Sunday, 19 August 2012

ready, set, go

Sky art
We heard it coming. It is a very strange feeling to know that you are about to be overrun by something powerful, and all you can do is wait for it. You watch. And you wait.

Our first chubasco hit in the early morning of August 9th. We knew from the radio nets that the conditions in the Sea were leading to such a storm coming our way, but there is always that little voice in you that fervently wishes something like that away. While it is not a hurricane – you never know how bad a chubasco can get. When reviewing the night’s events the following day, Rick and John referred to this chubasco as a “chubasco with training wheels”. At least, to quote Trisha, we’ve got one under our belts now.

As is our usual routine, we’d cleared the decks that evening. After we had tied everything down, we warily watched the lightning in the distance prior to going to bed. Just before 02:00, I noticed the lightning flashes had become so frequent and bright, it looked like someone was frantically flicking a light switch on and off. I woke Rick up and we both stepped out into the cockpit to watch the show. We could see the storm approaching, the lightning bolts defining the sky east of us.

While I collected all our loose electronics, (laptops, handheld GPS, I-phone), Rick disconnected our depth sounder, VHF radio and GPS. We don’t take lightning lightly. Perhaps we’re over the top, but we prefer taking preventative action over worrying. Nearly everything electronic we own was thrown into the oven.1 We then both stood in the companionway, a mixture of nervous energy and excitement in our bellies. That’s when the wind hit.

Lighting up the skies
It took the wind less than 40 seconds to go from 5 or so knots to 25 knots. What you immediately notice is the sound. Wind is loud. Of course we already knew that, but when it goes from nothing to something so quickly, it’s portentous. The wind continued to build. (According to our friends Derrick and Trisha on SV Interabang, the wind topped out at 36 knots. While we’ve often sailed in that kind of wind, it can be unnerving at anchor. It could easily have been more: A 50-60 knot wind is common for a chubasco.  I have difficulty imagining what 50 knot winds sound like, the odds are that I will find out soon enough. (Our friends on SV Eagle, only 30 nautical miles north of us, experienced 45 knot winds that same night. Apparently, it’s loud.)

In the initial 20 minutes of the storm, I repeatedly mumbled the same mantra while gripping the companionway hatch: “Please anchor, don’t drag. Please anchor, don’t drag.” The anchor stayed put. The lightning was so bright, we could easily keep tabs on our position – The rocky cliff was much more ominous in this setting than it had been the afternoon before. As the storm progressed, our bow followed it. In the end, we swung a full 360 degrees around our anchor.

When the wind died down, the seas grew more confused, as if an afterthought. We got rocked to and fro – an uncomfortable motion that continued on for some time. By this point the thunder and lightning was above and all around us. As I repeatedly yelled: “Woah!” and “Holy shit!” I heard Trisha also yelling excitedly on Interabang. We couldn’t help but feel like we were watching a fireworks display offered up by the skies above. It was spectacular.

The storm hit at 02:15 Pacific time. By 04:15, we went to bed to the sound of raindrops and the occasional flash of leftover lightning west of us. More exciting than scary, that night was still a good reminder of our place in the nature of things. Let’s just say, we are small. And Mother Nature is a force to be reckoned with.

1A boat’s oven is commonly used as a faraday cage during electrical storms to protect electronics from the electromagnetic pulse that comes with a nearby or direct lightning strike. An electromagnetic pulse would travel on the outside of the oven, and would not penetrate inside the metal box. When a lightning storm comes near, we disconnect all our electronic gizmos (depth sounder, GPS, laptops, etc.) and throw most of them in the oven in the hopes of saving our electronics from being fried.

We have since experienced another chubasco in, I’m sure, what will be a series of them. While we faced some challenges that night (as we later heard, did some of our friends), we were unscathed and our healthy respect for storms remains solid.


  1. That's a great story! I think we are going to head up to Mexico after we go through the Canal, and I've heard that the Pacific side has some crazy lightning. Thanks for the pics.

  2. The lightning storms of Central America are intense based on what our friends have experienced. Two boats we know got hit and sustained a fair bit of damage. There is always something to look out for isn't there! Where are you now?



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