Lightning anecdote

On my first Atlantic circumnavigation I was sailing with a crew from Tortolla, British Virgin Islands to Norfolk, Virginia and we stopped for a day en route in the Bahamas. The 6 of us booked a stretch limo taxi for a tour of the island and during this a storm hit the island with torrential rain and the classic palm trees bending full over in the wind. We went into a bar for lunch and on the telly it was showing live coverage of tornados and thunderstorms hitting Miami - which was about a couple of hundred miles away across the water on the American coast. As we planned to sail on that evening, the crew were getting increasingly nervous about the prospect! On returning to the boat the weather calmed down but the crew were nervously encouraging me to stay overnight in the marina. However my problem was that my wife, Estelle, was flying in on a pre booked flight to Norfolk, Virginia; we were already running late and I wanted to be there to meet her.

So, with the storm over (or so I thought) and the potentially mutinous crew muttering below, I sneakily cast off the lines, gunned the engine and to their consternation motored out into the evening before a mutiny got going.

As the night came upon us we were still motoring in the relative calm but with all the sails up to catch whatever wind there was. Before long we could see lightning increasing and approaching us and in the end it was the most spectacular lightning I've ever seen. There was sheet lightning, plus forks of it coming down to the sea and horizontal lightning forks that seemed to stretch for dozens of miles across the horizon. Then a massive blast of wind hit us and heeled the boat (with full sails up) right over. I dashed on deck and just pulled every sail down in order to right us and finally returned to the cockpit to find the dissoriented helmsman headed for the shallows that surround the Bahamas. I seized the wheel from him, turned us away from the shallows and grabbed the throttle, pushing it hard down to get away. At that moment there was a deafening crash of thunder, the whole world went white, my hand was knocked off the throttle (similar to the experience of touching an electrified fence), and the instruments all zeroised. Luckily there was no apparent damage to the boat. We could only guess that there must have been a massive electrical discharge into the water by us and the electricity had travelled up the metal propellor shaft, through the metal engine, up the metal throttle cable, to the metal throttle and on to my hand.


This was my first experience of an eye of a storm. Clearly the side of the storm had hit the Bahamas, then the calm eye, during which time we had left, went through and then the other edge  hit us afterwards. We all learn by experience!


Before too long the storm abated, we tidied things up and recovered our nerves and continued on. However the crew did seriously question my judgement about departing when I did!