As the almost-daily thunderstorms moved in over our anchorage in Bahia del Sol, El Salvador, we prepped the boat, securing the dinghy motor to the rail and hoisting the dinghy, closing the hatches and ports, taking down the laundry, wind scoop and US flag, checking the anchor and snubbers . . . and throwing all the electronics that would fit into the oven and microwave. Huh??
The impetus for this article was an essay on the last page of the April 2012 SAIL magazine, titled “When You See the Southern Cross.” Towards the end of the essay, there’s just a couple of sentences devoted to sustaining a direct lightning strike, “losing practically every electrical instrument onboard” and the “effort it took to return our crippled craft to base . . . “
Imagine being in a secluded anchorage and losing every piece of electronic gear. YIKES! But I do have some good news, and it involves your oven (and microwave, if you have one).
Dave and I come from the Midwest and thought we’d seen some pretty wicked thunderstorms living there. Then we experienced some chubascos in the Sea of Cortez and then the fierce nightly thunderstorms in El Salvador’s rainy season. And while we never had a direct lightning strike, other boats in our anchorage weren’t so lucky. The night that the photo at right was taken, a boat within 100 yards of us was hit.
How to Protect Your Electronics
Various cruisers devised all sorts of grounding systems but frankly, none seemed to protect the boats that were hit. All lost some to all of their electronics (luckily, none had holes blown in the hull).
The good news was that time after time, anything they’d put in their oven or microwave was okay. I’ll keep the explanation simple, primarily because I’m not enough of a physicist to fully understand it. Basically the oven/microwave acts as a Farraday cage — or a full metal box — and when lightning hits it, just flows over the outside without disturbing anything inside.
What to Put in the Oven
So, any time we’d see a storm approaching — or when we went to bed when we were in “lightning country” — we’d put the following in the oven and microwave:
- Handheld GPS
- Handheld VHF
- Cell phone
- Laptop and card readers and cables to connect to handheld GPS
- Tablets with navigation program (AquaMap)
- Digital camera
- Chargers, spare batteries and data cards for all the above
If we had a handheld depth sounder, we would have added it, too.
If you do get a direct strike, you won’t have all your normal goodies to get home. And unfortunately, this won’t protect the really expensive stuff. But you’ll have enough to safely navigate and communicate.
Just be careful that you never light the oven with all your electronic goodies in there. For us, that wasn’t a problem as the igniter didn’t work and I had to open the oven and manually light it. But if you can light yours with just a button, you might want to put a piece of tape over the button with “Electronics!” written on it so that no one inadvertently melts them.
Let’s hope you never have a direct lightning strike — but if you do, ensure that your basic electronics are adequately protected. Like anything else with boating, if you get in the habit of doing it every time there’s lightning, you’ll never be saying “if only . . . “