Lightning - First Hand

I’m sitting on my yacht in Coffs Harbour (Australia) this morning scratching my head in disbelief at what happened last night.

Sailing north along the NSW coast yesterday in a 10-15 knot southerly, I wanted to put out my new spinnaker but the forecast was for the southerly to pick up to 30 knots. Not wanting to get caught out with too much sail, I opted for the safe option of a ‘blade jib’, stowing the mainsail. Speed was slow, only 5-6 knots. I’ve been caught out too often over-canvassed and it sucks.

Around 8am I past the town of Camden Haven (aka Laurieton) and joined up with a flotilla of other yachts (around 40ft), heading north up the east coast. Content with sailing in company I slowed down and the faster of the four boats caught up and we sailed within a mile of each other for the rest of the day. With only a small ‘blade jib’, it was a little frustrating given the speed of my catamaran and our normal cruising pace. They had a single headsail out and I could not find reason to outrun them.

 

Approaching Smokey Cape in the late afternoon the wind picked up and I was surfing along at ten knots. My new sailing buddy was now being left behind, finally throwing in the towel and heading to Trial Bay (South West Rocks). I did think of following them but stuck to the plan and calculated that Coffs Harbour could be safely reached at 8pm, given current conditions.

5 miles east of Nambucca Heads I noticed storm clouds gathering. They were over-developing cumulonimbus clouds with huge thunder heads starting to bulge from their tops. It was still daylight and now starting to look a little ugly.

A huge cloud was forming to my port (coast side) and soon started to grumble at me, quiet at first then growing louder and louder. The lightning now start ed cracking at c lose quarters and all of a sudden, the heavens opened. The rain dumped down. With the passing of the cloud, wind was gusty, eventually settling (off my planned southerly) to a westerly. I chose to change course and headed out to sea. Within twenty minutes, this same cloud then dumped its fury on the coastal town of Nambucca Heads and faded into the distance. I was now be ginning to regret not going into Trial Bay.

LightningDaylight was fading and at last search of the horizon, more intense cloud was fast developing seaward. Now within two nautical miles, this cloud had taken on a strange ‘doughnut’ shape and stretched about four nautical miles wide. The underside appeared to be moving out and up growing larger and larger as I watched.

 

The night fell dark quickly and then there was one almighty thunderclap. Heavens opened and it dumped rain through what appeared to be the center of the ‘doughnut’. The lightning then followed and was intense.

I’m finding it difficult to put into words what was unfolding in front of me. The feeling of fear and trying to control my thoughts in a calm manner was difficult. I was helpless in front of this fury.

“Am I going to survive this?”

The thoughts of survival were very strong. Through all this, I then chose to turn back to the coast (in a westerly direction). Looking back at the fury now directly behind me I witnessed massive lightning strikes exploding on the ocean, coming from the centre of the cloud like a spaceship firing death rays to decimate any life underneath. The following unfolding aftermath of ‘the doughnut’ now to the east of me, was incredible. I would confidently say that if anyone had been positioned below that cloud then, they would be struggling to stay afloat or even to survive its ferocity and anger.

This quickly brought back thoughts of the stories I’d read and heard of regarding lightning strikes on boats, especially yachts. The frying electrics including engine CDI's, stators, GPS plotters, Autohelms, lights, laptops, solar panels and the like. The power of the lighting creates a field of energy that just fry's wires. The thought of no engines, No GPS and no visibility due to intense rain was pretty worrying. Captain Cook could do it back then, but why can’t I?

Heading back toward the coast I tried to outrun the cloud and was stunned to see another ‘Alien spaceship’ cloud developing between the yacht and the coast. This one was the same size I had just been through and it too was developing extremely fast. Soon, massive indescribable lightning was shooting through the centre of the heavy rain. Surely no living thing could have survived under this cloud. It was time to regather thoughts with ‘a crazy cloud two nautical miles to the east and another the same distance to the west’…I finally headed south.

Mr Murphy (from Murphy’s Law) was on hand too sitting on my bow and you’ve guessed it. In the darkness, one ‘doughnut’ was now looming to the south and heading in my direction. Turning north appeared to be out of the question as that was the direction this treacherous weather was heading. I was out of options but had to make a call, finally choosing north. It really felt like a scene from ‘War of the Worlds’ with one of those evil death-ray-spewing 3-legged alien monsters to my side and now behind. While this may all sound overdramatic it's not until you witness this displeasure, that you see and feel what I am trying to explain.

I turned both motors on and with the headsail hoisted, tried to outrun this mess. The race was now on and it paralleled me all the way to Coffs Harbour, some fifteen nautical miles in total.

Sadly, Mr Murphy was still with me about one nautical mile from Coffs Harbour. The motors decided they had had enough and together with the water now being mixed around in the water-separator unit, shut down both engines. Water had penetrated the water-separator unit and lines now had water contamination, this being after a service only two days previous. I rounded Korffs Islet in blinding rain and entered the mouth of Coffs Harbour in a two meter swell and 25 knots of wind from the southwest, under headsail. That’s no motors, wet clothes, blinding rain and fogged up glasses.

I had done it! Out of that mess and one of the most satisfying moments of my life. Even Captain Cook would have been proud of me.

“Where's that bottle of rum?”

The storms by now had spent their energy and dumped enormous rain on me but safely at anchor inside the protection of Coffs Harbour breakwall, it didn’t matter. I plucked up energy to get straight to a ‘man's heart’ – via his stomach and cooked a yellowfin tuna I had caught earlier that day on the lure, sipping on a rum and coke. Pondering, I now regretted not buying that $45 microwave from Kmart a couple of days earlier. They are said to be a good place to put emergency electronics in a lightning storm. The lining that prevents ‘microwaves’ escaping when cooking is thought to also act in stopping lightning energy from getting in.

To my sailing companion from yesterday, “I don’t know who you are but if you ever read this mate, you made a good decision to go into Trial Bay” (South West Rocks).

 

 

Written by Warren Innes (Crowther 40)

Where & When: Early April 2011, Australian East Coast

 

 

 

Facts, Figures and more Reading:

  1. Further: Comment & Chat - Click Here
  2. Reference: Lightning and Boats
  3. Reference: Boatowners Mechanical & Electrical Handbook (Nigel Caulder)
  4. Reference: Sailboat Electrics (Don Casey)
  5. Edited: DIY-Yachts