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When I was at Shelter Bay Marina in Panama, a large multimillion dollar catamaran took a direct lightning strike wiping out more than $100,000 worth of electronics.

For those of us without million dollar catamarans, a lightning strike may only cost $10,000 to $20,000 depending on the amount of electronics it takes out.

According to an insurance adjuster with whom I spoke, the risk of getting struck by lightning is greater in a multihull than in a monohull sailboat. A multihull has a larger footprint in the water, and perhaps that has something to do with the increased risk of a lightning strike.

The good news is that it’s unusual for a person to be injured seriously when lightning strikes a sailboat. There is apparently a cone of protection extending out 45 degrees from the top of the mast in all directions. The cone of protection seems surprising when you consider that standing beneath a tree in a thunderstorm is an invitation to death by lightning.

When lightning strikes your mast, it strikes your wallet as well.

When Exit Only was in Singapore at the start of monsoon season, five monohull yachts were struck by lightning within the space of a week. I confess that I attached jumper cables to my stainless steel standing rigging and dropped the other end of the cables into the water to hopefully decrease the risk of a lightning strike.

I don’t know if the jumper cable strategy works, but we did an eleven year circumnavigation without a single lightning strike, and we dropped the jumper cables in the water on many occasions.

On voyage six from Florida to Panama, Colombia, the Galapagos, and to Mexico in the Sea of Cortez, we went through many massive thunderstorms, and we never once used our jumper cable strategy for lightning protection.

I still have not made up my mind whether the jumper cables provide any protection. They remain on board Exit Only, and if I ever get in a severe thunderstorm with lightning strikes all around, I still might put those jumper cables in the water.

So what happens when lightning strikes your sailboat?

Every electronic device on board is exposed to extremely high voltages and massive amounts of induced currents capable of destroying sensitive electronics.

A bad lightning strike can destroy:

Multifunction navigational display
AIS transmitter/receiver
VHF radios
SSB radios
Pactor modem
Cell phones
Satellite Phones
Iridium Satellite modems
Computers on boat engines
Fluxgate compasses
Autopilot computers
Wind speed and direction instruments
Depth sounders with displays
GPS units
Solar panel regulators
Computer circuits that regulate charging of lithium ion batteries
Computers that run refrigeration

If you are supremely unfortunate, a lightning strike can blow a hole in your hull or even set your boat on fire.

Lightning strikes are a form of instant time travel where your boat exits the 21st century, and transports you to the fifteenth century.

Your weather information disappears. Your communication with the outside world disappears. Internet becomes history. You now navigate by the sun and stars assisted by a simple compass. With the death of your autopilot, you now have to steer across the ocean standing at the helm 24 hours a day. Your ability to predict and manage the weather depends on observations of wind and clouds, barometric pressure, and the direction and size of ocean swells.

Welcome to the world of the fifteenth century sailor. At least you have a boat that sails to windward which 15th century sailors lacked.

That beautiful powerful diesel engine no longer runs if it had a computerized engine management system, but at least you still have sails.

Sailing in the 15 century is more arduous and challenging when you have to steer by hand, and you have no knowledge of the weather, and you lose contact with the outside world.

Nothing spoils a sailing trip as quickly as a lightning strike. One second life is good, and the next second your wallet is vaporized and your adventure is possibly over.

I met a sailor in Balboa, Panama who was selling his boat. His boat took a lightning strike that vaporized his finances. He was a single-handed sailor, and without an autopilot or wind vane, crossing the Pacific Ocean would be an exhausting experience. Lightning finished him off.

We met a catamaran sailor who eschewed the use of engines. He was a purist who arrived at his destination under sail no matter how long it took. Unfortunately, on one of his slow trips, his catamaran took a lightning strike. I lost track of this sailor, and so I don’t know whether the lightning stopped him in his tracks. I suspect not. He is probably out there sailing in some remote corner of planet ocean enjoying life without internet, autopilot, or electronics.

On Exit Only our main defense against lightning is Radar and 2 diesel engines.

When we sailed for 500 miles through the doldrums of the eastern Pacific, we ran the lightning gauntlet night after night.

From midnight to 4 am, Poseidon tortured us with fierce lightning.

An occasional lightning bolt here and there is not much of a worry. It’s when we are surrounded with active storms cells that lightning really gets our attention.

For 5 nights, we had three to five storm cells surrounding Exit Only with lightning bolts striking the water.

Unfortunately, the storm cells were not stationary. They moved at different speeds, and their trajectory was unpredictable.

Our job on Exit Only was to put as much distance as possible between us and the lightning.

Radar helped us locate each storm cell and increased our ability to predict its path.

Radar guided us into the center of the ring of fire where there was less chance of being struck.

We danced with lightning for five nights in the doldrums, and we stayed out of harm’s way.

Our dance always begin with a single engine that maintained our position in the center of the ring of fire.

When the storms shifted direction, we shifted direction. When one storm cell increased in size, we headed where other storms cells were decaying.

When storm cells started moving faster, we turned on the second engine to navigate out of harm’s way.

Dancing with lightning isn’t fun, but it is exciting. It’s also tiring when the dance happens every night from midnight to 4 am. All hands are awake as we watch the radar display and decide where we will dance next.

Exit Only burned a great deal of fuel dodging lightning in the doldrums, and fortunately we never got struck.

We arrived in the Sea of Cortez with our wallet still full of money and dreams.

Dancing with lightning is not for the faint of heart.

Dr. Dave

Captain Dave - David J. Abbott M.D.





Exit Only

See what it's like for a family to sail around the world on a small catamaran

Captain Save Our Souls

Awesome music video that captures the essence of what it's like to sail offshore in a catamaran around the world when conditions are less than perfect. David Abbott from Too Many Drummers sings the vocals, and he also edited the footage from our Red Sea adventures. This is the theme song from the Red Sea Chronicles.

Red Sea Blues

Sailing up the Red Sea is not for the faint of heart. From the Bab al Mandeb to the Suez Canal, adventures and adversity are in abundance. If you take things too seriously, you just might get the Red Sea Blues.

Red Sea Chronicles Trailer

If you like drum beats, and you like adventure, then have a listen to the Red Sea Chronicles Trailer.

Red Sea Chronicles Episode 1 - When Flying Fish Attack

Flying fish assault Exit Only in the middle of the night as we sail through the Arabian Gulf from the Maldives to Oman. And so begins our Red Sea adventures.

Red Sea Chronicles Episode 2 - Pirate Alley

Sailing through Pirate Alley between Yemen and Somalia involves calculated risk. It may not be Russian Roulette, but it is a bit of a worry. Follow Team Maxing Out as they navigate through Pirate Alley.

Red Sea Chronicles Episode 3 - Aden, Yemen

Stopping in Yemen was just what the doctor ordered. We refueled, repaired our alternator, and we made friends with our gracious Yemeni hosts. We also went to Baskins Robbins as a reward for surviving Pirate Alley.

Red Sea Chronicles Episode 4- Gate of Sorrows and Sandstorms

After you survive Pirate Alley, you must sail through the Gate of Sorrows (Bab Al Mandab) at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The Gate of Sorrows lived up to its name with fifty knots of wind and a sandstorm that pummeled Exit Only for two days. Life is good.

Save A Tree Bookstore

Although I like the feel of a paper book in my hand, I love trees even more. When people purchase an eBook, they actually save trees and save money as well. Ebooks are less expensive and have no negative impact on the environment. All of Dr. Dave's books are available at Save A Tree Bookstore. Visit the bookstore today and start putting good things into your mind. It's easy to fill your mind with positive things using eBooks. No matter where you are or what you are doing, you can pull out your smart phone or tablet and start reading. You can even use electronic highlighters and make annotations in your eBooks just like paper books.