Monday, August 18, 2008

One Last Month of Frazzling Fun

My summer aboard the Spirit of South Carolina has now drawn to a close. It definitely went out with a bang! After Spirit Ocean Adventure ended, we motored down to Salisbury, Mass for their First Annual Merrimack River Maritime Festival. It was quite an experience, as we were docked only 300 feet up the river, on a temporary dock jutting off the beach. After over 6000 sandy visitors, we could have had our own beach party on board!

Then, it was on towards Newport, yachting capital of the northeast. We started our Newport time with a three-day educational sail through Tall Ships Rhode Island. Despite impressive thunderstorms, we had a great time sailing in Narragansett Bay. Due to the storms, we also got to spend an afternoon at the Herreshoff Museum. They have so many beautiful wooden boats in their collection, it was truly awe-inspiring.

After the three-day educational sail, we had to rapidly (in under two hours) switch gears for the New England Getaway passenger sail. The next morning, we were underway, headed for Block Island. We had a great sail in Narragansett Bay, before using the iron topsails to cover the twelve miles to the island. In addition to sailing, I led talks on the ship's construction and mission and the history of Block Island for the passengers. Sam helped me out by doing a talk on sail theory and tacking a schooner.

After close to sixteen hours in the Great Salt Pond (harbor) at Block Island, we hauled back. Before we departed, Captain Arrow talked to our passengers about the impending weather. He even gave them the opportunity to take the ferry back to Newport instead of motoring with us. After six passengers departed, we headed out for the mainland. We were not even fully out of sight of Block Island when the weather began. As we began to harness up passengers and ourselves in preparation for its arrival, it happened.

A loud crack and the smell of burnt ozone filled the air. Silence surrounded the vessel. Standing just aft of the foremast, Sam and I looked at each other. "That was us!" Sam said quietly enough that the passengers couldn't hear. We finished harnessing passengers and talking casually, listening closely to what was happening on the quarterdeck and for the sound of the engines starting up again.

As the lightning increased and the rain increased, Captain Arrow sent all the passengers down below. I headed back towards the quarterdeck. All the electronics were off, fried by the lightning. The rain and wind picked up so that any exposed skin hurt. Captain Arrow stood in the aft companionway, with the hand-held (backup) GPS and a hand-held VHS radio, talking to the Coast Guard. He told them our position, situation, and souls on board, reassuring them we were not taking on water and had no injuries. A communications plan was set up that involved the Captain communicating by radio or cell phone every fifteen minutes with our position. I was sent to check on each passenger. Other crew members were sent to check various parts of the ship for damage. Ben and Nitro spent all of their time trying to supply the ship electricity or engines.

After the first line of storms passed, we allowed the passengers up on deck and set the fore and staysail to provide locomotion, still headed for Newport. I spent most of the afternoon working the public relations side of things. I talked to the passengers, reassuring them and entertaining them, assisting with sail handling and boat checks as needed. It was a wet and rainy afternoon. When we reached the mouth of Narragansett Bay, the Coast Guard sent an escort to accompany us. Deb Hayes, Captain of Geronimo, provided us with radio weather reports, letting us know another line of storms was approaching.

After the second line of storms passed, we called for a tow and continued our trip to Newport, anchoring just behind Goat Island. We arranged for a ride to shore for any passengers wanting to go ashore and get dry. Most chose to finish out their time on the ship, probably figuring they had earned a quiet night in a cozy bunk.

Anchoring without an engine can be a nerve-wracking situation. The threat of dragging anchor is significantly more worrisome, as the ability to hold station with the engine power is lost. We did our usual anchor watches overnight, although I know I personally was even more vigilant than usual in taking bearings and checking the anchor.

When morning came, we offloaded the rest of our passengers by small boat and waited for our tow to the Newport Shipyard. We had previously arranged to come to the shipyard that afternoon to do some minor preparations for our major yard period that would start two and a half weeks later, so they already had space available for us. The man in charge of the towboat was incredibly. He was retired Navy and was one of the first Master Chiefs of the SEAL training program. If you recall the bell seen in movies such as GI Jane, that was his idea. When he came the following day to bring our receipt, he went out of his way to tell Tony that we were one of the most professional boat crews he had ever worked with. Quite a compliment given the number of boats he sees and his prior experiences.

The week after the lightning strike was an interesting one. Day to day our plans changed, as various electronic and engine repairmen gave us their evaluations. The crew did a thorough inspection of the rig, literally top to bottom. Emily and Jaime went aloft and checked everything for signs of entry, exit, or damage. Sam dove on the hull, inspected every through-hull for charring. Nitro and Ben replaced sensors on the engine and worked on replacing pretty much everything with a circuit board that was attached to the ship's systems at the time of the lightning. After close examination of the ship, it was determined that our strike was what is called a proximity strike. The lightning did not have a point of entry or exit, but was close enough and strong enough to damage everything.

In the end, the ship got a much longer than planned yard period, as we had to cancel our one-week sail in Maine that was due to start on August 5. When I left on the 14th, things were still being repairs. All the Raymarine parts (including wiring) were getting replaced, every engine sensor, and various other parts. The biggest problem with lightning strikes are that the affected pieces do not always stop working right away. For example, we replaced all the "bad" engine sensors. The next time we tried the engines, we had sensor alarms from new places. As a result, Tony decided to replace all the sensors, rather than continue dealing with the problem throughout the next few months.

On a positive, staying in Newport for a few weeks was great. I got to spend a lot of time visiting with my grandfather and that side of the family. Equally important, I got to catch up on everything workwise, so I finished my position with everything properly documented and thoroughly completed. Personally, I needed that time.

For those of you wondering what is next in my life, that is an excellent question. I am staying on land for the fall. In two weeks, I will be taking Basic Safety Training. This included firefighting, survival skills, and other fun things. I will also be working on my licensing through the Coast Guard. Hopefully, I will come out of this with my AB-Special and my 100 ton Inland Masters license with Auxiliary Sail endorsement.

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