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Old 08-27-2012
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Boy killed by lightning in our anchorage, what would you do?

We are catching up on the news and learned a boy was killed by lightning last week in the same anchorage we were in on Saturday night (Superior, WI). It appears the captain had beached the (swing keel) boat during a storm and was leading his family ashore. Six others, including the Captain, were seriously injured. An absolute awful tragedy.

The local authorities are saying the family was doing the right thing by getting ashore during the lightning storm. However the family was struck while wading through knee deep water to get ashore.

We (family of five) ride out these lightning intensive thunder storms on our boat rather than making our way ashore. Are we doing the wrong thing? What do you think?

These storms are very common on Lake Superior so I am interested in your opinions.
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Old 08-27-2012
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Re: Boy killed by lightning in our anchorage, what would you do?

That is an awful tragedy.

We don't sail when pop-up thunderstorms are predicted usually, but last Friday evening was an exception. We took two other couples out for a Friday night sail and an hour into the sail we saw a dark cloud building to the south. The winds were fantastic with 12-17 kt out of the west when they shifted to the south suddenly. The crew saw me looking nervously at the sky and one of them checked the radar on their iPhone. It was a small cell and we did not see any lightening so we opened a beer and kept going.

The sail was fantastic from start to finish, but I had to hide thoughts just as you present. Is it better to go ashore or ride it out and let the grounding system do its thing?
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Old 08-28-2012
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Re: Boy killed by lightning in our anchorage, what would you do?

My opinion: ride it out on the boat, preferably inside the cabin, and stay away from the mast and anything electrically connected to it, the stays, lifelines, pulpits, etc. According to some lightning experts, the mast provides a "cone of protection" of at least 90 degrees, such that lighting that would otherwise strike in the "protected" area will attach to the mast and be preferentially conducted along the mast and any metallic conductors between the sky and ground (i.e., the water).

If your boat doesn't have a serious grounding system, you may regret it if you get struck and suffer structural damage like holes in the hull. Even if you have a good grounding system, you are likely to lose all of your electronics that are exposed to high voltages and high fields. Better to disconnect and wrap any portable/removable electronics (VHF, GPS, cell phone, etc.) in aluminum foil or otherwise place them in a metal box (if you have one, a boat's oven would do) to act as a faraday cage.

If you have insurance, read the fine print about replacing damaged electronics. My boat has had 2 lightning strikes over a 10 year period and I was glad my policy covered equipment replacement without depreciation. Not all policies--including BoatUS, last time I checked--would pay for full replacement.
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Old 08-28-2012
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Re: Boy killed by lightning in our anchorage, what would you do?

If you are walking along a beach in the water you'd become a conductor to ground. This is not acceptable. Most sailboats have a ground plate is attached to the mast and bonded through out all the hull fittings including the shaft, if it is a inboard. You are much safer aboard the vessel as the mast becomes the conductor and discharges the lightning through the ground plate. captg
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Old 08-29-2012
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Re: Boy killed by lightning in our anchorage, what would you do?

You are safer warm and dry in a cabin, than having any part of your body touching water.

Even if the lightening strikes the boat, risk of a flashover going through the dry cabin air through your body then back through the hull is (smaller) than induced currents conducting through water, and your wet body.

Resistance of dry skin several Kilo-Ohms, resistance of wet skin a few ohms. Bottom line if lithening strikes within a few hundred yards of the body of water, (lake, etc...), that you are in contact with it will kill you.

If they had gotten into a lightening rod protected building before the strike they would have been safer, but obviously they were too late.

If I had to choose between laying flat on a beach, or a field, or a parking lot, or staying aboard, ... I would throw a heavy guage wire attached to a metal plate and the mast overboard, and go to the V-berth and take a nap.
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Re: Boy killed by lightning in our anchorage, what would you do?

From Boat US

First, don’t panic; though many boats are struck, the BoatU.S. claim files have few injury claims and only two fatalities over the years (one man was killed as he stepped onto the dock while holding onto a shroud and another had been swimming out to his anchored boat).

This supports you are safer on the boat, especially if you have good grounding system. Just don't try swimming, or holding a shroud and stepping onto a dock.
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Old 08-30-2012
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Re: Boy killed by lightning in our anchorage, what would you do?

I've followed this story closely, as like the OP, my boat is at Barker's Island Marina, just a mile or two from where this tragedy occurred. Eight people (6 family members and 2 family friends) were caught out on the lake in a 26 foot sailboat when the thunderstorm approached. As I understand it they made for the nearest shore and got off the boat as the storm hit, then had second thoughts about being on the beach in those conditions and were in the process of getting back on the boat when the lightning strike occurred. The boy died and 5 other members of the party ended up at the hospital.

Tragic, heartbreaking for the family, and way too close to home for the boating community in the Duluth-Superior harbor basin.

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Old 09-03-2012
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Thanks for the the thoughtful postings to this topic, and thanks to Mobnets for the additional details on the incident.
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Old 09-03-2012
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Re: Boy killed by lightning in our anchorage, what would you do?

Curiously, it is my understanding that freshwater is often more dangerous with regard to electricity, because of its low conductivity; in saltwater the current has a free path, while in freshwater the person is the short-cut. In other cases, saltwater can be worse (takes less on your feet to put you in the circuit).

No easy answers.
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Old 09-04-2012
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Re: Boy killed by lightning in our anchorage, what would you do?

So far no-one has mentioned how dangerous the wheel and tiller are in a lightning storm. They both provide an excellent path to ground. Worst case would be one hand holding some rigging, the other the wheel. Best plan is to stay out of the cockpit entirely, and go below.
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