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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Stupid, Stupid Lightning

We crossed the Gulf Stream at night and then spent a long day crossing the Little Bahama Bank.  The next day, we called ahead to the little island of Green Turtle Cay on the Sea of Abaco to secure a mooring.  We were fortunate to get one.  With so many boats crossing the Stream at the same time, there were certain to be a number of them headed to the same place we were.  The marinas could be expected to be full, as well as the mooring field and anchoring room in the two sounds, Black and White Sound.  Both harbors provide excellent protection in nearly a 360 degree circle.

The reason we wanted the mooring was that a major weather system was anticipated to move in within two days of our arrival in the Abacos.  This was predicted to be one of those rather rare systems that would plow across the southern U.S. and barrel on to the Bahamas bringing high winds and heavy rain the entire way over the course of two days’ time; the possibility of straight-line winds up to 70 mph, torrential rains, and rainspouts forming over the ocean was a nasty prospect. 

  We were ready however.  We tied everything down.  We brought the cushions, pillows and anything else that we thought could possibly get blown off the boat, down into the cabin.  Took down the flags to prevent them from being shredded.  Pulled the dinghy up on davits to keep it closely connected to the boat rather than have it sailing around on its painter behind the boat while the sailboat was being pushed from side to side.   Added a third back-up attachment to the mooring by adding one of our own lines in addition to the two pendant lines.  And, we put our moveable electronics inside the oven.
A good place to protect small electronics, the oven

Yes, the oven.  An oven provides the same sort of protection from lightning as a person has while sitting inside an automobile.  The protection is, of course, from being contained within a closed circle of metal (a Faraday Cage), not because the car has rubber tires, as has been suggested by some.  So, we put our phones, Kindles, iPad and MacBook inside the oven.

We awoke at 5:00 AM to the sound of a howling wind and our boat heeled as if under sail.  The wind was clocked at 60 mph in Black Sound near us.  On the mooring, our boat swung back and forth, sometimes heeling, but she was safely attached.  We weren’t going anywhere. It was an impressive wind!  We stayed up for an hour and watched the lightning and a couple of unfortunate boats around us drag at anchor in the dark.  Those poor folks were out there on deck trying to reposition their boats in the wind and rain.  Dreadful conditions to work in and we were feeling so fortunate to be safe on a mooring.

We went back to sleep finally around 6:00 AM.  Too early to get up for good. CRACK CRASH FLASH and then my exact words, I believe were, “Oh SHIT!”  It was 7:00 AM and we were definitely up for the day after a lightning strike so close to us. 

We noticed immediately that some of the control panel lights for the electrical components were black.  But first things first.  Carl went out in the storm to help one of the boats dragging on anchor, and then we began the hunt to track down what did and did not work on Northern Star.  
Some of the solar panels don't work.

The new anchor light was toast. Part of the VHF radio still worked. A faint smell of something burnt lingered near the control panel.  Thankfully, the bilge was dry—we were not sinking.  One of the bilge pumps, however, was done for.  Part of our solar panel array was not working and other electrical components we use to charge our batteries were dead. The gauges and senders that monitor our fuel and water tanks were useless. Nonetheless,we thought that we’d been fairly lucky.  It could have been a LOT worse.  Apparently we took what’s called an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) which is essentially a close but not direct lightning hit that tends to wreak havoc with systems that operate using circuit boards.
The chart plotter works.

We met some folks for Sundowners at 4:00 that afternoon and everyone was talking about the lightning strike.  As is my habit, I took a few pictures with my new camera.  When we returned to the boat, we discovered a few more things that weren’t working.  Sigh. Then I plugged in my new camera to download photos and when I did, there was an immediate burnt odor.  Even my hands smelled burnt. My new camera was fried!  I whimpered.  

Our biggest problem though, was that the boat was not charging. And of course, the water maker still did not work. Later, another cruiser nearby, who works in marine electronics in the off-season kindly came by and spent time helping my husband ferret out what exactly was wrong, system by system.  There was a LOT wrong.  Some of the major functions still did work however:  the engine ran, chart plotter and autopilot worked and our refrigerator and freezer were functioning.  
Fridge measures 46.0 F, Freezer measures 7. 0 F

Optimistic, I dug out my old camera—-the one that I used last year in the Bahamas.  The old camera still worked fine. I had replaced it because it received hard use all year, including underwater photography. It was showing signs of general wear and tear.  Since I am loathe to be without a camera for even a day, I figured I should replace it in advance of going to the Bahamas.  The old camera needed charging however, so I plugged it in.  Promptly smoke and an acrid smell came from the connection. TWO cameras!  Dead!  I admit there were tears.
 Inside of the control panel

But we had all these other decisions to sort out—should we stay in the Bahamas and limp along as best we could?  Borrow a charger from a guy so our batteries can make power while we’re motoring? Plug in at marinas as much as possible and buy water since we can’t make it?  Stay close to populated areas? Or do we head back to Florida to put the boat in a shop to replace all the things that have been zapped? That would probably take another month or more to do that—and then come back to the Bahamas?  We have friends who have already bought tickets to meet us in the islands of the Exumas, a couple hundred miles south of here.  Stupid, stupid lightning!  
The charging system

After stewing for a few hours we had no option but to move the boat into the adjacent marina where we could get shore power to keep the batteries charged. A few more hours (er, days) of stewing led to the decision to move the boat to a marina in a somewhat larger town, Marsh Harbor, where we found an experienced marine electrician. He will be able to have replacement parts flown to us from the U.S.  
At Bluff House Marina

With that connection established, we’ve been waiting for the right weather and sea state so that we can negotiate a difficult ocean cut called “the Whale.”  Because the Sea of Abaco is quite shallow in places, one cannot sail from Green Turtle to Marsh Harbor without going back out onto the ocean through the Whale.  
Northern Star

We are now on Day #8 post-lightning (EMP) and counting. Tomorrow begins Stage 2 of the recovery—the boat moves to Marsh Harbor.  Wondering how many days (weeks) there will be in Stage 2.  


Granny B said...

So sorry you are going through this. You sound so knowledgeable, cool, and seafaring like. Good on you. Hope the repairs happen more quickly than expected and this episode leaves you and your boat with nothing but interesting stories.

Pat Collins said...

What a bummer! I hope the diagnosis and repair go smoothly. Let us know if there is any way we can assist from the great white north!