Sizzling Sensation

How to Protect Yourself from Lightning

FSF Staff May 31, 2012

Although the Sunshine State often times lives up to its tourist-inviting nickname, the tropical sea breeze and humid climate enjoyed by so many combine to create potentially deadly weather phenomenons. Fascinating to watch but incredibly dangerous, lightning is common during the summer months and accounts for more deaths than any other weather-related activity in the entire state. Furthermore, throughout the United States only flash floods cause more fatalities.

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Heading straight into a severe thunderstorm is obviously not a good idea. Photo: istock.com/mike_expert

Unfortunately, no matter what craft you choose to ply the depths you are always going to be the highest object around. And while thunderstorms can be encountered on any given day of the year, the months of May through October bring along the most lightning activity. Anytime thunderstorms are present boaters need to take heed. With a VHF radio you will have access to NOAA weather reports, and if your vessel is outfitted with radar or some type of subscription weather service you will be able to pinpoint storm cells. However, since lightning is relatively unpredictable and can strike upwards of 10 miles from a storm’s center you must always be aware of your surroundings.

...an ideal grounding system bonds all metal structures and utilizes arrestors to protect electronic equipment. It must also provide a safe path for lightning to travel.

The only real way to make certain you won’t become a statistic is to stay off the water during heightened storm activity. Although as avid boaters and anglers we know that powerful storm cells can build in moments and a clear blue sky can turn to dark anvils in no time. The reason for this is because Florida’s peninsula provides ideal conditions for electrical storms, with both Gulf and Atlantic sea breezes converging inland as the afternoon progresses. The cooler sea breezes collide with warmer inland temperatures and the combination of heat and moisture provides ideal atmospheric conditions for the formation of lightning storms.

If you find yourself in the middle of a storm there are a few things you can do to lessen your odds of being struck. First and foremost, maintain the lowest profile as possible by lowering your antenna(s), outriggers and placing your rods on the deck. If your vessel is outfitted with a cabin by all means get your crew out of the elements. If you are in an open fisherman crouch down and try to stay as low as possible. Do not touch two metal surfaces simultaneously, or you just may become a path for lightning to travel.

If you aren’t smart enough to stay off the water during a lightning storm you better have some protection including discharge devices and proper electrical grounding. Lightning strikes can be fatal, but that’s not the only risk. An influx of electricity can fry your electronics, destroy your outboard(s), spark a fire, and leave your vessel inoperable. Since lightning strikes can’t be prevented you must prepare for the worst.

According to the American Boat & Yacht Council, a proper lightning protection system directs the lightning’s path away from passengers and hopefully away from major components to prevent or decrease the amount of damage. No matter your vessel, an ideal grounding system bonds all metal structures and utilizes arrestors to protect electronic equipment. It must also provide a safe path for lightning to travel. Air terminals provide a strike point, while external conductors form a protective cage and grounding terminals direct current away from the boat. If you choose to install a grounding system it is highly advised you work with professional installers to make sure the unwanted voltage is directed the proper way. Unless you are a professional marine electrician, this is not a do-it-yourself project to undertake on a weekend.

In the unfortunate event your boat is struck by lightning be sure to file a claim with your insurance provider ASAP. Have an adjuster thoroughly inspect your vessel and remember that some electronics won’t fail immediately after an incident, but may become partially damaged and fail down the line. You’ll also want to carefully inspect the hull below the waterline, as a direct hit can cause serious damage to your hull. Lightning can exit through a thru-hull fitting and also lead the way to water intrusion down the road.

To be completely honest, the odds are in your favor that you will never be struck by lightning, but don’t even risk the chance. Furthermore, you can’t avoid a lightning strike if it’s your time, rather only help to minimize the damage. Take the necessary precautions to protect your passengers and your vessel, and stay off the water during severe storms and periods with peak lightning activity.

Did You Know?

A lightning strike can travel 60,000 miles per second and heat the air around it to temperatures approaching 50,000° F. That’s nearly five times hotter than the surface of the sun! According to the NWS, Florida receives approximately 12 lightning strikes per square kilometer per year.

How Far?

When you see a bolt of lightning count the seconds until you hear thunder. Divide that number by five and you will have an approximate distance in miles of the lightning strike. A 10 second interval would mean the strike was approximately two miles away.

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