I promised bliss from now on. This post actually is about bliss but of a kind that many people, especially landlubbers, might not understand. It's about the difference between scared and prepared; and the freedom of the latter.
By way of completely jinxing myself, I posted on Saturday a reel of some lightning off in the distance and typed, “Rain tomorrow here, but not a storm (... I think).” That day, I had moved the boat back down to the Stuart anchorage. On Sunday, I made three trips ashore and got 25 gallons of water and hit Publix for a big batch of provisions. I had gotten an early start because the wind was supposed to pick up (again) in the late afternoon. The outboard conked out but got me to shore the last time. Nevertheless, I had to row back out with all my groceries.
The outboard quit running and needs some TLC, but I was out of time in Stuart. There is a good weather window for me to head offshore to get north on Wednesday. I really needed to do some laundry and the uncooperative outboard was putting a wrench in the works. I checked the weather and decided that Monday morning, it would be calm enough to row back to shore to hit the laundromat.
And then the fun began.
A bit later on Sunday, there was a bunch of lightning off to the northwest and because I had just spent a week hunkered down for weather, I posted “WTH is up with the weather this week.”
Soon after a huge ominous cloud was looming over the entire western horizon and the wind started gusting. I was working on my laptop, sitting at the drop leaf table that surrounds the mast (foreshadowing). Lightning was, once again, dazzling the clouds to the west. Then the rain hit and the winds came in earnest.
It was an amazing display of raw natural power for three or four hours. The rain spewed horizontally like the firehose of the gods and the wind howled like a crazed beast. There was lightning all around me; some quite close. I stood in the companionway, soaked from the spray, and watched in awe at the pure beauty of Mother Nature’s power.
Then I noticed Ruth Ann was getting really close to Murphy’s Law. The Murph is an old fishing boat that had been left in the anchorage, likely for many years. She rarely moved much in the wind or tide and I suspected that she sat on the bottom at low tide. In the midst of the squall, I was amazed at how much anchor chain she had out when it got stretched. A big heavy workboat will react to the wind very differently than a little, lightweight sailboat like Ruth Ann. With a squall blasting, however, all our anchor chains were taut. I squinted into the wind and rain to evaluate the situation. After getting soaked to the bone, I assured myself that we would not get any closer.
Then I started thinking more about the lightning.
At times, I have contemplated what would happen if Ruth Ann got struck by lightning. Mostly, I'm a bit fatalistic about it. When a boat, any boat, gets hit by lightning all hell breaks loose. Most of the electronics aboard will be fried and there is a good chance of a fire and/or a hole getting blown through the hull under the water line. Nothing good would ever come from a lightning strike. Another wrinkle in the story is that I re-rigged my boat with Dyneema, a synthetic rope. Most sailboats have stainless steel wire rope holding the mast up. My rig is a synthetic rope made of ultra high molecular weight polyethylene; think if milk jug material had a second cousin who was a weight-lifting, steroid-swilling wrestler. My aluminum mast is keel-stepped; meaning the mast comes through the cabintop and rests on the top of the keel inside the boat. Bottom line is my mast will conduct electricity but my rig will not. Not only is this different from other boats, I have no idea what difference, if any, it would make in a lightning strike.
I have done a little bit of research on boats and lightning, and less on lightning and dyneema, so I have no idea if Ruth Ann is a bit safer, or a bit more fragile. Regardless, if 30,000 amps hits my boat it’s either going to really suck or really suck a bit less. Just the same, Sunday evening I had to start thinking that I’ve never been closer to getting struck by lightning.
Well … there was a time when I was a kid. The family had made a huge trip car-camping out west and stopped at the Rocky Mountain National Park. Dad, brother Tim, and I hiked up to a spot that was supposedly the highest point in the park you get to without hiking in; a casual walk uphill from a parking lot. There were fifteen or twenty people up on this peak and a ranger who was talking to us. I’ve always been fascinated by sunrises, sunsets, and the sky in general. I can still vividly remember the angry dark clouds creeping across the ridge on the opposite side of the valley. We watched the shadow of the clouds move down the side of the mountains. The rain under the larger clouds, was thick and obscured the land behind and beneath it.
And then my brother (we’re all geeks) said “I smell static electricity.”
Dad and a few people turned to look at him and saw me standing there, apparently with my hair standing on end. I couldn’t see it, but I raised my hand and thought that I got a shock … from myself. The ranger stepped through the small crowd and body blocked me to the ground, shouting, “Run back down to the parking lot and keep your head as low as possible as you go!”
Imagine what my Mom and sister thought, standing next to the car down the hil, and suddenly I am running like a mad man with sciatica; loping down the hill and ducking as I went.
Back to Ruth Ann and the squall, I couldn’t decide if I had had my close call with lightning back then or whether I might actually attract it.
It is already getting warm in Florida and for a few weeks now, I’ve been knocking around the boat in nothing but a pair of swim trunks. I had to consider the possibility that we could get struck. There was so much thunder and lightning, whether my new rig was going to help or not, whether I attracted it or not, was less meaningful than the fact that it was crashing all around us.
There was nothing I could do but prepare – just in case – and perhaps not sit at my laptop right next to the mast. An amazing wave of peace came over me and I got into a forward cabinet to get a dry bag. A dry bag, of course, is a waterproof gear bag. I got my wallet and some clothes. I dug out my passport and the boat’s registration, and stuffed it all in the sack. I set the bag, still open, in the galley so that I could stash my phone at the last moment.
And then I watched the storm some more. It was beautiful. I wasn't scared; I was prepared. That was enough. That was all I could do and all that was necessary.
I’m a midwesterner (or was) and all I could think of was snow snakes on the highway. It doesn’t take much wind to send the wispy snakes of snow crawling across the road, but this squall was pulling spray up off the water, atomizing it, and sending snakes of spray running all through the anchorage. I don’t have a wind gauge, but a couple miles away friends measured 53 knots of wind, that’s almost 61 mph! And I forgot to mention the tornado warning that night.
The squall gradually passed, I finally made some supper, and all was well in the world again. Monday morning early, I rowed (without the outboard) back to shore with my laundry and a water jug. While my clothes were drying, I bought some more beer rather than hiking the extra couple miles to get some bourbon. I don’t drink at sea, but a sailor needs to celebrate arriving at port. I got back to Ruth Ann with clean clothes, clean sheets, beer, and another five gallons of water.
It’s now Tuesday afternoon, I am back in the Marriott Resort anchorage right near the St. Lucie Inlet. Late morning tomorrow, I’m going to head offshore and try to get to the St. Johns River and Jacksonville. There are a couple spots I can pull in if I’m tired or the weather changes, but it looks good for sailing north.
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