with a wire will have to be replaced. No, he assured me, everything looks fine. Ha! That’s what you think. Start flipping switches.
As expected, many of the major electronics were dead. But surprisingly, some were not. He replaced one chartplotter but the other seemed to work fine. The autopilot brains were toast but the remote worked. The SSB was OK but wind and depth transducers were destined for the dump.
I had him (and his insurance adjuster) go over everything. When I returned to the boat to close the deal in November, I went over everything carefully and all seemed in order. The boatyard did a marvelous job of patching the hole in the hull and checking for other damage. Indigo, complete with a bunch of expensive new parts, was mine. You’d never know that she had taken a big hit.
My wife and I packed our things on board and headed out for two months of cruising in the Bahamas. Two weeks later things started to fail — things that hadn’t been replaced. The first was the wireless autopilot remote. It worked one minute, then just stopped. No amount of coaxing would bring it back to life. Then a couple LED lights went bad; no big deal, but certainly surprising.
Down to one engine
Then, as we were crossing the Gulf Stream in 10-foot seas and 45 knots of wind on the nose, an engine alarm started screaming. Water in the saildrive! I couldn’t silence the alarm without turning off the motor, which I did. Now we had one motor struggling to push us into a nasty ocean. With a projected five hours to go to Bimini and four hours of daylight left, we opted to turn around and head back to Florida rather than risk a nighttime entry into treacherous waters with only one motor and an unknown problem that might necessitate hauling her out of the water — not necessarily an easy task for a boat with a 24-foot beam.
We endured a slow and miserable crossing back to Florida, arriving in Fort Lauderdale at midnight. We docked in front of Just Catamarans, the premier East Coast service center for Leopards. In the morning I met with Kent, the owner, and told him the problems. I also mentioned that Indigo had gotten hit by lightning that past summer. That’s when he told me that after a lightning strike, even things that were working fine would fail much sooner than normal. He’d seen several boats that had gotten hit and in every one there were premature electronics failures over the next six months.
It turned out that the alarm was due to a faulty sensor in the saildrive, rather than water in the boot. I pulled the sensor out and the alarm stopped. Whether it was caused by the lightning or not, I’ll never know; but there’s a good chance that it was. Over the course of six months there were other small electronic failures — whether due to the lightning or just the fact that it’s a boat, I can only guess.
The bottom line is, if your boat gets hit by lightning — or even if there’s a strike nearby — you have to assume that everything electronic on your boat may have been damaged. Check everything carefully for complete and correct function, and be sure to stock a spare of anything that you consider essential for either safety or vessel operation. Remember: lightning does strike twice. Or more.
Eric Sanford and his First (and best) Mate Debbie Lynn have cruised together for seven years in the Pacific Northwest, Mexico and the Caribbean. Based out of Hood River, Ore., their “summer” boat is a 43-foot Ocean Alexander trawler while their “winter” boat is a 46-foot Leopard catamaran. Follow their adventures at www.facebook.com/indigo46.