When Lighting Struck
I remember a sense deep within my gut, a buzzing beneath my skin cells. It was similar to that feeling you get when you’re in a house late at night and you feel like someone’s just outside looking in. You hear a noise, a rustle, and wonder if it’s just the wind. There’s no way to prove it, no way to know, it’s just there. Your gut, your intuition. A premonition. Something is off.
I felt that way for nearly an entire week before lightning struck our boat.
Actually, it was more than just a vague ominous sense of approaching gloom and doom and a pit in my stomach. I was particularly and inexplicably, worried about lightning. I said to Barrett, “Hey what kind of lightning protection do we have on the boat?” Because of all the safety and worst-case-scenario preparations we made before we started cruising (and despite what current events would lead you to believe, most sailors prepare a lot), I’d never given any thought to the idea of our 63-foot mast being hit by lightning while at sea. He didn’t have an answer so we both shrugged it off and said we’d look into it more once we made it to a bigger place like Puerto Rico. A couple days later on the beach, still unable to get it out of my mind, I asked some fellow cruisers what they had for lightning protection. They all shrugged like we had. No one really knew. Just hope for the best? Play the odds?
Fast forward a few more days. We’re lying in bed. It’s five in the morning and flashes of light are pouring through our portlights and hatches like a discothèque. A steady trickle of water is drip drip dripping down next to where I sleep, making its way from the gap in the cockpit and onto the bed, as it only does in heavy rain. There’s a rumbling sound of thunder that’s faint at first, then stronger, until finally it sounds like a marching band is stomping wildly around our otherwise quiet anchorage. We both keep our eyes shut tightly, we say nothing, just wait for it to pass. Because when storms like this roll through – and they do a lot in the late summer months in the Bahamas – it’s all you can do. Resign to a night without sleep and wait for the calm to come.
Then there’s a POW like I’ve never heard before. The kind of pow that you can almost feel, skeletally. We both pop up and fumble around for each others’ faces and chests.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, are you okay”
“Yes, are you?”
We volley those words for several seconds back and forth until our breath evens out again, we digest the words, and the anxiety spike finally wears. We notice things have powered on all on their own, like our inverter, and other things had powered off, dying a quick and painless death by voltage overload, like our navigational equipment. I say the obvious. “Oh f*ck I think that just hit us” and for some reason tell Barrett we need to move to the galley and huddle. I’m not even sure why we chose the galley, I think I worried we’d be hit again and the galley is my safe place. But the again, what else can we do? All of our neighbors are sound asleep. It’s still dark out. We’ll wait til morning to investigate.
Only, as we learned the next day, none of our neighbors were asleep either. Some had been lying awake like we were, waiting for the electrical storm to pass. One powerboat dragged anchor into the rocks in the heavy winds. And Alan, our friend on s/v Alley Cat, was above deck making adjustments when the strike in question hit. Its power knocked him off his feet even though the bolt and our boat were several hundred feet away from his.
I knew little about lightning’s effects on boats before we got hit but I’ve since learned, I think, a lot. Like that there is about a 1 in 1000 chance of a boat getting hit. And that a single lightning bolt can hold up to one billion volts of electricity in it. That’s a lot of power for our little 12-volt electrical system to survive and the days that followed the strike were an exercise in determining what exactly had been damaged and what had survived. And, spoiler alert, the number of dead far outweighed the number of survivors.
One other thing we learned about lightning strikes on boats is that the damage doesn’t all happen immediately after the strike. Sometimes, it claims its victims right away, other times it takes several weeks or even months to show its ugly, spoiled innards. To give you a sense of how catastrophic lightning strikes can be fore boats take a look here at the list of things that survived and the list of things that didn’t (and check/monitor these things if you fall victim to a strike!)
Dead or Intermittent/Unreliable Function:
- Depth transducer
- Navigation lights
- Bilge pump
- Macerator pump
- Various cabin lights
- Various fans
- Solar controller (and potentially panels, though difficult to test)
- Battery charger
- Battery monitor
- Propane sniffer alarm/solenoid
- Certain portions of our control panel
- Various GFCI outlets
Still Alive and Kicking:
- Two fans
- A few lights
- Anchor windlass
- Greywater pumps
The strike also appears to have damaged our through hulls as is evidenced by blistering on several but, thankfully, it didn’t blow a hole in the hull when it exited as it can sometimes do.
What causes lightning and how does it work when you’re on a boat?
I’m not expert but my understanding is that lightning is caused by a difference in charge between storm clouds and the ground (one holding too much positive, the other too much negative.) Lightning is the result of those two charges trying to find some kind of equilibrium. When lightning hits something like, say, a house or a car, it has plenty of ways to find its way to the ground where it’s trying to go. But on a boat, it’s a little different because, to put it plainly, we’re not grounded. We float. But there’s still ground beneath that water and, as I understand it, lightning wants to get there somehow or, at the very least, dissipate across the water’s surface.
So when it hits a boat it looks for the easiest path downward to the water, usually coming down the mast (and frying all of the electronics in it) and then exiting through either the thru-hulls, the prop, the keel, or maybe even the anchor chain. Occasionally, it’ll just blast through the hull, making a giant hole below the waterline. This would be really bad and in retrospect we should’ve checked the hull for leaks thoroughly before we just crawled back into bed to wait until morning. Oops.
Did Bourré go crazy?
Funny thing, Bourré barks at fireworks and is usually pretty skeptical of lightning. He was sleeping at the foot of the bed at the time of the strike and once we’d established that we humans were both okay, we turned and shouted his name, we shook him with our feet and then with our hands. He stayed completely limp and his stillness made us think it was over. The bolt must’ve jumped through the boat and gotten him. Eventually, he bolted up on all fours and gave us the evil eye for waking him. Turns out he was just a little on the sleepy side from playing on the beach with some cruising kids earlier that day and he hadn’t heard the strike at all!
Did you feel it?
This is probably the question we’ve been asked most. And I can honestly say that aside from the earth shattering sound, which felt like it fried our hearing hairs off, we didn’t feel a thing. But my friend Leah on s/v Peacemaker was hit just a few weeks after us while at the helm and said she felt it in her hands! Yikes. (UPDATE: See Leah’s comment below for a great tip on how to use your oven as a faraday cage in an electrical storm.)
Was there any physical evidence?
Besides the dead electronics, the physical evidence was limited to our thru-hulls, where blistering leads us to assume it exited. We also found bits and pieces of charred VHF antenna on the deck that morning.
Could you have prevented it somehow?
I’ve read a lot about lightning prevention in boats ever since the strike and my understanding is this: you simply can’t prevent lightning from striking your boat, if it wants you, it’s coming for you. But you can, potentially, do some things to minimize damage. The science behind lightning protection is that you essentially try to redirect the lightning to safely pass from sky to earth. Lightning protection systems act like traffic detour conductors, saying, “not this way, but that way.” Of course, nothing comes for free in boating and my understanding is that lightning protection systems can be pricey, upwards of a thousand dollars.
One alternative I’ve seen some sailors (mostly on catamarans) employ involves tying a metal chain around both shrouds and then tossing it in the water. I’m not entirely sure if this works but I do know that the catamaran anchored next to us had chain thrown out and their boat did not get hit. Needless to say when we head back out this fall, we’ll have some chain on board for storms.
Is it because your mast is taller than everyone else’s?
I really can only speculate here but my hunch is no. Lightning is going to come for you if it wants you and most boats are far enough away from each other at anchor for that kind of thing to matter much. Plus our neighboring boat – the one with the chain out – had a mast height of 65 feet, taller than ours, and yet we were still the ones to get hit.
That said, I suspect that mast height would matter much more in a marina setting, where many boats are clustered tightly together. Then, if lightning has its heart set on one particular area of the marina, it only has to choose which mast is tallest.
At the recommendation of our insurance company, we left the Bahamas in August after the strike. We left in high spirits, naively hopeful the repairs would be quick and easy. And then we waited around at a marina in Florida doing small repairs and gathering the necessary survey reports and quotes for our insurance company. Once we had all of that in hand, and it took a while to get it since there are so many Hurricane Harvey/Irma/Maria claims happening at the moment, we received the news we worried we’d get. Our insurance company decided the value of the boat was not high enough to justify the repairs. They deemed it a total loss and gave us two options:
- Accept a check for them for LaMo’s total insured value and walk away or
- Buy her back as “salvage” from the insurance company, do the repairs ourselves, and move forward (likely un- or severely under-insured since she’d be forever marked a salvage boat.)
It was a pretty sad phone call to receive, my voice was shaking, my hands were shaking and my eyes welled up with tears even though I knew in my heart of hearts that it was coming. Because deep down we both know that a salvage boat is not a smart boat to have as a cruiser.
And because just like that, we’re back at square one.
Have you ever been on a boat that was struck by lightning? What was your experience? (Misery loves company!) Also, if you have any tips or thoughts on lightning protection, please share them in the comments. Our next boat will likely have some kind of system set up to minimize damage but its setup is still up for debate.