Saturday, December 15, 2007

Lightning and Frozen Cows

Current Location: Telaga Harbor, Langkawi Malaysia

Current Position: 06 21.72 N 99 40.77 E
Next Destination: Thailand

We learned rather quickly that the area surrounding the equator from Indonesia through Malaysia has some of the highest concentration of lightning strikes in the World. They started as we approached Borneo, right after our buoy weather forecast reported SEVERE for its prediction of potential lightning. It's the only time we've seen that in four years. The lightning usually starts in the late afternoon, after the land has heated the air through the day and caused it to rise into huge thunderheads. We arrived in Borneo just as the first rains of their monsoon season started.

We actually enjoyed the cooling effects, and walked out in the open while the locals ran for cover. As the rains continued, so did the debris that came floating down the river. As we left the Kumai River we passed by several mini islands that had broken free from the river's edge, some even included full-grown palm trees. The biggest downpour occurred while we were at Serutu tucked into a small cove. The rain came down in buckets and this time the island was much taller than Billabong so we felt protected as the Lightning flashed all around. The rain stopped just as the sun was rising; yet we heard this continual rushing sound. It took all day for the water to rush down out of the hill, which didn't have a large surface area. I even heard a couple of landslides as we walked along the beach. It was littered with HUGE hardwood logs that must have been driven onto the beach during the NE monsoon season. Some were easily six-seven feet in diameter and would have easily sunk Billabong if we hit them at full speed.

Lightning and boats just don't mix, you've got the built-in tall metal object and plenty of low-lying ground surrounding you.. uggh. We had a couple of nasty storms during our two-night passage to Kentar. Part of the problem is you never really know where the storm is. I keep trying to dodge them with radar, and trying to find the center by figuring out where the down burst is coming from but sometimes there is nothing you can do. You just put your electronics in the oven and hope you don't get hit. Supposedly the oven has the effect of a Faraday cage, but I'm not really sure if it will do much.. why? .. Here's some fun facts about lightning that I read in our Discovery Channel Weather Book, AFTER a particularly bad night.

1. At 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit it is the hottest thing on earth; sometimes a channel of lightning can reach temperatures that are six times that of the surface of the Sun.

2. It can easily burn holes in most metals and can explode a large tree into hundreds of toothpick size bits (hmm wonder what that'll do with fiberglass?).

3. The average thunderstorm unleashes more energy than several Hiroshima size atomic blasts.

4. The thunderhead can expand upwards at over a hundred miles per hour and can reach altitudes of over 22,000 feet in the tropics.

5. Florida gets the most lightning in the states while Indonesia gets more than twice as much; more than two hundred storms a year.

6. Downdrafts can accelerate and hit the ground like a bomb sometimes reaching speeds of over a hundred miles an hour.

7. Useless tips for sailors:

Stay indoors with windows closed and avoid plumbing fixtures (yeah right!!)

Avoid tall metal objects and crouch close to the ground. (Last time I checked our mast is usually the tallest thing around and it's not like I can take it down).

As a last resort pick the shortest tree of a group to stand under (uh huh!!)

They're all about as helpful as the first aid class we took which suggested we stabilize the patient and dial 911, no chance of that out here.

The one thing I've never heard land people discuss is the intensity of the light and the thunder. More than once I have been temporarily blinded after getting caught off guard by a close lightning strike. It usually turns the darkest night into the brightest of days in a millisecond, while you are squinting through the darkness to make sure you don't get run over by a freighter. We've seen strikes land between us and a neighboring boat that was only a half a mile away.

This season we know of at least five boats that were struck by lightning in this area. One boat had the VHF antenna land sizzling on deck after a strike, while others lost all electronics, computers, etc costing over $30,000 worth of damage. Other boats suffered damage and they weren't even hit directly, the EM pulse from the lightning caused most of the damage. I've heard horror stories of thru-hull fittings melting the fiberglass around them and falling out causing the boat to sink out from under the people on it.

We had over 20 storms pass through Singapore in the month we were there. A couple strikes landed in the marina, you could tell just from the difference in the sound. It's kind of scary when you get to know lightning so well. The Malacca Strait is notorious for Sumatra's that come blasting across the straits, full of squalls and lightning. A couple of boats that left before us got hit everyday. We only ran into one bad storm just south of One Fathom Bank. Luckily it came from behind, we had our sails down, and we had just passed the main shipping lane into Kelang. It was just as the sun was setting and this huge black cloud came against the wind to envelop us. We had over forty knots, and the sky turned the eeriest green I have even seen. Four boats behind us got stuck in the middle of about 20 freighters at anchor along the coast. One heard two fishing boats discussing how they would pass port to port, when the sky cleared he was stuck between the two of them with less than 100 feet to spare. Yikes!!

"It sounded like someone dropped a frozen cow on the foredeck"

Our worst storm was between Gelam and Serutu and lasted about four to five hours. We were traveling with Island Sonata and maintained minimum contact during the heart of the storm. As it approached the thunder would shake the boat from miles away, you could feel it through your feet. At one point I was down below when the world turned the brightest white I have ever seen. Sort of like those movies when the aliens come to take you away and they light up the world. The blast that followed a split second later was nuclear; I have never heard anything like it in my life. It felt like the boat moved sideways or that we hit something in the water. I ran up on deck thinking that for sure we had been hit. After realizing we were spared I called our buddy boat, thinking that it must have been them that got hit. Nope all was fine there too. John, an old farm hand, described it perfectly (if you're from Kansas), "It sounded like someone dropped a frozen cow on the foredeck".

Continue reading "Lightning and Frozen Cows"...

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Passage from Singapore to Langkawi

420 Nautical Miles
6 Anchorages
1 night at sea.. lots of shipping traffic

Our route from Singapore to Langkawi

Continue reading "Passage from Singapore to Langkawi"...