Lightning storm, Day 8

Date: Nov. 13, 2016, noon Position: 28 29.60 S, 39 41.65 E

We saw the wall of lightning about an hour before the front hit us. Big bolts and zaps hitting the ocean ahead. The winds were only around 15 knots and Privateer had slowed down to about 4.5 knots. It felt a bit silly to be sailing in 15 knots with storm sails. But I resisted the urge to pile on more canvas. With lightning on the horizon and Kelsey & Taz sleeping below, this was time to batten down: the calm before the storm.

Slowly, we sailed into the wall of electricity. The misty air smelled like burnt-out batteries, and my thoughts turned naturally toward what would happen if we experience total instrument failure. One GPS is always stored in a metal box, to protect against lightning strike. I’ve heard of other sailors putting their electronics in the galley oven, too. Just don’t forget to take them out before you pre-heat! I woke Kelsey up and had her wrap Taz up in the foam yoga mat, to create a total insulative barrier.

It wasn’t your average thunderstorm. Blue and purple flashes burst continually from the sky, in constant succession, the colors like the weird blue light inside a tanning booth. The ocean was a metallic purple under those strange lights, with pink white-caps…”Pink-caps!” When an extra-intense bolt would land near the boat, a perfect negative-image of Privateer was burned momentarily into my eyes. If I blinked, I could see a black image of Privateer against a white background, down to every minute detail including the wire rigging and ropes.

Thunder on the ocean is a sound to behold. There’s nothing to echo off of out here, and the thunder rushed out across the expanse of ocean like the noise of a jet engine. I can only describe it as a “circular” noise. From all directions the thunder rushed outward. Some of the lightning bolts directly overhead produced a stacatto thunderclap, but being in the epicenter with no echo to hear, that was all we heard. Once in Alaska I saw a house-sized boulder fly off a mountainside and into the ocean from thousands of feet above. The sound that rock made when it hit the water was like tonight’s overhead thunder: kind of a hollow sucking noise.

When the SW winds came, I thanked god that we had our storm trysail up and not a reefed main. I just had time to watch the wind speed instrument go from 8 knots to 35 in one second, and then I was too busy to watch it top out. The storm sails snapped-to like a rubber band (they are built to stretch) and Privateer took off like a wild animal that had just been poked in the rear. The only problem was, we were on starboard tack in NW winds before the event, and now with the winds SW we were still on starboard tack but sailing back toward Reunion! We needed to tack ASAP.

I lit up the decks and prepped for action, running down the checklist in my head: Flip air vane paddle hard over for deep port tack, let fly lazy storm trysail sheet after sails pop, secure storm try, secure storm staysail sheet & let fly lazy sheet after she backs and hammers the boat over. Simple enough. Only problem was, the winds were so intense that no matter what I did with the air vane adjustment, Privateer just surged straight ahead, unable to come to windward for the tack. I tried falling off into a jibe, same thing. At that point Captain instinct kicked in and somehow I made it work, though I cannot tell you the sequence of events because I still can’t figure out how I did it. I started the engine but couldn’t hear it over the shriek of the wind–I didn’t even know it was on until I goosed the throttle and felt a faint vibration under my feet. I was completely disoriented by the lightning flashes and waves crashing over the decks. Again, I put the air vane where I knew it had to be in the end, punched the throttle full-out, and used all my body weight to force the tiller over. And somehow the boat swung around, not sure if jibed or tacked, and I got sheets made fast. It was like trying to drive a runaway car around a sharp bend on a mountain road while eating a sandwich and texting a friend and trying to figure out how the windshield wipers work. I was thrilled to see Privateer tracking straight on her new line now, surging through the storm like a Cadillac. I whooped and howled into the wind and lightning.

Meanwhile, Taz slept peacefully down below, oblivious to the lively conditions on deck, while his Dad sang to himself at the helm. “Does anyone know where the love of god goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours…”

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