Subject: question about lightning   Date: Mon, 17 Jul 2000 
From: "Robinson, Paul" <>
Hi Al: ... Got caught on the edge of a rapidly expanding thuderstorm on Lake Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago.  Other than avoiding them (whenever possible) and trying to outsail them what do you know about protecting yourself from lightning in the boat if it got really ugly?  Be talking to you.  Thanks, Al.

Paul Robinson
Risk Management Specialist
Manitoba Public Insurance

Uncle Al's response:
Hi, Paul!

re: lightning

Nobody seems to have any definitive answers about lightning other than, as you say, avoidance! 

For instance, Ken Jensen (W1348, Norway), a former airline pilot, told me about seeing a film in which it was clearly demonstrated that a lightning bolt sends out "feelers" to see where the best conducting possibilities are. The inference from this being that it's not necessarily wise to run a ground wire or chain from your shroud into the water because that could well attract the lightning bolt to your boat!

We recently got caught in a thunderstorm on Fanshawe Lake near London, Ontario during the June Bug Regatta, and I consoled myself with a couple of things:

1. When you hear about the many golfers that get struck by lightning each summer, and compare that to the almost total absence of parallel stories among boaters, I feel a little better. I've been sailing since 1955 and cannot offhand recall hearing/reading of a single instance of any sailor being killed by lightning in all that time.

2. In our 1971 North Americans at Bronte Harbour (just west of Toronto), our 50+ boat fleet got caught in a severe thundersquall. W851, a wood W helmed by Ken Holloway of North Bay, suffered a direct hit while the crew, Ivar Zalitis, was in the act of pulling down the jib. Ivar told me that he was leaning right between the metal mast and the shroud, when they got hit! While the plywood topsides near the starboard shroud and near both ends of the metal spi pole which was lying along the longitudinal seats looked like they'd been hit with a sledgehammer, Ivar said that all he got was "tinglies".

So - If caught in a lightning storm, I sit well aft and try not to touch anything made of metal. Not much help, I imagine, but you have to admit that Ivar's true story is a good one! 

And speaking of which, my wife, Julia, and I were racing on Lake St. Clair in the 1980(?) North Americans when we got caught in a thunder squall which capsized us. At that time, it seemed a lot safer to just let SHADES lie on her side for a while until the worst of the lightning was gone, instead of sticking the mast back up as an invitation to the bolts!!!

Wishing you a great summer's sailing! Regards,

Uncle Al (W3854)

"Robinson, Paul" wrote:
Hi Al: Thanks for the info on the lightning.  By the way I have had another response as well from (Jesper Berggren in) Sweden after seeing your posting.  Boy, do things move fast! Thanks again.   
Paul Robinson

Below is the text from the email I received from Jesper.  It is similar to your comments although like you say it, by virtue of making the boat a better conductor might add to the risk of a hit. 

My thoughts are this: Carry cables (in my case all the time because thunderstorms out here on the prairies can appear in the weather conditions that should not support them - we have had snow and thunder/lightning here in Winnipeg on more than one occasion). 
If the thunderstorm is still at a distance and lightning activity is not great or you are near shore heading for a safe haven then save them (Al's note: jumper cables, etc?) because the risk of being hit remains relatively low (and why increase it?).  If the storm changes its nature or gets on top of you then the risk of being struck increases (bad situation) then put them in the water to reduce the impact of a strike.

I got your mail via Al Schonborn. ... I saw your question on what to do about thunderstorms when in a small sailng boat. Well, maybe this is nothing new to you . But in the very large archipelago of the Swedish Baltic coast (where we sometimes in late summer have some really serious thunderstorms) the normal procedure would be to attach halves of jump cables (if you cut them in halves a pair would take care of all metal rigging wire) to the steel rigging and just the end of the cables drop and drag in the water. This way you will have a conductor that will (in most cases) divert the lightning and instead of having your boat blown to splinters and getting hurt yourself, you may very well be in luck and end up just with some burns along the sails, the rigging and the sides of the boat.

Best regards,

Jesper Berggren
W 1047 (still under construction since me and my son inherited a wooden Ian Proctor late sixties-kit from my father three years ago)