August 12, 2013

Lightning Can Ruin Your Day

Though hurricanes and tropical storms rarely threaten the tropical Caribbean south of 10 degrees latitude, you do get a "rainy season" there. It is aptly named. While anchored near Linton, Panama, we experienced a deluge that lasted over 24 hours. I'm talking the kind of rain that overwhelms the deck scuppers, meaning inches of water on deck, fills the dinghy every hour or so, and is often accompanied by a tremendous lightning show--if you could only enjoy it! With bolts of lightning pounding down all around, your mind wanders to that little, tiny lightning brush you installed at the top of the mast, or the grounding cable you think might be too small. It is too small!

When some of these bolts hit nearby you hear sizzles and pops like somebody is grilling steaks, only you might be too near the grill. I've experienced some near misses that lit up the turned-off electronics, but with no apparent damage. The thunderous crash was nearly instantaneous--in fact, it seemed to come almost before the flash. From a little more distance you sometimes see what I call "lightning columns." These are huge bolts that go straight down into the sea from the clouds--none of that sissy jagged stuff. The surface of the sea seems to be vaporized where these columns hit. Frankly, I don't think a boat located there would have much of a chance no matter what fru-fru lightning protection equipment you've installed.

Seeing this stuff down in the southwest Caribbean, and talking to numerous boats that were hit and damaged despite having protection, makes me a fatalist when it comes to lightning. It is a matter of luck, and maybe some unknown factors, whether or not you get hit. The best preparation is to put a handheld VHF radio and a handheld GPS unit inside a metal pot inside the oven, and hope this Faraday Cage approach protects them. It might, but I hope to never find out.

Otherwise, I follow my usual keep-it-simple and redundant approach. If you normally use electronic charts and plotters, have paper back ups. Set up your boat so that you can operate it without any electronics or electrical systems. Most of us will still need to rely on an electric starter to get the engine going, but that is something that can be repaired or replaced almost anywhere in the world. In the meantime, we can still sail to where we need to go. That is the mindset I have when in lightning country--make sure you don't rely on something that can be taken out in a big flash and bang.