Boats, especially those with metal masts or other tall metal structures, make for an attractive target for an impact of lightning at sea, especially if they’re the tallest object in a large body of water.
However, the term “grounded” doesn’t mean the same thing in the context of lightning protection as it does for electrical systems in a home or building. On land, “grounding” means connecting an electrical system to earth to prevent voltage spikes. But for a boat on the water, it’s a little different.
While a boat can provide a path for lightning to reach the ground (or in this case, the water), and while it’s possible to install a system intended to protect the boat from lightning, there is no guarantee. Lightning is a powerful force of nature and can be unpredictable in its effects.
Understanding the power of lightning at sea
Lightning, a marvel of nature’s arsenal, a spectacle we admire from the shore, has a different meaning for the ships that sail the seas and oceans of the world.
These vast bodies of water, covering 70% of our planet, are the scene of much of the globe’s lightning strikes. An estimated 40-50 lightning bolts per second.
These numbers pose a real danger to those who live or work at sea.
The elemental fury of lightning can strike anywhere. But on the open sea, a solitary vessel inadvertently represents the path of least resistance for the pent-up electrical energy that wants to discharge.
The spectacle is fascinating, but underneath the light show lurks a certain danger.
Vessels, whether cargo ships or private yachts, are exposed to the effects of these lightning strikes. The risks range from instantaneous, catastrophic damage to long-term problems that can affect the vessel’s safety and functionality of the vessel.
The science of lightning at sea: how vessels attract strikes
At its heart, a lightning strike is essentially a high-energy transfer of electrical charge triggered by an unstable equilibrium in our atmosphere. When the accumulation of charged particles in the thunderclouds reaches a critical threshold, it attempts to restore the equilibrium by discharging toward the ground.
But why do yachts often become the unwilling recipients of this volatile atmospheric story?
It’s a simple matter of location, structure, and materials. Amidst the open expanse of the ocean, devoid of tall, grounded structures, a vessel stands out like a beacon.
Especially its mast.
The mast rises above the water’s surface providing an unobstructed path for that electrical discharge.
This attraction between lightning and vessels is enhanced by the conductive properties of the elements that make them up.
Seawater, with its dissolved salts, is an excellent conductor of electricity. In parallel, the metals commonly used in shipbuilding, such as steel and aluminium, further favour this effect.
It seems that these factors create a perfect environment for a lightning strike.
Understanding is the first step to protecting vessels and the passengers on board.
Safety measures after a lightning at sea
An effective response plan is critical to safety and survival immediately following a lightning strike.
The safety of the crew takes precedence over all other concerns. Quick, calm, and efficient action is required to assess potential injuries and provide immediate first aid.
Once crew safety is assured, attention must quickly turn towards assessing the condition of the vessel.
Key operational systems must be checked to ensure they’re functioning properly, with the main focus on navigation, propulsion and communications equipment, as these may be directly affected by the surge.
Most importantly, one must be aware of the potential fire hazard posed by a lightning strike. The intense heat generated by a lightning strike can ignite combustible materials on board or cause electrical fires.
Training in emergency procedures, first aid and firefighting methods can enable crew members to respond effectively and turn the tide in favour of survival and recovery.
What lightning damage can mean for your vessel
While the visible damage may be significant, it’s often just the tip of the problem a vessel may face. Beneath the surface, a lightning strike at sea can have far-reaching effects that affect the vessel’s ability to operate long after the storm has passed.
One of the most significant areas of concern after a lightning strike is the vessel’s navigation and communication systems.
These critical systems rely heavily on electronic components which are particularly susceptible to the high voltage delivered by a lightning strike. The electrical surge can cause immediate failure of these systems or, worse, cause more subtle, intermittent problems that only become apparent over time.
Such disruptions can lead to unpredictable navigation inaccuracies and interfere with vital communications with coastal stations, other vessels, and satellites.
In addition, the effects of a lightning strike can show up over time as corrosion and structural weakening, especially if the strike leads to tiny fractures or ‘pinholes’ in the vessel’s hull or superstructure.
Settlement of insurance claims after a lightning strike
In the wake of a lightning strike, the path to compensation is often paved with paperwork.
It’s at these moments that the true value of hull insurance becomes apparent, providing a financial safety net against the cost of repair or replacement.
The first step in this process typically involves enlisting the expertise of a maritime broker or a surveyor.
These professionals in maritime insurance are equipped with the skills and knowledge to conduct a thorough examination of the vessel and determine and document the extent and nature of the lightning-induced damage. Their impartial assessment forms the basis for the insurance claim and provides a representation of the damage incurred.
However, manoeuvring through the insurance claims, process is not without its challenges. Insurance policies can be a complicated web of clauses, conditions and exclusions, each of which can affect the outcome of the claim. A solid understanding of the insurance policy’s provisions, combined with detailed documentation of the event and its consequences, is crucial.
In essence, the claims process is a journey of patience and vigilance that involves an interplay of evaluation, documentation and negotiation. Successfully navigating this process can make the difference between a quick recovery and a drawn-out ordeal, which underscores the importance of being well-versed in the terms of your insurance policy.
The power of prevention: equip your vessel against lightning strikes
Just as an experienced sailor respects the unpredictability of the sea, he should also be mindful of the whims of the weather.
An integral part of this is understanding and mitigating the threat posed by lightning. While no strategy can completely eliminate the risk, preventive measures can significantly reduce the potential for damage.
Lightning protection systems, while always a subject of debate, have proven effective in many instances. These systems operate on the principle that they provide a direct, low-resistance path for lightning to conduct the electrical charge away from sensitive areas and safely into the water. Such a mechanism helps reduce the risk of vessel damage and fire ignition.
An essential component of a vessel’s lightning protection is a robust grounding system. By connecting the mast and other tall metal structures to the sea, a grounding system dissipates electrical charge, further lessening the likelihood of serious damage.
In addition to grounding, surge protectors, which act like gatekeepers, block or divert excessive voltage surges to prevent them from reaching and damaging electronic systems on board.
While these measures cannot guarantee absolute immunity from lightning strikes, they can mitigate the associated risks.
The key lies in the adage – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, reminding us that if we take proactive measures now, we can help protect our vessel, and those on board when the skies turn stormy.
We at Yacht-pool are very familiar with these types of accidents and incidents and are happy to assist you. Contact us if you need advice or have any questions.