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Old 14-08-2010, 15:31   #1
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Lightning Brings Abrupt End to Journey . . .

I guess my last post regarding lightning was a premonition…

Lightning Hits Sailboat: How Often Does that Happen ?

07 August 2010, we began a trip that was intended to bring a newly acquired 1988 Cheoy Lee 44 from Westbrook CT to Fort Lauderdale. The crew was myself (as captain), one of the owners, and a friend of the owners. Our first leg, from Westbrook to Ocean City, MD via the eastern tip of Long Island, was relatively uneventful. The second leg was intended to take us from Ocean City to Beaufort, NC. About 6pm on the evening of Wednesday 11 August, we were under power (having just dropped the sails due to lack of wind) about 20 nm N of Diamond Shoals when we noted a darkening sky to the NW. Simultaneously, there was a NWS Alert that a line of severe thunderstorms was moving generally SE across Pamlico Sound. We spent about 2 hours trying to dodge the storm, first by heading NE and then, when it seemed the storm was drifting E, by heading back to the S. By about 8pm, the storm had grown quite large, and by about 9pm it was clear that there was nothing we could do to avoid it. Those of you familiar with the area know that with a 6 foot draft we had limited options for coming inside: back to Oregon Inlet (i.e., about 20 nm directly into the storm), or on around the shoals and Cape Hatteras. Once it was clear that we would not escape the storm, I contacted the Coast Guard with our position, course, speed, and general information about the boat and crew. Shortly thereafter, I made the decision to turn back to the N, both to head the boat into the wind (now becoming quite strong) and to try to minimize the amount of time we would spend in the eye of the storm. At this time, I again contacted the Coast Guard with our new position, course, speed, and intentions to head N until the storm had passed. We were approximately 12 miles offshore, 14 miles N of Diamond Shoals. The crew was below with instructions to remain on a settee away from the hull and compression post, and I was at the wheel.

About 9:30 pm, we were struck by lightning. All power was lost, and all onboard electronics were fried except the engine temperature gauge. Fortunately, just prior to this trip, I had decided to invest in a hand-held VHF that was still working (it was off and in my pocket at the time), despite the fact that the blast had rotated the inside face of my watch by about 5 minutes! I contacted the Coast Guard and informed them of this event, that all crew were safe despite the loss of power, and that we did not appear to be taking on water. Numerous communications ensued, and a few minutes later I could smell smoke, the acrid gray, melting plastic variety of which quickly filled the cabin. After localizing the source to the battery compartment (under the companionway), the crew opened a forward hatch for air and blasted the battery compartment with a fire extinguisher. It took some time, but the fire was finally contained.

About midnight, a Coast Guard helicopter intercepted us still heading N through periodic squalls, and neatly dropped a bag onto the deck containing a strobe and a second handheld VHF. If you’ve ever tried to hold a boat on a precise course (we were instructed to maintain 300 degrees) in total darkness in a storm, illuminating the compass using a flashlight with one hand while steering with the other, while a chopper hovers about 70 feet overhead (our mast was 60 feet, and believe me, they knew exactly how high to fly), well, you know how I felt. Otherwise, you probably don’t. It was certainly a new experience for me. About 2-1/2 hours later, a 47’ Coast Guard vessel intercepted us, and guided us to Oregon Inlet (about 2 hours away), through the inlet (awfully fun in the dark on an ebbing tide with a keelboat diesel auxiliary), and ultimately, to the Bayliss Boatworks in Wanchese, NC, about another 2 hours to the N. We docked at around 6:30 am, by which time I had been at the helm for almost 13 hours, the last 5 of which were spent trying to follow a Coast Guard vessel while stretching on my toes to look over the dinghy mounted on the foredeck. I was a little tired, but grateful to have the ordeal finished and the crew and boat safely ashore.

For those of you who venture offshore, even not very far offshore, I want to share my insights about this experience. First, the most important thing we did was to contact the Coast Guard BEFORE we were in trouble, giving them our position, course, and speed. Had we not done this, it would have been a long time before anyone figured out we were in trouble, and a lot harder for them to find us; as it was, both the chopper and the cutter came directly to us (we could see them coming from shore), based on knowledge of our previous location and updates on our course (variable though it was) and speed (judged by the sound of the engine, since the tachometer was fried). Second, without the handheld VHF (which, coincidentally, I had purchased specifically for this trip), we would have had no way to contact the Coast Guard after the event, and would likely have had to slowly head E until the sun came up, and then sight towers and beacons until we could determine a fix, followed by visual navigation to and through an inlet. Always a hairy proposition, especially since the only usable inlet within 50 nm (Oregon) is known to be volatile and dangerous. Even then, we would not have known where to find a boatyard that would be qualified to do the necessary work, and no effective way to ask anyone. Take my word, it was well worth the money, as was the $70 waterproof halogen flashlight I used to illuminate the mast for the approaching chopper.

We were lucky. First of all, the boat didn’t sink, the engine still worked, the fire was kept under control, and no one was hurt. A large part of the credit goes to my crew who, although inexperienced, never panicked (I also tried very hard not to let my concern show, especially when the fire started). Second, I cannot say enough about the professionalism of the Coast Guard NC Sector, and their chopper and vessel teams. They maintained contact with us throughout the ordeal, and seemed to be truly concerned not only for our safety, but for our well being as well. I think they appreciated the fact that we didn’t panic, that we never radioed a mayday or a pan pan, that we had fire extinguishers, pfds, and flares onboard, and that we never actually asked for a rescue (at one point, they did offer to evacuate us from the boat onto the chopper, which we declined). The only people I got to personally thank were the vessel crew (who came aboard at the dock to perform a safety inspection!), but we will send a letter to the Sector Commander with our thanks. Third, the people at Bayliss Boatworks were exceptional. We showed up at their dock early one morning completely unannounced, and although these guys are custom fishing boat builders, there was never any question about whether they were going to help us. All these were silver linings to the cumulonimbus cloud that brought an abrupt end to our trip…

Best wishes, and thanks to all those who helped with our planning, Pete
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Old 14-08-2010, 15:44   #2
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Wow. What a story!

Your prophylactic calling the coast guard ahead of time is good advice, and registers with me. Having a handheld VHF - I used to have a couple including one in the ditch bag. I guess I have to wonder if there is any way to avoid a catastrophic loss of such magnitude through proper grounding in some way - chain on the shroud into the water; grounding plate; etc - or is the consensus these days is that there is nothing you can do to either ground the boat or reduce your chances of a strike.

Sorry to hear about your losses, but glad to know all are AOK and you handled it quite well.
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Old 14-08-2010, 16:31   #3
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glad for the outcome but definately one hell of a story. Hats off to you and your crew!!!!!!!!!
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Old 14-08-2010, 18:41   #4
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Amazing story...

One tip( we have been hit twice), put handheld gps, vhf, phone, computer in the oven. It acts like a faraday cage and has saved our equipment twice now when everything else was fried!
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Old 14-08-2010, 19:23   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
I guess I have to wonder if there is any way to avoid a catastrophic loss of such magnitude through proper grounding in some way - chain on the shroud into the water; grounding plate; etc - or is the consensus these days is that there is nothing you can do to either ground the boat or reduce your chances of a strike.
We get 2-3 strikes a year here in Singapore. In every case the electronics are fried and in my observation the strikes do not hit any particular size or type of boat selectively. We've had 24 foot J24s parked next to 40+ foot Benes and the J24 gets hit. We've had 39 footers hit, we've had cats hit.

The EMP going through the boat and forming around the metal bits is what gets the electronics in my opinion. Putting the spare handheld VHF and GPS in a faraday cage (i.e. oven) is reported to help save these backup instruments.

I do think providing a solid, low resistance path to ground help in the most important aspect and that is providing a path for the energy to get out of the boat.

In the case of the J24 strike it is clear the "spark" jumped from the mast about 6 inches up and made 3 holes in the hull around the base of the mast. The J24 sunk on her mooring in about 30 minutes.
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Old 15-08-2010, 17:19   #6
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Amazing story...

One tip( we have been hit twice), put handheld gps, vhf, phone, computer in the oven. It acts like a faraday cage and has saved our equipment twice now when everything else was fried!
Wanted to do that, but we had a chicken in the oven and by the time it cooled, it was all over...
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Old 15-08-2010, 17:42   #7
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Pete, you, the owner on board and crew should write your congressional delegations (where ever you may live) and extend your appreciation for USCG to them, too. And you should name names.

It goes a long way towards helping those who manage the People's Money to understand the value of the USCG. Glad you made it.
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Old 15-08-2010, 17:58   #8
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Thanks Pete

It is because of posting like this that keep me coming back to CF on a daily basis. Communicating with the USCG before you need help is excellent advice. I was of the misinformed opinion that they didn't want to hear from you until you needed help. Of course, now that I have read your story, i understand how much sense it makes to give them a heads up. It makes their job just that much easier if their assistance is needed. I'm sure glad you guys made it through okay. Thanks again for giving us the benefit of your knowledge without the need for the two million volts.
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Old 16-08-2010, 16:06   #9
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Pete, you, the owner on board and crew should write your congressional delegations (where ever you may live) and extend your appreciation for USCG to them, too. And you should name names.

It goes a long way towards helping those who manage the People's Money to understand the value of the USCG. Glad you made it.
Excellent idea. Will do. pete
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Old 26-08-2010, 18:23   #10
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imho ... the USCG are tops ... with the CanadaCG a close second
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