Lightning Never Strikes Twice!

So the saying goes – but in our case this is not quite true!  Three times is the score for Pipistrelle – once in Curacao in the Caribbean, once in Fiji and now in The Maldives.

Read on …

The Tropics are renowned for the frequency of lightning, and nowhere more so than Malaysia and Thailand.  We investigated installing a lightning protector in New Zealand, but with a quoted cost of NZ$15,000 and no guarantee it would work, we decided not to go ahead.

So we were relieved to move on westwards from Thailand, and away from the frequent electrical storms.  Sailing south through the Maldives was uneventful until after we had left Male for Gan.  An overnight passage between two atolls was needed on the 6/7th April, and whilst rain was shown on the weather forecast, there was no mention of lightning.  During the night with Elaine on watch the radar was showing cumulus nimbus ahead, with sheet lightning, but it was moving away from our path.  After the change of watch at 0300 Bob was still looking at developments on the radar, and saw with concern a huge bank of cloud behind us, moving against the wind, and catching us up.  He altered course towards the atoll we were passing, but as the cloud went overhead, there was a huge bang, crack and simultaneous flash of lightning.

We had suffered a direct hit to the top of the mast.  Though he felt the shock of the impact, and Elaine’s off watch slumbers were severely curtailed, fortunately we were both otherwise unhurt, if not a little shaken. But there was a strong smell of burning in the aft area of Pipistrelle (one cause could have been the PCB for the autopilot).

As there was very little wind associated with the cloud we were motor sailing at the time. We lost all instrumentation, autopilot and engine controls, as well as having no charge from the alternators.  With the engine fans eating 10 amps, we shut the engine down manually to conserve power.   Once it had stopped we could not start it again.  Hand steering in driving rain, we were out of mobile phone range, our only means of communication was the satellite phone, which we used to advise our Maldivian agent and sailing friends in the vicinity of our situation by email.

The current was taking us NE towards Kolamaafushi on Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll and eventually we had one bar on the mobile, and were able to call Neal and Ruthie on Rutea.  As luck would have it they were anchored only 10nm from our position and motored out of the atoll to meet us with crew from two other yachts.  Shortly after they arrived so did the wind and we were able to sail towards the anchorage, where Tom from Pakea Tea pushed us along in his dinghy once we had dropped the sails.

We found that the generator started, but created no AC, and the alternators were also wiped out, so we were unable to charge any of the batteries.  Happily our new solar panels kept the batteries partially charged, with the fridge and freezer turned off overnight (not ideal in this climate!).  The following day Neal and other yachties came over, and bypassed the Micro Commander which electronically controls the main engine.  Neal found a switch to start the engine and made a clever lever to act as a throttle, so with a floor hatch open by the companionway we were able to change gear and increase the speed of the engine by manually moving the cables.

So we could now move Pipistrelle carefully, but found that hoisting the mainsail using the electric winch depleted the batteries, so it was then hoisted by hand (yes, curiously all the electric winches and anchor windlass still worked).  With 72 ft of mast and a very heavy sail, this is not as easy as it sounds.  Manoeuvring was not straightforward either, with Bob down below on the engine controls, Elaine on the wheel, calling engine instructions as he popped his head up into the cockpit.

Helmut and Kerstin on Lop To kindly offered to buddy boat us to Gan on Addu Atoll, leading the way to a couple of anchorages in between, before the final 60nm overnight leg.  On arrival we anchored between Gan and Heydhoo.

The following equipment had been taken out by the strike:

  • VHF and aerial at the masthead which was split.
  • AIS and AIS B
  • Tricolour and anchor light
  • All navigation and depth instruments including main GPS
  • Autopilot
  • 12v and 24v alternators
  • Micro Commander engine controls
  • Generator
  • Timer delay switch for greytank
  • Galley lighting
  • BEP DC voltage and amp meter
  • Victron DC to DC converter

The mobile phone, satphone and emails were heavily used to advise our insurance company, Admiral, and the providers of the affected equipment of our plight.  One of these calls was to Steve Gilmour of Category 1 Marine in New Zealand, who had replaced the Kubota motor on our FP generator in 2012.  An extremely competent marine engineer and yachtsman himself, he took such an interest in our problems that he became our natural choice to ask whether he would consider flying to Gan to help us replace the equipment.  The answer was ‘yes’.  With the quick agreement of Admiral, flights and accommodation were booked.  Between them, Bob and Steve very successfully project managed ordering, transport and arrival at Gan airport of all the necessary kit.

The Maldives are probably one of the worst places for the import of spares, and we did not want to rely on local labour, because of the complexity of most of Pipistrelle’s electrical and electronic systems.  Even now getting the final package to Gan is creating a challenge.

Steve flew in on Saturday 25th April.  By Saturday 2nd May everything was working again except the generator.  Whilst we had taken the manufacturer’s advice that the windings were probably affected, no mention was made of the PCB in the control box.  The windings weighed 80 kgs and were shipped from Germany.  Steve split the generator, removed the old windings and replaced them with new windings and armature.  After countless tests and checks, it was to no avail, and in the end we contacted Fischer Panda in Germany direct to order the parts for the new AC control box to save time.   A week later we are still awaiting its arrival in Gan!

There is little one can do to avoid a lightning strike, we just hope that this is the last occasion for us.  We were very lucky it did not happen during an ocean passage.  Our fellow yachties could not have been more helpful or supportive.  We are truly indebted to Neal and Ruthie (Rutea), Mark and Rosie (Maerkava), Helmut and Kerstin (Lop To), Tom and Sonja (Pakea Tea), Amigo, Tony and Connie (Sage), Chris and Ann (Silver Girl).  And finally Neil and Ley on Crystal Blues who arrived in Gan after everyone else had left for Chagos.  Assad, our agent in Uligan from Real Seahawks contacted us regularly to make sure we were all right. Ranjan and Ashok in Male, were able to source parts for us that no one else could get and arrange for their transport to Gan.

We are also extremely fortunate to have an understanding insurance company in Admiral, who has not quibbled.  Our contact, Bob Samuels has also monitored and replied to emails at weekends.

And finally our thanks to Steve who worked like a Trojan from 0900 to 1800 and longer each day in very hot, cramped conditions, and was a tower of strength, aided and abetted by Bob.   When the additional issue with the generator manifested itself, he extended his stay by two days in the hope that he would be able to resolve the problem.   Accommodation at the nearby Equator Village Resort was comfortable and Steve was more than happy to retreat to his airconditioned room each evening!

Whilst we are not out of the woods yet, more work will be required when we reach a haven where there will be support and expertise to totally check over Pipistrelle.  However, we should be in a position to head south to Chagos shortly.

A few lessons learnt

For other cruisers this might be a useful checklist:

  • If your engine controls are electronic like ours, learn how to insert a switch from a relay, so that you are able to start the engine.
  • Use the lever on the side of your engine to stop it.
  • Learn how to remove the cables from your control box, and then use them to change gear and control the engine speed.
  • Alternators are susceptible – carry spares.
  • Any printed circuit board is susceptible. Whilst carrying spares is probably not feasible, bear in mind that any of them could be affected.
  • The AC control box on our generator was damaged, meaning that even a month later we still have no method of creating AC, apart from a small inverter we have acquired.
  • The DC to DC converter, 24 to 12 volt was taken out. This is something that is small enough for a spare to be carried.
  • We were so lucky that our SSB and satphone links were not damaged. Plan on how you would communicate in the event of a lightning strike.
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