Lightning is Exciting
Background: I've been crewing for about 10 years on boats here at ABYC in Toronto. For the last 5 years, I've also sailed aboard a C&C 28 that I timeshared along with 10 other members of our club. Having finally saved up enough to take the plunge, I purchased my first boat in Fall 2013. I chose a 1995 Catalina 36 MkII as a great family boat that was large enough for my 6'+ family and friends. As with all new things, we had a steady learning curve that was helped by a number of more experienced folks around the club. Our typical pattern was for two of us to go out one night a week and get to know the boat.
On the Monday of the Aug long weekend, we checked the forcast on 3 sites to see that there was a rain forcast for the morning, with clearing in the afternoon. We went down at 2pm to see blue sky above us, with the clouds 2-3 miles north of us blowing further away as we watched.
We got on the boat and went out - we saw about 5-6 boats out in the bay with 5-6kts blowing NW. It was looking to be a great day. About 30 mins later, an enormous explosion occured. I've been close to loud noises before and this was much louder; akin to the sound of a detonation. I looked up and saw a black cloud 8-10ft in diameter slowly drifting up from the top of the mast. From the cabin below, a grey cloud billowed out. We were 3 miles offshore.
After freezing for a time, I looked at my friend Alan and asked if he was okay? We checked each other over and then got into action. He checked below and I checked around to see if anyone was within hailing distance as all our instruments were dead at the binnacle. A Nonsuch was sailing at us at full-speed; they hailed us and offered assistance just as Alan yelled up that the boat was taking on water ---fast. The water was already over the floor boards and rising fast from multiple points. I grabbed a towline and the manual bailer while Alan flipped the batteries to Bank 2. I told the Nonsuch crew that we'd try to start the engine and if that failed that we'd have them tow us in. I cranked the starter and luckily the engine started. I told the Nonsuch to follow us in to the harbour (just in case) and asked Alan to get the fenders out on the starboard side as we were heading for the Crash Dock. The engine continued to run until we got in to the Crash dock and tied up.
We got shore power plugged in to drive the bilge pump; it worked but was not keeping up with the incoming water. We grabbed a hammer and the bag of wood bungs (boy was I glad to find them both quickly) and started to hunt for the holes. One was right under the galley sink; the transducer exploded and blew out the marelon fitting leaving a 2-3 inch hole. This was a quick job and really helped decrease the incoming water. In the meanwhile; the wind had changed and the clouds were back and raining cats and dogs. Being a holiday, the club had lots of members onsite to come watch the excitement. A few club members brought a portable electric pump which was setup quickly to help the bilge pump. With both running, the water level was receding noticeably. We plugged another hole up front at the waterline around the chain locker and the final one in the head. Two hours later, the boat was safe, the water was back down below the floorboards and we handed over the boat to the insurance rep for tow out to Bristol Marine for repair (just as the rain stopped).
The insurance review came back with the following:
- 4 holes in the boat (we missed one); chain locker up front, galley, head and rudder. Limited fiberglass damage at lightning exit points (this had to be verified by sanding down the AF, the gelcoat and the glass).
- all DC system wiring and electronics DOA; engine and AC system OK.
- The boat was grounded and would be so again.
- Mast sensors vapourized, but the sails were okay (minus soot).
- My hearing was impacted for 1 month - back to normal now. Alan developed minor superpowers (ability to see through glass and clear plastic).
Coda: I learned a few things during this process that I want to share:
- It helps a lot when you have a good insurance company to deal with - they were quick to answer our call, helpful and reasuring. The tow guys they sent were awesome (I felt like Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction showed up to solve the Bonnie situation).
- Beware of people offering help - 80% of the 20-30 folks watching from the dock were clearly just watching the show. 15% were super helpful and kind in a time of great stress. 5% gave bad advice or just liked being important. It was hard to separate out the 2nd from 3rd group at the time, so I just treated everyone very politely and firmly.
- Knowing your emergency plan is important - Tools / bungs / manual pump, etc. were all close at hand. I now realize why folks have a handheld VHF radio as backup - we didn't and it would have made calling the club as we were motoring easier.
- It's important to look on the bright side - Afterwards in the club, a few folks were telling us to buy lottery tickets to offset our bad luck. I responded that we already won the lottery - we were both safe and sound.
1995 Catalina 36 MkII, ABYC Toronto