When Lightning Strikes
It's well known that Florida is the lightning capital of the United States. Florida's geography puts it in firmly the bulls eye, because of the two warm bodies of water that surround it, and that sea breeze brings hot air inland, where it rises to form towering thunderclouds.
Lightning strikes commonly occur in the afternoon. (Florida estimates 70 percent occur between noon and 6 p.m.) A towering buildup of puffy, cotton-white clouds that rise to the customary flat “anvil” top is a good indication to clear the water and seek shelter — or move out of the storm’s path if possible. A storm that builds directly overhead might not be as obvious until the welcome white clouds providing some shade moments ago turn dark grey, rain starts falling and the wind starts to howl or begin to boom with thunder and lightning. If that happens, now is the time for a mad dash to the dock and shelter if close by.
Like the National Weather Service says: “When thunder roars, go indoors!"
Getting caught in a storm is not always avoidable and there’s still plenty that boaters can do to minimize the chance of a strike and lessen injury and damage if a strike occurs. If you are caught out on open water or too far from shore and shelter, it’s time to hunker down and ride it out.
Lightning seeks the highest point, and on the water that’s the top of the boat — typically a mast, antenna, Bimini top, fishing rod in a vertical rod holder or even the tallest person in an open boat. If possible, find a protected area out of the wind and drop anchor. If the boat has an enclosed cabin, people should be directed to go inside and stay well away from metal objects, electrical outlets and appliances (it’s a good idea to don life jackets too). Side flashes can jump from metal objects to other objects — even bodies — as they seek a path to water.
You should lower antennas, towers, fishing rods and outriggers, unless they’re part of a designated lightning-protection system. Some boaters also like to disconnect the connections and power leads to their antennas and other electronics, which are often damaged or destroyed during a strike or near strike.
Do not use the VHF radio during an electrical storm unless it’s an emergency (handhelds are OK). Be careful not to grab two metal objects, like a metal steering wheel and metal railing — that can be a deadly spot to be if there’s a strike. If forced to man the helm during a storm, some boaters steer with a wooden spoon and keep their other hand in a pocket, while others like to wear rubber gloves for insulation.
Some boaters like to carry charged handheld VHF and GPS units and a spare engine ECU in the microwave or a tin box (Faraday Cage) because even nearby strikes can knock out electrical . These makeshift Faraday cages have saved equipment, possibly even lives.
An open boat is the most dangerous during a lightning storm, since you are the highest point and most likely to get hit if the boat is struck. If shore is out of reach, the advice is to drop anchor, remove all metal jewelry, put on life jackets and get low in the center of the boat. Definitely stay out of the water and stow the fishing rods.
If all goes well, the storm will blow past or rain itself out in 20 to 30 minutes. It’s best to wait at least 30 minutes until after the last clap of thunder to resume activities.
Remember - The very best way to protect yourself is to check the weather before you take your boat out. If storms are forecast, stay home, there's always another day!
Marine Forecast - http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/marine/home.htm