Saturday, July 14, 2012

Living under a lightning rod

Sailors, more than power boaters who seem to want to travel in spite of Mother Nature, are well attuned to her ways, since they move in cooperation with her.  Nevertheless, Mother Nature is not always benign, even to sailors.  She is not malignant, but just supremely aloof.  All the accommodation must occur on our side.

Recently, one of the boats whose blog we follow was hit by lightning - arguably Mother Nature's most concentrated and capricious force.  Now, sometimes a lightning strike can leave you with little more than ringing ears.  But not usually.   In this case, s/v Bella Star was left with virtually nothing electronic on board in working condition. Fortunately, they were not onboard when the strike occurred, and the hull was not holed, as sometimes is the case when the lightning seeks an exit to the water.

This morning, as we sit anchored in Eagle Harbor there is thunder rolling around in the clouds.  This is an extremely rare event here in Seattle - so much so that not infrequently an individual lightning strike is reported on the news.  I think the news folks may be saturated today, since we had thunderstorms most of yesterday too.

Not that we are thunder storm weenies tho.  Both Jane and I grew up in the Midwest, and got our start sailing on Lake Carlyle (hi Deb!), and spent two years sailing on the Chesapeake.  At that time, for protection we had a pair of jumper cables that we'd clip on the shrouds and trail in the water - an attempt to provide the lightning a convenient path to the water, should the mast be struck.  I don't know if it would have worked; we were never struck.

Is there any way to prevent a strike?  On this the experts disagree.  But the insurance companies, who very much have a dog in this fight, have no recommendations.  You can bet that if there were a way to even slightly reduce the likelihood of a strike, boats would be required to implement it in order to get insurance, especially in Florida - the lightning capital of the world.

So, what do we do?  Well, the vast, VAST majority of the time, it is not an issue here in Seattle, so we don't think about it.  But the last couple of days have brought back memories - memories of hot muggy days and me telling the kids to stay away from the mast and the standing rigging.  And the night before last, when we saw a strike on the water less than a mile away, we moved all the electronics we could into the oven (it acts as a Faraday cage).

And we tried to stay away from the masts and the rigging.

And we had a glass of wine and watched the light show.


Courtney said...

It's been quite a show, the lightning. In efforts to learn as much as I can about how to keep safe in a storm, I've also come to the conclusion there's no solution to protect a boat from lightning. No strikes were close to Liberty Bay, most were five miles or more out. NOAA is calling for more T storms for this week. Keep drinking that wine!

Anonymous said...

Lightning doesn't even have to strike your boat. It can be a near-strike, like we experienced twice in Jacksonville, FL. 1st time we lost VHF, light bulbs, and the light circuit switch (melted through). 2nd time zapped our alternator. Destructive stuff...

Aaron said...

So you had some wine during the storm and were not struck... I think this is solid evidence of an effective lightning mitigation strategy and we'll be implementing it on Bella Star immediately. It'll save us money over dubious commercially available solutions based on voodoo science. And now we can move wine from the low priority "Recreation/Entertainment" column of our cruising budget to the more important "Required/Insurance" column. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I presume you mean a microwave oven? I believe that's the only type of oven which will effectively act as a faraday cage, but alas, just because I believe that doesn't make it true. ;-)

bob said...

Aaron -

I like the way your mind works!


bob said...

Anon -

Oooo... the microwave - I hadn't thought of that. but ours is to small to hold much.

The gas oven should make an effective Faraday cage too, if it doesn't have a large window, like ours does. You're right, the microwave would be a better choice.

But even with that, lightning is so unpredictable - all you are doing is improving your chances.

And, as Aaron points out, drinking wine does that too, so you should do both!


Anonymous said...

As a powerboater don't worry I'm not offended by your opening remark.
BTW we have a great way to avoid lightning!
Tie up to a dock with a sailboat in the next slip (preferably one with an aluminum mast)...

bob said...

Anon -

Yes, that would work... in fact it *has* worked for us. Years and years ago, when our boat was a Cal 21 sailboat, we were tied to a dock with big boats on Lake Michigan. During the nite a typical midwestern thunderboomer rolled thru. In the morning, there were pieces of masthead instrumentation all over the dock; we were fine.

But do not become complacent... the experts seem to agree that the "cone of protection" from a tall conductor is only 60° wide.

And finally, the experts also all agree that there are no absolutes with lightning - A charge that has just jumped 5000 feet of damp air is likely to do almost anything...

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