One of the most terrifying moments of my life came one summer afternoon while I was bass fishing on Virginia’s Back Bay.
I noticed a dark cloud gathering in the distance but, instead of heading for shore, decided to keep fishing figuring it would take the storm a while to reach me. Wrong. In what couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, I looked around again and was astounded to see that the ominous clouds were right on top of me and, worse, lightning was streaking downward in several directions.
About the same time I realized I had screwed up, a blast of wind and rain hit making it feel like someone had a fire hose pointed at me. The drops fell so hard they actually stung. The worst part, though, was the lightning that was coming in
horrifying bursts. The only thing I could think to do was make sure my fishing rods were lying down in the bottom of the small, aluminum boat and then kneel beside them as low as I could get. I figured that would reduce the chances of me
becoming a lightning rod and also get me into a good position for praying, which I commenced doing with as much fervor as my Southern Baptist upbringing could elicit.
After about ten or fifteen minutes, which seemed like forever, the tempest subsided and I prayed again, this time to give thanks for the Almighty keeping me in one piece. So much rain had fallen in the brief storm that it was about an inch deep in the bottom of my little boat. I decided I had done all the fishing I wanted to that day and headed to shore.
In looking back, my actions that day were both good and bad. The fact that I didn’t start heading for the landing when I first spotted the dark clouds was a dumb move. But, when caught in an untenable position, I did the best I could – got everything, including myself, as low in the boat as possible.
In a basic sense, lightning is a powerful exchange of electrons between the bottom of a storm cloud and earth. In coming down and then back up, the charge seeks good conductors (like water) and the route of least resistance (the highest object around). Overall, the odds of being struck by lightning are quite low – only about one in a million. But, those chances go up dramatically in certain situations, like standing on a golf course with a 5-iron in your hand, taking cover under a tall tree, or being in a boat out on the water.
Data compiled by BoatUS, the nation’s largest recreational boating organization, show that North Carolina is one of the top ten states in the country for frequency of lightning strikes on boats. (I’m not sure if that’s because we have a lot of electrical storms or are just too dumb to take cover when they arise.)
Sailboats with their tall, usually metal, masts are struck most often but other craft do get zapped. And, sometimes, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. A fellow told me once that he sat on his screened porch and watched a bolt of lightning strike his
center console boat which was tied up between two sailboats with towering masts.
The “blow boats” weren’t scratched but every electronic device on the man’s vessel was fried.
Most often, when lightning strikes a boat, those onboard are not injured because the powerful current follows the best conductors – mast, hull, engine, etc. – to the water. Unfortunately, the vessel’s electronics, power source and maybe the hull
itself doesn’t fare as well. And, there’s no guarantee lightning won’t jump from one of those things to a nearby person.
Tips for boaters who are caught out when an electrical storm approaches include:
- If the boat has a cabin, go inside and stay away from the mast on a sailboat. If there is no cabin, stay as low as possible in the hull.
- Keep arms and legs in the boat.
- Discontinue fishing.
- Disconnect and don’t use or touch electronic equipment, including radios unless it is necessary to call for help.
- Lower or tie down antennas and other protruding devices such as outriggers unless they are part of a pre-installed lightning protection system.
- Place fishing rods in the bottom of the boat.
- Put on life preservers and, if possible, go to a protected area out of the wind and drop anchor.
- Be aware that lightning doesn’t have to be on top of you to be a threat. It can strike as much as 15 miles away from a storm and without thunder being heard.
- Most electrical storms dissipate in 20 to 30 minutes, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. The basic rule of thumb is to wait at least 30 minutes after the last lightning
is seen or thunder is heard to resume boating activities.
The most important advice regarding lightning is to try and avoid it to begin with. With modern media sources, there’s really no reason to head out if conditions are right for severe wind or electrical storms. Even if things are clear at the dock,
they can change in a heartbeat. Check newspaper, TV or internet weather forecasts beforehand and, if in doubt, err on the side of caution. Once you’re on the water, be aware that NOAA radio makes special alerts on VHF channels 1-9.
If caught in an unexpected electrical storm and time permits, the best thing to do is head for shore and take shelter in an enclosed building or vehicle. If that isn’t possible and you’re in an open boat, get as low as you can – and pray.
Ed Wall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-671-3207. His web site is www.edwalloutdoors.com