If you sail offshore for long enough, go enough places and explore your boundaries and limits with wind and sea conditions, you are likely to have a few disasters strike. I had thought most had happened to me. Until Boxing Day in Cairns. At the time Whim was nestled safely on her jetty.
Over 26,000 lightning strikes were recorded on the Northern Beaches of Cairns on Boxing day. One of them was close enough to Whim to take out the electrics. All instruments, radar, radios, lights and engine controls dead. Because moving the cat was a risk without doing a thorough survey out of the water I hired an 80 tonne crane and had her undertake a short flight to the empty block next to my jetty.
For the manual Multihull Seamanship I had researched what was known and unknown about lighting strikes. I had read stories about antifouling and chainplates being blown off and blackened cooked instruments. Despite what I was expecting to find, there was no physical sign of a strike on Whim. No entry. No exit.
As a result it was time to go back the books and online search engines. There is a lot of data on direct strikes and the catastrophic damage they can cause. I have now come to a better understanding about how lightning can cause extensive damage even when it does not directly strike the yacht.
Old instrument layout.
All dead and needing reorganising.
Whim suffered an EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse). Lightning is a very high voltage discharge with an extremely high current. This high current in turn produces a corresponding magnetic field. This magnetic field is very broad spectrum, from very-low-frequency (VLF) radio to ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths. This field induces currents in any electrical conductor.
An EMP strike differs from ‘line surges’ that a surge protector can save you from. The huge magnetic fields can induce fields and currents inside devices and along wiring interconnecting instruments including masthead sensors, radio antennas and thus into all electronics.
Engine room ready for new engines.
All electronic systems usually have some form of protection against the effects of an EMP. Unfortunately surge protectors offer limited protection against the EMP impact on wiring. The best method of protection is to unplug all cords and disconnect as many electronic devices as possible during storage and when leaving the vessel unattended. When sailing in lightning risk areas or storms consider disconnecting noncritical systems at the instrument. It is not a guarantee but may reduce the damage.
The general precautions taken against lightning strikes are generally well known and include adequate grounding, lightning rods, lightning dissipation devices, lightning arrestors, fuses, breakers, and so on. Unfortunately, multihulls are generally difficult to ground effectively.
There is no agreement in the literature that I explored as to what is best. The consensus is that if you are well grounded and get hit the damage will be lessened – but you are more likely to be hit. If your yacht is not grounded and you are hit the damage is higher – but you are less likely to be hit in the first place. The insurance companies offer no guidelines.
In diagnosing and repairing the damage aboard Whim I noted several common threads in the types of systems damaged, and going down to component level, what was damaged. The more interconnected the system the more damage. Whim had extensive interconnected instrumentation – wind instruments, radar, VHF, AIS, onboard Wi-Fi, chart plotter. All went into the trash.
The Covid-19 lockdown was timed with craning Whim onto the hard and thus cruising was put on hold while I worked long hours medical consulting and long hours diagnosing damage, listing and drawing up options and discussing with my insurance broker.
Out for damage survey.
The Insurance aspect of the incident was a surprise. I have raced and sailed multihulls for 45 years. My one claim in that time was the catastrophic loss of D Flawless to a whale impact in 1988. It took a phone call from the TV show Investigators to the insurer to get an offer of payout after 12 months of negotiation. I was not sure what to expect this time round.
I had signed up with a new broker and insurance company only two months prior to the EMP strike. I changed because they provided cover in Cairns and during the cyclone season for multihulls.
To my surprise everyone involved was professional, timely communicative and fair. The insurance assessor went over the boat thoroughly. My list of damage was followed with a request for replacement costs. I attained two quotes from electronic suppliers and fitters. These were submitted and the claim processed. The value of my electronics was depreciated. This I was not aware of and on getting advice discovered that this was the norm for a partial damage claim verses a total loss agreed value claim. Because Whim was 20 years old the electronics were depreciated for this time. I then went back to my yacht file and found her equipment purchase dates and upgrade details for the destroyed electronics and forward these details.
Hint: Keep a good record of your purchases! A new depreciation was applied, not including the labour and postage costs. My total claim was in the mid 80k range and the claim paid out in the mid 60’s. This seemed fair and reasonable and I agreed and settled. Then the real challenge began.
My broker and insurer communicated in a timely fashion and I have only the highest praise for them. I am not in the habit of promoting services in articles, but I am happy to let anyone know who asks. Feel free to email me. With Whim out of the water for all the dry season much was achieved. Probably more than I expected. The electronics were replaced. I put serious thought into how the systems interconnected, which were critical and could be manually backed up. I have also designed easy access to disconnect the actual instruments from wiring.
Wiring removed en masse.
The opportunity to rewire the entire boat meant I could remove defunct and obsolete cabling. This was very eye opening and hundreds of metres of cable, two old depth sounders and redundant instruments removed. I also went wireless to the masthead removing this wire strike route. I replaced both engines as well – taking out 20-year-old Yanmar 30hp and saildrives and putting back in new Yanmar 30hp engines and saildrives. If it isn’t broke don’t fix it was the maxim. We did not even need to change a bolt holes. With most tasks complete by mid dry season and Covid-19 still in full swing I decided to tidy up the paint job where it was scratched. If you have ever tried to paint one wall in a room your will immediately know the problem that evolved.
New instrument layout.
The paint ‘touch up’, of course, became a major repaint – the entire boat. I spent months sanding, filling, priming, and eventually spraying and rolling. Over $400 of masking tape! Whim has now been relaunched, the motors run in and everything well tested. In keeping with the name philosophy, Catherine and I decided to rename her. We have because we can. The name Whim never really grew on us so in honour of the people who mean so much in our lives our Crowther 43 cat is now Favourite Child.