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September 21, 2007

Strike Zone

Avoid lightning or it may ruin more than your fishing day.

Kevin Dunn had bad timing. An experienced boater, he, his wife and another couple, were returning from an offshore trip in the Gulf of Mexico a few summers ago when they ran into a nasty storm. Before they could reach Alligator Point marina on Florida's Big Bend Coast, the storm bore down. Dunn tried to steer the 20-foot center console around the growing system, but it trapped them. Suddenly one of the fiberglass outriggers exploded with the thunderous crack of lightning.

Dunn couldn't release his hands from the metal steering wheel for several moments. His friends received painful jolts from a console railing. The lightning arced through the cockpit and exited into the water via the downrigger cable, shearing off the ball; the remainder of the cable was welded into a solid mass. The bolt blew out the engine rectifier and destroyed the boat's wiring, switches and gauges, rendering it inoperable. Dunn was disoriented for several minutes, but no one suffered permanent injury. The outcome could have been much worse.

"We were lucky," Dunn said of his ordeal. "Nobody got seriously hurt."

As this crew regrettably found out, lightning is a serious threat to anglers. In the U.S., 67 people are killed in an average year by lightning on land and water, more than the average number from tornadoes or hurricanes. Many more lightning-strike victims survive, but some are left with lingering maladies like numbness, memory loss and muscle spasms.

Juice On The Loose
According to the National Weather Service and other storm resources, lightning-an abrupt natural discharge of electrical energy in the atmosphere-starts 15,000 to 25,000 feet above sea level in cumulonimbus clouds. The charge works its way down from the cloud through the atmosphere forming a "charged channel" until it makes a connection with an object on the ground or water. When that happens, the circuit is complete and the electrical charge-with the potential of up to 100 million volts-is transferred to ground. Remarkably, the scientific community does not agree on the origins of the charges that become lightning, but we all know the results. The air surrounding a lightning strike is heated to 50,000 degrees and this rapid heating produces first shock waves, then sound waves in the form of thunder.

Clouds that produce lightning are formed by a combination of upward movement, instability, moisture and cold temperatures in the upper atmosphere, conditions that normally occur in the summer. Florida's coast is ripe for thunderstorms because of moisture in the lower atmosphere, high temperatures and prevalent sea breezes. These same conditions are also common along the Gulf and southeastern Atlantic Coasts. The Pacific Coast has the lowest number of lightning strikes in the U.S.

Danger Explained
Boats are vulnerable to strikes since lightning typically hits the tallest objects, and boats float on top of relatively flat bodies of water. Once the charge makes a connection, the electricity searches for a route to ground. Large ships are struck often, but a metal hull in direct contact with the water dissipates the charge, minimizing damage.

Fiberglass and wood do not offer the same protection. And most boatbuilders do not incorporate systems to prevent lightning strikes or damage into their models.

"The only grounding block system we have on our boats is the electrical system's typical 12-volt ground path for engines and accessories," says Joe Hunter, the engineering manager for Grady-White Boats. "Lightning systems are not 100-percent reliable, and they may or may not help in the event of a strike. So instead of giving the owner a false sense of security, we don't add them."

Top builders, such as Grady and Boston Whaler, adhere to American Boat & Yacht Council standards.

Storm Safety
Since most anglers operate without any lighting-protection system, what can we do to minimize the risk? Avoidance is the best course. Determine the distance of lightning by counting the seconds between seeing the flash and hearing the thunder. Five seconds equals one mile. Set a course to get out of the storm's path. Use your radar or weather-enabled GPS chart plotter to skirt weather systems. And stay tuned to NOAA Weather radio for advisories. Watch for the rapid formation of vertical clouds and note sudden temperature drops or changes in wind direction and speed-all indicate impending stormy weather.

If you are caught in the middle of a lightning storm, stop fishing and have the crew don life jackets, and lower antennae, outriggers and fishing rods. Disconnect the boat's radios and don't use or touch them unless it's an emergency. If your boat has a cabin, move all passengers into the middle of it and have them get down on the deck and not touch anything else, especially metal. If shelter isn't available, get as low as possible. Reduce boat speed, maintain headway and make for a safe shore or anchorage. If the engine fails, tie a sea anchor or bucket off the bow to head the boat into the waves.

Lightning storms are dangerous at sea, and Dunn and his companions unfortunately discovered why. But Dunn didn't let it scare him off the water-he captains Cajun Dancer, a 61-foot Viking out of the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida.

"Our accident didn't stop us from fishing," says Dunn. "Everyone on the boat that day still loves to go. But I'm much more aware of the weather now and cautious about lightning. It warrants that respect."

Shock Talk
Oddsmakers give boaters in these five states the worst chances with lightning.

1. Rhode Island* 0.355%
2. Maryland* 0.336%
3. Florida 0.276%
4. North Carolina 0.265%
5. Mississippi 0.252%

*due to preponderance of sailboats
Source: Seaworthy by Bob Adriance, BoatU.S. Marine Insurance