— May 2003
By Ben Ellison
|Part 2: Another approach to lightning protection is to run away from it.|
This uncertainty is echoed by a representative of the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC). The organization has modified its specifications for an LPS in recent years and says there will likely be more changes in the future. The existing standard calls for an "air terminal," or lightning rod, as high above the boat as possible, connected via heavy conductor to a ground plate or strip on the hull bottom. All major metal objects and electronics should be bonded to this ground. A boat advertised as built to ABYC standards does not necessarily have such an LPS, which is not mandatory. While the ABYC and Thomson agree that an LPS will help lead a strike's massive power safely out of the boat, hopefully with a minimum of the "side flashes" that can also hurt people and electronics, both are emphatic that there are no guarantees. The primary goal of the ABYC specs is protection of humans, not electronics. NMEA and ABYC intend to work together toward a more comprehensive electronics protection standard, and Thomson has a private company (www.marinelightning.com) that is developing a device to channel side flashes away from sensitive areas. It's also worth noting that Thomson is currently conducting a survey of powerboaters who have experienced lightning strikes, and should you be so qualified, you can help advance the science at his university site, www.thomson.ece.ufl.edu/lightning.
Another approach to lightning protection is to run away from it, and there are some gadgets that can help. One is StrikeAlert, a pager-like device that hears lightning's RF disturbances and lights a series of LEDs indicating range up to about 40 miles. Apparently it will indicate whether strikes are approaching or going away, but will not give you any information as to the lightning's bearing. It costs about $80 (719-536-9990, www.strikealert.com). A much more sophisticated system is the Boltek Storm Tracker, a directional antenna and decoder that works with PC software that can map lightning strikes over a 300-mile radius. Models start at $500 (905-734-8045, www.boltek.com). This product is not specifically designed for marine use; actually many users have it set up as part of amateur weather stations connected to the Web, and you may find a useful nearby station at www.weathermatrix.com.
Of course, approaching thunderstorms are often quite visible to the naked eye, with the lightning potential in their famously tall, dark, anvil-shape clouds frequently proportional to their drama. Some skippers adjust their long-range radar to maximize rain clutter and can thus track even embedded and/or distant activity. But as to our correspondent's habit of staying in port when thunderstorms are predicted...well, I suspect he's erring on the side of caution, as weather forecasters often do.
Of course, it's wise to stay sharp and have a plan. Getting to a mooring, disconnecting electronics, getting folks inside and away from metal objects--all these moves can help. But ultimately it's about risk management, a topic perhaps too much on the collective mind these days. There's so much to worry about--including, at this writing, idiot rock bands and security guards--that even a powerful, unpredictable force of nature seems to pale in comparison. My advice: learn about lightning and take care, but--for Thor's sake--go boating.
This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.