As expected for early summer in the Bahamas, there had been thunderstorms off and on for a few weeks. There were some big ones, and some scary ones, but this morning’s storm wasn’t either. In fact we were relaxing on our mooring at Warderick Wells eating lunch and not even thinking about the weather.
But then there was a shockingly loud crack of thunder with a simultaneous flash of lightning. And while we didn’t feel a thing from the strike, we did quickly notice the subsequent silence. Since we had just moored and were making lunch, most boat systems had been on but were now dead. Silence from the VHF. Quiet from the stove, as the gas solenoid was out. No ventilation fans, and silence from the fridge fan.
I looked over to the 12 volt panel and the voltmeter was cooked. Like really cooked: melted and charred. Looking outside at the top of the mast I could see that the VHF antenna had been reduced to a stump. All the helm instruments were dead: no wind instrument, no depth, no autopilot, no VHF, no AIS. And the engine control panels were dead, as were the ECUs on the engines.
Me: “Oh no, we’re dead in the water...”
Kids: “Why Daddy? We can just fix some things and then we can sail again.”
Thank goodness for a kid’s optimistic perspective!
So indeed we fixed a few things, starting with the gas solenoid because without hot coffee, Sea Monkey wouldn’t get far. The next morning we synced a portable GPS to a chart on an iPad, crossed our fingers that our shallow draft was shallow enough for the Bahamas, sailed off the mooring and trimmed our sails to the feel of wind in our hair.
Over the next few hundred miles we had time to think about some things:
1: We don’t have a sextant, nor would we know how to use one.
2: But, we did have a set of charts on our iPad, and a freestanding bluetooth GPS. We enjoyed the redundancy of this setup early in our trip, but after losing the Raymarine chartplotter we really really appreciated having backup on board.
3: Communication backup is important. Our main VHF was out, but we had a portable unit that worked. Again, redundancy. And cell phones: we don’t have a Sat phone but we did have very weak cell service. It was enough to phone a friend in the US who was able to coordinate resources for us in Nassau.
4: Sailing without instruments or an autopilot for hundreds of miles makes a person a much better and smoother sailor. It also makes it a lot tougher to simultaneously steer and fish.
5: Diesels don’t require electricity to run, but they do need electricity to start. If you have an older diesel then jumping the starter with a screwdriver is well documented. But it wasn’t until an electrician in Nassau showed us how to start a modern Volvo. Hopefully this knowledge that I’m about to share can help someone out there someday: On our Volvo D1-30, the trick is to access the MDI box (detach it from the engine for easy access) and then jump the starter relay by jumping the two metal posts, connecting red to red/yellow (picture below). Low voltage, no drama and no scariness, and no accidentally welding your screwdriver to the starter.
Take home lessons from this experience:
*Lightning strikes DO happen.
*Redundancy in important safety systems is very important.
*Practice sailing in and out of mooring fields without engine power, you never know when you may need this skill.
*Even when you get struck by lightning, you’re still living on a boat and that’s amazing!