Wednesday, July 1, 2020


Bob: "Was that us?"
Sarah: "No it couldn't have been"
Bob: "I felt a tingling in my arm"
"Let's check"
"I smell smoke"
"Sarah- there's a fire!"
"Woah! Unplug it all!" read a text from Liane on WaveRiders, our buddy boat. 

Too late.

Generic lightning picture. I didn't have my camera ready at the time!

It was a rainy morning with a few rumbles of thunder in the distance. At 8AM, as we were in our berth discussing plans, we were hit by lightning. After a few seconds of disbelief we went to see the extent of the damage. Bob smelled smoke and began tearing off the cushions of the settee. "Fire!" he cried. "Get me the fire blanket." I ripped the blanket out of its container and handed it to him. There were too many large cables connected at the origin of the fire for the blanket to be able to cover all the area necessary. I grabbed a fire extinguisher and had a second one at the ready.

Fire out, now the boat is filled with smoke. We made our way to the cockpit for fresh air. We took turns breathing the fresh air and going back down into the boat to check for additional flames, to check the bilge to make sure we weren't sinking, and to look for anything electrical to turn off. The smoke was pretty thick but we couldn't open the hatches to air it out because it was raining. Fortunately the companionway is under the cover of the dodger (the front panel, like a windshield) so the smoke could slowly clear out. Soon we were satisfied that nothing more was in need of immediate attention so we took a moment to catch our breath and plan our next steps.

View of Panama City from Rhapsody. WaveRiders in the foreground.

We were anchored out in a bay called Las Brisas, just  outside of Panama City having returned from Las Perlas for provisions and a sail swap. The day after we arrived in the bay, Panama made a new rule. No boats are allowed to move without permission and no boats can enter or exit marinas. We decided that one person should stay with the boat to watch for additional fires breaking out as well as water coming in to the hull, and one person should go ashore and get the necessary permissions to take Rhapsody into the marina. Permission has to be asked for at the dinghy dock, at the marina, from the Port Captain and from Panama's chief medical officer.

Bob was elected to head in to deal with the authorities, even though Friday is designated as women's day in Panama. Only women are allowed out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, men get Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays unless there is a compelling reason such as work or medical or an emergency. Bob and I have not been able to go shopping together for months! We typed out a Spanish translation explaining our situation so that Bob could show it to the authorities. 

As Bob got into Melody ( our dinghy) he discovered the remains of our new VHF antenna, blasted from the top of the mast and deposited in Melody.

The manager at the marina was very accommodating and said that he had no problem with us coming in, but that the Port Captain and the Ministry of Health had the final say. A quick walk over to the Port Captain's office and we were good to go there, but we were still lacking the medical ok. Bob sent off an email explaining the situation saying that this was an emergency and time was of the essence. And then he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

While we were waiting we had time to assess some of the damage. Will the engine start? Can we get the anchor up? Do we have any navigation equipment? The answers- yes the engine started (although with an alarm that would not shut off even when the engine was off). Yes, the windlass is working and we can raise the anchor and No, the navigational equipment is not functioning and we do not have any running lights (fortunately this is in daylight). Finally after three hours we received an email with the approval to go into the marina. It was a good thing we weren't sinking! 

Very carefully we made our way into the marina with no further incidents. Now begins the process of assessing, dealing with insurance and beginning repairs. Already I am on the second column of items that are not working, however, as lightning strikes go, this appears to be of medium severity. Many things are still working. We have cabin lights, although anything that was plugged in is shot. We have refrigeration and our new freezer is still plugging away.
The battery isolator- the scene of the crime!

Coming up we need to have the boat hauled in what is called a "short haul" where apparently they just leave you in the straps for the inspection and then put you right back in the water. This is to check the hull and especially the thru-hulls to look for damage. When lightning comes in a boat it has to exit somewhere and the short haul should help us determine where. A surveyor is coming, workmen are coming with bids, insurance has been contacted, more lists have to be made.

Electricians, properly masked, checking the systems.

Part of the problem with assessing the damage is that things can be working fine, and then quit, or they can quit and then start working again. It is pretty obvious that anything that was up the mast will be toast, but other items are less obvious. Our chartplotter was working, and then not, with our running lights the starboard side was working on Friday but by Sunday it was not. I am making lists, but then I have to check, and recheck each item. Is it working now? What about now?

Cable ends that were connected to the battery isolator that received the force of the lightning strike and caught fire.

This is our third fire on Rhapsody (you can read about the others here #1 and here #2). I think that we have exceeded our quota. I am certainly ready to be done with fires on our boat! Every time something like this happens I hear about others with far greater problems, a friend having a heart attack, friends of friends dying, and I realize how lucky we are. We are alive, we are healthy, our boat is afloat, we have each other. We move forward and make the best of things. Life is good, lightning - not so much.

We love to hear your comments.

Unknown said...

Oh my goodness! That's it no more bad things for you! Best wishes that all turns out for you. Hugs

Unknown said...

Oh my goodness! That's it no more bad things for you! Best wishes that all turns out for you. Hugs

Jim said...

You’ve got a couple of chapters material for your memoirs, journal, or sea-faring novel

Jeff Kitchen said...

Wow. That's quite a tale. Is there a surge protector of sorts in any of that equipment? You seem to have fared rather well for a direct hit. That mast sticking up must be quite the lightning magnet.

Tammy Swart said...

Just WOW! I think I'm going to ask my Guardian Angel to check on you guys from time to time after this! I would like to say that you've been pre-disastered, but I wouldn't want to jinx you!! I'm so glad that you knew what to do and were able to deal with it quickly. I'll send positive thoughts for a speedy and complete recovery so that you can be off on your way again soon-ish. You guys make the 5th couple we know personally who have suffered a lightning strike. Guess the more sailors you know, the bigger your subject pool. And Panama... Lightning strike capital of the world! Good luck and cuidado mucho! Tammy

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob and Sarah!
What a startling event! It makes me realize the precariousness of living on a boat - life is precarious anyway but hey, having your home be hit by lightning when you live on the water sounds a little scary to me. My hat is off to both of you - you intrepid adventurers!
Steve and I think of you often and our delightful 2 weeks sailing with you. Here in the pandemic, we are uncertain when that might happen again. Such a wonderful time - thank you again!
Lastly, happy birthday Bob! I'm hoping you will find some lovely way to celebrate there in Panama - maybe a swim?
Anyway, lots of love to both of you from both of us,
Kate and Steve