"We've Been Hit!"

Surviving A Lightning Strike


Published: April 2011

Over 80 boats had been participating in an annual sailboat regatta on Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain when a rogue thunderstorm roared through at over 40 mph. This is an account of what happened to one boat and its six-person crew after a direct lightning strike at the top of the boat's mast somehow found its way to ground without killing anybody.

Photo of lightning in the sky

KER-BOOM!

I knew something had happened, but for a moment I was too dazed and confused to realize what it was. I looked at Wes Cooper, a sailmaker and the most experienced member of my crew, whose mouth was moving, but I couldn't hear him. That's when I noticed my ears were ringing. A few seconds later, I heard him say, "Dave, we've been hit by lightning — look, it blew the electronics and wind indicator off the mast. I saw them fly off."

I looked around and everyone seemed OK. An instant later, I smelled something burning and told Wes, but he didn't seem to hear me. Maybe his ears were ringing, too. I yelled again, "Something's burning!" Then I heard someone else say, "We need more weight on the rail." It dawned on me that the rest of the crew was still racing!

I wasn't, at least not until I'd had a chance to inspect below for damage. As I started to step into the cockpit, I put my hand on a winch to steady myself; it was red hot! I told Wes, who seemed puzzled. I stepped into the cockpit and peered down the companionway steps. Water was shooting into the boat from a through-hull connection about five inches in diameter. Just to the left, more water was spraying in from another hole. We were sinking!

I jumped down below, pulled the carpet back, and was shocked to see water shooting up from four of the seven keel bolts. There was a crack that appeared to be opening and closing every time the mast caught a gust of wind. Pieces of smoldering fiberglass were scattered around the mast and I could hear unusual popping and cracking noises. The bottom of a wooden cabinet next to the mast had been blasted to pieces and splinters were floating in the rising water. Another shout came from up above: "We need more weight on the rail."

I jumped down below, pulled the carpet back, and was shocked to see water shooting up from four of the seven keel bolts.

No one can accuse the crew of Menace of not being competitive. I turned and yelled, "We've got serious trouble — we're taking on a lot of water and I don't think I can plug it." Instead of galvanizing the rest of the crew into action, all I heard was silence followed sometime later by, "What did you say?"

Photo of damage after the lightning strikeDown below after the strike.

"I said we're out of the race, forget it!" A couple of faces peered down below and soon after, I could hear activity on deck as Nina brought us hard about into the wind and the crew scrambled to take down the headsail. It's amazing how fast you can run 27 feet and 10 inches when you're properly motivated. Next, I reached for the radio—luckily, it was still working — and placed a call to the committee boat.

After reporting our predicament to the committee, Danny Casanova on JackPot radioed to ask if we wanted them to drop out and render assistance. Both JackPot and Gritz were just a couple of hundred yards away and had seen the whole thing. Later we would hear that their hands tingled and hair stood on end at the moment we were struck. I asked JackPot to let us assess our situation. We later learned that George Hero on Gritz had placed a call to the Coast Guard to inform them that a boat was in trouble.

We were about 6.5 miles from the harbor in pitching, confused seas, with water pouring in at an alarming rate. Jim joined me down below as Nina, Wes, and Trish tended to matters above. Jim and Missy started a bucket brigade and we were soon making excellent progress. Nina answered a Coast Guard radio call and gave them our GPS coordinates. After what seemed like just a couple of minutes, Missy spotted the white hull with the large red chevron stripe and flashing light plowing through the rain directly at us. It was a reassuring sight, to say the least.

Photo of damaged kneelAnd at the keel.

We began making our way back to the harbor, still tied to the patrol boat, at about two knots with a fire hose-sized stream of water gushing out of the cabin. A call had been placed ahead by some unknown angel to arrange an emergency haul-out at Sintes Boatworks. The Coast Guard took us to within a boat length of the Sintes' crane; we started the engine and slipped up to the dock.

While Menace was being readied, the waterline lowered another five inches, indicating just how quickly the water was rushing in. Yard workers hauled her out and placed her on jackstands in the parking lot. Next, we filled out the emergency boarding report required by the Coast Guard and made arrangements for temporary storage. The Coast Guard crew shoved off, giving the entire Menace crew an unexpected compliment in handling the deadly situation so coolly.

We all felt fortunate and I couldn't have been better off than with the clear thinking, mature crew we had on board. What we learned from this is that sometimes you need to remember the basics. Everyone saw that storm approaching and common sense said we shouldn't have been out on a lake with 40-foot metal poles waving in the air. If a storm is imminent, the best remedy is to postpone the race or cruise until it passes. If a storm comes in unexpectedly while boats are already out on the water, crews should be prepared for the worst. Listen to VHF weather warnings; stay away from stays and shrouds; if there is likely to be a lot of wind, don life jackets; and, if you are struck, immediately inspect thoroughly for damage. Some things are more important than winning a sailboat race.End of story marker

 

To comment on this article, please contact Seaworthy@BoatUS.com




Lightning Protection: The Basics

  • Lightning Protection Systems: Five things that a boat owner should know about lightning protection systems: 1. The majority of boats don't have one. 2. Even when a boat does, the system must be free of corrosion, which tends to develop at connections, in order to be effective. 3. Lightning is unpredictable; even the best system is no guarantee that electricity won't behave erratically in a boat. 4. Some boats have a lightning dissipator at the top of the mast, which, theoretically, bleeds off some of the charge to prevent a lightning strike or at least lessen its impact. How well they work on a boat is anybody's guess. Seaworthy talked to several marine lightning experts and nobody seemed to be sure how well they work on a boat or even if they work at all. 5. All things considered, a properly installed and maintained lightning protection system is still the best bet to protect your boat and crew in the event of a lightning strike.

    Learning how to install a system, one with a good chance of containing the charge, takes considerably more expertise than the usual kibitzing from other boat owners at the marina. The American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC, 410-990-4460) publishes a detailed Technical Information Report (TE-4) for lightning protection systems, which is available for $50.

  • Stay Inside the Cabin. The fewer people on deck, the better. A man in North Carolina (not a BoatUS insured) was killed when lightning jumped from the backstay to his head and then to the metal wheel he was holding. Anyone on deck should stay well away from the mast, stays, metal railings, etc. Down below, chain plates and large metal appliances like refrigerators should be avoided. Don't use your VHF in a thunderstorm, unless there's an emergency (a handheld is OK).

  • With open boats, stay low in the center of the boat. Don't become a human lightning rod! Remove all metal jewelry. The Coast Guard reported a case a few years ago of a man who was struck while standing up in the boat, wearing a large metal medallion.

  • Stay out of the water. Don't fish during a thunderstorm. Don't even dangle your toes overboard.

  • Disconnect power leads and antenna leads on electronics. With many lightning strikes, damage to the boat is confined to the electronics. When a storm is looming, disconnecting the power and antenna leads to your electronics goes a long way toward minimizing damage. Disconnecting the leads is also recommended whenever the boat is not being used.

  • Lower the antennas, unless it's serving as the lightning rod in your boat's lightning protection system.

  • Get in early. Even if your boat has a lightning protection system, why take chances? Monitor your VHF weather channels to learn of any storms likely to pass through the area. By keeping a weather eye, you may be able to get in before the fireworks start. On open water, it may be possible to maneuver around the storm.

If Your Boat Is Hit:

  • If someone has been injured and is not breathing, he or she may be saved with CPR. With any serious injury, contact the Coast Guard or the marine police.
  • Check the bilge for water. Although rare, lightning can rupture a throughhull fitting or punch a hole in the bottom of the boat. Your BoatUS Marine Insurance policy will pay the complete cost for a short haul and bottom inspection after a strike to protect you from future flooding problems.
  • Check electronics. If they are not working, try checking fuses and circuit breakers. Also, check your compass. Lightning magnetizes iron objects on a boat, which can wreak havoc with a magnetic compass.
  • Even if there doesn't appear to be any damage, report the strike to BoatUS Marine Insurance (800 937-1937) as soon as possible. BoatUS will pay for a short haul (no deductible applied) to make sure through hulls are OK.