Lightning hit causes extensive damage

From Ocean Navigator #104
March/April 2000
To the editor: In torrential rain I stood in the cockpit, barefooted, soaking wet, in several inches of water, counting the few seconds between lightning and thunder claps as the storm approached. The wind dropped, and then there was a bang like an artillery piece as a giant thunderclap exploded directly overhead. I jumped, and Monique, who was below, screamed. The deluge reduced visibility to a few yards, but I noticed plastic debris falling onto the deck beside me. Then the wind came up again to around gale force, went round 180°, and the anchor started to drag! I started the engine and motored slowly into the wind to keep us from the nearby lee shore of the Potomac River. Within moments the engine overheating alarm went off. Shutting the motor down and running forward I dropped the second anchor, paying out chain and warp. As the rain eased and the wind dropped, the anchors settled into the river mud, and my Moody 36 sailboat Bambola Quatre stopped about 25 feet from the concrete wall opposite the marina in Washington, D.C.

This was the end of a wonderful three weeks being tourists around the Smithsonian, the Lincoln and Washington memorials, the Capitol, the White House, FBI, et al.

Needing low water to get under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, we started the engine and raised the anchor. I switched on the handheld VHF. The local Coast Guard was issuing a storm warning advising all boats in the Washington area to seek shelter. It seemed foolish not to heed the advice, so I dropped one hook again and dug in. The winds piped up, and even in the very sheltered anchorage of the Washington Channel it gusted to 45 knots. The storm passed, and things settled down, so I went below. A little domestic radio on the table by the stainless mast support was receiving VHF transmissions! I picked it up and it went silent. This was my first indication of anything amiss. Monique asked if it was normal for her hair to stand on end. I laughed and said I too had jumped hearing the detonation of the overhead thunderclapI did not realize she was speaking literally. I saw the SSB had switched itself on, but the display was blank. I switched the main VHF on and it glowed for a moment, then died. The radar clicked on, then off forever. That was when I realized Bambola Quatre had taken a direct lightning hit.

On deck I found the wind instruments were all out and the masthead was bare. The VHF antenna and electronic wind unit were gone, and lying on deck were the remains of the Hawk wind indicator, the bits of plastic I had noticed earlier. Around the boat floated scores of dead fish. Looking at the seven other boats on the anchorage, I noticed they were all bigger than Bambola Quatre and had taller masts. A 60-foot German ketch anchored quite close to me had lost the diodes from his alternators and generator, but that was the only damage to another boat.

People ashore looking at Bambola Quatre said a fireball had hovered around the masthead. We had both been shocked by the loudness of the thunderclap. Monique, sitting in the saloon, a few feet from the stainless mast support, had felt her hair stand on end, and I had been in bare feet standing in inches of water in the cockpit. We were lucky to be alive.

Following the strike it took some time for all the damage to become apparent. Trying to sort the overheating problem I found a core plug had cracked and blown half out of the manifold. At that time it was not obvious that the solar panel, wind generator, and gas alarm were not working. I e-mailed Pantaenius, my U.K. insurance company, reporting the lightning strike and e-mailed an order to the U.K. suppliers for a 22-mm core plug.

Monday, on the telephone to the insurers where Mike the claims manager was considerate and helpful: Did he want a surveyor to see the damage before I moved Bambola? Did he have a particular yard he wanted me to use? He instructed me to “find a suitable marine electronics company to do the repairs, and we will arrange a surveyor.” He warned me to be careful moving the boat as occasionally lightning strikes damage the skin fittings and allow a major ingress of water.

We were cruising the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and wanted to get north to New York and then Maine, so we were keen to get the repairs effected quickly. I trotted off to find Bill, the excellent local mechanic who said he would try to source a U.K.-size core plug for me. Then I made a list of all the marine electronics yards between Washington and Baltimore and started calling them. After some 12 calls I realized, to my horror, that because it was late June the repair facilities were at full stretch. Several yards said they would love to do the job but would not be able to start until end of August. A company in Cambridge, Md., said they had done several lightning hits and could start at once, but the job would take around eight weeks. The yard in which they were based could haul me on the next Monday if I could get there by the weekend. They were 150 miles from Washington. Great stuff!

Tuesday dawned and I discovered that the house batteries were going flat. The battery control system was out, and the multimeter showed that there was nothing from the solar panel at midday and the wind generator didn’t respond, even when there was wind. The radar was out as was the GPS. We were now in the situation of being in an anchorage with no engine, no solar or wind power, and shorts in the system were pulling the house batteries down. I pulled all the fuses and breakers in an attempt to stop the battery drain. This was only partly successful, and so the evenings were then illuminated by candlelight. I sat down to compose e-mails to the U.K. and found that the laptop and printer were dead. There are so many electronic devices on a modern cruising boat it is almost impossible to check them all out in one go. For example, the masthead light worked for a day or two, then failed. The forward navigation and deck lights were also not working, but I didn’t discover that until trying to enter an anchorage late in the evening.

Wednesday arrived, and Bill found some almost-22-mm core plugs, but none fitted. I dismantled the fuel and glow plug lines so that the moment a plug arrived it could be installed. Then I realized that I did not have an echo sounder, and, since getting into anchorages on the three-day trip down the Potomac and Chesapeake was going to be a bottom-scraping experience, I purchased a fishfinder echo sounder. I spent some happy hours installing it and bonding the puck to the hull.

Thursday arrived as did the U.K. core plug, and to my relief the engine started and ran at the correct temperature. By 1130 we were under way, no longer concerned with the low bridge as Bambola’s mast height, minus the masthead antennas, had decreased by three feet. We made good time toward Maryland and entered the Choptank River on Friday. With no autopilot or GPS and the compass giving “odd” directions, I found navigating quite hard work.

Monday came and Marty from Mid-Shore Electronics arrived and over the next days went through the boat with me. Virtually every electrical item had been damaged, as well as some cable runs. Things I could not test without shore power, like the battery charger and fridge, were also damaged. Charles, the surveyor Pantaenius had appointed, arrived, and Bambola Quatre was hauled and the mast pulled. Damage was found to the masthead stainless fittings, which had been renewed in Gibraltar only nine months before.

I sat with the marine catalogues and selected around 20 items of replacements. The total insurance claim was around $40,000. The extent of the work to be done to Bambola’s electronics precluded living on board, so we returned to the U.K. The work was authorized by my insurers, who transferred a 60% deposit, and three months later Marty called to say that the major part of the work was virtually complete. Returning to supervise the final fittings with Bill, the electrician in charge of the project, I found Bambola replete with new electronics and a large pile of Raytheon and ICOM owner handbooks to be studied and understood.

Certainly, we are lucky to be alive. I believe this is entirely due to the excellent bonding that existed in the boat via all the electrical fittings to the skin fittings, keel bolts, ground plates, and to the engine and prop shaft. (While in Europe I delivered a new German boat from the U.K. to Gibraltar and was shocked to see that the bonding was almost nonexistent!) Financially it has cost me my deductible, air fares, and considerable anguish, not to mention a summer’s cruisingI will not now see New York or Maine. The electronics are all state of the art, professionally fitted, and many have bells and whistles. The standard of workmanship has been excellent, and we have received nothing but kindness and consideration from all the people we have encountered in Cambridge, Md. Ever since the strike I have been plagued with overheating and transmission problems and am beginning to think that a lot of volts through the engine block does more damage than is first apparent.

I’ve always carried a Walker log and a sextant together with appropriate tables and have wondered if it was worth the effort. Had the lightning strike happened offshore, then these instruments would have been vital.

By Ocean Navigator