A lightning strike may sound vanishingly unlikely, but their incidence is increasing, and a hit can cause severe damage costing thousands of pounds, as well as putting an end to a sailing season, writes Suzy Carmody
‘A lightning strike caused £95,000 of damage to my yacht’
Mark Chatfield was struck by lightning aboard his Grand Soleil 56, Mad Monkey, in Brittany.
We saw the storm ahead and diverted for cover in a marina as we could clearly see the skies above were very brightly lit. Not being in open waters we couldn’t sail around it.
The strike was an amazingly loud bang, ear-ringing for a few moments – it was very evident what had happened! Within ten seconds white smoke filled the saloon, we had to cover our mouths. We stepped ashore (we were in the marina by then) and checked no-one felt a shock when the bang hit.
After five minutes the smoke started to clear so I went aboard to check for any fires. What I found was the alternator, generator and TV were indeed smouldering but no flames were apparent.
We checked every place possible to inspect the hull and fortunately there was no striking exit hole, so where did the bolt exit? We can only think that due to us having copper antifoul the strike went down our rigging, down the hull sides and then dissipated through the conductive hull? We will never know, but this is the opinion shared by many engineers after discussions about it.
The next morning daylight revealed that every fitting that was aloft was now scattered on our deck in small pieces. Nothing survived at the top of the mast at all, everything was burnt and shattered.
Down below, every circuit breaker was turned OFF and then tested one at a time… #1 FAILURE, #2 FAILURE And so on, almost everything on the 24V and 240V circuits had blown except three internal light bulbs, six electric winch motors and some minor electronics. In total some 95% of all electrics and electronics had blown and on a 56ft ocean cruiser, that’s a lot.
We wondered how would we get home, was it safe to sail? I contacted my rigger for advice, and agreed I’d go aloft and make a rig check. All seemed OK, so after hot-wiring the engine to start it we had a motor sail home.
I had an engine, but no autopilot, no VHF, no GPS, no boat compass as it was swinging in every direction. I did have paper charts but my backup VHF and GPS were both in chargers (as they always are) so these had also blown. I had to buy new handheld units for our return.
After sitting in the marina for two days to check the boat was watertight and that nothing would slowly leak or start a fire, we slipped at 0200 so to be inshore during darkness, then to cross the shipping lanes in daylight. We used our backup navigation lights but they were not very bright, so we rigged our spare head torches for a rear light and changed batteries regularly.
Once back home the challenge began to check and fix everything. Through my insurance company, Admiral, which was magnificent, I contacted professionals to survey and quote.
Almost everything electronic had to be replaced, plus the rig was removed and every rod (some were just three months old) was pitted, even the isolator on the backstay for the SSB antenna was split (which could have caused the backstay to drop but fortunately didn’t). In total, around £95,000 of damage was caused and ten months of sailing time lost while the work was completed.
About the author
Suzy Carmody and her husband, Neil, live aboard Distant Drummer, a Liberty 458 cutter-rigged sloop. They blog their adventures at: carmody-clan.com
First published in the August 2020 edition of Yachting World.