Riding the Storm: Boat Safety in Lightning

Boats in a lightning storm

Boating under expansive skies is one of my favorite ways to enjoy the water. However, when clouds gather and the air ripples with electricity, the question of safety on the water takes on a pressing urgency. Lightning is a formidable force of nature, and when it strikes, there’s no question it can be dangerous. Given that water conducts electricity and boats often have masts and other tall structures that can attract lightning, it’s natural to wonder about safety measures and the risks involved.

As a general rule, it’s not safe to be out on a boat during lightning. It’s always best to avoid boating in rough weather. However, in the event you get caught in a storm, you need to have a safety plan established ahead of time.

In my experience, open boats such as runabouts present a significant risk during thunderstorms as they offer little protection from the elements. If a lightning storm catches you off-guard while you’re boating, the primary goal is to minimize your risk of being struck. Key tactics involve reducing contact with water and metal surfaces—both good conductors of electricity—and understanding storm behavior.

When caught in such a scenario, it’s crucial to have a safety plan and take immediate action. I’ve learned it’s advisable to drop anchor, avoid touching metal objects, and put on your life jacket while staying as low as possible within the center of the vessel. While these measures don’t guarantee absolute safety, they are practical steps that I and others follow to significantly reduce the risk of lightning-related incidents. Keep reading below as we discuss the risks of lightning out on the water further as well as what to do if you get caught in a storm.

Boating in Lightning

Understanding Lightning and Boating Safety

Whenever I go out on my boat, I understand the risks associated with lightning. As a boater, my passengers’ safety depends on my ability to recognize the hazards and preparing appropriately. Boats can be especially vulnerable in open water as they often represent the highest point in a vast area, making lightning a significant concern. For example, it’s important to note that lightning can strike up to five miles away from the storm core, sometimes under clear skies.

Types of Lightning Hazards While Boating

Direct Strike: This occurs when lightning hits the boat directly. It is the most severe and can cause structural and potential fire damage. Additionally, there is a chance of electrical damage, as well as injury or loss of life. This is one of the things I consider to be the most dangerous risk while boating.

Side Flash: A side flash occurs when lightning strikes a taller object near the boat and then jumps to the boat. It is just as dangerous as a direct strike and can cause similar damage.

Ground Current: When lightning hits nearby water, the electrical current can pass through the water and affect the boat and its occupants.

Secondary Effects: These include fires started by the heat of a lightning strike or damage to electronic equipment from the electromagnetic pulse.

Needless to say, regardless of whether your boat gets struck directly by lightning, it poses a serious threat to your safety. When I’m out on the water I always keep an eye out on the weather, as it can change very quickly and without much warning.

Lightning in a port

Lightning Risk Factors for Boaters

Location: Being in open water or near the tallest structure increases the risk of being struck. If you get caught in a storm, your boat will most likely be the largest object in the open water.

Boat Type: Vessels without cabins, like open boats, offer no protection from lightning. The majority of the boats you see out on the water for weekend boating are without cabins. Regardless of whether the boat has a cabin, lightning is a significant risk for boaters.

Behavior: To me, this is a no-brainer; however, not seeking shelter when a thunderstorm is approaching increases risk. As the National Weather Service advises, it’s vital to head to shore at the first signs of a storm. During my years on and around the water, I’ve been shocked at how many boaters seem to disregard the danger of lightning out on the water.

By understanding these risks and preparing accordingly, you will ensure a greater degree of safety while enjoying the water, even when faced with the unpredictability of weather. I suggest any boater take the cautious approach anytime the weather is looking suspect. While not always the most popular thing to do, it’s better to head ashore than risk the safety of your passengers and yourself during a lightning storm out on the water.

Prevention and Preparation Strategies for Lightning While Boating

Before setting sail, it’s essential to understand the importance of preventative measures and making the right preparations to improve safety during lightning. These strategies minimize the risk of encountering dangerous conditions on the water. By taking these precautions, you’re ensuring your passenger’s safety is more important than their enjoyment on the water, which is always the best choice.

Weather Monitoring and Planning While Boating

While a simple and obvious step, I always check the weather forecast before leaving the dock. It’s critical to know the short-term forecasts and be aware of localized storms. Even days that appear clear and sunny can and will quickly change. If there’s any chance of lightning, it is wise for you to consider altering your boating plans for the day. I rely on multiple sources for weather reports, such as marine-specific forecasts and weather apps. I have found the Windy app to be a great source of information while out on the water.

Lightning at the beach

Safe Boating Practices to Minimize Risks

Once on the water, I make sure I’m prepared for any sudden weather changes. If possible, a solid lightning protection system on your vessel can greatly reduce risks. As per the U.S. Coast Guard, I also keep life jackets accessible for everyone on board, and if the weather deteriorates, I require and ensure everyone is wearing them. In the event of a storm, I know to lower all antennas and stow away any metal objects to lower my risk of a strike. Also having a Marine VHF Radio and understanding how to make an emergency call can be a lifesaver if my preparations fail and I find myself in need of immediate help.

By carefully planning and practicing safe boating, I can provide the best protection against the unpredictability of lightning. In addition to being prepared for storms while out on the water, I also wrote another blog article that discusses other boater safety tips you need to be aware of.

Boat on the water

Effective Measures For Boating During Lightning

Regardless of all your preparations, you might eventually find yourself in a lightning storm. I have been fortunate enough to have only a few close calls while out on the water. However, you might not be as lucky or fortunate as myself. Therefore, your safety and your passengers’ safety on the water hinges upon timely actions and appropriate preventive measures. Below I want to outline the steps I would take to ensure safety when lightning threatens.

Immediate Actions in Open Water During Lightning

If you’re caught in a storm while boating in the open water, the first step is to minimize risks as much as possible. If you’re in a small boat without a cabin and unable to make it to shore quickly, I would drop anchor and stay low to avoid becoming the highest point on your boat. This will reduce the chance of a direct strike. I would stow away oars, fishing rods, and any other objects that could conduct electricity. If you’re on a sailboat and the mast of the sailing vessel is the tallest object around, know it’s likely to attract lightning, so make sure all power leads are disconnected from the mast to protect onboard electronics from power surges.

Seeking Shelter and Proper Anchoring For Lightning While Boating

As I previously stated, If I’m close enough to shore and can reach it safely, seeking shelter on land is my priority. However, that might not be possible for you. Therefore, you will need to drop anchor. When I must anchor in place, I ensure the anchor is dropped properly and the vessel is secure. On boats equipped with a lightning protection system, I confirm that the grounding terminal is submerged—it’s crucial in freshwater, where standards call for a grounding terminal up to 0.25m². While anchored, you need to disconnect all appliances and power sources and stay inside the cabin, away from metallic surfaces, to avoid side flashes from strikes that might connect with the boat’s exterior.

Boating and watersports are very fun activities for people of all ages. However, lightning can turn a fun day sour and unsafe very quickly. While it’s best to avoid lightning while boating at all times, it’s not always possible due to weather changing quickly. If you encounter lightning while boating, you need to make sure you know what to do in order to keep everyone safe on the water.

DJ Parker

He is passionate about boating, fishing, and all water-related activities. He writes blogs to share his enthusiasm and experience with others. As a boat owner, husband, and father of two daughters, DJ understands the joy of spending quality time with family on the water. Whether pulling a tube or fishing for tight lines, DJ enjoys making the most of weekends aboard his Triumph Fish & Ski boat. During the summer, you'll often find DJ out on the water in Southeastern Virginia, embracing his love for aquatic adventures. He would love to hear from you and can be reached at [email protected].

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