August 25, 2016
We’ve been anchored just offshore of Petalidi (or Petalidhion, or Πεταλίδί) since we left Koroni four days ago. Koroni was a nice-looking town on the hillside below the crumbling Venetian castle, but there was no easy way to get ashore with the dinghy. Rough concrete walls surround the harbor, too high to easily climb up from the dinghy, and in the few low spots there was a distinct reek of raw sewage. Well, you can’t win them all, so we moved to this pretty and quiet bay ten miles up the coast towards Kalamata.
Last night we had our first real thunderstorm of the season, thunder booming, lightning flashing through the air, and occasional strong, gusty winds. Our anchor dragged a little – maybe twenty feet – but we were in no danger. And the lightning, much to our relief, stayed at least a mile north of us.
There are all kinds of theories about boats, particularly sailboats, and lightning. Thinking about it, it’s a little disconcerting that you have this metal pole sticking some 60 feet up in the air, with nothing much around you. Remember, sometimes golfers or Little League players can get hit just because the stick up a few feet above their surroundings.
Counter intuitively, it’s quite rare for sailboats to get hit by lightning. The US has 40 or 50 deaths from lightning strikes per year (way, way more than deaths from shark attack, if you’re worried – less than one per year in the US). And sailboats don’t fare well on the rare occasions when they are hit. At a minimum, most every piece of electrical or electronic equipment on the boat is fried (engine starting circuits, navigational equipment, radios and so on), and in the really bad, extra rare cases the lightning blows a hole in the hull to reach the sea.
The explanation for the rarity of the sailboat strikes may be that seawater is such a good conductor of electricity (unlike fresh water or dirt) that there’s little for lightning to gain by going out of its way to strike an aluminum mast. Sailboats that are hit may just have had the bad luck to be exactly where the lightning was going to strike anyway. But sailors debate about strategy – some favoring grounding the mast, sometimes attaching car jumper cables to a shroud and throwing the other end in the water, or using other more permanent and elaborate means – and others (myself included) thinking that sticking a grounded pole (the mast) up in the air is just asking for it.
There doesn’t seem to be any conclusive evidence for either approach. So mostly we hope we are not among the very unlucky few, and that seems to work so far. Knock on wood. Thankfully we have some on our boat.