Lighting strike in the Race to Mackinac

Published on August 27th, 2022

Sam Nedeau

The 113th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac faced a minefield along its 289nm course, and for the 244 registered boats, 29 retired or chose to withdraw, with reasons ranging from the impending weather, shredded sails, equipment failures, and minor injuries.

Sam Nedeau, Commodore of the Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation, shares his harrowing tale:


For the 2022 Chicago Mac, I had the pleasure and honor of crewing aboard Madcap, a Santa Cruz 52 owned by John and Marian Hoskins. I was a late pick up as my initial ride, the J/111 Striking Back, was forced to withdraw after discovering a crack in the mast just weeks before the race.

John and Marian had Madcap as well prepared as any Mac boat that I have raced aboard. And when I say prepared, I mean it through and through.

For example, the instruments work, perfectly. There was no variation of the apparent wind when the boat tacked. The Bimini compass read the same as the electronic compass (allowing for magnetic variation). The course and speed over ground (bottom) read the same as the GPS … The water maker worked. The refrigeration system worked. The safety gear was all in place.

These two are detail-oriented and their boat reflected their dedication. And thank God for that.

The pre-race prep was fairly standard, with a strong review of the pending storm, and how we would approach it. Safety, boat rules (no eating below – I love that one), watch system/rotation, and the job assignments for an all on deck situation … It was well apparent to the entire team that we would get hit by the storm, probably between one and three AM.

The assumption was that the squalls hit between one and three AM, possibly as much as 50-60 knots, then a calm again, before the Southerly winds filled in again and we would be off. In my mind, the storm would be about an hour or two, some nasty stuff, but nothing that we could not handle, followed by what should be a pretty quick ride to Mackinac Island.

I was wrong. We were wrong. The weather forecast from all the sources were wrong.

The squall(s) hit us about 10:00 PM, which was consistent with the latest update, and the severity was not as daunting as expected, but the duration of the storm(s) was considerably more and longer than we expected. We saw winds in the thirties, a lot of rain, and some good initial lightning.

John’s call for the spinnaker down, #4 up and two reefs in the main was perfectly timed and when we were hit, Madcap was prepared and in great shape.

But, there was more than one squall line. More than one storm. In fact, the radar and other weather sources just showed more and more squall lines. More rain. More breeze, though the breeze was manageable. We had run off in the heavy stuff. Survived well and with the breeze now in the high teens to low twenties, we were back on course to Pt. Betsie and feeling okay. Wet but okay.

Due to the presence of several squall lines, we were sailing conservatively, but also enjoying what was at the time, an amazing lightning show. There was flash and atmospheric (heat) lightning all around us, but the big bolts of lightning, the thunder and really bothersome stuff was miles away. Or so we thought.

BANG!

We were struck by lightning. None of us felt a thing. Not a thing. There was a LOUD bang, the instruments went dark, but that was about it. There was no bolt of lightning out of the sky to the top of the rig, that went on for seconds. Just BANG, dark and WOW. I was at the helm, and I did not feel a thing.

Led by John and Marian, an immediate review of the boat and its systems were undertaken. The first priority was to get the instruments working again. No luck. About a half hour into the investigation, it was learned that the masthead unit had been mangled. The cups on the mast wand were gone. The wand itself looked … limp …

It was also learned that the water maker was fried, the refrigeration fried, as well as several other systems. As an indication of how powerful the strike was, the touch screen for the auto pilot, at the base of the helm station, melted.

Amazingly, we still had running lights, the GPS and the light for the cockpit compass survived, so we sailed on. In fact, we pushed the heck out of the boat. With Marian at the helm, driving that S/C 52 like it was a Melges 24, we hit speeds in the high teens coming down the Straits. We finished at 9:30 PM (race time).

Aside from several system failures due to the lightning strike, the boat continued to perform wonderfully. Sixth in class and 13th overall. A finish to be proud of.

After the finish, Marian performed an in-the-water inspection of the keel and rudder. John and several of the crew picked the boat apart, assessing the damage. These inspections revealed more and more damage due to the lightning strike. At the time of this writing, Madcap is headed for haul out.

So, this article is not so much to tell a good Mac story, but to acknowledge and thank both John and Marian, as well as the crew members that spent hours preparing the boat, for doing such an amazing job of preparing the boat. Had Madcap not been so well prepared, its safety systems gone over and over, the grounding of the boat not been properly and perfectly done, this story could have had a very different ending.

The power of that strike could have seriously harmed, or worse, all those aboard. None of us felt a thing. Not a tingle or spark. Nothing. So, thank you to John and Marian Hoskins for having me aboard, and thank you for the high standards you demand of yourselves and others. I’ll always remember the 2022 Mac for what could have happened, rather than what did.

Oh, and by the way, in the years to come, when asked about this race, I’ll have a much better story about how it all went down.

Dodging numerous lightning strikes to the water. Driving with a knife in my mouth and somehow failing to elude that one final lightning strike, after saving us all so many previous times. It will go something like that. Feel free to refer back to this article and set me straight. After all, I was first a fisherman and then a sailor…

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