Copper is always part of the solution for marine lightning protection!
By Frank Ross
The thrill of plying through storm-tossed waves, driven by winds that keep canvas sails pulled taught can change from thrill to chill when the familiar crack of lightning illuminates the sky. Like many things in our lives, under the right circumstances a positive characteristic can transition from blessing to bane in a matter of minutes.
Sailing is a relaxing, and sometimes exhilarating experience, driven by the silent power of wind; but the nature of these boats is limited speed. When a storm blows in quickly you can’t outrun it. In fact, there isn’t much on the water that you can outrun in a sailboat. However, the real downside on the majority of boats under sail is the tall aluminum mast is basically a bobbing lightning rod. The mast is secured to the bow, stern and both sides by stainless steel cables. It that’s not enough to set your teeth on edge, stainless steel handrails surround the boat, you and your passengers. And, to further enhance your odds of illumination, if yours is the only sailboat in the area, your mast is definitely the tallest lightning rod for many square miles.
As you’re estimating the distance to safe harbor and making mental measurements of the approaching storm’s speed, you might consider the statistics and find comfort in the fact that BoatU.S. Insurance survey numbers indicate that for every 1,000 boats in the US, only 6 per year are hit by lightning. Then, when you recall that there are well over 150,000 sailboats in the US and you could become one of 900 to feel the jolt this year, you regret not having taken more precautions.
US Boat insures a lot of watercraft, and their experience with lightning damage is extensive. Their figures indicate that after single-hulled sailboats, multi-hull sailboats, such as catamarans and trimarans are the next most likely to suffer a lightning strike (.5% Five out of 1000), followed by trawlers (.3% Three out of 1000), sail only (.2% Two out of 1000), cruisers (.1% One out of 1000) and runabouts (.02% Two out of 10,000).
To make matters worse, these floating lightning rods are sitting in water which is an excellent conductor of electricity. Although you may reduce the odds of your boat being struck in a marina, surrounded by other masts, do you really want to take a chance. In a direct strike, lightning follows the path of least resistance to the best ground, blowing out fiberglass around watertight seals and sometimes large holes through the hull. Even boats without a tall mast are at risk if they are moored next to a sailboat or a tall pole used to supply power and lighting to the dock area. Lightning can blow out horizontally to a nearby grounding source and damage multiple boats with one strike. Following a severe lightning storm, boat owners often find they have a craft with extensive electrical damage, compounded by saltwater intrusion, sitting on the bottom of the bay. It’s a heartbreaking experience that a good marine lightning protection system could prevent.
In my younger days, I spent many a blissful day sailing with an old salt who worked as a radio engineer to support his sailing habit. He maintained several radio and television towers, located in the bay area just East of Tampa, Florida; an area that is often referred to as the lightning capital of the North America. Each year, Florida averages 10 deaths and 30 injuries, with many of them occurring in the Tampa Bay area.
With his professional background and all of this exposure to lightning, Warren’s philosophy both on and off the water was absolute; never take chances. He had an elaborate system for grounding his mast to his lead keel and disconnecting his electronics when skies threatened. But his best rule was don’t hesitate, get off the water at the first sign of bad weather. Dockside, his marina lightning protection system was two heavy grounding wires that ran from a grounding post on the mast, into the water on both sides of his boat. Inside the cabin, he always disconnected everything electrical, including the connections to the engine compartment. Although his “iron sail” was diesel powered, there is always the danger of fire in a direct strike, and even more so with gasoline engines.
If you love to sail and have been considering the proper way to protect your investment, an article in Seaworthy, a magazine published on the BoatU.S. Web site should be of interest. It discusses all of the issues involved in building a good marine lightning protection system.
Once you’ve read the article, Understanding Lightning Protection, you’ll notice that copper grounding bars and wiring are recommended throughout. Get your plan together and give the helpful staff at Storm Copper a call at 1-866-716-9773, or log onto their Web site for a complete listing of everything necessary for building a first class copper grounding system.
With a quality copper lightning protection system installed in your boat, you’ll not only feel safer on the water, you’ll be safer.
Just remember Warren’s No. 1 rule. When you see a storm on the horizon, don’t hesitate ~ RUN!