Struck by lightning

August 2007

By Michael L. Martel
For Points East

Of all the dangers that can threaten boaters out on the water, lightning is perhaps the most fearsome. Boats may ride out wind and wave, but a bolt out of the sky can sink a boat, render its electronics useless, and kill its passengers. Like the wrath of God, it descends unpredictably out of the sky to smite both man and boat.

This story has a happy ending, although it could have been otherwise. And if there were lessons to be learned, maybe they were to stay in port when the weather turns threatening (if one has a choice), to never trust the radio weather broadcast, and to not be too desperate to get back on the water after a midsummer repair.

In late July 1999, I discovered that the top two feet of the wooden rudder-post of my antique gaff-yawl Privateer had rotted, forcing me to haul out to repair it. The boat was relaunched on Aug. 2, and five days later, anxious to set sail, we broad-reached in a good northwesterly toward Block Island, about nine miles from mainland Rhode Island.

Aboard Privateer with me were my wife Denise, sons Kevin, 16, and Tommy, 9, daughter Christine, 18. We sailed into Block Island’s New Harbor in midafternoon and decided to set our new bower anchor, a 33-pound Bruce. The harbor was crowded, but I saw a place where we could anchor, and we rounded up under a neat double-ender as we lowered the main.

After dinner ashore and a good sleep aboard, we awoke to a cloudy, humid, gray Sunday morning that threatened rain. I turned on NOAA weather radio, and a small-craft advisory was up, with southwest winds to 20 to 25 knots by afternoon and a chance of scattered thundershowers. “Let’s leave now,” I said. “By the time it starts to blow hard, we’ll be back in the bay.”

I told Kevin, my right-hand man and first mate, that we should tie a single reef in the main and run with only the main and roller-furling jib. The jib would pull nicely and keep the nose to leeward and offset weather helm, and a single reef in the main would ensure a measure of safety if it really piped up.

We closed all the hatches, raised the anchor and lashed it down, and faked out the mooring line on deck and tied it off every foot so it couldn’t be washed over the side. Denise made sandwiches, and as we left the harbor, the western sky became an inky black, and multiple and frequent flashes of lightning pierced the dark horizon. A mile out from the island, it started to rain, and I saw something that caused me concern: Fresh, green leaves fluttered down from the sky. The nearest land to the west was Long Island, 20 miles away. (Much later, I heard about the category F1 tornado that ripped up trees and took the roofs off houses on Long Island.) Then I heard of the special weather advisory for a severe thunderstorm with dangerous lightning moving up from Long Island sound – predicted to be in our vicinity within 20 minutes.

There was no time for old Privateer to slog three miles to windward in building seas and 15-knot winds, back to New Harbor. We were already a half-mile past buoy “1BI,” the green bell marking the outer tip of North Reef. Later, I heard that the Coast Guard was warning boaters to stay put in Block Island harbor and not to leave. But there were no warnings on the weather channel – the logical channel to be listening to, I thought – but rather on VHF Channel 16, the official distress channel.

Believing we’d be safer out in open water, I decided to press on, ride it out, and hope that the storm would pass and miss us, or at least only graze us. Ten minutes after the weather report, it began raining so hard it “smoked” off the deck, and I was concerned that the dinghy we were towing would fill with water and swamp. Lightning flashing all around us, and some of the bolts were close.

“I’m going below for a minute to check our position,” I said to Kevin, “Just keep low in the cockpit.” We had lightning protection on mainmast and mizzen, grounded through the hull to a copper plate, and with maximum winds around 35 knots predicted and a short way to go, I thought we could handle the storm.

I was below for a minute – no more. As I crawled back into the cockpit, Kevin shouted, “Look out, Dad!” and I was smacked in the face by a double ash-shelled block as the main boom suddenly and unpredictably jibed over. It was the deck-end block of the main sheet. The blow knocked my glasses off and cut my face in a couple of places. Half-stunned, I yelled out over the roar of the wind and rain and thunder, “What happened?”

“I don’t know!” he hollered. “It just jibed!”

“Wind shift!” I yelled. “Not your fault – it’s on top of us!”

I scrambled to find my glasses so I could see, my face numb. I looked up – the rig was okay, nothing broken, but now we were pointing westward with no way on, the sail luffing hard, the wind rising fast, spindrift blowing over the water. A bolt of lightning hit nearby, followed by a bolt every three or four seconds. Blood was in the rainwater on my hand. I looked at Kevin and asked, “Am I cut bad anywhere on my face?”

If he answered, I didn’t hear him; his answer was drowned out by the sound of a larger event. Those in the cabin saw it through the doghouse as a brilliant pink flash and, simultaneously, a violent thunderclap at the top of the mainmast. I saw the reflection of the flash, felt the horrendous crash, and knew we’d been hit.

My first thoughts were, “Are we alive? Anyone hit?” The air was filled with an awful, acrid smell, later identified to me as “burnt ozone.” Then there was an awful screeching cacophony from below – not from my family, but from the alarms on the GPS and Loran as they registered their displeasure and went off-line. Not a word came from the courageous crew below, but the distinct smell of burning electrical circuits wafted up through the hatchway.

I raced below, silenced the alarms, and restarted the GPS and Loran. The television set had flicked on and died. The VHF radio had fried; stray current had somehow found its way down the antenna and into the electrical panel. It killed my 2,000-watt inverter, the TV, the VHF, the CD player and stereo, and the battery-status panel. But at least I had a handheld VHF, a working cell phone, and navigational equipment back on line, so I could call in a position if I needed to issue a Mayday.

After a quick check of everything, I could see that no fires were burning, although wires had been burnt. No one had been hit by lightning, and no holes were in the hull. The rig was still intact, and the boat was still afloat and intact.

Back on deck, we were dead in the water, the sail luffing. Kevin hunkered low in the cockpit. The intense cell of lightning had passed. The wind had dropped back to around 18 knots. The rain was still pouring buckets, hitting the sea with such force that the waves were smooth and seemed covered with a smoky mist of shattered raindrops.

I turned the helm downwind once again, sheeted in the main, and we picked up speed. I turned the key to start the diesel engine, and it cranked to life with a sweet and reassuring sound. Once started, I’d leave it running until we got home. Then I powered her into the wind and rounded up, fearing to jibe again, and bore away once more on the proper tack for Point Judith and the dearly sought mouth of Narragansett Bay.

The heavy rain had nearly swamped the dinghy astern. In the running seas, I could not bring the dinghy in close to the transom. When it looked as though I might be able to, it surfed toward the transom, and with its now heavy weight, one collision could damage the sailboat or splinter the dinghy’s stem. So I left it on her long, stout tether, towing it sloppily like a sea anchor, and I hoped it would stay with us long enough for us to get into quieter waters where I could rescue it.

I planned to reach the shelter of Dutch Harbor, where we could stop and bail out the skiff, and this proved an interminable period. Little thunder cells kept passing over, and at one point I exclaimed, in bitter exasperation, “Won’t this damned storm finally leave us alone!” I have never known a thunderstorm that lasted so long – nearly two hours, and within those two hours, every 10 minutes seemed an hour.

At last, we saw the breakwater of the Harbor of Refuge and Point Judith through the mist, but I continued on up the bay since the rain had nearly stopped and the thunder was gone. But there were building swells off Narragansett, some eight-footers, and I feared for the dinghy. However, no new water was raining down into the skiff, and I noted that every time the dinghy was violently jerked or pulled stem-up in the steep swells, another gallon or two of water slopped out of it. It was getting higher in the water!

Once under the Jamestown Bridge, in flat water, I pulled the skiff alongside, bailed it out the rest of the way, sponged it dry, and set it trailing light and easy astern once again. The sun nearly came out; threatening clouds moved to leeward. The onshore wind freshened, and we were making nearly seven knots up the bay, sailing with the incoming tide.

Once safely on the mooring in Bristol’s Kickamuit River, more insults were to be endured. During the storm, the dinghy’s propeller shear pin had snapped. I started the engine, put it in gear, and nothing moved. Well, fine, then, I thought, we’ll row ashore. As the second and last dinghy load was rowed to shore by the weary skipper, the starboard oar snapped in half – an unlucky end to an unlucky weekend, but one that lent new meaning to the proverb, “Count your blessings.”

Epilogue: On the evening news that night, the weatherman showed a Doppler radar image of an impossibly large, intense, red-and-yellow thunderstorm cell so huge that it simultaneously overlapped parts of Block Island and Point Judith. This monster of a thunderstorm had blanketed the entire route of our passage across open water.

As I rowed away from Privateer that afternoon, I looked back at her riding safely on her mooring pennant and spoke aloud my gratitude to the soul of the man who designed her 72 years before, John Alden, a man with no computer, only pencil and rule and a mind for a stout, seakindly hull. And I thought of the excellent work of the hands of Robert E. McLain and his boatbuilders in the R.E. McLain & Sons yard, late of Thomaston, who built her in 1930. Their solid work, almost 70 years later, carried a family safely home through dangerous waters.

I dedicate the story to my late friend Carlton Pinheiro, an author himself and longtime curator of the Herreshoff Marine Museum, who liked it enough, even in its earlier and rougher incarnation, to show it to friends and encourage me to seek its publication.