Lightning on the lake; stay safe out there

ST. GEORGE – With summer just around the corner, boaters need to remember that the odds of getting struck by lightning are only about one in a million – unless you’re on a boat, and then the odds increase to just one in a thousand.

However, not all boats are created equal when it comes to lightning. An analysis of 10 years of insurance claims by the Boat Owners Association of the United States shows that certain boats are significantly more at risk than others. But which ones? And, what can you do if you’re caught on open water?

While even personal watercrafts can be hit, monohull sailboats with their tall masts have significantly more lightning claims than powerboats – 3.8 chances per 1,000 versus a 0.1 chance in 1,000 for bass boats, runabouts and pontoon boats. The national average for all types of boats and sizes is 0.9 chance per 1,000.

Larger boats of all types are struck more often than smaller ones as they present a larger target. A boat 40-65 feet in length has six chances per 1,000 of being struck, while boats 16-25 feet long have just a 0.2 per 1,000 chance. Increasing the height of a sailboat mast from 35 to 45 feet nearly triples the odds of being hit.

Where there are lots of boaters, and lightning is common, strike insurance claims are high. Six of the top 10 states in frequency of lightning claims – Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina – all lay within the thunderstorm hotspot in the Southeast and midsection of the country.

A multihull sailboat is almost twice as likely to have a lightning claim as a monohull. But this is true only for sailing craft – the frequency of pontoon boat lightning claims is well below average. The reason why is not clear, although theories include lack of a keel, more wetted surface, larger footprint, the dockage of catamarans at the outside edges of a marina and higher average mast height.

What can you do to lessen the chance of a strike on open water?

According to the University of Florida’s “Boating Lightning Protection” by William Becker, it is better to run for protection than remain in the open, so long as you can make it all the way back to shore and take shelter in your car or an enclosed building and are not caught at the shoreline.

If that’s not possible, pull in fishing lines or wakeboarders early as strikes can occur a mile in front of thunderstorm cloud. Listen to the weather reports and learn to read weather conditions. Lower antennas, if possible.

In an open boat, stay low, keep arms and legs inside. If there’s an enclosed cabin, go below to the center. If your boat has a lightning protection system, avoid touching anything connected to it, such as a mast. Turn off any electronics and don’t touch them, including the VHF radio. If you can, remove the radio and store it down below.

How can you reduce your risk on land?

  • The safest place to be during a thunderstorm is inside a building or vehicle with the windows closed
  • No place outside is safe during a thunderstorm
  • If you are caught outside without safe shelter, immediately move away from water such as lakes and ponds and elevated areas such as hills and mountain ridges. Look for dry, low ground
  • Do not use trees or cliffs for shelter
  • Do not lie on the ground; crouch on the balls of your feet with your heels touching and your hands over your ears
  • Stay away from man-made objects that conduct electricity, like metal fences, power poles and windmills
  • Check your local weather forecast before participating in outdoor activities
  • During outdoor activities, be aware of the nearest safe structure or vehicle and how long it may take to reach it in the event of a thunderstorm
  • Listen for thunder, watch for lightning and observe the direction and speed of storm movement
  • Do not use the surrounding sky to judge whether conditions are safe; lighting can strike even when blue sky is visible among storm clouds
  • If you hear thunder, the storm is close enough for lightning to strike you. Lightning can travel as far as 10 miles away from the originating storm cloud, and many bolts split and simultaneously strike points up to five miles apart
  • If you hear thunder followed by a lightning flash within 30 seconds or less, immediately seek shelter inside a building or vehicle
  • Remember your pets. Bring them inside the house during thunderstorms
  • Stay away from windows, doors, balconies and metal railings
  • Do not use any devices – including computers, landline phones and appliances – that put you in direct contact with electricity
  • Do not use the shower, bath, sink or any type of plumbing
  • Stay away from concrete floors and walls
  • Stay in shelter at least 30 minutes after you last hear thunder

Helping lightning victims

The National Weather Service offers this advice:

  • If someone is struck by lighting, they may need immediate medical attention
  • Lightning victims do not carry an electrical charge and are safe to touch
  • Call 911 and monitor the victim. Start CPR or use an Automated External Defibrillator if needed


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