The Body Electric
- July 3rd, 2007
- in Yachting
The Body Electric – As the towering black clouds approach and the sound of thunder fills the air, the sailor who finds himself far from shelter might be tempted to cower below in his cabin, blankets pulled over his head in a bid to muffle the clap and crash of the electric frenzy bursting around his boat. Unless he has taken precautions to protect his vessel by electrically bonding the conductive parts of the boat, the mast, rigging, through-hulls, electronics and so forth (and even that is of debatable value) the prudent sailor must take precautions to protect himself and his crew from personal danger.
The primary objectives are first, to protect the lives and safety of all crewmembers and second, to protect the integrity of the vessel. Obviously, these purposes are closely entwined.
Unless there are urgent reasons for being above decks, all crew should gather below. Disconnect all electronics, particularly VHF radios and any other devices connected to an antenna, such as a GPS or radar. Smaller electronic items can be placed inside the oven or a microwave—the metallic enclosure can form a protective Faraday cage. Keep your hands off any items that might be bonded to the boat’s lightning protection circuit—such as the mast or the mast’s compression post. Remember that your body is an excellent conductor of electrical charge—better than wood or plastic—so lightning would prefer to travel through you than through your boat’s furnishings.
If your vessel is struck, check immediately for any damaged through-hulls. If they are bonded to the lightning protection system, they can blow out of the hull. This is one reason to have wooden plugs close by any through-hull (remember to keep them double bagged so they don’t get wet and expand before you get to use them).
The chances of getting struck by lightning are fairly small but the consequences are often dire. It’s best to be well prepared for any eventuality—including having a ditch bag prepared and making sure the crew knows exactly the location of all through-hulls and wooden plugs. One experienced sailor we know always travels with a pair of thick rubber gloves. He was once at the helm when the boat took a lightning strike through the mast. The current traveled through the system until it reached the wheel where it shocked him off his feet. Now, when the air is electric, he pulls on his gloves (and rubber boots, too, if they’re available).