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HomeNL-2017-04 Safety Minute

Safety Minute
April 2017
by Harmon Everett

Lightning on the Water

Ben Franklin proved that lightning was a vastly powerful electrical bolt that can kill things, more than two hundred years ago. He also proved how to attract lightning to a lightning rod – make a pointy electric conductor stand up higher than the surrounding area.

Unfortunately, when we are paddling our boats, we tend to be the highest pointy shaped thing above the surrounding water surface.

And we conduct electricity.

The BEST ADVICE about paddling during a lightning storm, is DON’T. Plan ahead, and if storms are forecast, think about staying home and cleaning your boat equipment and untangling that bucket of ropes from the last trip.

The SECOND best advice if you are caught on the water during a lightning storm, is to GET OFF THE WATER, AND FIND SHELTER. And not under the only tree in the area, either. Maybe in a bunch of medium sized trees.

The next best advice, is to crouch low in your boat, keep your hands out of the water, and be as unobtrusive as possible.


Do your best at those, OK? But I realize they may not be possible. The last time I was caught out in the Bay by a thunderstorm, we were a mile from land, and due to the wind and tides, we had to keep paddling, just to keep from being capsized and swept away.

The experts recommend that you should be off the water and inside a car or building, for shelter, when you hear thunder, and wait to get back on the water for half an hour after you hear the last thunder.

The bad news about that advice, however, is that thunder only travels about 10 miles, and lightning has been known to strike a hiker who was 30 miles from the thunderstorm. She had not heard any thunder before she was hit.

Most people who are struck by lightning are nowhere near the center of the storm, and at NASA’s Langley Research Center, the protocol is for pilots to stay 70 nautical miles away from the edges of a storm.

Furthermore, now that NASA has been able to video lightning from space, they have measured the distances that lightning has been able to travel and found that some lightning bolts have been TWO HUNDRED MILES LONG.

If you are in a boat, and can manage it, put an insulating cushion between you and the seat, and also under your feet or knees, between you and the hull. The hope is that if lightning strikes your boat, it will pass around the outside of the hull, and not through you. If you must keep paddling, keep your paddle close to the water. If you are near land with trees, try to stay near the trees, but more than 10 feet away, in case lightning strikes the trees, it hopefully won’t jump across to go through you.

Good Luck.
The number for 9-1-1 is: 9-1-1. <snark alert>


The author, Harmon Everett