Lightning Strike!

It's rainy season in Panama.

It’s rainy season in Panama.

For the past three-quarters of an hour, I had been admiring the awesome, terrible display of an approaching storm. Multiple spectacular lighting strikes streaked from the ominous skies down to the water’s surface. I had even called Cindy out to the cockpit to admire nature’s fury on full display. As it began to rain, I went back into the salon to do some blog work while Cindy made her way down the steps into the port hull to get food from the freezer for dinner. As she made it to the bottom step, a brilliant white flash surrounded Beatitude and a ferocious crack of thunder was heard simultaneously. Cindy, who was just about to reach for the freezer, saw green sparks fly from that appliance. I looked up and saw little orange fire balls spraying out from the top of our mast like a flaming umbrella. To complete our sensory experience, the smell of burning rubber or plastic permeated our environment. Beatitude had been struck by lightning!

A storm rolls through.

A storm rolls through.

Were we in danger of a fire breaking out on board? An explosion? Was there damage to the hull? Would we sink? All of these questions raced through our hyper-adrenalized minds. The storm continued to rage outside while we attempted to calm ourselves to assess the situation and act as needed. Gratefully, Cindy and I were fine. We didn’t feel any sense of electricity in our own bodies from the strike. Our boat — we were unsure? Fortunately, we did not catch fire, or explode, or sink. As best as we can tell, the smell of burning rubber was coming from the freezer, which was plugged into AC power and was fried. Although assessment is ongoing as I write this, it appears that most of our electronics and navigation equipment was fried, including our AIS, radar, autopilot, wind speed and depth indicators. Our single-side-band radio and VHF radio were also destroyed. Our inverter and battery charger are also gone. But our bilge and water pumps still worked, as did our refrigerator — and should do so, at least until our battery bank was depleted. Thankfully, none of our computers, iPhones or iPads were plugged in at the time. I had intentionally unplugged my Macbook about 15 minutes before the strike.

Miscellaneous fried pieces from atop our mast we found on deck

Miscellaneous fried pieces from atop our mast we found on deck

I was able to reach our friend, sailing teacher and mentor, Captain Roy on the cell phone to discuss what happened and formulate plans. We were in a remote part of Panama with no facilities nearby. Was it safe to start the engines and attempt to reach a facility where help was available? I was concerned that starting the engines could cause fire or explosion. Would they start? Would they continue running or was there damage to their electrical systems? After discussing the situation with Roy, we decided to go for it early the next morning. Well before sunrise, we were up and preparing to depart. We started the engines and thoroughly checked for smoke or smells. All seemed well. So, at 5:40 a.m., we weighed anchor and made our way through the reefs with almost no visibility (thankfully, the windlass worked as well. I was not looking forward to attempting to retrieve it by hand.). We followed our own track back out of the anchorage and made it with no problems. With no depth sounder, I had no way of verifying that we were in the channel or running up onto the reefs.

Leaving the Chichime Cays before sunrise... without electronics.

Leaving the Chichime Cays before sunrise… without electronics.

Cruising along the Costa Arriba of Panama

Cruising along the Costa Arriba of Panama

Twelve hours of hand-steering

Twelve hours of hand-steering

The Admiral helping out at the helm

The Admiral helping out at the helm

The parking lot of huge ships outside the Panama Canal

The parking lot of huge ships outside the Panama Canal

Just before 5 p.m., we entered through the breakwaters at Colon, Panama and proceeded to Shelter Bay Marina where we safely tied to the dock. What a sense of relief! We had covered slightly more than 70 nautical miles in just less than 12 hours — without navigation equipment or electronics. I did have my iPad and iPhone with navigational apps which we used to navigate. We used them sparingly because if there batteries had been depleted, we had no way of recharging them. We hand steered the entire way because we had no autopilot. And, we actually navigating by compass for a while to save battery power. For a moment there, I thought we were back in the ages of exploration!

Inside the breakwater, nearing the marina as the sun is setting.

Inside the breakwater, nearing the marina as the sun is setting.

Our vessel is in safe harbor. Now begins the tedious and cumbersome process (I assume) of contacting the insurance company and making repairs. My guess is it will take at least two to three months, if not much longer. The San Blas Islands were spectacular, but sent us away with a not-too-pleasant parting gift. Out of the 17 vessels anchored in the Chichime Cays that night, the lightning chose us. Why? Who knows? We were also told by the residents of Shelter Bay Marina that we were the 17th vessel this year that came into this marina after being struck by lightning in Guna Yala. We are parked next to another Lagoon catamaran which was recently struck. And, last evening, we met another gentleman who was struck by lightning a couple of weeks ago in San Blas. Wow! All that beauty does not come without significant hazards!

Approaching Shelter Bay Marina

Approaching Shelter Bay Marina

16 thoughts on “Lightning Strike!

  1. Hope all repairs go well. Had any of Captain Roy’s vessels ever been struck by lightning? I’m sure it was comforting to have a seasoned sailor to call on.

    • Thanks, Justin! I’m not sure if he’s had a vessel struck by lightning before, but it was very reassuring to discuss the options with him. I’m anxious to get the repairs going!

  2. Wow, if you need anything let us know!!!! We will be back up in the virgins in a wreck and could help with getting you stiff if needed!!!!zim and Kim

    • Thanks so much Zim! You and Kim are such good friends. We’ll let you know if there is something that you could help with. 🙂

  3. Holy Cow Guys!!! Sooo glad you’re both alright!!!! May the insurance cover everything and if not, may it cover the majority of the costs… Paper charts, compass, and a watch… Glad your nav. programs on iPhone etc. were working… Hand-steering is hard. (We did it all the way to Canada and back…) May you both get a wee rest and then go back out after all the replacements and repairs are done… You’re in our thoughts and prayers!

  4. I am so thankful you guys were ok and kept your head through it all…even though it was scarey! (I’m sure a lot of the reason you weren’t was all the prayers that go up for from me & other loved ones!) love you guys! One more exciting adventure in the lives if the Carey’s! 🙂

  5. Modern sailors often get in trouble by depending on computer aids exclusively. Always carry UPDATED paper charts, and frequently practice your coastal piloting and DR skills using your magnetic compass. Practice doing a “running fix” occasionally. Bravo Zulu… you navigated well back to Colon.

  6. I know I don’t understand all the ramifications of the lightening strike, but it sure did sound scary. Glad you’re both OK.

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