Can Boats Be Struck By Lightning?

Thunderstorms, lightning, and tornadoes, can all be frightening experiences to go through. Being on a boat during any of those, can double that terrifying experience! Which is why a lot of people wonder:

Can Boats Be Struck By Lightning? Yes. Boats can be struck by lightning during thunderstorms. Lightning coming from the sky is looking for the quickest way to get to ground. Antennas and metal masts on boats provide a great location for the lightning to go to!

Knowing why and how these things can happen, and then what to do if you find yourself in this situation is what we will discuss in this article.

Understanding a Little About Lightning

I’m not a scientist, but this is the way I understand lightning. Without knowing all of the technical terms, lightning is basically a static electricity spark on a massive scale. If you have ever seen a static electricity spark, like when taking clothes out of a dryer, or when you touch something that is charged, you’ve seen lightning on a small scale.

It is basically an electric charge that jumps an air gap. This is exactly what lightning is doing, only in a cloud, in the sky, on a massive scale!

Inside of a cloud, because of certain temperature differences between hotter ground on the earth, making the warm air to rise, it gets into the sky where the temperature is much colder. When the cloud forms because of these temperature differences, water vapor forms.

These water droplets will freeze due to the temperature in the sky, causing little frozen droplets. These droplets, then bounce around against each other, causing friction and an electrical charge. The positively charged particles rise to the top of the cloud; and the negatively charged particles sink to the bottom.

With a little bit of time, the charges build up, and then create a lightning bolt that sparks from one side to the other. Which is the most case for normal lightning storms.

Then on the other hand, that big mess of negatively charged particles on the bottom of the cloud, can find a huge positively charged section on the ground. Thus, jumping from the cloud to the ground! Giving us the lightning bolts that we want to talk about today in our boating world.

Is it Safe to go Boating in the Rain?

Knowing that there is a difference in the clouds is an important factor to this question. Without going into a detailed lecture; we must understand the difference between a rain storm and a thunderstorm. The main difference is the type of cloud. The two clouds we are concerned with are Nimbostratus and Cumulonimbus clouds.What to do in a lightning storm on a boat

Basically what we need to know, is that rain clouds are clouds full of water, creating a lot of rain. Thunderstorm clouds are the clouds that we just spoke about with all of the electrical charges built up in the cloud.

Again, I’m not a scientist or a meteorologist, so this is just how I understand it and how I can explain it. The best way to differentiate between the two clouds is the way they look.

For the Nimbostratus clouds, they are mainly huge and flat. They run horizontally in the sky and are usually closer to the Earth. They can cover huge portions of the sky and will create a good solid rain, drizzle, or snow.

These clouds can bring a rain storm that last for many hours and just bring lots of wet overcast. Boating in this kind of environment is, for the most part, depending on the circumstances, relatively safe. Just wet!

Caught in a storm on a boatBoating or fishing in the rain is actually pretty safe. As long as you take all of the normal precautions; such as, having the right rain gear, safety equipment, properly working navigation and anchor lights, GPS, and other lighting necessities. It is just wet.

The thing you want to worry about is the wind! Windy conditions create upset and rough waters. Which causes hazardous and dangerous conditions. Rain, means wet and darker conditions.

Wind, means lots of up and downs, waves, and water splashing into the boat. Windy conditions are a recipe for a very non-enjoyable boating experience!

The Cumulonimbus clouds, on the other hand, are the ones to take seriously. These clouds will be noticeable. They have a lot of vertical development and look like they are exploding up into the sky.

You will see them like a big lumpy air bubble, growing up into the sky. These clouds tell us that there is a thunderstorm brewing, and it’s best to get back to the dock, or find coverage somewhere, depending on what you are doing on your boat.

Is it Safe to go Boating in a Thunderstorm?

Now that we know the difference between a thunderstorm and a rain storm; and what to look for in the sky, it’s time to answer the question, is it safe to be on the water in a thunderstorm?Fiberglass boat lightning

In my opinion, and probably a lot of your opinions, I would say no. I have no problem going out and fishing in the rain, pulling traps, trolling, even hanging out at the sandbar in the rain. But lightning storms, that is a whole other thing.

Lighting is no joke and being in water means there is no escaping it. A lightning strike hundreds of feet away can still send voltage straight through you!

Electricity works the same way, whether it be AC, DC, in your home, on your boat, or coming from a lightning bolt. If there is a conductive substance touching you, like water, between the electricity and it’s ground; you are going to get shocked!

Boating in the rainThe problem is, that with lightning, it isn’t like getting shocked by a 110V outlet in your house, or sticking your tongue on a 9V battery. Lightning is massive amounts of voltage that can kill you instantly!

Obviously, a distant lightning strike won’t necessarily kill you, but why run the risk?

I’ve worked with a guy that was fishing on a lake during a thunderstorm. He was fishing from the bank but his friend was fishing off the dock. The rain was covering the entire dock, with water and connecting it to the lake.

A lightning bolt struck the middle of the lake, about 100 yards or so off the dock. His friend still got shocked and barely made it off the dock with his life! So when it comes to boating in the rain, no worries, anytime, but during a thunderstorm with those vertical clouds, nope! No thank you!

Taking a Look at What Kind of Boat You are in

Another major factor to consider about boating in a thunderstorm, is what kind of boat you are in. This can make a huge difference when it comes to whether or not you can get struck by lightning.

Center consoles, smaller fiberglass boats, skiboats, wakeboard boats, bass boats, and other fiberglass boats, sit low to the water. Lower than other larger vessels, like cabin cruisers, and large yachts. The closer to the sky the boat is, the more likely it is to get struck.

The conductive material of the boat also plays a factor. Fiberglass is not a conductive material, like what other boats are made out of.

Sailboats, aluminum Jon boats, or other metal boats, will greatly increase the chances of being struck. That is because the boat is made out of an electrical conductive material.

Electricity can run through metal, water, or aluminum, extremely easy. Also, taking into account that sailboats have huge masts that stick up into the sky, giving the lighting a closer path to get to the ground.

Not to mention that most sailboats now have aluminum masts. Making them that much more likely to be struck by lightning, than say a fiberglass bass boat that is sitting only a couple of feet off the water.

With the sailboat mast sticking 40, 50, 60 feet into the air; the lighting will be hitting that mast way before it does that little boat right next to it. Obviously, there are a vast amount of variables that can change these, but when talking about the chances of them. That is the most likely scenario.

What are the Odds of a Boat Being Struck By Lightning?

Lightning strikes on aluminium boatsNow it’s time to discuss the odds. What are the chances? We have all heard the stories and odds of being struck by lightning when on land. You know, the you are more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to winning the lottery, odds. But being on a boat changes those odds greatly!

The odds of a boat being struck by lightning will vary depending greatly upon the location you are doing your boating. A lightning strike is much more likely to happen in the Caribbean than it is in say, somewhere in Kansas.

There is not that much data on lightning strikes directly talking about boats being struck by lightning. Our biggest resource for finding any legitimate information on these strikes comes from Boat US. Where they use their insurance claims on lightning strikes to gather data.

The most claims that they have, are from Florida. Where they say that a boat is struck at a a rate of “3.3 boats per 1,000.” Most of these claims come from larger vessels being struck, mainly sailboats. But, we knew that, just from what we talked about earlier.

It is also reported that other “powerboats” are hit at a rate of “5 per 10,000.” They reported that “Trawlers have the highest rate for powerboats (two per 1,000)”. I’ll put a link to their article at the bottom of the page.

I would say with this data, that unless you live in Florida or a coastal region; the odds of your boat being struck by lighting will be around 1 and 10,000 (depending on what type of boat you have).

These odds aren’t that disheartening, unless you are caught on your boat, in the middle of the lightning storm! Then I would say being the only boat in the middle of a lightning storm will skyrocket these odds of being that 1 in 10,000. Regardless of what kind of boat you have!

What to do in a Lightning Storm on a Boat!

Knowing what to do in a thunderstorm is a fundamental safety tip, every boater should know. Listening to the weather channel on your VHF radio, (Channels 1-9 being most common), and the cloud knowledge we talked about earlier, will help you to stay informed and try to evade the storm.

Pop up storms can happen in a matter of minutes, so evasion isn’t always possible. When you hear thunder and see lightning. Try to count the seconds from when the lightning is seen to when you hear the thunder. Then divide by 5 to get the distance from you in miles to the storm.

If you are caught directly in the middle of the storm, it’s time to try and wait it out. You want to keep your shoes on, and try to put one of your hands in a pocket. Keeping a hold of something that is not metal. Touching the fiberglass is ok. But, be mindful that the water can allow electricity to flow through it.

So, if you are holding onto something that is wet, then you can get the strike. Steering the boat with something that is non conductive will safely keep you in control of the boat. Set the throttles at idle or with a little throttle for you to keep a heading.

Use a piece of wood or rubber that is strong enough to be able to control the steering wheel. Lower the boat’s antenna’s, outriggers, and take down all of the fishing rods that are sticking up. Getting everything from sticking closer to the sky is the goal!

That means turning off the VHF radio and lowering it’s antenna. You can still use a handheld VHF, but the in-boat radio with an antenna is a bad idea! Taking off metal jewelry and staying close to the inside of the boat is best.

If you are in a walk around, run about, or a pontoon boat, then anchor the boat if possible and getting everybody to the center of the boat and lay down, so that you are no longer the tallest object in the boat.

These are the best options and tactics to take, but if it ever does happen and you are in a boat that gets struck by lightning, immediately talk to each other and make sure everybody is ok. If someone is unconscious and unresponsive, perform CPR and begin to look over the boat. Most likely there will be a hole somewhere where the lightning exited the vessel.

Checking if the engine will run and getting the boat back to land if possible. If not, try to get the radio operating and contact immediate help! Using flares and other signalling devices will help alert any other close by boaters that you need immediate help!

What are the Normal Damages to a Boat When Struck by Lightning?

Can Boats Be Struck By LightningWhen lightning strikes a boat, it tends to leave a large amount of evidence in it’s wake. Usually striking masts, or antennas, the antennas will blow into pieces, but the masts can absorb a lot of the voltage without blowing up. Wooden masts can split, just like a tree!

Once the strike hits it’s target, it is ultimately trying to get to the ground, in the path with least resistance. After traveling through the sky to get to the boat, if it does not have a path to ground, it will make one.

Blowing holes in the fiberglass if it needs to, is not much of a task after passing through the open air. Otherwise, it will take it’s path through the grounding wires that are found inside the boat and in the electrical system.

This means that you will be looking at bilge pumps, livewell pumps, radios, stereos, GPS’s, and almost everything that is electrical, possibly being blown up!

In the couple of cases that I have seen first hand, the boats where on metal racks. When they were struck by lightning, the lightning came in through the VHF antenna. It blew the antenna to pieces and fried the radio, and stereo.

The current made it’s way to the batteries and fried the batteries. Then flowed to the back of the boat through the grounding wires and blew out the live well pump. It was pretty easy to follow, because the current left the live well, through the brass thru-hull, and out to the metal rack it was sitting on.

Burn marks where on the fiberglass from the current flowing through the fitting and to the rack.

The boat had to have fuse boxes, pumps, and radios all replaced. There was also some wiring and connectors that needed to be replaced.

So, if you were caught in the lightning storm and followed what we talked about earlier. You should safely make it through the event without being struck by lightning.

Boat Lightning Protection Systems

There are a couple of things that some boat builders and owners are installing onto boats to help protect from a lightning strike. The most basic form comes from the old Ben Franklin lightning rod.

Basically it is a metal rod that is sticking up as the highest point of the boat and uses thick wires to route the electricity down to a metal plate that will funnel the electricity safely to the bottom of the boat and into the water.

There are some newer systems that are out now. I don’t really have a lot of experience in installing these systems.

I would suggest speaking with a lightning protection system specialist, who can properly explain and advise you on the proper system that fits your boat and what would be best for you.

Hopefully, this encourages you to keep on boating and gives you the information that you need to safely make it through a lightning storm if you have to. But hopefully you can see the signs and avoid these weather phenomenons all together!

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BoatUs Article With Lightning Strike Statistics

Aaron Hilligoss

Aaron has been working in the Marine Industry for over a decade and holds certifications for Yamaha and Mercury Marine. It is not uncommon for him to own and be working on at least three different boats at any given point in time!

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