Thunder and Lightning; very, very frightening!

Ruffian acquires another crew member.

31st August 2022

Spanish Waters, Curaçao – Cartagena, Colombia.

Sailing offshore is all about risk management. We manage the risks of wind and waves by using technology to tell us what should happen, we manage the risk of injury by having simple rules on board, but some risks can only be managed by luck. Lightning is one of those risks and we knew, in leaving Curaçao, we were in for a lot of lightning and therefore a lot of risk managed only by luck.

Leaving the calm of Spanish Water and heading out to sea the calmness continued. Ruffian slipped along in her usual style and we sailed with our usual style of facing backwards and reading books*. All the beaches we’d visited and hills we’d climbed fell into the distance and we finally only had open ocean for company.

That ocean wasn’t to remain empty for long and as soon as the sun set, we had company. The sky was alive with lightning and with every burst we could see the silhouettes of angry clouds. Lightning jumped from cloud to cloud and ominously jumped from land to sea shaking Ruffian with its thunder and we just hung on relying on luck to keep it away from us. We could view this from afar as we’d luckily made the decision go north of Aruba instead of south.

As the days passed we got into our offshore routine on Ruffian, but this time we had something new in the agenda. There were the usual shift changes, the usual gybes on shifts and the usual amazing sunsets, but there was also a dread of evenings and mornings. After the sun had set and before it woke the skies were alive with lightning.  Lightning at sea is fearful as a strike would threaten to destroy all the electronics on Ruffian, potentially blow out her metal through hulls and spell disaster.

As the miles ticked by the thunder and lightning didn’t last forever, unfortunately it was replaced by its unfriendly cousin, squalls*. Walls of water cascaded on Ruffian and soaked us through and shifted direction time and time again. With each windshift sails were trimmed and changed and as time went on we were both physically and mentally worn down.

The first victim of these squalls were Iain’s hands. After months of fun aquatic activity in Bonaire Iain’s skin had grown soft as if the hardest work he’d completed was pushing a biro around. Skin gave way to blisters, which gave way to flesh and after over 50k miles of sailing Iain had to resort to wearing gloves, so soft were his ‘biro hands’.

The next victim of these squalls made itself known only as the rain abated, the wind eased and the sun started drying everything. Resuming our activities Fiona started searching for her phone worried that it had been doused on deck in the torrential rain. Fortunately, it survived the rain but, in the panic, to get everything off deck it had found its way into the sink full of dirty dishwater that Iain had helpfully left festering.

Sure of its demise Iain gave it a quick rinse handed it to Fiona and helpfully asked ‘Why did you put it in there?’. With that, the only thing that could then lift Fiona’s mood would be a glowing apple logo and a happy charging symbol. Without hope, shaking off the water and nonchalantly wiping it down, she pushed the power button. The screen then came alive, the logo glowed and the phone had somehow survived its extended bath. Our luck had held with the lightning and it had been taken to a whole new level with the phone.

The real victims of this weather were not Iain’s hands or Fiona’s phone but 100’s of little birds who’d been blown out to sea by the downdrafts and katabatic winds. These poor souls had been plucked off their safe inland perches blown out to sea and flew around Ruffian seeking relief, refuge and respite. Only a few of the braver souls decided to land and those who did were rewarded free miles and then an easy flight back home in the easing winds.

Leaving the high hills of Colombia behind us we also left the dreaded lightning, our strategy of relying on luck had clearly worked and we could focus on our destination. As we were a sailboat we sailed and even as our boatspeed plummeted Fiona reminded Iain time and again that we were a sailboat and so we’d sail.

Slowly we closed in on Cartagena and where once the horizon had been full of hills it was now full of skyscrapers and where once the ocean was empty it was now full of boats of every shape, size and speed. Water taxis zipped about in every direction while speedboats sped across our bows with stereos blazing and punters dancing. From ashore we could hear music playing and the hubbub of a busy thriving life. Colombia was alive and after testing our luck at sea we we’d not only reached a new city and a new country but a new continent that housed a whole brand new culture.

* Subsequently these squalls would be characterised by Chris Parker as “nasty squalls over Colombia N of Cartagena”. We can attain that they were both nasty and north of Cartagena.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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