Lightning strikes on the water
How to avoid getting struck by lightning
Not long ago, I was solo sailing my C&C 29 while watching a regatta on Galveston Bay. It was a nice day with small clouds peppering the sky. Within a half hour, the cloud pattern changed. I heard thunder from the south and east but couldn’t tell which way it was moving. While I was turning to head back to the marina, lightning struck my boat seemingly out of nowhere. I felt an electrical charge go through the wrapped helm where I was standing.
Although I was fortunate not to suffer greater personal harm, the boat was fried. The strike went down the mast and out the keel, where it was grounded. It went through all the boat’s electronics, around the hull’s exterior, and out through the propeller shaft. Thankfully, the hull wasn’t compromised, and the engine started without a problem. I headed back to port feeling very lucky.
Since then, I’ve learned that a dozen other boats were hit by lightning that day. I also learned that there’s considerable information and misinformation about how best to protect yourself, your crew and your vessel. Some say grounding the boat’s standing rigging to the keel provides a cone of protection, and there’s good basis in research to support this.
We do know that boaters should consider the following steps:
- If the forecast includes lightning or it seems like lightning is a real possibility (you hear thunder for example), immediately head for a secure anchorage and take shelter on land inside a structure, not under a tree.
- If thunderstorms threaten, designate someone to monitor the weather and to decide when to return to port.
- Monitor local NOAA weather reports before leaving the dock so you’ll be aware of potential thunderstorms while you’re on the water. Pay attention to National Weather Service issued thunderstorm watches (when conditions are favorable for severe weather to develop in an area) and warnings (when severe weather has been reported), and know the warning signs of developing thunderstorms, such as high winds and darkening skies.
Know where the closest safe structure or location is and how long it may take to get there. If a shore facility isn’t available, remain on the boat, but avoid touching anything metal or electrical. The boat’s superstructure and standing rigging provide a measure of protection to the crew and passengers. The risk is more often to the boat and its hull or through-hulls.
Heighten lightning awareness at the first flash of lightning, clap of thunder, or other criteria such as increasing winds or darkening skies, no matter how far away. Treat these events as warnings. Lightning safety experts suggest that if you hear thunder, you should begin preparing to evacuate; if you see lightning, consider suspending activities and heading for your designated safe location.
Design a lightning safety plan that considers local safety needs, weather patterns and thunderstorm types. All vessels should have left the water and reached a safe structure or location by the time you observe 30 seconds between the lightning flash and its associated thunder. Blue skies and the absence of rain don’t guarantee that lightning won’t strike, especially during summer thunderstorms. At least 10 percent of lightning occurs without rainfall and with some visible blue sky.
People struck by lightning don’t carry an electrical charge, making it safe to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on them. If possible, move an injured person below deck before starting CPR. Lightning strike victims showing signs of cardiac or respiratory arrest need prompt emergency help. If you are in an area monitored by the Coast Guard, radio “Mayday” on channel 16 for assistance. If inland and near shore, call 911 and head for shore. Prompt, aggressive CPR is highly effective in the survival of lightning strike victims. Someone on board should have CPR certification, which can be obtained from your local American Red Cross chapter.
Be safe. Remain in port when thunderstorms are forecast. Don’t do as I did by sailing alone under such conditions and ignoring the risks.
This article first appeared in Boulder Beacon, newsletter of Boulder Valley Sail & Power Squadron/30.