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Posted by on Oct 1, 2010 in Environment, Safety and Seamanship, US | 1 comment

When Lightning Strikes, Try Dancing

There's nothing that makes us appreciate a safe harbor as much as the hiss and tingle of a really close bolt of lightning.

Maybe I should have taken the shark as an omen. I saw its big dorsal fin circling in a patch of weed and trash in the chop south of Nashawena and Cuttyhunk.

NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

Photo courtesy NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL)

Then there were the waves below Sow and Pigs. They weren’t like Southern Ocean monsters, but neither was I riding in a Southern Ocean windjammer. Mine was a 26-foot launch dressed up like a lobster boat, climbing over steep, smooth 10- to 14-foot hills, rolling in from a seemingly placid Atlantic on a standard summer afternoon, with the beginning of a fair tide coming into Vineyard Sound and a light southwest breeze on top. Weird. Just weird. These waves weren’t breaking, I’m glad to say, but I was interested in getting well clear of Sow and Pigs and making my turn into Buzzards Bay.

I knew better than to start a passage in mid-afternoon on a hot summer day in New England. Normally I wouldn’t have. But you understand how it is. Circumstances prevent your departure. The bright lights of Newport on a hot summer night are beckoning. One loses one’s Yankee caution, makes excuses, rationalizes, and invokes the gods of luck and forbearance. But as we know, those gods only help those too ignorant to ask for their help. The rest of us have to be smarter.

The big waves settled into four-footers, which I took uncomfortably but, all things considered, gratefully on the beam, and things were looking up until I got to the midpoint of my 20-mile leg between Vineyard Sound and Brenton Reef, marking the entrance to the East Passage up to Newport and Narragansett Bay. Then the sky to the north abruptly turned gunmetal gray, and a high, curved stormfront extended rapidly to the south – a front that looked like it should be carrying the flying monkeys of the Wicked Witch. Then lightning began to connect the front with the Rhode Island and Massachusetts shoreline.

After a phase of denial during which I changed course and speed a few times to see if I could somehow avoid the sucker, I realized I wasn’t going to. It was moving faster than I could move in any direction. The only way out was through. I looked all around to make sure no one else was damn fool enough to be around, made sure of my compass course, throttled back a bit, took a deep breath, and went on in.

The first 15 minutes or so were quite exciting. The initial blast of wind seemed to be about 40 knots and mashed the waves right down. It was dark except for the white froth on the surface of the flattened chop. Visibility was maybe 50 yards. Rain was making its way through the window gaskets. It was loud. There were three or four lightning strikes close by, and then the doozy – smell of ozone, hiss and tingle of static, hair going weightless, and the bolt that seemed to come horizontally over the boat from ahead. It hit somewhere behind, maybe 50 or 500 yards, I didn’t see.

lightningdance

The complicated double-hand motions of the lightning dance, one hand speeding for the metal wiper handle, the other in the two-finger teak-only pinch on the wheel. Note the crossed finger, an advanced dance move.

Years ago, Giff Pinchot told me he’d been at the helm when his boat was hit by lightning, and the flash had blinded him for several hours. This story had stuck with me, so for the whole squall I did a sort of St. Vitus’ macarena, squatting and ducking behind the dash, daintily holding only the wooden parts of the wheel spokes with thumb and forefinger as if sipping tea, closing one eye and then the other to keep one eye in reserve, and waiting until after a flash to jab my hand up and twist the metal handle of the manual windshield wiper.

Not long after I’d polished my dance routine, the squall let up. The rest of the trip into Newport was wet and bouncy, but eventually a horizon appeared and there was a hint of late-afternoon blue to the north. The last half-leg turned out to be one of the most enjoyable times I’ve spent on the water. It’s funny how life can seem rosy after the worst of the bad stuff has gone away and you’re left with only the standard discomforts. Maybe I wasn’t as glad as Captain Bligh was when he reached Kupang after his 3600-mile ride with 18 others in a 23-foot open boat, or as happy as Shackleton after his 800-mile Southern Ocean ordeal with five others in a 22-foot whaleboat. But Newport looked pretty good to me that night.

1 Comment

  1. Great article, Doug.
    Wow must have been something …