“Many long-distance sailors fear lightening more than they fear anything. Battling atrociously big seas and gale-force winds comes with the ticket, with storms an experienced mariner can ready their vessel and take precautions, experience will then generally see them through. That is the way it has always been. With lightening at sea or even in harbour, a sailor can do nothing. It is not unlike being shot at by a large cannon that could sink your vessel if hit, and many ocean sailboats are struck by lightening. A lightening storm is a truly frightening experience, because you cannot do anything to prevent it.”
Sir Francis Chichester, 1979 (edited)
We ourselves have come across many sailboats, a large number of them multi-hulled catamarans, that have been struck by lightening. A lightening storm at sea is a frightening experience, it has always been our own greatest fear.
Bahiá Del Sol, in El Salvador, suffers its fair share of ferocious tropical storms during its wet-summer season, further north in Mexico and Guatemala they generally manifest themselves as Pacific hurricanes. Even so, a tropical downpour in this rain-forest and mangrove wilderness is something you won’t forget.
At the back end of August both the Dutch catamaran SV Madeleine and Sänna were struck by lightening whilst moored in the Bahiá Del Sol. Madeleine was severely damaged, ourselves less so but damaged nevertheless.
They say lightening never strikes twice, it’s the second time that Madeleine has been struck…
We arrived back in Bahiá Del Sol having been notified that Sänna might have suffered lightening damage whilst we were back in England. And so it proved. We arranged for Sänna to be towed to a local dock where Madeleine was already tied. We had suffered much less than Madeleine but the remote location of the Bahiá Del Sol estuary meant that we were going to have to use our own resources to carry out emergency repairs, then find a more suitable location to get Sänna fixed. The strike that damaged Madeleine travelled through the water to Sänna’s prop-shaft and keel, which is what lightening current does.
Madeleine were sort of lucky in their own way, they have good insurance. Their insurance company flew out a marine surveyor from Germany to assess their damage, who straightaway recommended that specialist contractors be flown from Europe to repair their vessel – they would work with the one single local contractor to get Madeleine repaired. Even so, it is going to take many months before the Dutch can continue their voyage. Madeleine’s insurance company is Pantaneus, a long-established and well respected marine insurance specialist.
Luck is always with the beholder, our insurers are Allianz who, it turns out, do not have a good reputation at all. Our bitter dispute with Allianz rumbles on. Marie and I, along with other sailboat skippers managed to complete emergency repairs to get Sänna seaworthy, we have now sailed south to find a safer location to get things done. Our gripe is not that we were struck by lightening, but that we are dealing with a crap insurance company in Allianz.
So the moral of this particular blog is this. I myself have learned three valuable life lessons during my ageing years as a seafaring adventurer and a sometimes moaning git. First – Gortex isn’t and never will be waterproof. Second – never buy Bang & Olufsson and third… do not, under any circumstances, rely upon Allianz to get you out of trouble.
I could also add that it never pays to rant & rave. Our lightening damage is fixable, we are resourceful people and we will get things done when we are in a safe location. It’s part of what happens when hard-core travelling – which is what circumnavigating a long-distance sailboat is. The pinstripe-suited insurance boys, back there in rain-soaked London, have no concept of adventure or life outside of their glass-cladded office block buildings… and you would certainly never buy an insurance man a beer.
Of course, this is an ageing sailor’s rant & rave.
The full blog of our experience and that of Madeleine will follow in due course. Our current situation with Allianz is ‘fluid’ and ongoing, but since leaving Bahiá Del Sol to find somewhere to repair Sänna we ourselves have had an amazing sailing adventure. We’ve battled the infamous Papagayo winds to find stunning Honduran and Nicaraguan anchorages, we’ve made more good sailboat friends and met many friendly locals who are always eager to help. Our lightening strike is recorded in our ship’s log for posterity.
Lightening does strike twice and perhaps more than that. It’s heartbreaking to see the plight of Madeleine and her Dutch crew – to be struck a second time must be excruciatingly hard to take.
Dave – Nicaragua, December 2019
Note: Almost everyone assumes that lightening strikes the masthead, then travels through the metal cabling and rigging of the boat to then ground itself in the sea. The thought of a towering mast sitting on a surrounding flat sea supports this view but it is generally not the case.
When in Singapore with Sänna several years ago we were in the Raffles Boatyard, in that boatyard were seven sailboats that had been damaged by lightening in the nearby Mallacca Straights, the lightening capital of the maritime world. These guys in Raffles are the foremost experts in lightening damage. They are always keen to explain that, although it does happen, lightening does not directly strike the mast. Lightening strikes the sea, then it’s spreading counter current travels up through the nearby sailboat via its keel, prop-shaft and thru-fittings, causing sometimes extensive damage and even fire.
The Raffles boys could even tell where the sea-strike occurred, the distance and direction too. The expensive masthead gadgets sold by many lightening ‘experts’ are generally a waste of time.
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