welcome to our blog!

This blog tells the story of our 22-month sailing journey from Oakland, California, to Bristol, Rhode Island, aboard our beloved Bristol 32 sailboat, Ute. Please feel free to browse through the archives (partway down the sidebar to your left) to see pics and read stories of our adventures in North America and Central America . (Sorry the first 3 months of the trip are missing - they vanished somewhere in an internet cafe in Mexico - but all you're missing is CA, Baja and Western Mex).

If you're trying to track us down now that we're landlubbers, try us at uteatlarge at yahoo dot com. Thanks!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Now We Have Superpowers!!

Okay, we're not entirely sure that's true. But we DID get struck by lightning, yes lightning, last Friday at around 8 in the morning, about 5 miles off Ft. Pierce. To answer the most FAQs: the boat is floating, yes it was f*&#ing terrifying, yes nearly everything wired into our 12V system got fried, and yes we are totally fine. better than fine, really - in fact we're thrilled. Thrilled? well, to take a direct hit (which we did) and not suffer more damage to both the boat itself and our fleshy little conductive bodies is practically miraculous! We're the luckiest unlucky folks we know. You have to admit, getting struck by lightning is a pretty damn good excuse to not post on the blog for so long. in fact we plan to use this lightning excuse for everything for at least the next five years. don't say we didn't warn you....

So there we were, about 7 miles offshore, headed for the Ft. Pierce Inlet to enter the famed Intracoastal Waterway after a beautiful overnight sail from Miami (more about our fabulous time in Miami later). I came on shift at 6 AM and Allen nodded off to sleep. There was a huge squall threatening on the radar, but it looked like mostly rain with little electrical activity. About 20 minutes later the heavens opened and we were pelted with the kind of tropical torrent we haven't seen since Panama. Ariel was on shift on Hebe, just a few hundred yards away, and we chatted over the VHF about getting the shampoo out and taking cockpit bikini showers in the rain. no scary stuff yet. The wind died and the water was so calm that I was able to open Ute's water tanks to collect the rain water without risking salt spray sneaking into the mix. wonderful!

A couple miles later, around 8:00, somebody up there flipped a switch and brought in the lightning and thunder, seemingly out of nowhere. we've been in worse electrical storms, but I've never seen one sneak up so quickly. Sky-to-water strikes were happening all around us. I felt like we were caught in one of those stupid lightning-ball desk toys at Sharper Image. it was difficult to tell which direction might constitute an escape route, and with an average speed of 5 mph we're not much as an escape vehicle anyway. So I started to take the usual precautions: I cut power to all the non essential electronics, and made sure I neither of us was touching anything metal. As the strikes happened closer and closer I put the GPS in the oven (the oven, being a solid metal cage, offers great lightning protection for any electronics we can stick in it. unfortunately, most of our nav toys are not so easily detached from our electrical system). Since the wind had completely died, I was hesitant to turn off the autopilot and the engine as we would then be adrift with no steerage.

When I saw a bolt hit about 50 yards off our beam and felt the strike in my gut, I reprioritized. "Wake up baby, this shit is about to hit us...I'm turning off the engine, 'kay?" I hollered at a bleary Allen on the side berth. He popped right up and immediately started helping me turn off the few things that were still on. We killed the engine and started to bob (the phrase "sitting duck" springs to mind, but we couldn't put our beloved engine, Kiki, at risk). In an effort to ensure we weren't taking on water, Allen lifted a panel in our cabin sole and reached for the electric bilge pump switch and.....

CRAAAAAAAAAA-ACK! we heard and felt the bolt as it chose Ute's mast as the path of least resistance to the Atlantic. It was like a cannon shot that we felt from head to toe. It was, of course, over in a nanosecond and our first reaction was to check and make sure the other was basically intact. After a fetching display of our continued ability to wiggle fingers and form sentences, the next step was to grab a flashlight and check all of Ute's six through-hulls. For all you non-boaters, through-hulls are essentially valves, embedded in Ute's hull below the waterline, that allow the (intentional) entry and exit of water through hoses. In some cases the water is exiting, say from a sink or a toilet, and in some cases it is entering, for example in the case of the sea water that is pumped into and around our engine to cool it. More to the point, these through hulls have metal fittings and thus offer lightning a tantilizing exit point in a boat made of fiberglass (which is much less conductive). Lightning that comes in has to go out somewhere, and when a lightning bolt tries to squeeze its whole big flashy self into a wee through-hull fitting, it usually results in a huge hole in the hull which, as you might guess, generally results in sinking.

So, we were relieved to see no water, cracks, holes, or melted parts around any of our through-hulls. Ute was still floating! Huzzah! the next step was to see if the engine would start, which, miraculously and thankfully, it did. The next step of turning on all of our instruments and appliances to assess the damage was a little less rewarding: basically, the only things that still worked were the interior lights and the propane solenoid. The depth sounder, radar, autopilot, running lights, VHF radio, auxiliary fuel pump, and more were kaput. While we were still ecstatic to be alive, we were now stressed out that A) we weren't out of the storm yet and B) our boat had just lost thousands of dollars in value with one flash of lightning (it's not that we're materialists, but we are two near-broke individuals who were hoping to sell our boat mighty soon). We were already starting to contemplate just what this might mean for our Big Picture.

We dug our handheld VHF out of our ditch bag (abandon-ship bag) and found that its batteries, which had been purchased new and packaged separately in their own ziploc, were dead. we couldn't help but laugh - good thing we weren't actually abandoning ship, knock on wood. the moral of the story there is, don't go to a Chinatown in Panama and by batteries called, say, EverFready or DuraSmell. spend good money on your ditch bag! We raised Hebe on the radio, confirmed that they were still doing okay, and informed them that we would be heading into a marina in Ft, Pierce instead of anchoring out, as we normally would do. Not only did we need to assess the damage to Ute and have access to businesses on land, but because our wind generator and solar panels seemed to be fried, we didn't have a reliable way to live off-the-grid like we usually do aboard Ute. Hebe had lost their GPS when lightning hit close to their boat, but hadn't suffered any direct hits and was doing okay....

An hour later we found ourselves standing off in the entry channel to the marina while Hebe entered her slip there (they decided to come into the marina to to offer us help and moral support - thanks a million Tim and Ariel). When the harbormaster radioed us to give us the green light to come into the marina, Allen shifted the engine into forward and got - nothing. oh, boy. the transmission coupler bolt had apparently chosen that less than opportune moment to fail us. Luckily (that is becoming such a subjective word, isn't it) we were not in any danger as we drifted out of the channel and ran aground in the soft clay mud bottom of the ICW. That wasn't our finest moment. We had weathered the lightning strike pretty well, and were starting to deal with taking a huge hit in the final lap of our trip, but the transmission thing did test our resilience a bit. I threw out the anchor just to make sure we were parked and not endangering other boats while Allen bleated out words and phrases I can't share on a family blog.

After a couple solid minutes of being simpering, self-pitying idiots we got back on the proverbial horse and called Sea Tow on the radio. Mind you, we had reviewed the available on-the-water assistance plans (these are like marine AAA) in Miami and had it on our to-do list to sign up for one once we got in the ICW. I guess our timing was a little off on that, but after covering 5,000 very UNassisted sea miles since CA (most places we've sailed there wasn't an option of radioing anyone, let alone a tow company), it didn't seem like a high priority in this land of great marine resources. Sea Tow was happy to inform us that for the bargain price of $200 they would be happy to tow Ute the last 10 yards into the marina. Under any other circumstances we would surely have made Emeryville marina proud by assembling some eyesore of a jury rig to get that boat in - we probably could have pushed her with our dinghy and outboard - but since we were hitting all-time lows on the Luck-o-meter that day, we didn't want to add liability for property damage to the marina or other boats to our growing list of Ute's Issues. (The U.S. does have a lot going for it, but it can also be a ludicrously expensive place to make a simple mistake).

So we swallowed our pride, dug out our credit card, and paid Sea Tow about a dollar a foot to drag our sorry asses into a totally overpriced marina. Hebe was ready at the dock to catch our lines and hand us cold beers to cry into. Before we could even think about the state of our instrument and wiring, we knew we had to pull the transmission out and fix the coupler.

Now I'm getting into the part where Allen and Tim really worked some serious magic, so it's only fair that we let Allen write the next chapter of this saga. As I type this in a park next to the Eau Gallie Yacht Basin in Melbourne, FL, Allen is hard at work on Ute, adjusting Kiki's valve clearances with help from our friend Derek. He's promised to take a break soon-ish and chime in on the blog. (Here's a teaser: in the next chapter we find out how the lightning strike and the coupler failure were related).

To snapshot our current situation, we have been working on the boat pretty much nonstop since last Friday. Last Monday we motored the 48 ICW miles to here (Melbourne) where Derek was kind enough to get us a cheap slip at his marina. (We met Derek a year ago when we linehandled on his boat in the Panama Canal, two weeks before Ute went through). The nice folks at Car Collector magazine in Titusville (employer of Rick Carey and sometimes Allen) have been generous enough to loan us a truck for our daily runs to the marine and hardware stores here. Thanks guys! It seems like we picked a great spot to break down (maybe we have a knack for that - if you can't keep everything running, at least break down in the right places). Tim and Ariel have ended their sailing journey here, as planned, and have very generously taken time away from job-hunting and house-hunting to show up, voltmeters in hand, and help with the systems rehab effort. I guess you could say we stole their thunder - somewhere, in a parallel universe, we're spending our last dollars on a "Way to Go Hebe!" party instead of replacing stuff we already had. We sure couldn't ask for better friends than those two.

Until a couple days ago, we weren't sure we'd be able to continue our journey north due to time and money constraints, but we've decided to make a go of it. The last week has found us doing a condensed version of many of the projects that we did in the six months before leaving Emeryville - it's a bit overwhelming, but also a fantastic learning experience. We have a new radio, and a new depth sounder (luckily just the head unit was fried - the transducer took a lickin' and kept on tickin'). Our radar is at the Furuno shop in Washington, where they assured us that their quote for fixing it was less than a new one. We'll see about that. West Marine was either kind enough or clueless enough to honor the two-year warranty on our autopilot, despite the fact that it expired in April. Most of our days
have been spent running new wiring, testing circuits, and ordering new
parts. Many thanks to Capt. Tom Kennon in Maine for working some magic
with the West Marine manager down here!

Nobody believes me, but I still love Florida. It is incredibly beautiful here.....the ICW is like the Mississippi but with manatees, ospreys and ibises toolding around....the people are great...are we're making friends here we won't soon forget.

back to work now! more soon. hugs to everyone, UTE


Nancy said...

what a commentary - needless to say the mom is more than proud of your abilities to weather storms and irritations. Enjoy talking with you on the phone - what can I add to this blog except to say, love you. nmc

Susan and Jeff said...

hey guys, the demons can't knock a great couple of sailors like you down, huh!! How heartbreaking to read your trials and tribulations though. All of us living on boats feel your pain and know it could be us next time. So glad you are physically safe!! Jeff says he wants to hear about the tranny coupling. C'mon Allen, clue us in. love and hugs,
S & J

The Spelmans said...

While I am glad you are both alive, I must say I'm tired of seeing the 2D versions of you both!
We can't wait to get you here to New England so we can go out for a beer, have a coffee (regular), at 'Dunkin, and maybe later, a scoop with jimmies.

Hugs and Love from The Spelmans!

dhyana rose said...

.. facinating story - such a wild life you lead - inspiring - I have vowed to leave the house more often ..


Citypig said...

Glad Ute and crew are okay! I suppose getting hit by lightning is not an old sea sign of luck though...

S/V UTE said...

actually CP we feel so incredibly lucky now, that I can only conclude it IS a sign of good luck. perhaps no historically, but we're rewriting history...

S/V UTE said...

and by "no" I mean "not" of course...

Randi said...

Why this boat is automatic
It's systematic
It's hydromatic
Why it's grease lightning (Grease lightning)
Go grease lightning you're burning up the quarter mile...

I am just going to write song lyrics on your blog.

Camp is going on. I can see Sarah outside my window with a herd of kids. I am staring right at her and she has no clue. I feel like a spy. She is doing great.

Miss you bunches!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Wow, glad you got the lightning safety tips down well. Great work charging ahead to get Ute going again! You guys have pluck to make a go of it.

We're shaking down Maia, getting our ship in order, still no word if we can leave Australia any time soon, but we're adjusting. Fair winds to carry to you North!


Ari said...

Ari here from Emeryville marina. Wow!!! You guys need or want anything? We can pass the hat at the next bonfire.

Our news is that Sarah and I are selling our Catalina 30 and have contracted to buy an Ingrid 38 gaff cutter. We're on the countdown to come out cruising too..

Love from the miscellaneous E-ville riff raff! Seriously let us know if there's anything we can do to help you guys onward.

Craig, still meaning to give you my brother's number in Brisbane. What's your email or phone number?

- Ari


jon said...

Can you clear this up for me? If your boat sinks in a lightning storm, and you're in the water, how close to a lightning strike in the water do you need to be to die?

laura said...

yeow, how scary! we saw lightning once on the ocean crossing, but nothing forky and nothing close... glad that you guys are ok & that things are sorting themselves out...