That time my boat was struck by lightning and caught on fire.
Two years ago today:
On Monday August 22 I arrived at my usual departure point with a mother and her two teenage children. We were on the backside of a powerful front that had passed over night, the wind was hard out of the north, crisp and dry; and oddly, heavy with the smell of burning plastic.
The hard north wind made getting the dinghy off the beach difficult. I had to wade out about chest-deep to set a kedge, and then had the teenage boy haul the kedge while I got the outboard dropped and started. We made our way out slowly, but even still the short chop was putting thick spray over the bow of the dinghy. No matter. It was a bright clear sunny day, and my passengers were game. A little water was nothing. But oddly, the smell of burning plastic was stronger.
100 yards from INTEMPERANCE I noticed what appeared to be an incongruous shadow across her companionway. Maybe a shadow cast by her wind generator? It didn’t make sense.
50 yards away I realized the shadow was the companionway boards, blackened by fire.
“I’m sorry folks, it looks like that burning smell is my boat. I’m going to have to take you back to the beach. Sorry to get you wet for nothing.”
I took my guests back, kedged off the beach again, and returned to my boat.
Aboard the sloop I put my hand on the closed companionway. It was hot, but not too hot to touch. I called my wife.
“Honey, I’m on board INTEMPERANCE. There’s been a fire. If I don’t call back in two minutes, I’m in trouble.”
I cracked the companionway hatch. No flames. I removed one companionway board. Thick, acrid smoke filled the interior, but no visible flames. I called my wife back.
“It looks like it started in the panel. Still smoldering, but I can’t see any live flame. I’m going for the extinguisher near the panel. I’m not hanging up the phone. Stay on the line. If you don’t hear me in 30 seconds, I’m in trouble.”
I removed the rests of the boards and dashed down the companionway ladder. Even holding my breath the smoke was nearly unbearable. I took the fire extinguisher from its bracket and emptied it at the breaker panel. Now the air was filled with acrid black smoke and white chemical fire suppressant powder. Both burned my eyes and nose. I retreated to the cockpit.
“I’m back in the cockpit. I think the fire’s out, but there’s so much dust and smoke in the cabin I can’t see anything. I’ll call you back soon.”
I sat on the cockpit combing. Bright sunny day. Brisk north wind. The deck of the boat gleaming white. So far as I could see, no damage to the rigging. Save the blackening around the companionway and the melted bulkhead compassed, she looked ready to sail away. But the dust and smoke that was billowing out of her companionway said otherwise.
INTEMPERANCE was not the only victim of the storm. That same night the French racing maxi-trimaran IDEC was just south of Shinnecock inlet, blazing along under triple-reefed main and staysail when a gust capsized her. Best guess is that lightning from that same front struck INTEMPERANCE and started the fire.
If the zombie apocalypse were to happen today, I wouldn’t hesitate to put my family on INTEMPERANCE and head offshore. The rig looks strong, the engine still runs. But she’s never going to be fit for paying guests again. In this depressed “great recession” boat market, the cost of restoring her to her former glory far exceeds her value. That’s a sad way for a fine sailing boat to meet her end.Adam Minter tells me her keel is destined to become car batteries in China or India. So it goes.
Plans are already underway for our next boat. A designer and an engineer are already engaged, build sites are being considered, figures for workman’s comp are being figured. With a little luck (and a lot of sweat) we’ll be back on the water next Spring.
But for now, yes, it’s a bit of a kick in the gut. The wind, as they say, has been taken out of our sails. This isn’t the ending I would have written. But then life isn’t a novel. It’s not even a documentary. It just is what it is.
We did not make the 2012 season, but the replacement for INTEMPERANCE did get built, launched, and has been hard at work the entire 2013 season. The last weekend of the summer season is coming up. Hopefully it will be as nice as the weekend just passed.