Lightning and Boats
Name: Kate C.
What happens if lightning strikes the sailboat that you
are in? Does it matter what the boat is made of? Is it like a bird on a
wire? Is the boat grounded? Help settle the dispute. Thanks
The effect of a lightning strike to a boat will
vary depending on the material that the boat is made of.
If it is raining and the boat is wet, this would help to
provide a ground into the water for the lightning, no
matter what material the boat is made of.
If the mast (the likely strike point) and the hull
are made of metal (likely aluminum), the lightning
energy may be transferred to the water with no ill
effects to those in the boat. However, the amount
of energy that will go through the boat may provide
a shock of some magnitude to those touching the metal,
especially if they are wearing shoes with rubber soles
and standing on the boat or if they are sitting.
However, the water will serve as a good ground to
dissipate the lightning energy.
If the boat is made of wood or fiberglass, it is likely
(unless it is raining) that the lightning will do
significant damage to the mast (if struck) and put a hole
in the hull. Branches of the lightning energy could impact
other parts of the boat and people in it.
If thunderstorms are likely the day that you plan to
go boating, it would be wise to cancel your plans.
If you see a thunderstorm approaching while boating,
immediately head for the nearest shoreline, not
the harbor that you dock your boat. Upset of the boat
and drowning are the greatest risks in a storm.
If you are caught in a thunderstorm, the safest place to
be is as far from the mast as possible and below deck if
possible; ride out the storm if possible or abandon ship
if you take on too much water and are likely to capsize;
stay near the ship and use it for floatation if possible.
David R. Cook
Atmospheric Research Section
Environmental Research Division
Argonne National Laboratory
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Update: June 2012