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Storms That Can Affect Boaters

For those captains delivering boats or moving their own boats in the late fall, winter or early spring, there’s always the possibility of a blizzard, but these are the people who regularly make the New York to Florida and back round trip and they are most likely to take all the precautions along with the risks of out of season travel. Along with blizzards, nor’easters, gales and windstorms happen on the northeastern coast of the US, causing huge waves and low temperatures. Other storms such as hurricanes and nor’easters are more predictable far enough in advance so they aren’t a problem to boaters.
What seems to be the biggest weather problem in season for boaters in the northeastern part of the country is the thunder and lightning storms that come mostly in the heat of the summer. The good news is that your boat’s chances of being hit by lightning are only one in a thousand according to statistics from BOAT US insurance claims. Your chances of being hit are vastly increased if you are in an open boat and are further increased if yours is the only boat in the area. Boats less than 15 feet long and pontoon boats are the big winners in the “not getting hit by lightning” contest. These two classes of boats have a zero percent chance of getting hit. Just as the multi-hull sailboats have the biggest risk, there seem to be no reasons, just statistical results for these classes of boats. Not surprisingly, southern Florida has the highest frequency of lightning strikes and is the number one state in lightning damage claims. The Pacific coast has a very low frequency of lightning strikes and the reason is the difference in water temperature – the Pacific Ocean is much cooler than the Atlantic Ocean.

The cost of damage to your boat by lightning might surprise you. Most lightning damage claims are for wiring and electronics and amount to less than 30% of the boat’s insured value. An electrical charge can jump from one wire to another close by even if they are not connected. If they are close enough lightning can use them as a pathway and continue in a destructive trail to melt metal and even cause holes in fiberglass that can sink your boat.
Lightning storms come mostly in the afternoon when the air temperature increases. The warm air rises and the moisture in it evaporates, and the puffy white clouds darken as more moisture is taken up and turn to nimbus thunderstorm clouds – often with a flat top – these are called anvil clouds. Lightning strikes from cloud to cloud; within a cloud or from cloud to ground and usually strikes the highest object in the area.
If lightning hits your boat it might strike an ungrounded radio antenna or on a sailboat it might strike the mast. If you were holding on to the mast the lightning strike current would follow the mast down to your hand. If you were standing on a wet deck near the mast, the current would go through your body to the wet deck, through the hull out to the water. Where does that leave you, you might be wondering. If you were lucky you might just be injured but there’s also a chance you might not survive a shot of electric current.
To avoid becoming a thunder and lightning storm statistic, there are ways to check and recheck the weather during your trip out on the water. Most boaters check their local weather service before casting off their lines. Some check a barometer they keep in the cabin. There’s more to it than just a weather report before you start out. During your day on the water you need to develop an awareness of any change in wind and cloud conditions. In the afternoon on a hot day watch the clouds. If the clouds turn from fluffy white cumulus clouds to the steel gray flat topped anvil shaped clouds, you are probably watching the progression of a thunder and lightning storm and will want to get your passengers back in the boat if they are swimming or clamming, get fishing rods put away and get back to home port or a dock where you can wait out the storm in a safe, dry area. It’s a good idea to pay attention to the boaters around you – are they leaving?

One of the best indicators of weather change was the Strike Alert my husband always took on any boat trips, even short runs to Frank & Dicks to get gas. Amazon now has a new, more expensive version that does more and is larger than the old pocket size Strike Alert. This little battery operated warning device can detect and notify you of lightning forty miles away with an audible alarm and LED strobe. If you do an Internet search for “lightningappNOAA” you will find information on iPhone and android apps you can add to your cellphone that will be helpful but not have the pinpoint accuracy of the Strike Alert.
You might think a metal boat would be the object of a lightning strike, but all-metal boats are rarely damaged and injuries to passengers are uncommon. The large area of metal in direct contact with the water causes the electric charge from lightning strikes to dissipate quickly. When you are on a small boat of wood or fiberglass construction you are more likely to be the conductor of the electric charge because wood and fiberglass don’t offer the grounding protection of the all-metal boat.
A big plus when buying a new or used boat would be that it was equipped with a well-designed lightning protection system. What can happen when lightning strikes an unprotected boat? Think electronics – even a smaller hit can destroy your radio, GPS, bow thrusters, bilge pump, engines and generator. After a lightning strike it’s important to check out everything to make sure your insurance claim is complete. You may have melted wiring and holes in the hull from the melt.
So, you’re out further than you could get back before the storm hits. By the time you think to go back it’s too late. You think about the time you did go back in a storm and you’d rather not do that again. After you anchor if you are not already anchored, get the crew to help you put rods away, put life jackets on, take off metal jewelry, lower the radio antenna, and go below if you have a cabin. If you don’t have a cabin, get passenger weight centered in the boat. Tell your crew to stay away from anything electric or metal. If you have a cabin and a microwave oven you can store small electronics and cell phones in it. You might want to pump the bilge before the storm starts.
If someone on your boat is struck by lightning the person may stop breathing or have no pulse. Often a person struck by lightning who appears to be lifeless can be brought back to life by CPR. Such a person will need immediate attention. The person is not a danger to others because the electrical charge has passed through them and will not hurt anyone else.
In the past you could usually count on a summer afternoon thunderstorm lasting about a half hour. No one got killed or injured if they were careful. Lightning usually kills about fifty people a year and injures people who are caught by surprise by a thunderstorm. Climate change has affected the intensity and duration of storms. The Science journal anticipates a 12% increase in lightning activity for every degree of warming. Warming waters are making our storms wetter and taking longer to progress through a given area, leading to areas of flooding that never had flooding before. A more welcoming pathway is offered to storms by the warmer ocean waters. We have to be the people that know how to deal with these storms – as boat owners, when we take people out on our boats we have a responsibility to bring them home safely.