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Navigating the Unpredictable: Lightning Strikes at Sea

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I spent many years of my life living aboard in Tampa Bay—the lightning capital of America. My boat has been hit by lightning while offshore between Thailand and India. And I currently live aboard on a mooring at the east end of Singapore, where you are seven times more likely to be struck by lightning than, say, in the U.K. or the US of A. 

Here’s the truly sad part. I, a marine expert who has written a dozen books on every aspect of cruising and cruising yachts, know almost nothing about lightning—other than it is to be avoided. 

How to avoid it, however, is beyond me. 

What do I do in a severe lightning storm in the Indian or Pacific Oceans? I pray. And, worse, I don’t believe in God. 

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How stupid is that? 

And it isn’t as if I can pretend that lightning doesn’t exist. It does. And shipyards in Phuket, for example, are littered with fiberglass hulls that have been struck. I’ve investigated those hulls—and learned zip. A few of the hulls have huge melted wounds, others a faint rash. A sizable number have dozens of softball-size holes blown in them radiating out from the chainplates/ Supposedly, as molecules of water trapped within the laminate are superheated, they explode. (Living trees struck by lightning instantly begin to burn from the inside out!)

Learning About Lightning

First of all, what is lightning? The descent of the uterus into the pelvic cavity? The transiting of a color from dark to white? A movement downwards? Can a mood be lightening? 

No, no, and no. That’s lightening—with an E. We’re talking about thunder and lightning—a naturally-occurring electrical event during which there is an electrostatic discharge of short duration and high voltage between a cloud and the earth. 

Actually, there are four main types—inside a cloud, cloud to cloud, cloud to air, or between a cloud and the ground.   

Of course, any electricity has the potential to jump. If you shut off the lights and short out a 1.5-volt AAA battery, just before the wire touches the terminal, you might see a faint spark. Ditto, if you’ve walked across a rug in a low humidity area—a common problem in Chicago in apartments with radiators. 

How high a voltage is required to make that spark jump one inch? Well, in the neighborhood of 50,000 volts. How long are some lightning strikes? Good question! Answer; 25 miles. That’s a lot of inches—and that’s a lot of volts as well. 

Lightning is common. It moves at 200,000,000 mph and strikes the earth about 100 times a second. It gets hot—like, five times hotter than the surface of the sun. How many volts? Nobody knows for sure because anything over one billion volts isn’t easy to measure. So scientists just say, “…more than one billion, give or take.” 

More Than a Flash of Lightning

About 2,000 people worldwide are reduced to cinders annually. The average American has a one in a million chance of getting killed by lightning—with men four times more likely to be struck. Your chance of being struck as an American is around 1 in 15,000. 

Unless, of course, you own a sailboat like the Hughes 38, the one we sailed twice around the world—and you’re wet, barefoot, and holding onto a metal wheel connected to an aluminum pedestal with your back touching the backstay—yikes!  

Does any of this help us? Not a bit. Especially with ball lightning. 

A singlehanded sailor named Joshua Dresseris aboard a Lithuania yacht was napping in his yacht on the way to the Caribbean when a beach-ball-sized ball of ball lightning appeared inside his vessel during a storm and began bouncing around his cabin like an insane bouncing pinball. Josh slid onto the cabin sole and cowered while whimpering—until, after a minute or two, the floating ball disappeared. 

I, personally, didn’t believe in ball lightning after 200,000 nautical miles sailed—until, in fog, I witnessed three or four floating balls of lightning within 50 to 75 feet on the portside of my vessel. Yikes! They lasted for between 30 and 90 seconds. 

Ball lightning was first reliably reported on the Thames in 1195 by a sailor named Gervase—who vehemently claimed he wasn’t drunk.  

Will My Insurance Cover Lightning Strikes? What to know…

Any of this help us? Not really. 

Yes, lightning is scary. And that motivated a friend of mine in Ao Chalong Bay, Thailand, Southeast Asia. During the two years he’d kept his 46-foot yawl there, virtually every vessel anchored immediately around him had been hit—a couple sinking immediately.  

He knew it was only a matter of time. So he had West Marine air-freight him in an expensive lightning suppression system, the type with the high tech ‘fan’ at the top of the mast and a heavy grounding cable. 

Within a week of installation—his vessel was struck and severely damaged. 

Okay, that saved me a couple of grand!

Of course, I don’t know how well that ‘fan wand’ was grounded to water—or, even, how well it should have been grounded to the water!

Sure, there’s a lot of opinions on the subject—but damn few facts. Some say don’t attract the lightning by giving it an easy path to ground. Others say that it is going to strike regardless and, thus, you need to assist the electrical energy during its (potentially) destructive exit. 

In Singapore, which is directly under the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), all the bus stop roofs are grounded at great expense. In the few places where a bus stop can’t be sprinted to, there are grounded roofs in the middle of nowhere to be used during squalls. Our Opti sailors, pool swimmers, and golfers all have to come inside if any lightning strikes are detected nearby. 

But as bad as lightning is on dirt, it is far, far more scary at sea.  

My buddy Woodie on the boat, Wave Nine was an extremely cautious circumnavigator who anticipated being hit by lightning—and was 150 nautical miles east of the Galapagos. He and two of his crew were in the cockpit at the time. There was an amazingly loud noise, the smell of burning ozone, a brilliant flash of light—and metal bits of his rig started raining down on them. 

It was even worse for his crew below—who looked outside and saw all three crewmembers glowing with a bright blue aura. 

They were convinced they’d just witnessed the death of the three people in the cockpit—but had no time to think because all the switches and circuit breakers on the panel started shot-gunning around the small cabin with great force. Worse, Woody was an avid reader—and had hundreds of paperback books aboard. These books touched the chainplates in four places and in each area, the books burst into flames instantly.


Thunderbolts & Lightning, Very, Very Frightening …

But Woody, once he convinced his crew that he was still alive, said ‘not to worry!’ He’d planned for this exact offshore contingency and had a spare VHF radio, GPS, depth sounder, autopilot, and engine alternator still in its original Styrofoam packaging hidden in the bilge!

Alas, the EMF, the electro-magnetic force, had been so extreme that none of the never-removed-from-their-original-packaging items worked. 

…sheesh, you can’t win!

On the positive note—that, too, saved me a ton of money! 

We were struck a couple of decades ago leaving the Malacca Straits, between Thailand and India. 

There was a brilliant flash and a loud noise. Five electrical items on my boat fried themselves—but not my VHF that was on at the time and whose antenna was the highest thing on the boat. 

The list of fried gear was odd—and included my Icom 710. While the unit’s receiver worked, it didn’t transmit because a small undistinguished diode blew in the microphone. Weird, right? (My bilge alarm never worked again either—Lord knows why.) 

How often are boats hit by lightning? According to BoatUS, your vessel has a 1 in 1,000 chance of being hit by lightning. But your chances are 3.3 times higher in Florida—ditto, if you use your boat often. 

The bottom line in terms of real-world practicality—you can mitigate the damage from a strike but never eliminate it. 

First off, the damage or strike area might not be apparent. It took us a while to figure out which items of gear had been damaged. Plus, two weeks later when I arrived in India, I couldn’t see any evidence of a strike at our masthead. 

Carolyn thinks that we weren’t hit—that the water was struck a few yards off our portside. 

One thing for sure—much of the damage results from the electrical force leaving the boat—and some insurance companies will pay for your vessel to be lifted out of the water so you can check your thru-hulls, rudder, transducers, etc. 

These companies would not pay for this if they didn’t think it would save them money—forewarned is forearmed. 

I was told as a young lad to disconnect the antenna from the back of a unit during a severe lightning storm at sea—current thinking is that this is an excellent way to get electrocuted! 

Check your compass—ours wasn’t affected but we’ve had friends whose compass was 80 degrees off after a strike! Chainplates and keels have been blown clear off the hull—not much can stand up to a billion volts delivered in a millisecond!

Aluminum masts do well—wooden box spars and carbon fiber rigs can suffer catastrophic (and not easily detected) damage. 

Steel hulls fare the best—the worst maintained the better. (A perfect paint job insulates the hull better and, thus, more damage can result.)

If you are unsure if your boat has been hit—look for blown fuses and tripped/exploded circuit breakers. 

Fiberglass hulls are easily damaged during strikes—a three-inch exit hole in your hull can sink it fairly fast. Multihull sailboats are seven times more at risk. Some vessels have a huge amount of damage and no visible indication on their rig where they were struck. Others have no damage of any type that they can find—and yet a huge scorched area on the masthead where the strike obviously occurred. 

The bottom line—when it comes to lightning, prayer shouldn’t be discounted. Praying doesn’t work but, hey, so don’t most things that are far more expensive. 

Are you reassured? I’m not. But I still sail offshore and live aboard in Southeast Asia where my chances of getting hit by lightning are more than seven times higher than average. 

Damn! When I was a teenager, ‘getting lit’ had a whole different meaning! 

(Editor’s note: Fatty is in his 63rd year of living aboard—and hasn’t had his zipper welded together yet—one conductive dude who works on a golf course in St. Pete has had that happen twice!)

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Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap'n Fatty Goodlanderhttp://fattygoodlander.com/
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

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