Sailing there and back again… a lightning strike at sea.

Sailing there and back again… a lightning strike at sea.

OCC Member Nicolas Charpy's steel yacht Frileuse took a direct hit of lightning while crossing the Atlantic to Europe, several days out from the Caribbean.

By - 28/06/2020

On the 8th of June, we received a cryptic Iridium message from Frileuse to the OCC address set up to handle back room communications with the fleet crossing the Atlantic, “Hello. Juste to let you know. Hit by lightning. Going back for répares.” Moira Bentzel, who together with Alex Blackwell, Peter Whatley, Tim Goodyear and Daria Blackwell, had been monitoring the sailing vessels who had signed up to the OCC Atlantic Crossing Facebook group, was the first to pick up the message. Moira, being in the US, covered the night hours in the Atlantic while Alex and Daria usually picked up first thing in the morning in Ireland. The others were in the Caribbean.

Moira asked if all was okay aboard and if he needed anything including calling the coast guard. Nicolas responded that he needed to know where to go for less wind because all his instruments were out. He needed to go somewhere where he could get some rest but he couldn’t access his gribs.

As the Bentzels were home and they had no access to weather routing software, she sent Frileuse contact information for the two boats closest to him and called Alex. Alex had been given the PRO version of PredictWind for group support. He went to work surveying the weather patterns in the vicinity of Frileuse. Seeing on our list that the skipper, Nicolas Charpy, was sailing single-handed in company with three other yachts, Alex contacted Frileuse and learned that the 42-foot steel yacht had been struck by lightning some 700 miles out of Antigua.

Nicolas was shaken and suffered some burns and had a headache, but the yacht was not taking on any water. Nicolas made the decision to return to Antigua. At least his SAT phone was working, and we could maintain communications. We were concerned about Nicolas’ health and state of mind.

Alex sent an informational message to the US Coast Guard, so they had all they needed in case the situation deteriorated. Fortunately, the lightning had struck the vessel when Nicolas was below decks. He quickly determined that he had no electronics and no autopilot. He went on deck to inspect the rig and found it and sails to be intact. Taking it all in, he sat down on deck at which time he sustained burns – on his bum! The steel deck was that hot.

Alex walked him through the weather situation and had Nicolas alter course. Then he walked Nicolas through checks that had to be done. One of our prior boats had taken a direct hit of lightning while on its mooring so we knew what the potential pitfalls were. Little by little, Nicolas worked his way through. Engine started – what a relief.

The motion of the boat was uncomfortable as Nicolas was facing headwinds and cross seas and the boat was wallowing in the large swell. Alex convinced Nicolas to heave to and get some rest, which he did. After several hours of sleep, Nicolas was much more coherent and positive. Nicolas knew he wouldn’t be able to steer alone for that distance, and he didn’t have a wind vane. He rigged a steering system with ropes relieving him of the need to hand steer.

He had to adjust his course again because of the discomfort. Moira suggested he alter course to Bermuda which was closer, but he already had parts being shipped to Antigua and friends standing by to assist there. 

His messages got more cheerful as the days passed and the weather improved. He did pass another system with storm clouds and put all handheld electronics in the oven which acts as a Faraday cage. But thankfully Frileuse escaped further encounters with lightning.

So began a protracted return under less than ideal conditions to the place from which he was trying to escape. His iPad was functional so he could use it for navigation. He would be passing south of Barbuda on his approach to St. John’s, Antigua where he had to check in before continuing on to Jolly Harbour. The last thing he wanted to do was fall asleep and “do an Alex Thomson” as he put it.

Over the days, a developing close relationship between Nicolas and Alex, who was consulting from Ireland, kept Nicolas amused and grateful that someone was keeping an eye on him. His biggest regret was that he was about to pass the point of a million miles underway aboard Frileuse and he’d be going backwards instead of ahead. We shared a virtual bottle of champagne that day. Nicolas mentioned that he had completed a circumnavigation on a previous boat before deciding to live as a digital nomad plying the world’s oceans and only stopping to earn money from time to time.

The second thing he was regretting was that, as a new member of the OCC, his welcome package had been shipped to meet him in the Azores. But he wouldn’t be picking up the burgee on this trip. We arranged to have Peter Whatley, who would be departing from Antigua and had a brand-new house flag aboard, deliver this to Nicolas when he arrived safely into Jolly Harbour.

Jo Lucas, GM of the boatyard in Jolly Harbour and new OCC members in Antigua, Karen and Michael van Rensburg were enlisted to assist with the clearing in process and arrangements in Antigua. The authorities would make no exception. Nicolas had to clear in at St. John’s and then sail down to Jolly Harbour.

On Friday, the 19th of June, Nicolas arrived in St. Johns to clear into Antigua and Barbuda. As luck would have it, he had a temperature of 100.2°F on health check. He was ordered to quarantine in Jolly Harbour for 3 weeks! They had no Covid-19 tests in Antigua so infection could not be ruled out. He had left from there and had been at sea for about 3 weeks effectively self-isolated. Fortunately, the next day, his temperature was normal and all was fine. He was given a free berth in Jolly Harbour and is now hard at work restoring all his electronic and electrical systems, though still under quarantine.

Nicolas has been looking for an organisation to support and give back. He says the OCC is the one he’s been looking for. He has volunteered for whatever we need him to contribute. We’ll definitely take him up on that offer after he gets back across the Atlantic safely.

What a journey! Here we were advising and standing by a man who had more miles under his keel than anyone we knew, and he was thanking us.

That’s what the OCC is about: a community of like-minded ocean-going people ready to assist when needed. Somehow, someday, we have to get all these people of the OCC Atlantic Crossing group together again.

Photo: Frileuse proudly flying the OCC flying fish house flag in Antigua. Credit: Peter Whatley.

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