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Be Prepared and Stay Safe During an Electrical Storm While out at Sea


If you spent enough time in a boat, chances are that you have been caught out in a severe thunderstorm…

Lightning can be powerful, dangerous and highly unpredictable – according to NASA, a single lightning strike can release power to the value of a trillion watts. This is the equivalent of the power generated by one million yachts (assuming the average large superyacht produces 1000 kW of electricity).

Even though the odds of being struck by lightning are in your favour (about one out of every 1,000 boats), lightning deaths and injuries are on the rise, primarily because there are more boaters, and bigger boats, out at sea. With more people working out at sea, and boating becoming a fast-growing recreational activity, the need for boating safety and preparedness is more important than ever.

Like many forces of nature, lightning is unpredictable, and thunderstorms can happen very quickly. While you might leave in the morning and the weather is nice and sunny, sunny days can turn into stormy afternoons.

When out boating, there is no certainty what or how much will be damaged during an electrical storm, as certain boats are significantly more at risk than others. The impact of a lightning strike on a boat’s electrical components, control panels, mechanical equipment and structures is highly dependent on factors such as size and height of the vessel.  Larger boats, regardless of the type, are struck more often than small boats, as do boats that have a tall mast. Typically, a large steel or aluminum-hulled yacht that is at sea, can endure a lightning strike with minimal damage, as the masts, superstructure and hull provide a low-resistance trajectory for the strike to disperse its energy into seawater. However, if the point of contact is a radio antenna, you may encounter serious issues, given that an antenna acts as a real lightning rod.

Prepare yourself and your boat for unpredictable stormy weather by understanding your boat and taking precautions.

Tips to stay safe

  • If the weather forecasts thunderstorms, consider rescheduling your boating activities so that you don’t get caught out in hazardous weather;
  • If a thunderstorm approaches and you are in a small boat near to shore – get off the water as soon as possible;
  • Don’t wait until it’s too late to turn back. If you see a thunderstorm in the distance, or hear about it on the radio, get off the water early and get to safe harbor. If you are unable to get back to shore in time, ensure that everyone stays in the centre of the boat;
  • If you are in an open boat, stay low and keep your arms and legs inside the vessel;
  • Stay out of the water and wait a minimum of 30 minutes until the thunder is over to resume activities;
  • Boaters should consult with weather radio, internet and television for special alerts, and use radars to spot storms in the distance;
  • Ensure the VHF radio is not used during an electrical storm unless it is an absolute emergency;
  • Boaters are advised to lower antennas as a storm approaches and to disconnect power leads to their antennas and other electronics, as these are often damaged or destroyed during a strike;
  • If caught out in the middle of the sea, find a protected area out of the wind and drop anchor. If the boat has an enclosed cabin, direct everyone on board to go inside and carefully avoid metal objects and appliances;
  • Store small valuables such as phones, laptops, and other electronics inside a microwave in order to protect them during an electrical storm;
  • Keep a floating flashlight and batteries aboard your vessel.

What to do if you get struck by lightning.

If lightning strikes the vessel, deal with the most obvious threats to safety. Check for those that have been injured or are unconscious. Perform CPR on anyone that is unconscious or not breathing.

Once you have established the safety of everyone on board the vessel, you should then determine if the boat is in danger or may be a threat to passengers, crew, or other vessels.

Check electronics such as hand held radio and GPS, as well as the compass, as lightning’s electromagnetic field can interfere with electronics and the cause the compass needle to spin

After everything and everyone is deemed safe, you can then contact your insurance agent and explain the incident. Generally, a marine surveyor will be called out to document the extent of the damage and develop a plan to prevent further loss or damage. Maritime Survey Australia can provide an independent investigation of your vessel and provide recommendations to ensure your future safety.

A Safety Checklist from Ocean Time Marine will help you manage risks aboard your vessel, such as preparing for electrical storms.


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