We are the only isolated object for 40 miles, and lightning surrounds us.
It’s eleven a.m., and we are sailing over twenty miles from shore. I have been awake since three a.m., and this is not typical thunderstorm weather. Thin and high clouds filter the sunlight with wisps of virga, rain that trails from the clouds but never touches the earth. No telltale thunderheads billow.
The seas are churned into steep, punchy waves—leftover swell from three days of north winds—and the boat bucks uncomfortably. Normally, we would throttle the engine up to match the swell, but it’s overheating and we must reach our destination to fix it. We came out to the middle of the sea in search of better breeze to get us there. But the wind has been lazy, and now these unpredicted and difficult-to-recognize storms are filling the sky. I silently lambast the weather forecasters.
I see a jagged flash connect the sea and sky. I can’t tell which way the storm is moving, and I clench the wheel. My ears burn as adrenaline rushes to my head. Stinging tears of frustration well up at the corners of my eyes. Why wasn’t this in the forecast? Then I think of an even better question: What am I DOING out here? Once I think this one, it loops continuously.
The breeze begins to fill the sea, a change that we need but now feels ominous as we blast toward the darkening sky. To quiet my mind, I give the wheel to Josh and grab a thick sailing book from our library. The chapter on weather confirms that this storm is traveling from sea to land. Josh and I agree that we should zig away from our destination, San Carlos. This lengthens the time we will spend at sea—but avoids the lightning. We ‘head up’ into the wind, turning northwest and taking the waves perpendicular to the boat on a rougher course.
“Oleada, Oleada, Oleada, Lunasea.” Over the slapping waves I hear friends hailing us on the VHF radio. I rush to the mic at the companionway and tell Naomi to go ahead. We anchored with this couple last night at Isla Tiburón, and with their functioning motor we watched them pass us this morning and disappear into the horizon—which recently blackened with rain. I’m relieved to hear her voice.
“Just so you know, there’s a lot of lightning up here,” she says. I can’t tell if she’s being ironic, since lightning seems to be constantly hitting the water ahead. “But I think we are going to make a break for it; we’re only 14 miles away.” I tell her that we have engine troubles but we’re fine, we plan to stay offshore and wait out the storm. We agree to check in later, unless lightning keeps us from doing so; the tallest part of the boat is the VHF radio antenna, so it’s not safe to call with lightning close.
With this good wind we should be in port in another six hours. I breathe a sigh of relief that we will skirt this storm.
We would not be safely anchored for another twelve hours of running a gauntlet of deadly lightning.
When I was eight years old, my father’s interests switched from antique cars to golf. Since Dad insisted that we do everything together as a family, my mother, sister and I were dragged off to golf courses around the country—hardly my ideal vacation.
Our most frequent destination was south Florida. On these muggy, manicured courses, storms regularly caught us out on the ‘back nine,’ miles from shelter and surrounded by flatness—interrupted only by a family of four with metal clubs.
Even as a kid, I knew this golf-clubs-in-a-field-in-Florida scenario was dangerous. After watching lightning ignite a nearby tree as we raced for safety, I remember standing inside the clubhouse, completely still, water dripping from the end of my nose as I shivered in the air conditioning in my drenched clothes. I feared that if I moved, I might somehow still be struck. I never asked my dad why he would have us all stay out in the storms. But stoicism runs thick in the Reilly family, so there was no complaining, only surviving—which we did.
So lightning and I have a longer and more intimate history than most. My fear of lightning touches the little kid in me, the trembling girl in the clubhouse. But it has remained a part of my life. For ten years I lived in the intermountain West and worked as a guide and biologist. More than a dozen times I found myself telling wide-eyed mountain bikers to ditch their bikes and squat down as a storm rolled overhead. I didn’t like it, but I grew accustomed to storms above treeline in the Rockies or zapping giant Ponderosas on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. After a few years of this, I could lie in my tent, prepare a meal for guests, or keep hiking my transect without shivering in fear as a storm swooped over our heads.
None of this prepared me for the terror of lightning in the naked expanse of the sea.
A series of unseasonable weather events conspired to put us in highly adverse circumstances. When Josh and I arrived in Bahía de Los Ángeles in the northern Sea of Cortez aboard Oleada, our 39-foot sailboat, in October, we planned to continue further north into the sea before we looped back down along the mainland Mexico coast. However, the wintertime northerlies descended. In addition to 20 to 40 knots of wind, the steep, short period waves make sailing uncomfortable.
Sailors deploy the word ‘uncomfortable’ in the same stoic spirit that my father took to the rain-drenched golf course. In this case, discomfort means getting slammed by waves taller than the bow every two to six seconds, occasionally drenching the crew and rattling loose a few fillings. These conditions, coupled with the third-largest tidal fluctuation in the world, forced us to forgo traveling north.
We weren’t the only ones surprised by the weather. In Bahía de Los Angeles, gloomy pescaderos told us that they couldn’t predict the weather anymore. According to Antero ”Chubasco” Díaz, whose father Antero “Papa” Díaz Sr. carved the town out of the dirt when he arrived in 1938, the weather patterns used to be predictable. But over the last fifteen years, the weather became erratic, making it tougher for local fishermen and sportfishing guides to find fish and travel safely. A northerly before November, like the weather keeping us out of the northern sea, was so rare that Chubasco couldn’t remember one.
So instead of heading north, we plotted our crossing from Baja to the mainland. Crossings can be dangerous, since they expose the boat and crew to open, unprotected water. To mitigate this risk, we decided to island hop using the largest island in Mexico: Isla Tiburon, or Shark Island. The island is in the heart of the Sea of Cortez, where the land constricts the sea on each side, making it only 80 miles across and creating a tidal upwelling that supports an incredible amount of underwater life. As a result, apex predators like sailfish, swordfish, and hammerhead and even great white sharks hang out here, as well as whales of all sizes. The island’s foreboding name actually hints at the life that the tidal currents support, and the island itself will protect us from the northerlies if we can time it right.
The Sea of Cortez has always been deceptively rough. It has swallowed more than a few ships far bigger than ours, with a trail of broken boats going all the way back to the conquistador era. Cortez first sent four ships from Acapulco in 1532 to find the “island” to the west (as the Baja peninsula was thought to be separate from the continent until the 1700s.) One ship turned back in a storm, and two others were lost at sea for weather before they finally were washed up—and promptly slaughtered by the native Guaycura tribe in present day La Paz. When Cortez sailed himself with three more ships in 1535, two went aground and were wrecked on the Sinaloan coast. The sea here has never been kind to sailors, no matter their aims.
Current residents mastered the craft of sailing for a different kind of plunder—the Sea of Cortez fishery. Sturdy, narrow boats used sail and oar to collect fish until the introduction of the ubiquitous outboard engine in the 1970s. In small boats, whether sail or engine-powered, it was imperative to know the seasonal weather patterns. Fisherman Héctor Avilas Urias in Bahía de Los Angeles told me that while the internet makes it easier to obtain local weather predictions, climate change has made it impossible to use the seasons and the sky to know the weather.
Despite being the tall, isolated object in deteriorating weather, I’m glad to have our sturdy Cal 39 sailboat in these conditions instead of a wooden Spanish galleon or an open fishing panga. A week earlier, Oleada had proved her toughness when we were caught in a tidal rip or ‘overfall’ on the pointy western corner of Isla Tiburon.
After inching our way from Bahía de Los Angeles to the west side of Isla Tiburón, we emerged from our anchorage to see breaking waves around the western point. We decided to hug the edge of the island, but within seconds we found ourselves in the giant, rolling breakers. And they were only getting bigger. Our depth gauge told us we were in over 100 feet of water, so we knew the swell must be meeting a current that acted like shoal, causing the waves to break.
We couldn’t move perpendicular to the waves without serious risk of being swamped; we could only ride this out. But we had no idea how long it would last. Josh stood at the wheel, his ceramic coffee cup in one hand and the other hand on the wheel. I sat next to him in the cockpit and made the mistake of looking behind us. I gasped as the whitewater from a breaking wave boiled at the stern of the boat, touching the rail at the very top of the cockpit before sliding under us and leaving us in the trough. As I turned to the side, I looked up at the black face of a wave speckled with whitewater. I whipped back around, searching the water for an end of the wave train ahead. My hand trembled a little as I gripped the lifeline. I don’t scare easily. I consciously noted to myself that that I felt more scared in the moment than I could remember.
“Just so you know, we could take a wave over the back,” Josh said calmly, his eyes scanning the water. “I want you to know that if we do, it will be okay.” I knew this to be true in practice—boats in big seas sometimes get ‘pooped,’ or have water swamp the cockpit from behind. But having the warning helped me notice how well the boat surfed these steep waves. After twenty impossibly long minutes of breathlessly watching and riding the waves, we broke free and cut away from shore.
We found a protected anchorage that evening, then were stuck on the island for three days as we waited for the next northerly to abate. I was comforted by the shrimp boats that anchored next to us each day after their nights of shrimping; it’s a good sign when the locals choose the same place to hide. Shrimping is part of the coastal lifeblood of the Sonoran coast, and about 400 trawlers call Guaymas, our destination, their home.
Buoyed by a good forecast, we decided to weigh anchor the next day. We departed the island at 3am, motoring into the choppy seas with our friends on Lunasea behind us.
I curse that decision as I turn the boat back downwind, aiming south and into the heart of the storm. We stay offshore as the sun sets and the wind picks up even more. We fly with the swell at seven to eight knots. If boats could be joyful, that’s how Oleada feels: with one reef in the main (to make it shorter) and the headsail partially furled, she has just the right amount of sail out to take advantage of the wind to surf down the waves.
At this point, lightning hits everything, from Isla San Pedro Martir in the distance to the ocean directly behind us. I can see there is no way out of this storm except through. With the engine idling in case we need it, we point the boat for the nearest anchorage. We watch the lightning and weave around storms. As dusk closes in, the lightning is brighter and starts to burn my retinas, leaving black lines in my vision as new bolts burn brighter. Some bolts look like crooked fingers touching the sea.
We turn on the radar. To my surprise, we pick up the microbursts of rainfall from each squall, and we now can use the radar to dodge the cells. But we are much slower than the squalls, and one finally catches us.
The science of the lightning-plus-sailboats interaction is unnervingly vague. Scientists mostly understands lightning: as the result of the buildup of dissimilar positive and negative electrical charges between and cloud and the earth, lightning equalizes this imbalance with a flash, which is actually a series of strikes back and forth in about two-tenths of a second. On a sailboat, the mast creates a ‘Faraday cage’ around the boat—in theory providing a ‘cone of protection’ for the hull. However, 30 to 100 million volts in less than a second is uncontrollable and unpredictable—and hotter than the surface of the sun. Even if a mast is properly grounded (with a direct path to the water through the hull,) all those volts can create ‘side flashes,’ which jump to the boat’s rigging, the wheel, or anything metal (and any human near that metal.) Boats often end up with a few big holes or many tiny perforations where the lightning exits the hull—under the water. At the very least all electronics are fried. At the worst, crew are killed and the boat rapidly sinks.
BANG! The flash is so close I can’t see it, only the bright purple-white light surrounds the boat in the darkness of twilight. “Don’t touch the wheel!” I yell to Josh, and we set the autopilot so neither one of us is touching anything metal. We agree to keep sailing—we could ‘heave-to’ and stall the boat out in the water and hide in the cabin, the safest spot on a boat in a storm, but that would keep us in the path of more storm cells. Josh stays on deck while I pace nervously down below; we separate in case one of us is struck.
The rain starts falling in cold, heavy sheets. Josh huddles under the dodger, I perch nervously on the companionway stairs, we set the autopilot, and hold on.
Anyone who traverses the oceans can only expect more unstable, unpredictable stormy weather in the future. As the globe warms, the ocean stores the vast majority of that energy as heat—more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010. This extra heat at the surface of the ocean fuels shifts in global ocean currents as well as the accumulation of more warm air in the atmosphere—changing global weather patterns on land and sea. Over the water, storms get their energy from warm water, so future storms will be more powerful. At this point, these changes are studied using satellites with incredibly sensitive sensors on a global scale. But just as the fishermen like Héctor and Chubasco in Bahía de Los Ángeles told me, changes in the regional and local climates will affect how people can move on the water.
Almost 90% of everything we purchase moves by ship. At least 20 million containers traverse the seas, and the average container ship travels the distance equivalent to sailing to the moon and halfway back every year. So not only will the world’s approximately 100 million recreational sailing vessels and hundreds of millions of fishermen be affected by these changing seas, but 90% of everything you eat, wear, and own will have to navigate its way to you through these storms.
Lunasea on a stormy day.
Oleada cuts through the waves and water at over seven knots as darkness takes hold of the sea. Josh stays at the front of the cockpit, adjusting the autopilot as we both watch the radar. Storm cells build and disperse, sometimes in as little as fifteen minutes, but it’s obvious that the storm continues to grow and expand, stretching all the way to the Baja peninsula now. We have set our track for the nearest possible anchorage, and we sail straight toward the land—which is constantly struck by lightning. The storms surround us in the sea, but the thunder rumbles in the distance. I join Josh on the wet deck as we slice through the lightning.
Lightning on the water looks much closer than it is, with no land to give us perspective on distance. I relax a little even as bolts fire between the water and sky around us, since I know they are all around ten miles away. (I count between the strike and the thunder: every five seconds equals one mile, and the thunder becomes inaudible after about twelve miles.) As we approach land (and the lights of shrimping boats,) we use the lightning to see the shape and contour as it lights up the earth.
We have never sailed into this anchorage, San Augustín, before, and coming in in the dark is not ideal. I am beyond relieved that there is no storm cell on top of us while I have to wrangle the anchor. We drop the main sail and furl the jib, slipping into the large bay and tucking in as close to shore as we dare to get out of the swell. I use the windlass, a winch with a rotating drum for hauling chain, to lower the anchor.
You must be kidding me. This is the sound of the anchor skipping on the bottom. I yell to Josh that the anchor isn’t setting. The dance of setting the anchor can be challenging in normal daylight conditions with well-rested people—Josh and I must yell back and forth to each other over the sound of the motor and the length of the boat to communicate, leaning to the side to be able to partially see each other. This is extra hard when the anchor is not setting, it’s pitch black, there’s another storm closing in, and we’re sleep deprived.
I finally haul up the chain and anchor again, a manual and tiring process. Underwater, the anchor hooks on a rock of unknown size and dimension every ten feet or so (of the 120 feet I let out.) I grab the handle with both hands and grunt to dislodge the chain. When I finally can see the anchor, I laugh in disbelief: I’ve hauled up a giant pink and gray rock wedged into the fluke.
After trying a few different prodding methods to dislodge it, I lower my leg over the bow and kick the rock, which plunks back into the water. My body anches with fatigue as we motor to a slightly different spot, drop the anchor, and pray. Josh drives over the anchor this time to lay the chain in as straight a line as possible.
The chain scope starts to pull tight, and I feel the boat catch as it whirls around 180 degrees. We are anchored!
Exhausted but elated with our survival, we sit in the cabin, giggling about the day. I call Lunasea on the radio, but no response (we caught up with them the next day.) I make a bowl of canned tuna with mayo and drink a glass of wine. Josh and I can’t stop grinning and laughing—it feels amazing to be safe.
After an hour of debriefing we finally crawl into bed, resting before another unknown day. Another storm cloaks the boat in gentle rain as I drift off to sleep.
This blog can also be found as part of my newsletters for the Institute of Current World Affairs.