Another major blow for Party of Five. The kind of blow that would end many peoples cruising trips. A blow that is both terrifying and devastating in a time so short its almost immeasurable. A blow that came from the sky and struck with the brightest light and loudest sound we have ever heard. That’s right we were struck by lightening.
The day began like all others here in Puerto Rico. It was bright and sunny in the morning and we had decided to make the short jump just 5 miles south to the town of Boqueron. All 5 boats had decided to make the move and since we all needed fuel we would stagger our departure so we could each have access to the fuel dock. Since we were the closest it was decided that we would leave first. We headed over to the fuel dock and filled up on cheap diesel and pumped out the black tanks (eww poo water). Once complete, we pulled away from the fuel dock to allow Sea Frog access. We bid everyone goodbye on the VHF knowing we would see them in just over an hour at the Boqueron anchorage.
We headed out the channel of the small bay the marina was located in and turned south down the coast. We threw out the fishing lines and decided to leave the sails furled as it was such a short trip (just an hour). About 45 minutes in, we turned into Boqueron bay. Right after making the turn, we got the first indication that we might be in for a storm. There were dark clouds building over the mountains but we thought they may get stuck behind the mountains and head off to sea. No matter, we really didn’t have any choice as we were about 1nm from the anchorage. We continued forward hoping we would at least beat the rain and be dry while we anchored. We made it to the anchorage and dropped the hook in 10 feet of water with excellent holding (important if a storm is coming). Once set down, we radioed the other boats and informed them a storm was threatening and to either delay departure or hurry. The all opted to try and outrun the storm and kicked the diesels into maximum revs.
About a half hour after we arrived, Sea Frog and Smitty arrived and scoped out their anchor spot. Shorty after this, the weather began to quickly deteriorate with high winds and lightening in the distance. By the time the last 2 boats (Sea Squirrel and Last Tango) arrived, there was a blinding rain and really high winds. The last 2 boats anchored with some difficulty and we all settled in to wait out the storm. The rain was oscillating from blinding sheets to a light rain every few minutes. About 1/2 hour after the last boats anchored, the wind picked up even more and the lightening began. Since there was nothing we could do but ride it out, Rhonda and I decided to put a movie on to keep the kids from getting scared. So we all gathered around the settee and fired up Captain Ron while the storm raged around us.
At first, the lightening and thunder was a long way off. The time between the flash and bang was numerous seconds and we were more worried about the wind and the anchor dragging. However, that quickly changed and the time between flashes and bangs quickly became a second or less. Again, since there was nothing we could do, we just turned up the volume and focused on the movie hoping it would pass soon.
I sit here trying to think of how to describe the actual event and find I have no words that would adequately describe it. I will do my best, but I know my words will not do justice to the actual event. It happens fast, with a blinding flash and a bang so loud your insides quiver. It felt like the boat was pushed down into the water 1/2 a foot as she seemed to pop back up and shudder. In the 5-10 seconds after the strike we sat stunned and blinded waiting for our senses to return to normal. Once the shock wore off, my brain registered what happened and I quickly began scanning around the cabin to confirm what I suspected happened. My heart immediately sank as I noticed the display on the VHF was all scrambled. Amazingly, a voice came through the VHF and said “That wasn’t good” (Kendra on Sea Frog). That was the last thing the VHF ever did as the display turned dark right after that transmission.
I looked at Rhonda and said, “We were struck, I need to get up” (I was sitting in the middle). Everyone moved and I flew off the settee and over to the navigation station where the handheld VHF was sitting in the charger. I picked it up and hoped that it still worked as I thumbed the volume knob to turn it on. The radio bleeped to life and I immediately heard Jesse on Smitty asking if everyone was alright (at this point no one knew were were hit, but they knew it struck close). I pushed the transmit button and uttered 3 words, “We’ve been struck”. There was stunned silence for a handful of seconds before Jesse came back on and repeated the question. I responded that everyone was ok but the boat was damaged for sure. I would let everyone know after we assessed the damage (and make sure we weren’t sinking) and report back once I looked things over.
Ironically this appeared to be the last lighting bolt of the storm as the rain had stopped and things had already begun to settle. We walked through the boat turning on switches and making mental notes of which things were still working and which weren’t. Unfortunately it was worse than I hoped as here is a list of the items that were damaged/destroyed.
1. Wind transducer
2. Depth transducer
3. Fuel level transducer (X2)
4. Data displays (B&G Tritons X2)
5. Chartplotter (B&G Zeus2)
6. AIS (Vesper WatchMate Vision)
7. VHF (Standard Horizon GX1700)
8. VHF splitter (Vesper Splitter).
9. Autopilot (Raymarine ST6002 and S1 computer both fried)
10. Radar (Raymarine C80 and Radar Dome)
11. Stereo (Boss marine stereo)
12. Refrigerator (Isotherm)
13. Cockpit lighting (all LEDS died)
14. All navigation lights, (bulbs melted or exploded)
15. VHF antenna (vaporized)
16. Both alternators on the engines
17. One Laptop
It could have been worse as some high dollar items were spared (battery charger, freezer, solar system), but its still a major blow. While walking around the boat, I estimated that it would cost about $10,000USD to put the boat back the way it was. Before you ask, NO, we did not have lightening insurance…. I gambled and lost on this decision. It was a calculated risk as the odds of being struck are about 1 in 150,000, I guess I won the lottery that day. As you can imagine we were morally crushed. The only thing that stopped us from a complete breakdown was the fact that Jesse had dinghyed over (in the newly pouring rain) to help in any way he could. Just his presence helped us in knowing that we weren’t alone and went a long way in helping our crushed spirits. We spent a few hours troubleshooting, but ultimately decided that we should stop for the night and go to sleep, then spend the next day making a plan.
The next day, Stacey and Jesse again dinghyed over and spent the whole day helping. Jesse helped me with the electronics while Stacey kept the kids busy. They also brought over their cell phone and allowed me to tether my computer so I had access to the internet. We talked over the options (no matter what I needed to fix everything) and decided to order replacement items and have them sent to Ponce (a city about 50 miles away). Smitty, Sea Frog and Last Tango would stick close and I would follow them as I had no instruments. We wired a new power line for a laptop with chartplotting software so I would have a plotter. We also pulled my spare VHF out of storage and set about installing it. This way I would at least have another VHF and not be completely reliant on our handheld. Of course the range was severely reduced as we no longer had an antenna, just the VHF wire running up the mast.
NOTE To the trolls that are sure to comment, I had no less than 7 tablets or laptops with chartplotting abilities that survived so we were never in danger of not having charts despite not having any paper charts.
After phoning our credit card company, we got on the internet and put in some HUGE orders with Defender and Amazon. It turns out my initial estimate was not that far out. Our initial round of replacements came in at $8500USD and there will definitely be more required. A devastating blow for sure that will have an effect on our overall plans. How big of an effect remains to be seen!
At this point we have made it to Gilligan’s Island anchorage about 15nm outside of Ponce waiting on a smooth window to finish the run to Ponce. Hopefully the replacements will go smooth and we can start figuring out what to do next!
The bolt entered our VHF antenna. It either vaporized it, or blew it out and the antenna hit the ocean and sunk.
Another View. Amazing what happens when a couple hundred thousand volts hits something. No scorch marks on anything else, so that is good news.
The wires look good. No crispy outsides. I think the wires survived but we will use a multimeter to test the resistance and see if they are cooked.
The bolt also entered our mast light. You can see bits of the shattered plastic and scorch marks on the bulb holder. Surprisingly the fixture still works once we put a new bulb in it. We may get away with just a new cover (see below)
This is our steaming light. Most of the bulbs melted where they were in contact with the connectors. You can see the scorch marks on the 2 tabs. Believe it or not, once we cleaned it up and put a new bulb in it still works.
The bolt entered through the plastic and blew the shit out of the top bulb. Blew the glass right off the base.
This was the bulb from our steaming light. Melted the locking peg right off. This bulb was 1/2 way down the mast.
My cobbled starter button for the port motor. The port motor wiring started smoking 1/2 hour into our trip to Gilligan’s Island. I had to run down and start yanking wires and pull the relays to stop the smoke. Notice the fire extinguisher below. Its sobering to have smoking wires 10 miles offshore. I just keep saying the mantra “The difference between adventure and ordeal is attitude!”
The obligatory top of the mast shot, cause every cruiser needs to have one. Love that Summer (Smitty’s dog) is in this picture. She was instrumental in keeping me sane. In the morning, I just sat and petted her… I could feel the stress and anxiety just melt away. Dogs are awesome!
Even when stuff goes shitty, we can still count on a sunset so beautiful it brings a tear to your eye! As I stare off into this sunset, I can’t help but wondering if this will become one of those “This is what I came for” moments….. or maybe that’s just my subconscious grasping at straws and trying to put a positive spin on this craziness!