By Dorie Cox
It was 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. A yacht cruised into Fort Lauderdale from the Atlantic Ocean. The lights were bright inside the salon and the music was loud. The yacht owner and three longtime friends danced as the captain navigated through Port Everglades.
Weather had been intermittent clouds and sun all day. There had been no rain until a squall hit the yacht outside the port. The sky was clear and dark as the yacht turned northbound under the 17th Street Causeway bridge.
Suddenly there was “an unmistakable, sharp, hard crack,” the captain said. “Bam!”
“It was instantly clear to me – I saw the light, I saw the bolt,” he said.
Lightning had struck the boat.
“Every system shut down except the fire alarms, which went off like crazy,” he said. The lights, music, engine, generator and all of the instruments on the bridge were dead. Now it was really dark.
The captain, the sole crew member on board, asked not to be named until after the insurance investigation. But he shared his experience now to offer lessons for others in lightning areas.
On board, through the blackness, the captain called out to the passengers for a verbal confirmation they were safe. Then he felt down to the electrical control panel and used the side of his hand to shut down five or six breakers at a time until all 30 or so were off. He reset them. Still darkness.
“Fire!” the yacht owner yelled, as he ran forward with an extinguisher toward another control panel, which was in flames.
“He hit the toilet flush panel with the bottom of the fire extinguisher, knocked it off the wall, then shot it with the extinguisher and put it out,” the captain said of the owner.
At the same time, the captain ran toward the main breaker panel “to shut that down to prevent further fire.”
Smoke rose again from where the panel had been. The captain grabbed a second fire extinguisher.
“It was crazy,” he said. “With the flashlight, it looked like a little smoke.”
But it was more than that. The captain knew that light cast into a smoky room can make the entire space appear white, so he capped the flashlight into his shirt. A red glow behind the translucent panel showed fire in the wall space.
The captain stuck the extinguisher nozzle inside. Finally, the last of the flames were out.
He ran back to the helm to find the yacht drifting in the current with all systems dead. While he again reset the fuses, guests mustered in the dark on the back deck wearing PFDs. He used his handheld VHF radio to call for a tow boat.
“It all happened so fast, my sole call was to the tow boat because the fire was out,” the captain said. “The most important thing was to make sure we did not land on the shoal. I could see it about to happen.”
As the captain watched for the tow, the tow company made calls for him to the U.S. Coast Guard and a local fire boat. Since the fire boat was closer, the Coast Guard was not requested on-scene. The tow boat responded quickly, hooked a line and transferred the guests on board.
“It’s never good to go from music and dancing to standing in a life vest on the stern in the dark, drifting,” the captain said. “It’s a pretty harsh transition.”
The tow nudged the boat from the shoal. The captain and owner stayed on board, and soon firefighters arrived.
“One came on with an infrared device, like a video camera with a viewfinder, to look for heat,” the captain said. “We could see where it was hot, but there was no heat source.”
Under control, the captain finally took a breath as the yacht was towed to a dock.
“Getting hit really surprised me,” he said. “It’s common in Florida, but the squall we went through didn’t seem to have electrical activity. And we were out of it.”
The captain reckoned their distance from the storm and the proximity of the higher bridge and nearby tall buildings would have prevented getting hit. But in reality, “positive lightning” can travel horizontally up to 10 miles, even with blue sky overhead, said Scott E. McDowell, a licensed captain with a doctorate in ocean physics.
In such cases, the tallest object is not always the likely object struck, McDowell said.
“This ‘positive lightning’ is particularly dangerous because it can strike the ground far from the storm, either well ahead or behind the storm’s active center, where people would not expect lightning,” McDowell said.
This is because not all lightning forms at the base of convective clouds, he explained. Some originates at the top of thunderstorm clouds and carries a large positive charge. Still, strikes from “negative lightning” are most common, typically occurring within five miles of a storm.
Fortunately, the captain’s years at sea, hours in the classroom and regular drills on board added up to quick and logical reactions. He had a “go bag,” had stocked the boat with extra safety gear, and he remembered his STCW (the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) and further fire training.
Several of these things “saved our bacon,” the captain said.
“First, everyone knew where the fire extinguishers were,” he said. The yacht’s extinguishers had better quality and volume than is required, and the captain had them inspected every year.
“I had a handheld VHF radio, which made me able to call a towboat. … That was huge,” he said.
“And third, I had emergency flashlights in the engine room and pilot house,” he said. “The boat was pitch dark. Just simply having flashlights in strategic spots made a massive difference.”
Two more of the captain’s actions probably prevented extensive damage.
“The second I realized we had lightning, I shut down every breaker on the boat,” he said. “Our secondary electrical fire was reduced because no more electricity was going through the short. It’s hard to put out a fire if the electricity is still going through the wires.”
The captain’s action were fluid and natural. He did not even remember that he pulled the fuel shutoffs to cut the fuel flow.
“I did it and didn’t even know, it was automatic from my STCW,” he said. “That was totally subconscious. Straight up my emergency training.”
He added that when a boat gets hit, it needs to be hauled out right away.
“When we got it out, a bolt had shot out of the rudder bearing mount, fired out like bullet,” the captain said. “Imagine if that had been a thru-hull? Sometimes there are things even a diver can’t see. Priority one is to get the boat out of the water.”
The captain is glad that no one was injured.
“The protection of people is paramount. Secondary is the asset,” he said.
Although unpredictable, the captain said his story might help other crew to be prepared, just in case.
“It can happen,” the captain said. “It is random – at the dock, offshore, it doesn’t have to be raining or cloudy. The point is, while we all want to prevent it, the reality is, all we can do is deal with the repercussions.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below. Have you ever experienced a lightning strike? Share your experiences so others can learn.
To read more about lighting, try these stories:
Former Triton columnist Scott E. McDowell‘s new book, “Sea Knowledge”, is coming soon.