3 September 2018
4.30am. Anchored just off Kotor.
From deep inside a dream I hear an urgent “Beads, Beads!” (1) and feel my shoulder shaken. Dragging myself to consciousness I become aware of a sky lit up unnaturally for what still feels like the middle of the night. Stefan has been watching out of the window for a few minutes and urges me to look out. “I thought you would want to know”!
All around us the sky is constantly lit by lightening. Not just the punctuation of a bolt here and there but simultaneous streams of electricity. We have never seen anything like it.
We have had some close encounters with lightening in our two years afloat: in Palinuro in Italy; crossing from Milos to Crete; and most recently in the infamous Vlikho Bay on Lefkas. But never have thunderstorms been such a constant threat as in the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. Maybe it’s the time of year, the geography or just bad timing but it seems that there is one in the forecast most days and the distant rumbling of thunder has been a constant soundtrack to our time here.
A few times it has not been so distant. This was the lightening strike map over Kotor whilst we were anchored off the town on 26 August.
Our lightening avoidance strategy has to date been find a boat with a bigger mast and park up as close as possible! The lightening will hopefully find the tallest thing it can. With this in mind we had been grateful to be in the company of SV Red Rackham with their 20+ metre mast for that storm but by now they are in Italy. There are a few others anchored in the area, most with shorter masts. The only higher mast is quite a distance off.
Stefan is usually very good at hiding any fear in scary situations on the boat but I can tell he is a little bit jumpy about this one! I get up and gather all our hand held electronics – EPIRB (2), GPS, VHF radio, tablet, mobile phones, laptop, camera (all important communication gadgets that we could do without being fried by lightening) – and put them in the oven.
“But surely you have some kind of lightening protection” people assume. There is no such thing when living on a sailing boat with a 19 metre metal pole sticking out of the top. Lightening strikes of yachts are reassuringly rare although we’ve heard enough stories (and found enough pictures on the internet!) to know it is perfectly possible. During one of the storms we had in Montenegro a yacht was struck in Bar Marina.
If we are hit, the electricity will make its way down the mast and to earth (or in our case the water). At worst this could put a hole in the boat which could sink us. That or set Pintail on fire. At best the inductive forces of the electricity could blow all the boat’s electrics, including the engine’s starter monitor and all our navigation equipment. People we know who have been hit needed to have their boat completely rewired.
So whatever electronic devices we can we put in the oven. We could also use the washing machine. Any metal box will act as a Faraday cage and protect the electronics from the inductive current. We just need to remember they are in there before turning the oven on!
The storm is getting closer. Heavy rain and strong wind starts and we quickly close all the hatches. Whilst closing the companionway Stefan notices that our ensign has almost been blown off its flag pole and darts onto deck to retrieve the already sodden flag before it disappears.
We get our wets out of the cupboard for the first time in a very long time, just in case we need to re-anchor or worse, abandon ship.
By now it is obvious we are not going to get back to sleep and so we get up, make tea and Stefan puts on an episode of Peaky Blinders as a distraction from the violence outside. The rain is so heavy, it’s hard to hear the TV.
The rain and wind are easing. The thunder is more distant but it is lightening that continues to light the sky rather than the dawn. Outside we see other boats re-anchoring. Pintail’s anchor is holding well and we are glad we don’t have to brave the outside. We are just willing the lightening to go away. It feels like it is not if but when we get hit!
The storm has moved far enough away for us to crawl back into bed and we snooze for an hour or so until one of our neighbours in the anchorage, a New Zealand boat, passes by. He tells us that his anchor dragged in the wind and he hit a trip boat. Luckily no damage was caused to either.
The sun has come out and it is as though nothing has happened. It might all be over but one thing we know is that it never gets easier and this felt like the closest call we’ve had to date. “It’s not all champagne and sangria, is it, Beads“, says Stefan. He’s right although mercifully the moments of abject terror in our sailing life are few and far between.
And then, as if to herald the coming of the calm, a dolphin plays in the water close by…
(1) Beads or Beady is a nickname many will know Stefan has bestowed upon me. I also answer alternately to Spider or Spider Monkey. Long stories!
(2) Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon