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The Big Hit

The Big Hit — Maintenance April 2001
The Big Hit
Does your new boat have an adequate lightning-protection system? Well...

By Capt. Bill Pike
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• Part 1: The Big Hit
• Part 2: The Big Hit continued

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In my office I’ve got a floor-to-ceiling bookcase with a whole shelf of cherished books on marine subjects. At the serious end there’s Nathaniel Bowditch’s two-part American Practical Navigator with its small, dense print and maritime-academy language. At the not-so-serious end, there’s David Kasanof’s delightful From the Fo’c’s’le, a nifty volume of liveaboard stories, in some ways just as practical as Bowditch. In the middle are several books on safety at sea, some serious, some less so, but all with one disappointing defect: a tendency to be slightly misleading, or perhaps just behind the times, about protecting your boat from lightning strikes.

Not that Mother Nature has developed any new wrinkles lately. Lightning still results from the same physical laws and processes it did thousands of years ago. Friction between ice particles and water droplets moving more or less vertically creates huge buildups of oppositely charged particles within clouds. Compared to power lines, most of which max out at 12,000 volts or so, the electrical potential that exists between these celestial charges is epical, often 100,000,000 volts or more. These vast, escalating forces actually ionize the air around them, pulling electrons away from molecules, slowly and steadily infusing the atmosphere with electrically conductive properties, and ultimately sending forth great, jagged, 50,000°F bolts followed by supersonic, door-slamming thunder claps.

The damage that lightning does in the United States each year is certainly substantial, although there are few statistics for the marine realm. Some Gulf Coast states like Florida, and to a lesser extent Louisiana and Alabama, are undeniably more lightning-prone than other areas, particularly the West Coast. Indeed, statistics from Florida are attention-getting: Scientists at the University of Florida say the Sunshine State averages more than 10 deaths and 30 injuries from lightning each year. Moreover, while about half of these involve people engaged in recreational activities, 40 percent of the recreational incidents are water-related. Why water-related? Think about it. With no trees, church steeples, or other high structures as targets, a boat on a broad, flat, deserted bay or sound is a plain ol’ sitting duck.

The obvious fix is a lightning-protection system, although there’s an astounding amount of misinformation and confusion about the subject, much of it perpetuated by marine publications like the ones I’ve got in my office. One especially goofy bit of folklore holds that a properly installed, vertically oriented lightning-protection system will reduce the chances of a lightning strike. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, in the course of putting together this story, I learned from Florida-based marine insurance investigator and safety-standards expert Bob Loeser that many strikes he’s investigated over the years involved boats with properly installed lightning-protection systems. Loeser hastens to add, however, that the difference between having and not having a system is crystal-clear. “Except for electronics problems, I have never seen any substantive physical damage where a system was installed correctly,” he says. “Boats without systems are an entirely different matter, of course.”

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> The Big Hit continued > Page 1, 2

This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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