Sail Gemini --  Lightning!

Updated May 11, 2004

In case you're wondering why Costa Rica took so long to add to our web site, we took a "near" lightning strike while at anchor in Playa Naranjo in the Gulf of Nicoya and are still catching up!  Well, that's only half the reason--partly we're to blame for having too much fun.  But the lightning forced us to spend three months in Marina Los Suenos repairing all the damage. 

Note:  Click on any small "thumbnail" photos to see the large photo.

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Lightning Hot Spots on Inverter/Charger and Alternator


At about 6 pm, the deluge began, complete with thunder and lightning in the distance.  We turned everything off, put the computer in the oven (a poor-man's "Faraday cage", isolating it from electromagnetic waves) and huddled in the V-berth.  About 7 pm, we counted the bolts creeping closer and closer (every 5.5 seconds between thunder & lightning represents 1 mile).  Then, suddenly a snap, crackle & pop simultaneous with a blinding flash told us this one was very, very close.  Indeed, as friends from Run Free witnessed from shore, this bolt had struck the water about 100 yards behind us, with small side-streaks reaching out to Gemini and nearby Music.  It wiped out almost all of our electronics (except for the radar and the oven-protected computer!), including the controller to the fridge, the autopilot and about twelve other items.  After inspecting thru-hulls, we noticed the inverter/charger buzzing furiously and drawing 200 amps.  Only disconnecting the batteries stopped it.  Shortly after that, we noticed a smoky smell in the aft cabin (similar to cordite, in my opinion) and opened up the engine room to discover a thin haze and a very strong ozone smell.   The current appears to have run up through the shaft into the engine room, through our batteries and into the electric control panel, from where the damage fanned out. 


The photos above demonstrate some evidence of the damage, but fine electronics either failed immediately or performed for a few deceiving weeks, then died.  Les was able to diagnose most of the problems and, with the able assistance of Preston Wright of Metro Marine Services (506/643-2409 or page 296-2626), repair a few items locally, though most things had to be repaired in the U.S.  Our insurance broker, Blue Water, was very supportive and worked with us to get Gemini back together again.  The claim has been settled and, though depreciation formulas for replacements did cost us some money, we are satisfied with the treatment from Blue Water and appreciate the time they took to guide us through the process.  

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After several trips up the mast, trying to pull out old cables and feed in new ones, we were delighted to be done with this very last project.


Below is an article that a cruising friend of ours, Nan Williams, wrote for a newspaper.   She and Mason are cruising on Run Free, which was at anchor with us at the time of the strike.  They were waiting ashore for the storm to subside before returning to their boat and got quite a spectacular view of the event.



 Lightning Strikes Gemini

By NAN WILLIAMS,  July 5th, 2003

              GULF OF NICOYA, Costa Rica -- Every cruiser and every cruising guidebook made it abundantly clear that we had to sail south of Mexico by June 1 to steer clear of hurricane season. What no one ever told us was what to expect once we got here.

            Goodbye sun, hello rain.

            This may sound like unwarranted whining from someone living a dream, leaving behind the workaday world to sail a 37-foot sloop to sandy beaches until the bank account runs dry.

But rain here rarely comes alone. It comes with lightning. And sailboats are floating lightning rods. 

            With their metal masts towering above the expansive ocean,  every sailboat is an inviting target for those restless ions in the sky. Nothing can be done to prevent a strike, which can cause extensive damage. This rookie sailor learned exactly how much as I nervously thumbed through my cruising guidebooks under spectacularly lit skies somewhere between Mexico and El Salvador in the middle of the night.

            Lightning “has been known to melt rigging, as well as to blow through-hull fittings away from the hull,” I read in the Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia.

            My heart, already racing from the squall overhead, now lodged high in my throat.

            The rigging -- stainless steel wires -- holds the mast in place. And without through-hull fittings -- which let seawater into the boat to feed the watermaker, cleanse the head and cool the engine --  that seawater would pour right into the boat. Just so we’re clear, that would be bad. Very bad.

            Seasoned sailors are shaking their heads about now. But having sailed south from Los Angeles in February with only the experience of Catalina Island trips under my belt, my realization of lightning’s potential hazards came with a bolt.

            I had just spent four months cruising Mexico, where night sails were so smooth I did yoga during my watch. But as soon as we crossed into Guatemala, night after night, squall after squall, there were hours when not three seconds went by without another brilliant flash crossing the sky.

            Yes, here along the Pacific coast of Central America, we are safely out of the path of summer’s occasional hurricanes. Here, we instead live with the nightly threat of a lightning strike.

            I watched one hit just the other night.

            I was still on shore at 9 p.m., which is rare for cruisers. During the stormiest of hours, most don’t like to leave their boats -- their homes, their livelihoods -- alone with only a hunk of metal wedged into the ocean floor to keep them from washing up on the beach.

            Coming back late from an inland trek, I stood 100 feet off the beach when it struck. I remember the eardrum-piercing crash more than the burst of light. My entire body jerked uncontrollably. And for an eerie second, the four boats in the anchorage flashed like ghosts on the water.

            Come morning, one boat was a ghost of its former self. The strike’s awsome electrical force fried most of the electronics on the boat, named Gemini. And while Capt. James Cook  may have sailed with only the wind and the stars, most modern sailors wouldn’t dare lift the anchor without a Global Positioning System, depth finder, radar and VHF radio, all of which were gone in a puff of lightning-induced ozone on Gemini.

            On the up side, the Bay Area couple that own Gemini also own cruising insurance, which will ease some of the sting of the strike. But only some. Fixing or replacing the equipment on their boat will take months.

            Respite from the lightning here also will take months. The rainy season stretches through October -- this is considered winter here -- and the further south we sail, the more rain we can expect, we’re told.

            So sure, my days may be filled gazing at palm-lined islands and my cocktail may be filled with rainwater ice cubes, not to mention the nightly seduction of showers au natural. But remember, I live with the realization that it all could come to an end in a flash.

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