Lightning strikes while sailing: top tips on staying safe
November 2, 2023

How to stay safe when lightning strikes while sailing

Topsail News

Whether a seasoned mariner or just starting to dip your toes into the world of sailing, you’ve probably heard that old adage: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” But what about when the sky turns electric blue, and the hair on your arms stands on end? In this article, we are talking about the dangers of lightning strikes while sailing. So, what should you know about lightning strikes, and how can you keep yourself and your crew safe? Let’s find out.

There’s something mesmerising about the open sea – the vast expanse, the salty breeze, and the sense of freedom. But out there, nature has a way of reminding us who’s in charge, and one of its most terrifying reminders is lightning. Lightning is a powerful force of nature and the combination of water and a tall metal mast makes sailboats lightning magnets. A direct strike can have devastating consequences; when lightning strikes a vessel, it can cause significant damage to the mast, electronic systems, and potentially start a fire onboard. Worse yet, it can injure or even kill those on board with the open water providing little protection from lightning.

Whilst you can’t control the weather, there are steps you can take to minimise the risk:

Monitor the Weather: Before you set sail, keep a close eye on weather reports. If thunderstorms are on the horizon, it’s best to postpone your trip or stay close to shore. Most smartphones and marine radios offer weather updates, so use them to your advantage.

Lightning Protection: Ensure your boat is equipped with lightning protection systems, like lightning rods, grounding plates, and bonding systems. These can help direct lightning safely into the water without causing significant damage.

Down-rigging Antennas: If you have any tall antennas or mast-mounted instruments, consider lowering or disconnecting them when a storm approaches. Unplug any sensitive electronics to avoid damage.

Stay Informed: Brush up on your knowledge of first aid and emergency procedures. Familiarise yourself with distress signals, emergency radio channels, and how to use your onboard safety equipment.

Create a Lightning Safety Plan: Make sure everyone on board knows what to do in case of a lightning storm. Assign tasks, such as donning life jackets, securing loose items, and manning the radio. Make sure you do a test run before setting sail to ensure everyone knows what they need to do.

Sailing is an adventure that comes with its share of risks, but with proper preparation, caution, and knowledge of what to do in an emergency, you can significantly reduce the risk to yourself and your crew. Having a safety plan, ensuring you have the required safety equipment onboard, and thoroughly monitoring the weather could make a huge difference to your sailing journey. Sometimes though, despite taking all precautions, you might find yourself in the midst of a lightning storm.

Here’s some suggestions of steps to take should you find yourself in this situation:

Stay Calm: Panic won’t help anyone. Keep your wits about you and remain as calm as possible, ensuring others on board are kept informed and know what to do.

Radio for Help: If possible, use your marine radio to send a distress call and your GPS coordinates. Rescue services should be alerted as soon as possible. Use distress signals such as flares or emergency beacons to alert nearby vessels that you’re in trouble.

Turn Off Electronics: Shut down all electronic equipment to minimize the risk of a surge damaging your systems.

Don Life Jackets: Ensure that everyone on board is wearing a life jacket. This is the first line of defence in case you have to abandon ship.

Avoid Metal Objects: Stay away from metal objects, such as the mast and rigging. Lightning is more likely to travel through these conductive materials.

Shelter in the Cabin: Move everyone into the cabin, away from the deck and any metal parts of the boat. If your vessel doesn’t have a cabin, instruct everyone to crouch down in the center of the boat, making themselves as small as possible to minimise exposure. Avoid touching any metal surfaces and maintain a safe distance from others.

Remember, safety should always come first on board. Lightning may be a formidable force of nature, but with the right precautions and a cool head, you can minimise the risks and ensure that you and your crew return to port safely. Prevention and preparedness are the best strategies when it comes to lightning strikes while sailing; keeping a keen eye on weather forecasts, investing in lightning protection systems, and having a solid understanding of what to do in an emergency can significantly increase the safety of everyone on board.

So, the next time you see those storm clouds rolling in, remember these tips and be prepared to ride the storm – and not let it ride you.

If you’re looking for insurance for your offshore sailing, do not hesitate to contact us – we have access to a range of insurers for your Yacht insurance, including those that will consider coverage in the Caribbean and further afield.

And have you heard about our Yachtsman’s Travel insurance? Our policies can cover long-term, offshore sailing as well as taking part in trips such as the ARC or World ARC. Find out more here: Yachtsman’s Travel Insurance.

A large white boat is in the water.