Wings Hit by Lightening in Lake St Clair

Shell - July 10, 2012

Bill and I are back home in Findlay now.  Wings was hit by lightening while underway on Lake St Clair on July 4th.   We got caught in one of those bad squalls that was not predicted, but came up very suddenly. 

 
The winds were absolutely crazy, between 50 to 60 knots, and changed directions continually.   Bill was really taxed keeping Wings pointed into the wind with the engine.  The sails, thankfully, were already down, because it was nearly dead calm beforehand.  This was the first time we have ever been out in winds that strong, and Wings rode them out very well. The squall even turned after we rode through it and hit us a second time. 
 
We were really concerned that the solar panels, the kayaks, the dodger, and bimini might cut loose, but they all held.  There was hail was between pea and marble-sized which hurt when it hit, but didn't damage anything on the boat.
 
It was just after the squall passed for a second time that we got hit by one of those big negative strikes that come at the end of Tstorms.  Thankfully we did not get hurt, except that I still am having some problems hearing and feel like I am in a corked bottle.  Bill's hearing came back fully after a couple of hours. Unfortunately Wings wasn't so lucky, even though she protected us. 
 
All of our electronics, our breaker panel, our refrigerator/freezer got knocked out. No radar, no GPS, no radios, no autopilot, no depth sounder, no speedometer, no alternator, no tachometer, etc. The windex and antennas on top of the mast were vaporized or blown away. Only the lightening dissipater was left kind of hanging there. The cables literally blew out the back of the chart plotter with a fireball right next to Bill's hand and my head.
 
Thankfully, Big Red, our Westerbeke, kept on kept running.  The bilge pump also worked, which is what first made us realize that there was water coming into the cabin. The tops of the transponders in the through hulls were blown apart and water was gushing into the bilge.  The blanks were right next to the through hulls, (something Bill learned from another boater in Vermilion) and Bill was able to remove the transponders and get the blanks screwed on to stop the gushing, though on one through-hull, the threads were partially blown apart.  
 
I want to say here that one of the little games we played during one of the first GLCC wilderness rendezvous we attended really paid off, and we are very grateful to whomever it was that thought it up.  It was the game where the winner was the first person to find their manual bilge pump handle, pump once, and report it back on the radio.  Some of you might remember how everyone laughed that it took Bill and I several hours to locate the handle, pump, and report back, but lesson learned.  So when we got hit and really needed it fast, we knew where it was and how to use it. We also discovered that the manual hand-pump removes a lot of more water, faster, than the bilge pump.
 
Once the blanks were in the through-hulls, the leaks were greatly slowed, and I could keep up by mopping and pumping as we went into St Claire Shores. (We did get out the wood plugs to jamb into the through-hull, just in case the blanks failed.)  We were also very happy not to have to put out a MayDay call.
 
Moldings and lenses on the ceiling lights and spot lights blew off, but did not break.  All our LED lights worked, except the aftermost spot in the aft cabin, closest to where the lightening came down the backstay.  The refrigerator latch blew off, too.  Weird.  So we had to put something up against the door to keep it closed.
 
We had to use our old piloting skills, paper charts, hand-held GPS and a hand- held Marine radio, and steer by compass when more squalls hit and there was zero visibility to get into Jefferson Beach Marina at St Clair Shores.  We called ahead, and they were standing by to pull Wings out as soon as we arrived.
 
Two holes were blown through on each side of the bow of the boat, one about an inch wide, the other much smaller.  The fiberglass around the larger hole was black.  John, the head serviceman at JBM, told me to put my nose up to the hole to smell the burn, and told us that we came within a hair's breadth of dealing with an on-board fire.  On the hull below the waterline, you can see where the lightening charge traveled through--the VC17 and gelcoat sort of boiled and ran around the prop strut, and all of the through-hull fittings. It was pretty scary looking.
 
We are yet unsure of damage to the sails, the windlass, the microwave, etc. Monday early, we go back up and take everything off the boat for the survey. Jefferson Beach Marina will then put the boat back into the water temporarily and step the mast.  Then Wings will get pulled out again and be taken into their air- conditioned showroom, along with the mast to cool.  Thursday, Matt Mormon, Jack Mormon's son, will do the survey with his IR camera, and we will find out if she can be saved or not.  Our insurance adjustor and the assessor told us that if the damages were 80% or less of the insured value, they will allow us to repair her.  Otherwise she will be totaled. 
 
We talked to the glass guy, John, as well as Bob Reed, who both have lots of experience.  Both told us it is the extent of the crystallization of the fiberglass in the hull caused by the high temperatures that will determine whether Wings will be salvageable or not.  The surveyor can do this now non-destructively with an infra- red imaging camera--no more core sampling.  We learned that once the glass is crystallized, the hull becomes very brittle, cracks easily and the integrity of the hull is lost.  So it will be the determining factor. 
 
It was very discouraging to hear everyone looking at the bottom of the boat, say it was the worst lightening damage they had ever seen, and that Wings had taken on helleva hit.  We did finally get some possible good news. Bob Reed just happened to be heading out to play golf with Jack Mormon, and he had Jack come by to take a quick look.  Jack told Bill that he has seen worse and believes that the hull is repairable.  So our fingers are crossed, and we will know for sure on Thursday after the survey.
 
Bill asked if we could be there during the survey and Jack said absolutely, they would like us there.  I will bring my IR imaging camera up, too.  (They don't know that I do energy audits and use on structures, but will ask, before I pull it out--for kind of a BYOIRC party.)
 
Eric Locke (Knight'N Gayle, also a Beneteau 361) drove over from Troy, MI to see the damage before taking us over to spend the night with him and Gayle.  The next morning, Gayle took me down to Harbor Park Marina on Catawba Island to pick up our car. They were wonderful.
 
I drove back to JBM, and we took the first car-load full home.  Monday, we go back up to St Clair Shores to clear the boat completely and start looking at replacement electronics, etc.
 
Neither of us had time to be scared.  We were stunned, but as I said, Wings's bonding system protected us.  Our ears took the brunt of the thunderclap, and Bill only felt kind of a brush against his hand. We had wanted so badly to be up at Tobermory and in the North Channel after all we have been through this year, but are thankful to be alive. 
 
This was the third bad thing that happened to us within 7 days.  First, Findlay got hit with the severe storms, then our marina got hit by a tornado, then Wings got hit by lightening.  I sure hope our luck changes. 
 
Everyone, stay safe on the water this summer.  This weather is wild.