Zapped!

The luckiest day of my life took place in the summer of 1972. At the time, two college friends, Spot and Alec, and I were working summer jobs in Kenne-bunkport, Maine. Spot, his wife, and Alec were sharing a rented cottage that sat at the edge of a large estuary in the Cape Porpoise section of town. The estuary dried out at low tide, but during much of each day, salt water lapped the edge of the property. The water was an overpowering attraction for us. By midsummer, Spot had purchased a derelict 19-foot Lightning Class sailboat, and we were all busy trying to restore it.

Spot’s Lightning had been bought for a song because it had broken loose from its mooring and blown onto a rocky shoreline before sinking. It had several gaping holes in its wooden hull and many signs of the battering it had sustained.

We decided that the best way to refloat the boat was to patch the holes and fiberglass the bottom. We spent several sunny afternoons getting as much fiberglass resin on ourselves as on the boat, and got a great deal of ribbing from friends regarding what appeared to them, at least, to be a quixotic project.

Finally, the hull repairs were finished. At high tide one day we dragged the boat into the shallow water of the estuary, and, to our surprise and delight, the boat didn’t seem to leak. Encouraged by this, we set about rigging the mast, using cheap galvanized wire and turnbuckles purchased at a local hardware store. After a used 5-hp outboard was dropped on the stern – to this day, I’m not entirely sure there were sails – the boat was ready for “sea trials.”

At high tide the next day we ventured out. It was a beautiful sunny August afternoon, with only a hint of breeze. The estuary was quite broad at full tide, stretching to nearly three-quarters of a mile at its widest point, and meandering nearly a mile to meet the deeper water of the Atlantic and the islands there that form Cape Porpoise Harbor.

We motored out to the mouth of the estuary, where it became obvious that we were, indeed, leaking. Several inches of water sloshed in the bilges.

Spot stood on the bench seats at the rear of the cockpit, manning the helm. Alec was on his knees on the cockpit sole, inspecting the inside of the hull. Meanwhile, I clung to the port shrouds of the mast and hiked out to induce as much heel as possible. Alec found and marked leaks along the port side.

So as not to actually enter the harbor itself, and the rougher waters therein, Spot turned the boat around. I switched to the starboard shrouds so Alec could continue his inspection. He marked what he could find, and then stepped out of the sloshing water up onto the bench seat on the port side. Simultaneously, I let go of the starboard shrouds, the boat righted itself, and I stepped aft to stand on the starboard seat.

Suddenly, inexplicably, the boat’s progress slowed. Then the outboard motor quit, and all three of us became aware of a strange and powerful vibrating sensation. It felt as if someone were operating a powerful orbital sander on the bottom of the boat. We all glanced at each other, stupefied as to what was occurring. At this instant, the vibrating sound increased in intensity, and we noticed that the chines inside the hull, where the water level in the bilge was, began to glow. The chines lit up as though neon lights. We were awestruck and fascinated by what we were witnessing.

As we all stared, there was a sudden, incredible flash of fire at the stern. Spot, who was manning the tiller, was standing on the seat at the rear of the cockpit, and was straddling the six-gallon gas tank for the outboard. Seeing the flash of fire, and realizing that he was standing over a tank of gasoline, Spot reacted by jumping overboard.

Unbeknownst to us, the tip of the boat’s mast had come in contact with the overhead high tension power line that supplied most of the electrical power for Cape Porpoise. Miraculously, the energy exerted by Spot jumping overboard pushed the boat out from under the power line. By the time he hit the surface of the water the contact with the power line was broken, and he was likely spared from being electrocuted. Spot’s reaction to the flash of fire – which we later realized was caused by the disintegration of the boat’s backstay – and his jump overboard, likely saved our lives.

As quickly as the event had occurred, it ended. We immediately gathered Spot back into the boat and began trying to understand what had happened. We restarted the outboard and motored back toward the cottage, away from the danger. The Lightning had a steel centerboard, which was in the lowered position, and as we tried to piece together what had occurred we became convinced that we must have struck an underwater power cable.

It wasn’t until we were several hundred yards away from the site of the incident, and still trying to figure out what had happened, that we chanced to look back. This was the first time we noticed the long catenary of the power line as it spanned the mouth of the estuary. Incredibly, as we studied the power line, we noticed that because of the sag in the middle of the span, it blended in with the horizon. There were no markers on the cable to call attention to its presence.

We contacted the local power company to advise them of the incident, and to request that something be done to mark the power lines. To our surprise, the power company didn’t believe our story! After several follow-up calls they finally sent a delegation to talk with us. After seeing the scorched deck of the boat, and its crystalized wire rigging, they finally believed us.

The power company offered to replace the boat’s rigging, but Spot declined the offer. Instead, he asked that they mark the lines. For months we pursued this request with the power company, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Each claimed that the responsibility for marking them rested with some other authority. Eventually, we gave up. Fortunately, sometime during the mid-to-late 1970s (and we honestly don’t know if it had anything to do with us, but we’d like to believe it did), overhead power lines began to be marked with the colorful round markers you see today.

Spot, Alec and I are lucky to be alive. We urge all small-boat sailors who enjoy exploring the coastline and its more secluded coves, estuaries and rivers, to be especially watchful for overhead power lines. The same holds true for almost any body of navigable water: Always be vigilant. You might not be as lucky as we were on that sunny day in Maine.

Ralph Buchanan Pears is a retired lobbyist who, with his wife Kathryn, cruises his restored 1979 Cheoy Lee Clipper 36 ketch, Blessed, from their homeport of Sebasco Estates, Maine.

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