Light Show

Darkness engulfs us, we are offshore, Tivoli is purring along on a heading direct from Brunswick, GA to Charleston, SC. Seas are a flat 2-3 feet at 8 seconds; wind 5-10 knots. Behind us is a wall of dark clouds with frequent cloud to cloud lightning and the occasional jarring bolt to the sea. We are snug in our cocoon; the genset and ACs are running, soft music is on the XM audio in the pilothouse, the sound of thunder is faint. Still, the prospect of being the tallest object in 20 miles is unnerving. We dodged a bullet in departing late afternoon for an overnight run up the coast. We knew the forecast called for scattered showers every day for the next two weeks and decided it was time to move on. I looked at one of my weather apps, RadarUS, and saw no hint of thunderstorms on the radar 30 minutes before departure. By the time we cleared the St. Simon Sound Inlet breakwaters two hours later a massive thunderhead had formed inland and was headed our way. In slow motion we watched our position creep northward on the chartplotter and the XM weather display of the storm creep eastward out into the Atlantic. We won that race. Not a drop on the windows.

We quickly enter the night passage routine. All our pilothouse instrumentation is changed to “night mode” and the intensity reduced to minimum. Multifunction displays are set to present our position on our C-map charts in both zoomed in or closeup view and in a large-scale or zoomed out view. Same with radar; one display set at 24 nautical miles and a second at 6 nm. The FLIR camera is displayed as well; while its distance vision is poor it is still comforting to the see the horizon and any objects that might get close. We intently monitor these displays watching radar and AIS data for any and all traffic. In spite of the worsening weather we are not alone. We encounter ships underway, ships at anchor, sport fishermen, shrimpers, and the occasional unidentified sailing object. Will they present any threat? Do we need to alter course or speed?

And, we watch the ever changing weather. We are surrounded by storm cells. Lightning flashes to the east. Our XM weather display shows it to be 40 miles off yet it looks like it is a mile away. It poses no danger. Lightning flashes to the south in the storm we barely escaped. Lightning flashes ahead of us. The drama continues; we watch the traffic, assess its direction and closest point of approach. Is a course change needed? We watch the weather, assess its direction and closest point of approach. Is a course change needed? As the night wears on we leave the southern cell behind, several hours later the eastern cell follows. The northern cell in our path is a problem. By 2 AM we are nearing this storm and it is sending lightning to the ground every few seconds; not good. A lightning strike on a boat can sink her. If you are lucky you escape with loss of your electronics. Not good. We pool our collection of cell phones, a handheld VHF radio, iPads, and satphone and put them in the microwave. The RFI produced by lightning can destroy electronics and placing them in a metal “Faraday cage” can protect them. Not owning a Faraday cage we make do with the microwave.

I determine we should either alter course to avoid this storm or slow down to let it pass to the east. Altering course to the west was not a viable option; we were already only 10 miles offshore and closer in brings the hazard of shoaling waters. Turning east was also not viable, the storm was headed east. So, I ease back on the throttle to 50% of wide open, our minimum recommended RPM, and the boat slows to 5.5 knots. We anxiously wait and watch.

Alterations to speed while underway has implications. We had carefully planned our departure to leave St. Simon’s inlet on a rising tide and arrive at our destination marina at slack water approximately 21 hours later. All marinas in Charleston suffer from strong currents as they are located in rivers. These have been known to crunch boats on a regular basis; well, boat captains not familiar with docking boats in strong currents have been known to crunch boats on a regular basis. Not wanting to engage in fiberglass repairs, we planned to arrive at slack tide, 9:20 AM. The slowdown to wait for our friendly storm to pass threatened to delay our arrival. Always something to fret over whilst boating!

Two hours later the bulk of the cell has moved out of our path eastward, we throttle up and get back on our way. Not a drop of rain on the windows and, luckily, no lightning strikes….but what a display of mother nature’s power! The full moon helped light the sea, one could see towering cloud formations with lightning backlighting and the all-too-frequent strikes to ground. Spectacular and nerve-wracking!

We reach our final waypoint at the Charleston Harbor Inlet right on time and begin the 15-mile two-hour trek into town and The Harborage at Ashley Marina. We arrive 20 minutes past slack water and tie up. No insurance claims. A great run in spite of the weather.


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