Skippers race against elements for Cup

ON THE WATER

On The Water

August 10, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

HERE ARE a few places conventional wisdom suggests we don't want to be in a thunderstorm:

On a golf course.

Under a tree in an open field.

Attached to a kite with a copper wire (thank you, Benjamin Franklin).

And ... er ... sitting on a sailboat in the middle of the Chesapeake?

Skippers aboard roughly 160 sailboats - all with lightning rod-shaped masts - defied that final piece of conventional wisdom last weekend.

The boats started the annual Governor's Cup regatta between Annapolis and St. Mary's amid rumbles of thunder and multiple marine advisories from the National Weather Service. At least two vessels were struck by lightning.

"It is generally not good practice to sail a race in a lightning storm," said Marlieke Eaton, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sailing, an organization that governs sailboat racing.

"But," she added, "it is different in a distance race where you don't know where the weather will be."

In big-boat racing - where the course stretches over vast bodies of water - it isn't practical to cancel a race, even if you want to, she said.

Mike Ironmonger - who headed the race committee for the Governor's Cup - agreed.

"I'm afraid if we had the idea that we couldn't race because there might be some thunderstorms at night, we couldn't sail between June and October," he said.

"I don't think the lightning is perceived to be as hazardous as, for instance, sustained 40 knots of wind," he added.

Well-designed big boats, he said, are built to channel the electricity from a lightning strike harmlessly down to the keel. In fact, some skippers expect that at some point they will be hit.

"Living on the Chesapeake Bay, being involved with sailing and racing, you hear about it happening," said Lee Allen, 60, of Lexington Park, who was aboard Alert on Friday when the boat was hit. "You hear about golfers being killed by lightning, but not sailors," he added.

Indeed, nobody was hurt on Alert, or Nightingale, another boat struck by lightning Friday.

"Our antenna flew off the end of the mast, and the tip was glowing," said Geoff Schneider, 31, who was aboard Nightingale when it took a direct hit.

Standing in the cockpit, Schneider recalled hearing "a big boom. ... It all flashed white, sparks were going everywhere." They pulled out of the race because their electronics "went kaput," Schneider said.

Those aboard Alert kept racing after the strike. They only pulled out hours later for an unrelated problem - the wind stopped blowing, and they felt they were drifting backward.

"I've always wondered how safe [the boat is] in lightning; I always thought they were safe," Allen said. "We know our boat was very well grounded."

The sailors aboard Alert did feel the hit. "It really caused my muscles to clench up," said Don Moody, 45, of Tall Timbers. "I was holding the helm. I had looked up and seen the puff of smoke at the top of the mast."

The crews in both boats never considered pulling out of the race when they saw the storms coming.

"When you are out on the water," Moody said, "your options are: run with the storm, or go back to ... a safe port."

Either way, however, the boat will still be exposed to lightning.

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