Surviving Thor’s fury

Jun 22, 2017 Boating safety ,Cruising ,General Interest

Lightning strikes on boats are relatively rare around New Zealand, but no one is immune, as this mid-Pacific tale told by Jake Pitts underscores.

We were still 400 miles away from the Marquesas Islands on our Pacific crossing when I woke to the beating sound of heavy rain. A storm was building and I could tell the lightning was getting closer as it streaked across in defined, jagged lines.

While I made my rounds, checking all of Shapeshifter’s hatches, catches and valves, Colin our skipper set our autopilot. Colin had recently christened it ‘Einstein’ because it was “bloody brilliant.” I said maybe we should call him, ‘Ironarmed Einstein,’ referencing how he played the boat with his linear actuator, back and forth like Einstein’s violin bow.

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I looked at the plotter screen at the nav station. Two amoeba storm cells had merged together and we were now in the dead centre of a larger storm eight miles in diameter. My eyes darted to the window as it flashed with a nearby lightning strike, illuminating the sea as clear as day. The colour had changed from its usual royal blue to a sickly lime green, accented by whitecap stripes. I grabbed our log book and jotted down our coordinates and course since it was the top of the hour – 23h00.

We kept the log book for situations just like this: in case we suddenly lost our instruments. I breathed a sigh thinking about the phrase that had become somewhat of a boat motto: ‘shit only happens at night.’

I popped open the door to the rear toilet and found I’d forgotten to close its hatch. A large pool of rain water sloshed around the floor drain. I ran the drain pump to empty the bulk of the water before grabbing a towel to clean up the rest. I was nearly finished wiping it up when a furious arc illuminated the sea and found our tiny mast.

I lost all vision beyond a blinding white light. A sound like a shotgun exploded in my ear and I lost all sense of time. Weeks could have passed in that split second. I couldn’t tell if I was sitting, standing or even alive. For all I knew I was already in heaven’s sitting room waiting for my number to be called.

At the helm, Colin was having a very similar experience, losing sight of the wheel and the instruments right in front of his face. Lying awake in our cabin, Emily said (later) that everything was painted in an
ethereal pink glow, her hand muffled a movie-star scream drowned by the blast.

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And then it was over. My ears rang with a high-frequency whine. With the sound and sight senses dulled, I could smell a tang of ozone and crisped plastic. I was crouched on the floor like a crazed caveman. It took a minute to piece together my name and remember that I was on a sailboat in the middle of the
Pacific – and thankfully not watching Saint Peter shake his head and tell me he’d look one more time under the Js.

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 everything off!

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I started throwing breakers and switches like a madman to prevent any shorts from starting a fire. I noticed our master chart plotter wasn’t working. I paused for a moment to check our Iridium Go. Dead. I noticed the sour smells from earlier were wafting from the control panel so I cracked open the back, ready to grab the fire extinguisher should I see any hint of flames.

Emily came out of the cabin wearing her life vest. I could tell she was scared. I wanted to tell her I was also scared, but not finding the right words we shared a small hug while pinned in the doorway as the boat swayed back and forth in the storm, a rare intimate moment in a stressful situation.

I told her Einstein was dead as I slithered into my foulies. I began to realise that our entire voyage was going to take a drastic turn. No autopilot. No instruments. It was going to be a long few days to the Marquesas. The course of the entire trip had changed in a single arc.

Back on deck, Colin started up our hearty engine which had survived relatively unscathed (God bless you, Yanmar) and prepared to drop the mainsail. “What’s the Windex showing at the top of the mast?” he screamed.I shone my light up to the sky. “There’s no Windex! Nothing’s left at the top of the mast.”

We lowered the sails and motored through the last hour of the storm, lightning still streaking all around us. When it finally calmed down, I went and made some coffee to prepare for the long night of manning the helm.

We sat mostly in silence, shell-shocked from the strike, occasionally offering up some detail of the incident. How bright. How loud. How sudden.

I manned the wheel for several hours while Colin cross-checked our systems. Defeated, we booted up Colin’s iPhone, and used a chart app alongside our paper charts. We placed the iPhone in a small, yellow waterproof box which quickly became known as ‘the Golden Oracle.’ The message was clear: keep
heading west and you’ll arrive in the Marquesas.

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The list of electrical devices on the boat that were broken soon outgrew the list of things that worked. No navigation lights for visibility at night. No solar regulator to keep the batteries from overcharging during the mid-day equatorial sun. No generator to top up the batteries at night.

No refrigeration to keep our freezer full of food from spoiling (or our fridge full of beer cold). The list went on and on. Other than our personal electronics, all we had left were the interior lights, the electric winches, the bilge pump, the water pump, and our engine.

It was only after we tested the broken SSB and ship VHF that we realised just how alone we were. Using the handheld VHF we sent out Pan-Pans, non-life threatening emergency calls. We sent out calls to all stations but the handheld VHF just wasn’t powerful enough. For the next two days we saw no other boats and received no responses to our hourly calls.

Alone in the ocean, we motored or sailed, whichever was faster. We tied strips of rags to the canopy to serve as tell-tales. Preventing gybing while hand-steering can be tricky in large swells, especially when the wind died and eased pressure on the sails. Einstein was a genius at it, God rest his soul.

Colin wired a spare nav light to the battery and mounted it on a pole which we zip-tied to the rigging. We were now visible to any ships that might pass during the night. Eventually, we hit our stride, once again feeling comfortable enough to run our fishing lures and stop talking in hushed tones.

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On the third morning a giant green mountain slowly appeared out of the sea, Hiva Oa. As we rounded the island we spotted a French cat heading into the anchorage. After a brief conversation, the skipper agreed to forward a message to Colin’s wife that we had been struck by lightning, but had almost reached safety.

Exhausted, we dropped our anchor and began to lick our wounds and work on Shapeshifter – one busted fuse at a time.

It wasn’t until two days later that we fully realised with wide eyes the size of the bullet we’d dodged. Up in the front cabin, under the berth, we found the remnants of where the lightning strike had exited through the bow thruster power cables.

Had the cabinet not been so airtight, suffocating any
potential flames, the boat might have burned and sank. Instead of sitting here writing this, I might still be drifting in a life-raft 400 miles from the Marquesas.