Lightning Strike

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On August 25, 2011 Shear Madness, our 72-foot Nordhavn trawler, was docked at Colonial Beach Yacht Club on the Potomac River in Virginia when a small but intense thunderstorm cell passed through. As the storm approached, the boat was disconnected from shorepower and most systems were turned off.

Suddenly, there was a searing flash and loud crack—Shear Madness had sustained a direct hit by lightning! An immediate inspection determined that there was no fire and the boat was not in immediate danger. No leaks were detected in bilges or through-hulls. However, there was a complete loss of power.

The lightning had hit the port VHF antenna, passing down the antenna and through the metal bracket that secured the antenna to the flybridge roof. At that point, the charge spread through wiring in the roof to almost every piece of electronic and electrical equipment on board.

THE PROCESS

We immediately reported the lightning strike to our insurance company, ACE, and they acknowledged the claim and dispatched a marine surveyor to visit the boat and assess the damage.

The surveyor had handled lightning strikes before and was able to provide excellent guidance. We worked with him and our insurance adjuster to develop a plan of action:

  1. Get engines operational so that the boat could be moved to a facility that could haul it.
  2. Conduct critical repairs at that facility.
  3. Conduct sea trials and when it’s safe, move the boat to Florida to complete less critical repairs .
  4. Keep costs under control.

GET ENGINES RUNNING

Like modern cars, our Detroit Diesel Series 60 engines have electronic control modules and display units on each engine along with six remote throttle control stations. All of the ECMs, display units, and throttle control stations were inoperable and had to be replaced. Upon receiving the parts, mechanics were dispatched from Norfolk to come to the boat. The new ECMs for both engines were installed, as were the related display units and throttle controls in the engine room, flybridge, and pilothouse.

INITIAL HAUL-OUT AND CRITICAL REPAIRS

With the engines back in running order, the next step was to move the boat to a repair facility. Our preferred location was Jarrett Bay Boatworks in Beaufort, North Carolina, about 250 miles south. However, with an 8-foot draft and no radar, electronic charting, depth sounder, stabilizers, or bow and stern thrusters, it would be dangerous to take the boat offshore and crazy to head down the shallow Intracoastal Waterway. We needed a plan to complete this passage safely.

For basic navigation, we installed Nobeltec software on my laptop and bought a handheld GPS. But with no depth information, we still could not contemplate a trip down the ICW. Sweet Hope, a beautiful Nordhavn 64 that was also headed to Jarrett Bay agreed to act as our escort.

We needed a functional anchoring system as we would be anchoring every night. We have two windlasses, one hydraulic and one electric, and we were able to get the electric windlass functioning by re-wiring it directly to the up-down controls on the deck—this was sufficient to commence the passage.

The journey to Jarrett Bay went smoothly. We followed closely behind Sweet Hope as her captain, George, relayed information about depth and handled all communications with bridges, locks, and other boats. His professionalism, experience, and guidance were invaluable. We agreed on anchorages each night and George ensured our path was clear and stood by until we were secure before anchoring Sweet Hope.

Upon arrival at Jarrett Bay, the boat was lifted out of the water and the work began.

ENGINE AND THRUSTER CONTROLS

Like the engines, our bow and stern thrusters have electronic control units, which needed to be replaced. The parts arrived at Jarrett Bay and installation began. Most were straightforward, however, the controls located on the Portuguese Bridge have their electronics stowed behind cabinetry in the forward cabins and there appeared to be no way to access them without cutting holes in the gelcoat outside. We assessed the problem and with some special tools, a bit of imagination, and several hours of tedious work, all engine and bow/stern thruster controls were installed and operational.

STABILIZERS

Our hydraulic stabilizers are also driven by electronic controls, which were destroyed. We ordered the parts, and a technician flew up to install and test them.

NAVIGATIONAL ELECTRONICS

The navigational electronics presented some challenges. Because the boat was more than five years old, many of the makes and models we had were no longer available. A particular problem involved the display monitors in the pilothouse. Unfortunately, we could not find replacement monitors that would fit into the existing cutouts in the dash. Since the equipment must be securely installed we had to employ a carpenter to redesign and construct the bridge display area.

We selected Nauticomp 19-inch marine monitors, but experienced delays with shipment. Once the monitors finally arrived, Brian, Troy, and Ryan from Celtic Marine Electronics drove up from Florida with a truck filled with other equipment to begin the installation process.

The following systems were fairly straightforward to replace or repair as they were similar models that used existing space, though many of these systems had multiple components including the roof top units that had to be replaced:

  • Furuno Satellite Compass, AIS, radar, sonar, and weather instruments
  • Two Simrad Autopilot Controllers
  • WeatherWorx satellite radio weather system

A bigger problem was our NavNet system. NavNet is an integrated system that provides electronic charting, radar, depth, and other information, which integrates with Nobeltec and the autopilots via a proprietary control unit and peripheral systems. Our NavNet 1 system was no longer available, and the new NavNet 3D did not fit into existing spaces. It also required significant wiring changes and work to integrate with other systems.

It seemed that our problems were not over. Over the next several weeks, we had repeated failures of our new monitors and embarked on lengthy diagnostics and repairs with the manufacturer.

COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEMS

Most of the communications systems were straightforward replacements:

  • · ICOM VHF and SSB radios
  • · Iridium satellite phone
  • · Panasonic phone system
  • · Nine house phones
  • · Wave wi-fi

ELECTRICAL ISSUES

We were fortunate to work with Steve from Offshore Marine Electronics who was a skilled electrician. As we began to address the electrical problems on the boat, we were happy that we had extensive electrical wiring diagrams. However, the diagrams often seemed to have no relation to the actual build. By the time we had finished the electrical work we had an entire legal pad filled with changes that needed to be made.

These are the most significant electrical items that were fixed or replaced:

  • Bilge high water alarm
  • Fuel tank water sensor
  • Backup fresh water pump
  • Pilothouse fans
  • Electrical remote bus switches and transformers
  • Electrical circuit breakers
  • Spot Light slave control
  • Five windshield wiper switches
  • Dozens of light fixtures and dimmers replaced with LED lights
  • Freshwater, grey water, and blackwater tank level sensors and display units
  • Port and starboard windlass controls
  • Link 10 battery monitor
  • Main electrical switchboard displays
  • MarQuipt davit electronic components
  • Sea-Fire system
  • Inverters/chargers
  • Hydraulic alternators

By far the greatest challenge on the electrical side was the replacement of our inverters/chargers. Two of our Xantrex Trace inverters were no longer manufactured. As a result, we had to develop a plan using new units that would physically fit into the same space, provide the same level of inverter/charger capacity, and entail as little re-wiring as possible. After weeks of researching and talking with experts, we selected Mastervolt units because they best met our needs.

After receiving the parts, it took three weeks of full-time work by two people to complete the installation and testing.

HYDRAULIC ALTERNATORS

Shear Madness is equipped with two hydraulic alternators that are designed to charge the batteries while underway. They are an alternative to running a generator, producing less heat and eliminating the problem of having to keep a generator loaded. However, they couldn’t be safely operated at engine speeds below 1100 rpms without causing excessive heat and fire risk.

The alternators were not operational and we determined that various components had to be replaced. We learned that the manufacturer had re-designed the alternators to eliminate the overheating problem so we were able to ship our units back for a re-fit.

SEA TRIAL

With all of the critical repairs completed, it was time for sea trials. We had a perfect day for it—a strong breeze and unsettled seas with 4-6 foot waves allowing us to give the systems a real test. The results were mixed. The stabilizers needed some adjustments but performed well. Most of the navigation systems performed well, with the exception of the SC50 Satellite Compass. In our first encounter with real waves, our position was lost. One of the sensors had been mounted improperly and after adjustment, performance was better. We felt confident that we could safely move the boat to Florida.

HEADING SOUTH AND FINISHING THE JOB

After four long months at Jarrett Bay, we were ready to head to sea toward Palm Beach, Florida.

This extended sea trial uncovered several problems. Our autopilot when set to steer to a route had difficulty making turns of more than a few degrees. We were able to correct this by adjusting some of the parameters, including the rudder and counter-rudder settings. We also adjusted the NavNet waypoint arrival radius, allowing the autopilot to recognize arrival and begin turning toward the next waypoint sooner. These adjustments seemed to correct most of the problems.

Eventually, we gained enough confidence to deploy the fishing lines. We hooked a large fish in following seas with winds of about 15 knots. When we slowed the boat to try to land the fish, the SC50 Satellite Compass lost position, causing the autopilot to disengage and other problems, which forced us to cut the line and lose a potentially nice dinner—but cutting the line allowed us to, more importantly, get all systems back under control.

On the last leg of the trip, we did an overnight passage and discovered another issue—the controllers, which dim the monitors, did not dim themselves and had bright blue lights that shined like neon in the pilothouse, which is not suitable for a night passage!

Our Furuno radar had a large number of sensor error messages that were documented. We had a few problems with the interface between NavNet and Nobeltec that were solved by simply understanding how to use the systems properly. One of the most disappointing issues was yet another failure of one of the Nauticomp monitors. Despite the various diagnostics and repairs, the symptoms were the same—the screen suddenly went blank and would not come back on.

Despite the list of problems, we reached Florida safely—with the list of problems in hand.

REPAIRS IN FLORIDA

Tom from Watermaker Marine visited to get the watermakers back in service. This entailed several visits to the boat to replace the primary control units on both watermakers, the remote monitoring units, and membranes.

One monitor had failed on the trip and soon a second one failed. The two monitors were shipped back to Nauticomp for extensive testing. In the meantime, the video amplifiers were replaced and further testing was performed to ensure that nothing on the boat was causing the monitors to fail. After several weeks of repair and testing, the monitors were returned. New controllers were also sent in order to solve the problem with the dimming. Since the repairs, no further problems have occurred.

The software on our Furuno radar was upgraded to eliminate the many sensor errors we had been receiving.

MAGNETIC COMPASS

We have both gyro and magnetic compasses on board. Calibrating the magnetic compass is accomplished by bringing a specialist on board with equipment that provides accurate readings. We went about “swinging” the compass by turning the boat in a circle to determine its deviation at various points, and placing magnets on the compass to reduce the deviation as much as possible. All compasses on board are now reliable.

SEA TRIALS

We conducted sea trials to test all our new electronics. We left the marina and headed out into the ocean where we found some nice waves to give us a good bouncing around. This allowed us to make some adjustments to our SC50 compass. It has a setting called “Rate Error,” which allows tolerances for pitch and roll to be adjusted. This should eliminate the problems we had in rough conditions.

We continue to experience one problem with the autopilot not working properly in “Nav” mode—when a waypoint is reached, the autopilot is not getting the proper heading information to execute a course change to the next waypoint. This can be worked around by manually selecting the new waypoint. We will gather some more information to diagnose this problem, but we are comfortable that the systems are working well enough for us to finally go cruising!

SHAKEDOWN CRUISE

Our shakedown cruise was a six-week trip to the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas with Bradley and I handling the boat on our own. Upon disconnecting from shorepower, the Mastervolt battery monitor showed that the batteries were discharging far more quickly than expected. After some diagnostics and a phone call, we determined that the monitor thought the total capacity of the battery bank was 1020 rather than 2040 amp hours. The charging system was actually working properly, but the monitor control needed a small adjustment.

After a smooth passage across to Grand Bahama, we were ready to make some water. One unit performed flawlessly but the other took a long time to reach salinity of less than 500 ppm, the point at which a valve is triggered and the water is directed into our freshwater tanks. When the salinity finally approached 500 ppm, a hose on that unit popped off its fitting, profusely leaking water onto unit 2, which was now showing an error message. It looked like some water had gotten into the control panel. Now, neither unit was operational and we were not about to go cruising without at least one functional watermaker. We removed the front of the control panel for unit 2, cleaning up all obvious water and left it to sit overnight in the warm engine room. By the next day it had dried nicely and fired up with no further problems. Unit 1, however, was out of commission for the duration of this trip.

Our autopilot continues to have intermittent problems with Nav mode, so I have gathered additional data and we are following up with the vendor to try to repair it.

We also noticed a problem with our Nobletec chart system reporting erroneous distance and time to arrival data for waypoints along routes. Nobletec has confirmed it is a bug, which will be corrected in a future product release.

Another problem we had was we were unable to get weather broadcasts via our SSB radio even though other boats in anchorage were able to hear broadcasts clearly.

Our Wave wi-fi system, which is used to pick up wireless Internet signals, is not working as well as it should. We were unable to pick up the local Exuma wireless through Wave wi-fi, but could get it via our laptops if we took them to the flybridge. Since the Wave wi-fi antenna is supposed to be higher and stronger, the issue didn’t make sense to us.

All in all, though, our problems on this cruise were minor and manageable. We enjoyed learning all the capabilities of our equipment and spent a fair amount of time reading manuals and customizing our navigation systems.

LESSONS LEARNED

Since the strike, the most common question we get is “What can you do to prevent lightning from striking your boat?” We have talked to dozens of people about this, many of them experts, and unfortunately, the answer is not what we’d like to hear. Although there are some products out there that claim to prevent strikes or minimize damage, the consensus is that there really is no practical way to completely protect your boat. We have installed lightning surge arrestors on critical systems such as engine electronics and power distribution sub-panels. And we have renewed our insurance!

INSURANCE

Our carrier, ACE, has been reasonable and fair, and we have worked closely with their surveyor to ensure that all repairs were covered. We have been personally involved in all repairs to learn as much as possible about the boat, as well as to keep the costs as low as possible. We will never again grumble about writing a check for an insurance premium.

KNOWING YOUR BOAT

They say every cloud has a silver lining, and if that’s the case, for us, it was the opportunity to really learn and understand our new, integrated, state-of-the-art electronics systems. The cost was eight months of repairs, countless hours tracking down parts, many dirty days spent in a boatyard, and lots of time with people, including ourselves, crammed into tiny spaces. We’ve also developed a long list of competent contractors, many of whom we now consider good friends.

We never let people work on the boat without being present. This allows us to learn from the experts and better prepare ourselves to be self-sufficient once we go cruising in remote and exotic places where help will be non-existent—so be sure to always know your boat!

Further details on our lightning strike and repairs are available at http://shearmadness72.com/.

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