Lightning struck Lulu just last week…for the third time in
10 years. Around 5 A.M. during an overnight passage, just 8 miles and 2 hours
from our destination.
(Whoever is responsible for that “never strikes twice” quote
deserves his anonymity).
We were feeling pretty pissed off and put upon.
Dead in the water. Literally.
But, as Life pointed out these past few days, not actually.
We were shocked (forgive me) to learn about the Air France
flight, the Airbus that suddenly dropped off the radar screens and vanished
from the sky two days ago.
Lightning they’re saying. (Sounds odd. Doesn’t a plane fly above
lightning, thus shielded from its malevolence? Gary suspects a massive
But meanwhile now we’re feeling pretty lucky indeed.
It’s called perspective. Or maybe enlightenment.
Bolt from the Black
We were en route from Colombia to Bocas del Toro, a popular
Panamanian archipelago, and were almost past the night part of a 26-hour
overnight. We’d had a day and a night of almost no wind, flat Zamboni seas,
motoring entirely with all three sails out to help get there.
The usual sleeping arrangements were in effect: me in the cockpit wide awake
but hoping, Gary dozing on the couch below, ready to take the watch should I
so much as yawn.
A dullish rain had started around midnight and—far away it appeared, lightning
zig-zagging almost aimlessly around a moonless black bowl of sky. No
thunder, no wind. Virtually no sound at all. Spooky.
We veered off course whenever we thought the squalls finally
decided on a direction.
Without much conversation, we both had the feeling it was going to get us.
It wasn't raining at around 4:30 when I took to our bed for one last stab at
sleep and finally nodded off. Shortly thereafter I heard the “BAAAM!!!” First I
thought it was some mean trick (but Gary's not mean, so who?) Then I figured
we'd thunked another reef and that's happened so frequently lately I just
smacked the pillow and rolled over. (Or probably I was just that tired.)
And then I smelled smoke.
That got me up all right.
Flames were revving up to shoot out of the big inverter that lives behind the
the fire extinguishers quelled it before any real damage occurred—except for
the powder from the extinguisher, fine as talcum, all over, and the burnt wires
smelling worse than skunk.
We got the boat back on course (autopilot dead), turned on
our backup handheld VHF radio and called in the emergency on the local hailing
channel. Just about everyone leaped into the
fray (or do I mean frayed?) as we hobbled in amid rain and fog. Mercifully, the
chartplotter hadn’t gone kerflooey—but on the other hand the computer charts
were wrong. And, there were no channel markers either. Someone came out in his
dinghy to lead us in.
With the hydraulics out, obviously we couldn't anchor. Did I say obviously? Not
onboard. Characteristically, Gary figured we could drop
the 75-pound hook manually and, no problem, he'd have the whole boat fixed in a
Differing with him about this plan required more patience than I can normally
marshal, but after the three fuses he popped to get the windlass operating all
blew, he relented and we limped into the marina with the entire dock population
watching and waiting to help.
He has finally capitulated and agreed it was easier to
unravel the problems, take the systems apart and ultimately he'll do a much
better job plugged into a dock with air conditioning as his sidekick.
We couldn’t get into the more "in" Bocas Marina
(no space for big, fat us) but there was a slip for us in the Consolation
Marina, which isn’t in the thick of things and where the docks are a bit
rougher. But the cruiser group seems even more diverse than the usual
miscellany that’s the essence of this wonderful cruising life.
Good things that still worked: refrigeration, microwave,
toaster, stove and air conditioners—as long as we’re plugged into a dock. We
were also "lucky" to get into a marina at all, plus we got the sails
in before the hydraulics quit on us.
The strike wasn’t a direct hit because the VHF antenna, the
highest point on the boat, didn't explode. Also we didn’t sink. But it’s about
as bad as six years ago when we got stuck in San Andres for four months. The
generator, hydraulics, anchor windlass, inverters, radar, SSB and VHF radios,
the bow thruster, fresh-water pump and autopilot—all out. Once again, anything
that has a transistor or a diode got fried. Plus the main laptop—the one we use
for email and iTunes.
Though the rain had picked up after I bedded down and was
falling in great sheets when I reached the cockpit, Gary reported that the
relative calm had continued, the wind never ratcheted above 17 knots, and
mostly hovered between 7 and 10. No thunder at all and the lightning remained
amorphous—until the giant thunderclap that woke me and the lightning bolt that
chose LULU as its mate. (Usually we’re hit because we’re the tallest mast but
in this case we were the only boat around. Friends traveling miles
behind us saw one intensely bright bolt that seemed to plunge down as if
targeting the horizon. It was too dark for them to see we were the
We’ve since learned there’s a name
for that non-specific, everywhere-and-anywhere lightning, where the electrical
charges jump from cloud to cloud: Sheet Lightning. (And here we were thinking “Shit!
By now, almost a week later, Gary's assessed most of the
damage and we've
started ordering parts that will be air-freighted in. Have no idea how long
they'll get stuck in Panama City Customs. It seems, like most of the Caribbean,
nothing happens easily or smoothly in Panama either...
There's a competent computer guy who may be able to fix the hydraulics control
board, which would be great. As well as set up the new laptop.
The VHF is working now—turns out the problem was just a
voltage converter, which steps down 24Volts to 12—or maybe the opposite.)
Likewise, the bilge alarm. We had spares for those and a brand new spare
(Someone remarked later that the only spare Gary didn't have was an extra
wife. He claims he didn't think the service would be any better.)
He soon got the water running again and the icemaker functioning. Probably even
his few-hour timetable. (He really is quite amazing.) The burning smell from
the inverter fire is dissipating.
We sorely miss the SSB (the short-wave radio that mostly connects us with
faraway boats) but there’s Dominoes here, as much as you want—Friday afternoons
with the regular anchorage and "In" marina group, Saturday afternoons
with cruisers here. Yoga too if I can schlep myself out in the dinghy and into
shore three mornings a week.
The food in the cute Calypso Cantina at Bocas Marina is pretty good—Friday
night ribs bordering on excellent, Wednesday night Chicken-Fried Chicken.
sandwiches and a just-okay burger that most cruisers rate “great.” Translation:
cheap and big. There’s a limited menu but we're working our way through with
the usual gusto.
The Cantina owners are a gay South African couple who sailed in two years
and still live on their boat. They've been together more than 20 years, have
super senses of humor, are peppy, smart and make everything fun. One, Dyllan,
does the computer
repair work on the side. The other is a certified hoot—the prototypical campy
Queen, Darien plays
the role to great effect and knows exactly when to be over the top and when
Uninterrupted food chain
Bocas Town, on the main island of the Bocas del Toro group, has some
surprisingly good provisioning. I’m talking Thomas's English
Muffins, Otis Spunkmacher bagels, which can’t be worse than Lenders, fresh
vacuum-packed tuna steaks, tilapia filets, whole snappers and even big, puffy
sea scallops. Fine-looking meats too, including elusive loin lamb chops.
Terrific local pineapples. One of the markets makes baguettes daily—though they
usually need at least 20 more minutes in the oven. But even that's okay—we get
hot, crusty, bread every time.
Across the way is an Indian woman who lives in a little shack with four
children under five years-old and makes (with plenty of smoke) what she calls
johnnycakes, which are like giant English muffins, hot from whatever she bakes
them in and not bottom-heavy with cornmeal bits that scatter everywhere when
cut…Four for a dollar. (Now I’m sounding like a real cruiser.)
Our marina has some interesting amenities, including free-for-the-picking fresh
basil, rosemary, mint, cilantro—but not marijuana—all prettily planted in a
huge old wooden dugout canoe. Tropical flowers and vibrant bushes bloom
everywhere. It rains all the time so everything is lush and
colorful. Internet but it doesn't quite reach the boat. Plus about a
billion noseeums, all taking full advantage of significant exposed flesh available
Our eclectic boat neighbors include a couple from Queens on
a massive 60-foot steel shrimp boat they restored themselves and a couple who
practice massage therapy from many different traditions. They owned a Napa
Valley training school that sent a small army of trained practitioners around
the world. They also owned and operated a string of pizzerias. Plus bought and
sold real estate in Mexico. And he was a Special Forces dude who guarded Lyndon
Johnson, among a slew of other presidents. (The fact that he was robbed at
gunpoint at a Motel 6 last month and relieved of the $500 in his pocket
indicates Johnson was lucky to die of natural causes. There's also the
possibility we've met yet another con artist.)
Several of our other marina-mates are or were chefs, so the potlucks are
supposed to be gourmet events. But they're on Friday nights, which is rib
night at the Important Marina. And besides, as
far as Gary’s concerned there are just too many fatties here at the Also-Ran.
Bocas Town is adorable: a riot of color and a hodgepodge of Caribbean
architecture in various stages of peeling—a kind of cross between Key West
before it got spoiled and a Clint Eastwood cowboy outpost. Lots of restaurants
to try, most with cute porches hanging over the water on stilts. I doubt any
will be great but all in all we think Bocas is a great place to get stuck.
Meanwhile, we got a lot of sympathy and commentary, both kind and funny. When a
resident wit suggested the boat would be better named Fried Oyster, we started
imagining alternate names for LULU. I came up with Chicken Little and Shock
Absorber but others have done much better.
Tothill, our FBI cruiser friends, suggested
(Though I was surprised they missed Wiretapped and Hit 'Em Hard.)
Lightning Rod and
So I decided to turn the project over to our super-clever kids, who’ve
variously come up with:
Bolt in the Blue
Earth, Wind and Fire
Hunger and Lightning
(Feel free to add your own entry.)
Lots of love from your