All sailors who decide to cruise an area during its rainy season go through an ini-tiation of sorts at the hands of Mother Nature. Lightning. The word conjures up images of Zeus Almighty up on Olympus wielding his mighty thunderbolt of jus-tice. The Greeks thought lightning such a powerful phenomenon they ascribed it to their supreme God, Lord of the Sky. Such is the respect sailors allot the phe-nomenon as well. For any planning on cruising during the rainy season lightning is a foremost consideration I how they prepare their vessel and is usually the gravest concern throughout the season. I learned of its power firsthand one day towards the end of July, 2006.
Lightning is like big surf, beautiful to behold from afar, from a beast of fury when it gets too close. Such was my experience while anchored in Bahia Her-radura, Costa Rica. After a fun day of surfing at Playa Hermosa, Ryan and I boarded a bus to return to Avventura. The bus was overflowing with people, and I stood in the aisle, surfboard beside me, striking up a conversation with an expatri-ate American girl. As the bus dropped off its first passengers rain began to fall and the Ticos seated by the windows quickly slammed them shut. The bus was transformed into a sauna on wheels as the rain turned into a torrential downpour and the bus slowly made its way to Bahia Herradura.
Among the last to disembark, we emerged covered in sweat and grateful to be breathing fresh air once more as the first flash of lightning pierced the sky inland. A dull rumble of thunder followed moments later as we scampered down the beach, launched the dinghy, and returned to Avventura. Climbing aboard, my shirt was soaked through so I stripped it off, retrieved some shampoo and soap, and took a shower in the deluge of rain. As the rain rinsed the last of the soap from my body a burst of lightning struck a radio tower five miles away. The roar of thunder quick on its heels made me jump, and I ran back to the cockpit trembling from a mix of fear and cold.
Darkness descended on the bay and the storm persisted. Moments after the storm would abate I recalled: “I stood in the rain enjoying the downpour, hooting like mad as streaks pelted the land and Ryan sat in the companionway looking at me like I was crazy, but as the streaks came closer and I could watch where they connected with the ground the fear began to set in. Flashes of lightning were com-ing at ten-second intervals with just a few seconds between flash and thunder by the time I decided it was time to seek refuge inside. I dried off, stuffed both com-puters, my handheld VHF and my handheld GPS in the oven, and told Ryan to start praying and stay away from anything metal (all tricks I’ve heard other sailors use). We both sat in the middle of the ship looking at each other and then out the windows in wide-eyed disbelief as lightning bolts connected with the land and sea no more than a football field away. They were so close we could not only hear the thunder, but we could actually feel it, or at least so it seemed. The flashes were so bright it hurt my eyes to look at them, and so frequent I thought for sure we were going to be hit. I told Ryan it was time for a drink, but by the time he retrieved the liquor I couldn’t even count to one between flash and crack so I figured I better abstain, since if we were hit quick action would be needed and I’d need to keep my wits about me. So instead I retrieved a book and started reading about light-ning protection for boats, and thinking of what needs to be done to get Avventura properly protected.…
“Finally, after the longest ten minutes I’ve known in a long while, the storm carried on out to sea where it is now wreaking havoc on the Tico fishing fleet. It was a rough introduction to cruising Costa Rica in the rainy season, and just when I was starting to think that the rain and lightning storms were over-hyped! No; they’re not. If anything it is worse when you are here. Sitting helpless in the cen-ter of the boat avoiding all things metal and waiting for the strike when you will be called to action is perhaps the worst feeling possible for a sailor. But alas, I made it through that storm unharmed. One down, god knows how many to go.”
It would be impossible to count how many such storms did indeed follow, but the number is in double-digits to be sure, and the lightning seemed to like to in-troduce itself to any and all visitors aboard Avventura. My father flew down to visit for a week in southern Costa Rica, and while we were in Bahia Drake a squall hit bringing close strikes, loud thunder, and preventing us both from sleep-ing for hours. The radar screen was a vivid glob of green, and my father had a look of terror in his eyes. Thankfully the double-rainbow which had preceded the storm at sunset proved a good omen and we again emerged from the storm un-scathed. Later my cousin John came down for a six-week stay, and was intro-duced to the fury of lightning numerous times. The closest call came just after sunset (when most close calls seemed to occur, or at least begin to brew) on the evening of September 7 while anchored inside Panama’s Rio Santa Lucia. The storm descended from the rolling hills inland and within minutes had us sur-rounded. Lightning approached rapidly to within four miles where it seemed to linger for the better part of an hour. My fear was heightened by the fact that there were no other boats, buildings, or towers near us; but as with all other storms it couldn’t seem to find Avventura, a fact I liked to attribute to the “static-dissipater” attached to her masthead (though I’ve heard stories of boats with these same de-vices being struck).
When it came time to flee Panama for Ecuador across the ITCZ I was a sea-soned veteran of a full rainy season in Central America, but the prospect of en-countering lightning at sea still had me worried. Sure enough we encountered our share of squalls which brought along plenty of lightning, but luckily never had a close strike. Upon arriving in Ecuador I knew the bulk of my lightning days were passed and praised Neptune for keeping me on good terms with his brother, Lord of the Sky.
To illustrate the devastating effects of lightning I need only relate the stories of two boats I met during my travels: Swell and Piña Colada. Liz Clark aboard Swell was sailing in Panamanian waters when a lightning squall descended on her. She watched as a bolt hit the water near her boat, and though it was not a direct hit and she didn’t feel the effects it was enough to wreak havoc on her electronics and break her GPS unit.
Piña Colada fared much worse. While anchored in Bahia Benao, Panama a lightning storm swept off the land and delivered a direct hit to her masthead. Luckily nobody aboard was hurt, but Patti was sitting in the cockpit and watched as the engine instruments were blown clean out of their holes. The damage was extensive, knocking out all of their electronics, disabling the engine, and eventu-ally costing their insurance company some $30,000. When I met them months later in the Galapagos Islands they were still dealing with the effects of the strike.