Sailors face lightning storms in Costa Rica

Dennis Johns

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During our six-and-a-half-year world cruise, we watched the weather carefully, especially in places like Mexico’s Gulf of Tehuantepec and France’s Gulf of Lion where gale-force winds can develop in a matter of hours. Most of our passages were inside or near the tropical zone. With its predictable nasty weather of hurricanes and cyclones, it’s a place most cruisers try to avoid.

Heading south

After visiting many popular winter haunts on Mexico’s west coast, we headed south from Acapulco, the turnaround point for many cruisers heading north for protection during hurricane season. You can imagine what went through our minds as all the boats we saw were heading north. What did they know that we didn’t?

At Huatulco, our jumping-off point for crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec, we began a four-day overnighter to Bahia del Sol, El Salvador. Despite being anxious and excited for our longest passage to date, we had a good sail with limited motoring.

We wanted a pilot to guide us across the often exciting bar entrance to Bahia del Sol, but when we radioed ahead with our anticipated arrival time, we learned the pilot was going off duty in an hour and would not be around the next day. Revving up the engine, we ran at 3,000 rpm for the next 45 minutes. Although we hated to tax our 27-year-old engine, we also didn’t want to anchor out for two days in the ocean swell. We announced our arrival, and the pilot came out to guide us through an uneventful entrance. (It was a calm day at slack tide.)

In Bahia del Sol, we finally met cruisers doing what we were doing: working our way south for a Pacific crossing next year. We enjoyed being surrounded by folks with similar interests.

We’d met one of the cruisers before. Pam on Precious Metal was in Bahia del Sol for an extended stay while she repaired her boat after a lightning strike. According to insurance company statistics, fewer than one boat in a thousand will ever be hit by lightning. However, three of the 50 cruisers we’d met so far, not including Pam, had been struck. Apparently, most of those thousand boats hadn’t cruised around Central America. Costa Rica has more than half a million lightning strikes a year. The strike that damaged Pam’s boat hit many yards away, traveled through the water, and entered her engine room through the exhaust port, causing a fire. Although her engine was fine, the fire fried all her electronics.

Storm clouds roll in

The forecast called for clear skies and sunshine for our 350-mile passage, so we headed for Costa Rica with Jeorgia, our buddy boat. During this cruise, we learned repeatedly that weather predictions are rarely reliable beyond two days. (This passage would take three.)

Storm clouds began to form on the third day. From our radar, we could see we were headed straight into them. We radioed Jeorgia to decide on the best plan of action. With no anchorages nearby for shelter, we agreed to forge ahead. We furled or flaked sails and buttoned up hatches. Conditions were surreal. With little wind and flat seas, we’d have to motor.

Stretching from the clouds to the water, lightning bolts lit up the sky. The radar showed us the heaviest concentration of clouds with what looked like corridors between them. Rain pelted the boat as lightning struck all around us.

From what we’d heard from other cruisers, we could not imagine emerging from this storm without a strike. We gathered up our critical handheld electronics (VHS, GPS, etc.) and stashed them in the oven (our stand-in Faraday cage).

Comparing notes with Jeorgia, we identified the lightest concentration of clouds or rain on the radar and headed for those gaps. The day turned out to be a slalom between storm clouds as we motored many extra miles to escape the storm. As usual in stressful moments, it seemed a long time before the storm front passed, leaving residual rain behind.

Nothing we encountered for the rest of our 6½-year voyage would be as frightening as those 45 minutes of terror we spent surrounded by lightning. In hindsight, it was probably for the best that this happened during our first year out. It gave us confidence that we could control our fear and focus on the tasks at hand.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Sail & Power Squadron newsletter, Signal Hoist.

Dennis Johns

Dennis Johns and his wife, Virginia, have been members of the Santa Barbara Sail & Power Squadron/13 for 22 years. Dennis has been commander twice and held other bridge positions. As the squadron’s educational officer, he schedules and teaches classes as needed. In addition to participating in annual Channel Island cruises, he regularly gives presentations on his 2011–2017 world cruise.

The Ensign magazine is an official publication of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club,  a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.

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