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Caught Boating In A Thunderstorm? What You Need To Know

When out boating on the water, a thunderstorm is one of the most dangerous things that can happen. In a huge open space such as a lake or ocean, things such as boats are much more susceptible to getting struck by lightning than if they were on land. This is because, in an open area like a lake or ocean, there are very few conductors around that the lightning bolt will hit besides your boat.

What to do if you’re cought in a thunderstorm

If this unfortunate situation arises, the best thing is to get to shore the moment you hear thunder and before the lightning starts to strike around you. If it’s too late, and there is already lightning all around you, try to find an area that’s protected from the wind and drop anchor. Then get down and avoid being near any metal objects.

If the boat has a cabin in it, get inside and bunker down. If not, lay down and make sure you are as low to the floor of the boat as you can. Putting on life jackets will also be a good idea just in case something bad did happen. You want to make sure you’re near land because if the boat goes down, getting stuck in the middle of a lake or the ocean with no boat is not what you want.

Here’s a simple checklist of all the things you should and shouldn’t do if you get caught in a thunderstorm on your boat:

Do’s
  • If you can, get to an area near shore with less wind
  • If you have to drive, use a nonconductor such as a wooden spoon to move the steering wheel and put your other hand in your pocket
  • Lower antennas, fishing rods, towers, and anything else that’s raised up high unless they are designed to protect the boat from lightning strikes
  • Make sure your lightning protection system is set up if you have one on your boat
  • Disconnect the connections and power leads to antennas and any other electronics on the boat
  • Put on a life jacket
  • Get down in the cabin of the boat, or as low as you can in your boat
  • Put electronics such as phones inside of a microwave
Don’ts
  • Do not use the VHF radio at any time unless you absolutely have to
  • Don’t touch 2 metal objects at one time
  • Remove metal Jewelry

Should you drive a boat in a thunderstorm?

Obviously, you should do everything you can to avoid getting caught in a thunderstorm, but sometimes you can’t help it. If you have a boat that’s big enough to handle the waves and has a cabin to bunker down in, I would advise anchoring and just hunker down until the storm calms down. Don’t try to drive a boat during a thunderstorm, unless it’s very small and you need to get out of the waves and/or believe that a lightning strike would end up hitting you or a passenger due to lack of cover in your boat.

In that unfortunate scenario, driving the boat with a wooden spoon (or any non-conductive object) and keeping your other hand in your pocket may help you avoid getting electrocuted in case of a lightning strike. Some other nonconductive material is plastic, glass, and rubber. You want to also try to avoid getting wet if possible as rainwater can conduct electricity.

What if you’re not near shore?

If you cannot make it to shore, it all depends on you and what you’re comfortable in doing. The best thing to do would be to anchor and bunker down in the cabin of your boat. If that’s not possible, or you believe the weather is going to cause your boat to tip over, drive your boat towards shore.

Just like I said above, use a non-conductive material such as a wooden spoon to steer and put your other hand in your pocket. Rubber gloves would also work.

What are the most dangerous boats to be in during a thunderstorm?

Small open boats with no cabin and sailboats are by far the most dangerous to be in during a thunderstorm. Small open boats provide little cover and generally don’t have a point that’s higher than you and your passenger’s heads. An example of this kind of boat is the boat on the left:

The best thing to do if you’re caught in a boat like this is dash full speed for shore and get you and everyone down as low as you can. And please put on your lifejackets.

Sailboats are dangerous due to the fact they have a super high aluminum mast that attracts lightning strikes. Sailboats are about 4 times more likely to get struck by lightning than regular boats, but generally, people on board should be safer than if they were on a small boat where the lightning strike would hit their heads and not the large aluminum mast first.

What are the safest boats to be in during a thunderstorm?

Although bigger boats are more likely to get struck by lightning due to the fact they have higher points, having a cabin to stay under is extremely important for the safety of the people on board. If you have a boat large enough to take on the large waves, has a cabin, and a lightning protection system, you should be pretty well protected in a thunderstorm.

What to do if your boat gets struck by lightneing

If the worst does happen, and your boat gets struck by lightning here’s what you need to do starting with number 1 being the first thing to do and ending with number 8 being the last:

  1. Make sure everyone is okay and nobody is unconsious or injured.
  2. If somone is unconsious, check for pulse and/or if they are breathing. If there is no pulse and/or breathing immediatly began CPR (How to do CPR). If they are moving and breathing, they will most likly be okay and there is no nead for CPR.
  3. Next, check bilges for any water as lightning can break holes threw the hull.
  4. If their is water rushing in, try plugging the hole using tarps, seats, or whatever you can find to stop the water. Also, turn all the bilge pumps on and maybe even use a bail bucket if you have to.
  5. If you absolutly have to, try using the VHF radio to radio for assistance.
  6. If you defenetly need help, shoot your flairs in the air and hope rescue see’s and comes as fast as they can.
  7. Lastly, if all is good, continue sheltering in the cabin or driving to safety. Many times electrical instruments will break even if no other parts of the boat breaks, so keep in mind that you may not be able to use your electrical instruments.

Carrying spare VHS, GPS, and engine ECU’s in the microwave is a great idea as the microwave will protect those electronics from being damaged by lightning.

After you get back hopefully safely, get an inspection on your boat and if there are any damages send all that information to your boating insurance company if you have it.

What is a lighting protection system for boats and where can you get one?

Traditional lightning rods don’t really work very well on boats due to the fact that the current will still run through the boat and probably cause damage or harm. Luckily there are some products on the market that help deter lightning strikes from hitting your boat or sailboat mast.

After doing some searching, I would recommend getting this one here, as it seems to be very reliable and has a good reputation. This can be used for both sailboats and regular boats.

How to prevent getting cought in a thunderstorm on your boat

Obviously, it’s best to completely avoid getting caught in a storm. This is why checking weather apps and/or your radar system before going out is always advised. Even if it looks nice outside, storms can come quick and it’s always worth checking the radar before you go out.

One indicator that a storm is near is if you see a cloud that seems to have a flat top and looks sort of like an anvil. This is a clear indicator of a thunderstorm could. They look like this:

Especially in states like Florida where their many thunderstorms every year, when clouds start to get grey and you start to hear thunder, get to shore as quick as possible. If you believe there may be thunderstorms, don’t go far especially if you have a small boat.

Items you should have to prepair for a thunderstorm while boating

  1. Wooden spood (to steer with)
  2. Extra portable VHF radio (store in microwave/tin container)
  3. Extra GPS (store in microwave/tin container)
  4. Spare engine ECU (store in microwave/tin container)
  5. Extra lifejackets
  6. Well working bilge pumps
  7. Bail buckets
Sam