(I borrowed the feature pic from the web. We were not in the mood and capable to take pics at lightning night)
June 14 – June 19, 2022; 8901 nm and 1186 days after departure from La Rochelle.
What a scary experience! We planned our sail to Santa Marta very carefully. The focus was on Cabo de Vela as it was a know as a challenging area to sail through. It was best to pass this cape in preferably calm conditions (sustaining winds around 15 as gusts were likely to go up ten knots). Jimmy Cornell (a sailing guru) recommends those calm conditions as well as a distance from shore along the 1000 metre depth line to escape from overfalls and other uncomfortable sea conditions. Cautious and German as we are, we took all the advises and followed the rules. That worked out very pleasant. The ride was smooth and very fast (current was helping us) until we only had 60 miles left. By then the wind had -as expected – dropped completely. Time for our engine to get some work to do.
Going further south east the Caribbean sea it was commonly known that there is a high risk of getting in touch with thunderstorms and lightning. The energy and intensity in the air, also measured with the “cape” value is usually very high in these areas. We knew, from now on we would have to cope with those nasty natural spectacles a lot. However we did not expect to be involved so fast and so close. It happened in the middle of the night. The crew had just switched their shift. I was on duty. El Capitano had coped already for a couple of hours with the thunderstorm and the many, many amazing though scary lightnings. Our radar was so kind and showed us the many thunderstorm areas (with heavy rainfall) on the screen. I was not sure if I liked the fact to know exactly where all the thunderstorm cells were. Running away was unfortunately not possible. It would have been great to just “apparate” like the witches in Harry Potter or to have gotten “beemed” up to the enterprise. That would have been great that night! Yeah, well of course it didn’t happen, still a nice thought…
When I started my shift we were squeezed into two big cells. There was one lightning after the other followed by thunder after the other. A very unpleasant situation. There was not much we could do but hoping to get through. We had put our mobiles and computer into the oven but then again our boat being made from aluminium is a fairly safe cage anyhow. After maybe half an hour I was relaxing a bit. The radar showed that the big cell on our port side had disappeared. A huge relief as the cells were moving slowly north west which meant that the remaining cell on our starboard side would move further away from us. It was amazing how fast you can adapt to circumstances. I had already gotten a little used to the noise and the stunning lightning show. And thinking that we made it over the peak made me feel confident. So I got the kettle on the stove to make a nice cup of tea. The same moment I was pouring the water into my cup the most loudest noise I’ve ever heard made me jump and freeze for a second. At the same time I saw the radar screen disappearing as well as the navigation plotter. El Capitano was cut off his dreams, got straight up and was fully awake within milli seconds. He actually realised the whole situation faster than me – adrenaline maybe helped? However, fact was all our electrical instruments were down. It took us a few seconds to realise that it also meant the autopilot wouldn’t work anymore. So I went out and took over the wheel. Apart from when the lightning were lighten up the sea it was pitch dark and very unpleasant. If sailing is like this I DO NOT like it. But I guess nobody does. If we would have had the sails up then our dear wind vane would have done the duty. Well, hell shit happens. Fortunately El Capitano managed to get our backup navigation system going after about 30 min. We still had to hand steer but now we could navigate again. Yeah! After about 5 hours of hand steering we arrived early Saturday morning at Marina Santa Marta.
Although we were not directly hit by a strike, it did have an impact on our instruments. The next days, El Capitano figured out that “only” our anemometer and the NMEA 2000 gateway was broken. The gateway caused a shortcut on the N2K bus and took it down. As the bus is connecting all the navigational components with each other all instruments went off. He also found a leak current (minor connection between the hull and the battery) which was caused by our heating system and the ham antenna. Fortunately El Capitano is very much into electricity and likes playing around with it. He had made this chart with all the connection and whatever. That helped him to find the root cause. Me on the other hand I prefer when the devices just work… In the end we were happy and grateful that we didn’t get a direct hit and the damage was not too immense. Hopefully we won’t find more issues.
Did we learn anything from our experience? Well, we learned that you can’t do much. Switching off all the instruments sounds like THE option, but then again it’s not that easy. Thunder lightning means bad weather, bad sight, rain etc. Switching off instruments would e.g. mean not being visible via AIS to other boats and vice versa. Hand steering, no navigational route, no radar, no position etc. would be the consequences. Unfortunately there is no easy solution. Probably best not to get into these weather conditions, but on longer passages that is just not possible to predict completely.
Well, what makes me feel quite good now, is the fact that we feel having been hit by lightning. Has anybody heard that somebody got hit by a lightning twice in his life? See my point? We’re done with lightning hits – tick in the box😁!