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Thunderstorm Safety


Richard N

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For some unknown reason, an important thunderstorm safety option is overlooked in the kayak world.

My opinion:

When kayaking, one of the safest places during a thunder storm is to be parked next to a sail boat (over 30 ft) or next to a large vessel or power boat that has a flying bridge and/or long metal outriggers in the up position. It could be safer than being in your home or automobile.

Since all vessels with electronic equipment and metal fittings (stays, etc.) have a grounding system built into the boat that bonds (connects) all electronics and steel, any lightening hitting the vessel has the charge directed deep into the water through a grounding plate located on the bottom of the hull.

Because the highest point on the larger vessel acts as a lightening rod, the higher the mast the greater the radius (umbrella) of protection from lightening.

If you're kayaking along the coast and a large vessel is nearby, my feeling is that it's much safer to raft up next to a large boat than it is to head toward the shore.

Examples:

1. If you're at or near Misery Island and a thunder storm approaches, you would be safer in your boat (kayak), rafted next to a larger vessel moored in picnic cove than if you were anywhere on the island.

2. During the summer months, sail and power boats are anchored and moored all long the coast. When a thunder storm approaches, the best option is to head toward and raft up next to large boats that may be moored or anchored nearby.

During my boating days, when the possibility of lightning existed, I would always try to be next to the tallest boat in the harbor. The big guys always take the hit. I referred to the practice as "extra insurance".

Any objective comments you might have on this subject will be greatly appreciated.

Richard N

Living to learn.

Romany, White with Blue trim

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"During my boating days, when the possibility of lightning existed, I would always try to be next to the tallest boat in the harbor. The big guys always take the hit."

No I will not paddle with you during a thunder storm and no I do not want to try out your new aluminum spare paddle! :-)

There is a lot on info out there on thunder storm safety, this best info I got was when I took my WFR class. All those details like what size caves are safe and what ones are dangerous.

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Cone of Protection from Lightning - Faraday's Cage

[http://www.boatsafe.com/nauticalknowhow/lightning.htm]

Like all dangerous situations, the devil is always in the details.

I'm not suggesting that this procedure is 100% guaranteed protection.

I am saying that you greatly improve your odds by taking advantage of legitimate lightening protection systems found on larger boats.

Although you may be within a protected area, you should still recognize and respect all the obvious rules regarding safety around electricity.

Anyone who has spent a great amount of time on the water will be able to relate many frightening stories where lightening struck a boat and nothing else happened.

Rafting vs being spread out.

If you have a small group, spreading out and hovering very close to the larger vessel would be ideal. With a large group, you may need to raft up to stay within the "cone of protection".

If anyone has a carbon or metal paddle, toss it away and let it float near your boat. Also, I would not dangle my hands or any conductive material in the water and I would not hold or paddle with a carbon or metal paddle.

Do not hold onto ANY metal portions of the larger vessel.

The important point to remember is that lightening will be attracted to the highest point on the larger vessel and will take a direct path into the water.

And, that the protected area is a 45 degree angle down from the highest point and 360 degrees around the larger vessel.

Richard N

Living to learn.

Romany, White with Blue trim

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The books I have on lightning, including "Lightning Strikes" by Jeff Renner, The Mountaineers Books says to avoid tall, isolated objects. This is consistant with pictures I have seen of poles and trees being struck. The lightning doesn't just hit the tall object. Pieces of the bolt diverge and hit nearby objects that are shorter. Also, as the charge travels down the object, bolts come off the object and strike objects nearby.

I know that I was in a nasty storm in a pine forest once. I was in a parked car, so I wasn't too concerned, but a tree less than 20 feet away was hit. A good sized bolt came off of the tree and hit the pavement in front of our car. It was very impressive and sent some asphalt flying. Then I was REALLY glad I had stayed in the car.

Perhaps Jeff Casey can explain why.

-Dee

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Can one of the trip leader trainers answer this very serious issue for the membership?

What do you instruct people to do in this situation. This is not a thing to have an "opinion" on. This is a time to have some very good facts and make sound decisions.

Personally I'd just paddle all out to get to shore, but maybe that's not a good idea ?

I've never heard of a paddler being struck out in the open, isolated. Does anyone know of a factual, document case of padders out in the open water being struck? With a head height of just 3 feet above water, you're not a very big target when out in the open. Once you place yourself next to a tall target, it seems the current might arch from the mast to take multiple routes to the water.

So, what's the real answer?

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>

>Can one of the trip leader trainers answer this very serious

>issue for the membership?

>

>What do you instruct people to do in this situation. This is

>not a thing to have an "opinion" on. This is a time to have

>some very good facts and make sound decisions.

>

Right from the notes distributed for the "Safety on the Water" module:

Find a Safe Landing

Get away from the water

Get away from tall isolated objects

Get away from the boats and leave your paddles

Get out of the open

If this is unavoidable, assume crouch position

The reason for getting away from the boats is because of the wind. Karen Gladstone can attest to how high and far wind from a thunderstorm can toss a loaded boat. The Lightning Strikes book I mentioned has a chapter on the risks of wind that is as long as the chapter on the risks of being struck.

Given the terrain of most of our impromptu landing spots, it seems that our best option would probably be nestled down between some big boulders surrounded by other big boulders.

-Dee

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Richard, your observation is really interesting, but it's a frankly a little scary, mainly because I don't fully understand it. (Physics always does this to me.) Two cents' worth of questions on the subject from me anyway: a penny each, specific and general.

*

First, the specific. The link you gave about Faraday indicated that everything metal in the boat has to be wired together into a conductive unit or "cage," providing the lightning with a single, uninterrupted path to the water. The article encourages mariners to protect themselves and get this wiring done, if it's not already installed (which I read to mean that NOT all boats have it). It also says, "The voltages are so massive that if they start to travel through a boat's structure - say through its mast - then meet with high resistance (for instance, the hull skin) the current discharge, in its attempt to reach ground, may simply blow a hole in the non-conductive barrier." Hmmm. So, my question: if (as the article implies) some boats DON'T have this grounding system installed, how do we know which tall boat to paddle up to, given the possible consequences of choosing wrong? As your post said, the devil is in the details; you seemed to be suggesting that we need to be looking for specific types of boat features -- flying bridge, long metal outriggers in up position -- okay, I'm a dummy, what do these things look like? It just doesn't sound simple to me (or am I missing something?)

**

My second question is more generally meteorological, regarding the role the ground (or water) plays in lightning strikes, and what bearing that may have on our decisions. We generally think of lightning as DOWN -- it hits the ground, don't let it hit you. But in his NSPN weather class, John Huth noted that most of a lightning bolt's charge is FROM the ground -- the ground's response, with the ground supplying much more power. Other weather references corroborate this. The following is culled from a couple of sources:

The first stroke begins with what is called a stepped leader, which seeks out a path of least resistance ... when the leader gets NEAR the ground, it draws a streamer of positive charge upward from the ground. As the leader and streamer come together, a powerful electrical current begins flowing. This contact begins the return stroke, an intense wave of positive charge traveling upward along the ionized path that the stepped leader created. This return stroke moves much quicker and it is this stroke that is visible to the human eye. This stroke usually comes from where the positive charge is the greatest on the ground below the cloud. (The sources cite protruding objects as an example, and crouching versus lying down as a way of minimizing the amount of positive ground charge you're concentrating and offering to the sky.)

So, there seems to be a great deal of UP in lightning, with the ground -- and the concentrations of charge in it -- playing an active role. A revelation to me, and I'm wondering if this puts the "why's" of selecting one's choice of hiding place (on land or at sea) in a slightly different perspective. But I'm not weather-wise enough to understand what implications it may have ... if John Huth is out there, I'd love to have him weigh in with an opinion or clarification.

Meanwhile, until I understand this option better, I think I'd rather take advantage of tall boats by being a short, small object at a modest distance from them, close enough to give the lightning a better choice but safely away.

Anyway, my two questions for what they're worth, input welcome ...

Judy

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Ken:

First, the club does not have a policy on lightning in the sense that the board has approved it.

The trip leader program has taught a standard kayaking protocol, which boils down to one basic rule: get off the water and stay off until the danger has passed. There is no "official" rule for when danger is over, but we teach the informal 30-30 rule: don't go back on the water until 30 minutes after the last time you counted 30 seconds between the lightning and the sound of thunder (which implies 6 miles away). The theory is a strike can happen at least five miles from a storm. (In practice, almost anything can and will happen. We're playing the odds here.)

Trip leaders are taught to call off a trip if the National Weather Service predicts thunderstorms and that happens fairly regularly (several trips a season). There are no protocol or cutoff if the prediction is "X% chance of thunderstorms". Ultimately, the club depends on the trip leader makes a judgment call when to put in or get off the water, weighing all the factors. That's the only official club policy I know of.

The other protocol we've taught is that if you're caught on the water, spread the paddlers out (say at least 100 feet apart) instead of rafting up. This will not reduce the risk of a strike, but rather increase the chance that someone is still alive to call a May Day if a paddler is hit.

In trip leader training several years ago, I believe we did repeat the theory of a cone of safety near a tall object. Frankly, today I would mention it either to debunk it or describe it as a long shot. The fact is, no one knows: maybe it really does work.

That's the past and current state of the club approach to lightning risk, as far as I understand it.

As for the theories:

The main reason to get off the water is that there are almost always better options to avoid a strike on land compared with water. The theories of how to avoid strikes on the water are mostly untested and in some case quite fanciful (see Derek Hutchinson's really silly and untested design for a kayak mounted lightning rod in his early books). So, with all due respect to Richard, the only time to consider on-water options is when there is no way to get off the water.

For example, I've told the story of sitting in a cove surrounded by a 100 foot cliff in a thunderstorm with 21 paddlers. When a woman's 18" hair was standing on end (pre-strike ionization), some of us positioned ourselves about 100 feet (i.e. 45 degrees) from the cliff and spread out. (And made a point to get far away from the electrified lady). There was no place to land; the only way out was to paddle back around a point and almost a mile down an exposed coast to the nearest takeout. We avoided the numerous caves in the cliff on the theory that a strike might travel down the wet cliff face into the cave. The point is there were no reasonable options to get off the water, so we entered into the realm of "better than nothing".

To my knowledge, there are no proven methods for reducing risk for kayakers; most are based on untested applications of observations or electrical principles. The Coast Guard and many safety publications have guidelines, but they are more common sense than demonstrated ways to reduce risk.

Personally, I think that the forces involved in lightning are so huge that they overwhelm the efforts of paddlers and the particulars of a given setting, making the strike path close to random if not a complete crap shoot. I'd love to see some tested observations or theories, but I don't think they are out there.

The only advice I'd take as reliable is to stay indoors or inside a vehicle. But I knew a girl who was reading in her bedroom and saw a bolt blow a foot wide patch of plaster off the wall, travel across the ceiling and exit through the opposite corner of the room (she was unhurt). And then there were the boaters who took refuge in a WWII concrete bunker/watch tower on a Maine island several years ago and got hit when a strike traveled through the wet structure. As I remember, one died and the other was seriously injured. Like I said, the mismatch between the magnitude of the voltages and the particulars of the situation make it capricious in practice if not random in fact.

Beyond the risk of a hit, there is a second reason to get off the water. The wind and waves during a thunderstorm, particularly the kind on a fast moving cold front, are at least as dangerous to a kayaker as the risk of lightning.

Scott

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Great info Scott.

What I learned about taking shelter in caves had to do with the depth of the cave versus the opening of the cave. The theory being that if the cave is deep enough the voltage would jump across the opening because that is the shorter path to ground. If the cave is shallow the voltage will flow through the cave.

Of course this is all theory and fortunetely I haven't had to test it, I would much rather retreat to the safety of my car.

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Judy:

Very good questions!

Using the cone of protection around a large vessel is being suggested as an option to help diminish the odds of being injured by lightening. It's just another arrow (option) to keep in your knowledge quiver.

>So, my question: if (as the article implies) some boats DON'T have this grounding system

>installed, how do we know which tall boat to paddle up to, given the possible consequences

>of choosing wrong?

1. Like a tall building or isolated tree, large vessels in the water are prone to lightening strikes. It's a sitting duck! Because large vessels are expensive the owners have property damage and liability insurance. Insurance companies require proper bonding before issuing a policy. What are the odds of a large vessel not having insurance when the odds of it being hit by lightening are high?

Flying Bridge

"A small, usually open platform located above the main bridge, as on a powerboat, equipped with a secondary set of navigational controls"

[http://powerandmotoryacht.com/december05/PMYP-051200-CV-1.jpg]

Boat with Flying Bridge and Outriggers

[http://newimages.yachtworld.com/1/4/1/6/5/1416596_7.jpg]

>My second question

>We generally think of lightning as DOWN -- it hits the ground, don't let it hit

>you. But in his NSPN weather class, John Huth noted that most of a

>lightning bolt's charge is FROM the ground -- the ground's response, with

>the ground supplying much more power. So, there seems to be a great deal >of UP in lightning, with the ground -- and the concentrations of charge in it --

>playing an active role. A revelation to me, and I'm wondering if this puts the >"why's" of selecting one's choice of hiding place (on land or at sea) in a

>slightly different perspective.

2. The bonded system addresses this very issue.

References to ion discharge (dissipation) are noted throughout the following page.

[http://www.bayacht.com/aaa/nl-artic/lightng/lightart.htm]

Richard N

Living to learn.

Romany, White with Blue trim

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Judy - John's away for a bit but sure he will weigh in when he is back in town.

Personally, I will take my chance away from the big boats and certainly NOT rafted up and touching them.

I am thinking back to a particularly nasty storm that blew in out at Pavilion last year, I was more concered with the winds and my inability to control my boat in them than I was with the lighting. I think the best bet is to be proactive and learn to recognize the signs and get off the water in advance.

Suz

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Just a thought---if a larger vessesl was anchored where you could get next to it to avoid the lightening hitting you, wouldn't you be close enough to shore to get there before the storm hits--and wouldn't you be better off ashore than just about anywhere on the water in a kayak?

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Years ago, when I was living in the D.C. area

and fished a lot, I (and the person with me)

received a real scare while on the water. We

were in the Patuxent River miles away from

the ramp we used to put in. Didn't have a

radio on, so we were caught by surprise when

conditions made us aware of a storm about on

top of us. The river at that point is about

2 miles or so wide. We were maybe a thousand

yards from the western shore. The storm came

from over the low hills in that same direction

hence the suddeness of our plight. We were 50

yards from the Benedict bridge, which at this

stage of the tide gave us enough room to get

our 22' Searay cuddy cabin under the bridge. I

was able to set two anchors so as to keep us

under there and "safe". Bridge is maybe 5'

above my outstretched hand from the boat's

deck if I were to try and touch it. All before

the storm. When the storm hit with the

torrential rain, we knew immediately we were in

big trouble, as I anchored under a sluice (drain

for the roadway above) and the boat was rapidly

filling with water. So, abandoning both anchors,

we drove out from under and swung back thru a

space between bridge piers and went under again

where there was no drainage. I had to face the

wind and try to use the engine to stay underneath

and out of the rain and wind. Couldn't be done.

Too much wind. Had to come out again.

This time, we had a bolt hit about 20' or so

away. Words won't do justice. It flat out scared

the bejesus out of us. Our ears rang for almost a

week.

Thing is, the bolt hit the water VERY close to

our boat. We were within maybe 50' of the bridge.

BUT, we were also only about 50 or so feet from

the red nun marking the channel. A STEEL nun

about 8 feet high, anchored with a steel chain

and soaking wet from the storm.

Why, I still ask myself, didn't the nun or the

bridge get hit instead? We were just about half-

way between the two. Answer? I don't know. And

the fiberglass boat is perhaps why I am here to

tell the tale.

Utterly random. And unpredictable.

You won't catch me on the water if there are

conditions for something like that ever again.

By the way, I got back under the bridge and

tore the hell out of the rub strips on both

sides of the boat and didn't care a whit at

that point.

Just as an aside, most folks know that an AM

radio is an excellent early warning device for

electrical discharges. I almost always had one

turned on in the boat, but not that day.

Sparky.

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>"......the big guys always take the hit."

>No I will not paddle with you during a thunder storm and no

>I do not want to try out your new aluminum spare paddle! :-)

LOL

OK "big guy".

Have it your way!

During a thunderstorm, if you promise to hold your new carbon paddle in the water, I'll promise to stay clear, cover my ears and just snap a few flashy photos.

;-)

(For those who don't know Michael C., he's a mighty big dude and tall enough to eat beans off my head.)

Richard N

Living to learn.

Romany, White with Blue trim

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Several years ago in a wfa class the instructer spoke about lightening and said there was a higher chance of the lightening hitting on the shore area. IE: That strip of shore 50'-100' feet wide.

He believed it better to get further from shore while still avoiding large trees.........

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As luck would have it, there's an internet connection here. But, the surf's calling and I can't go through all of this. A few physics points:

1.) The lightning rod is a design by Ben Franklin. "pointy" structures tend to have large charge concentrations and large electric fields. When the field gets high enough, the air begins to become ionized - this immediately opens up a conduction path - much like a wire. Tall trees and structures often are hit because they offer up the largest, isolated, collection of charge and hence are the first place to see breakdowns of the air when there's a large buildup of charge.

Franklin invented the lightning rod as a very pointy metallic object to put on the top of steeples, etc. The idea is that the "pointiness" is so sharp that there is huge electric field, making a nearly a continual discharge, and it doesn't allow the charge build-up in a normal steeple. Without it, one would tend to get a very large charge build-up, then an instability, then a bolt. The lightning rod provides, in a sense, a continual electrical discharge - a lot of very tiny lightning bolts, rather than one massive one.

2.) Unless a boat is equipped with a real lightning rod, it's subject to the possibility of a large charge build-up. If you're near a boat that gets a discharge, it's anyone's quess what the path would be, but I think it would scare the daylights out of me, even if I wasn't in a conduction path. I'd stay away.

3.) Shallow caves or shallow overhangs: avoid them - frequently the path to ground will arc over the top of a cave and will find a conduction path through the cave or overhang.

4.) Someone pointed out the random nature of strikes - this is true, up to a point. There are structures that tend to collect charge, and it's not always easy to see the conduction paths - depending on how much seawater might be sloshing onto a buoy, or how wet a surface one might have.

More when I get back

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Some more thoughts:

Lightning occurs because the clouds acquire a large positive charge on top, and negative charge on the bottom. The convection/condensation of large updrafts feeds this.

On the ground, positive charges are attracted to the negative charges on the cloud bottom. The charges tend to congregate most on "pointy" structures.

The potential difference between the ground and a cloud can get past 1 million volts, and depending on the geography and other factors, the charge concentration can get to be high enough to make electric fields that will ionize air.

Once you get into this situation, the chances of a breakdown, making a charge channel out of ionized air is very high, and pretty unstable. For someone making apparatus that runs at high voltages, this can be particularly annoying, as it's difficult to eliminate little points that will periodically arc over.

The lightning rod will work for continual discharge. St. Elmo's fire is a variation where the pointiness of the masts of sailing vessels would make a continual discharge into the air, neutralizing the charge. Here, a low current that feeds from the ocean into the masts and into the air provides a slow release of charge.

In other cases, the charge may build up until the field gets very high, and then, suddenly, the charge channel will open up, and a very high current bolt of lightning will occur. In this latter case, the actual conduction channels are much more dicey. They can arc over all sorts of structures, and take funny paths.

In the case of a sailing vessel or boat with outriggers, I wouldn't count on a lightning rod effect, although I suppose you could outfit them with lightning rods. The ends of the masts are usually rounded and have some kind of pulley on them for the sails, so I don't think these would act like lightning rods, and would tend to be more of the variety that would build up charge and then have a large bolt, in which case, there are no guarantees about the conduction path to the water.

In the case of a shallow cave, you're getting an arc down the face of a cliff, and it frequently arcs over the faces of shallow caves.

I hope this helps.

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Hello John:

Hopefully this discussion is not interfering with your good times in Jamaica.

#1......Enjoy your vacation.

Obviously we value your expertise in this area and welcome your objective comments on this very controversial subject.

The link below, although a commercial website, will give you an indication of the detailed attention boat owners and insurance companies give to the importance of safety during thunderstorms.

[http://www.marinelightning.com/index.html]

It should be pointed out that the company is attempting to convince others that their patented system is superior to traditional bonding and/or grounding systems incorporated into large vessels.

Problem:

You are on the water when suddenly you hear thunder and see lightening.

A large sailing vessel is moored close to your current position.

Heading toward land will have you paddling on the water, exiting your boat at the shore line and running off the beach during the height of the storm.

Granted: accepted wisdom is to get off of the water as quickly as possible.

Although, emotionally we have no good options, hovering next to the "mother ship" may be safer than the obvious dangers associated with racing toward shore, exiting at the water line and seeking a safe position or location during the storm.

The BIG Question: do we seek shelter next to the large sailboat or do we take our chances paddling full speed ahead to possible shelter on land?

Hopefully your wisdom will help guide us to be safer paddlers.

Richard N

Living to learn.

Romany, White with Blue trim

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It's certainly true that, given some time, you could design a system like this. If I had to, from scratch, I'd probably use a mast with a lightening rod, and perhaps some barbs on it, and then have a good groundstrap (like what welders use) and then run it to some electrodes on the bottom of the hull. That would probably cause a sufficient charge dissapation from the sea and boat to the atmosphere to reduce the chances of a strike substantially.

This is, in principle, what happens with St. Elmo's fire.

The problem, as I see it, is that any random large boat will be a larger target for a lightning bolt unless it has something to dissapate the charge, like a system like this. So, if you knew a vessel had a system like this, it would likely be safer, but if you had no idea, the vessel, in all likelihood wouldn't, and then you'd be more likely to get hit from an arc skipping off the mast.

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>The problem, as I see it, is that any random large boat will

>be a larger target for a lightning bolt unless it has

>something to dissapate the charge, like a system like this.

> So, if you knew a vessel had a system like this, it would

>likely be safer, but if you had no idea, the vessel, in all

>likelihood wouldn't, and then you'd be more likely to get

>hit from an arc skipping off the mast.

I can't speak for other boats, but if it is a sailboat with an aluminum mast, it almost certainly will have this. It is a very big cable and a large conductor at the keel.

-Dee

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I'm starting to run out of practical experience, here - I can only speak to the physics and now enter the realm of my opinion. There are probably statistics compiled about this kind of thing.

My concerns with an aluminum mast with a groundstrap to an electrode in the hull would be two-fold: First: transient (very fast) currents can take erratic paths, and might jump from the mast, directly to something else, depending on the "inductance" (tendency to resist fast current changes) of the path through the hull, Second: I'd worry about the reliability of the connection - the electrodes are subjected to a lot of oxidation and could lose conntection to the mast over time. On the other hand, a pointy, lightning rod structure might provide a continuous discharge and relieve the charge build up before it became an issue of a strike.

Even armed with the knowlege that most boats with aluminum masts have a ground strap, I wouldn't seek them out in a thunderstorm as safe against lightning. In part this is my own internal risk-evaluation. The odds of something going wrong is small, but the consequences are huge.

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>My concerns with an aluminum mast with a groundstrap to an

>electrode in the hull would be two-fold: First: transient

>(very fast) currents can take erratic paths, and might jump

>from the mast, directly to something else, depending on the

>"inductance" (tendency to resist fast current changes) of

>the path through the hull

This would also concern me greatly. I once saw lightning bolts repeatedly skipping across the surface of the water at Salisbury beach. There is no such thing as a simple, perfect conductor.

>Second: I'd worry about the

>reliability of the connection - the electrodes are subjected

>to a lot of oxidation and could lose conntection to the mast

>over time. On the other hand, a pointy, lightning rod

>structure might provide a continuous discharge and relieve

>the charge build up before it became an issue of a strike.

>

In theory, the heavy copper cable with well-crimped ring terminal, connected to stainless bolts and nuts through the mast and underwater electrode should have minimal corrosion problems. However, the difference between theory and reality are often huge due to implementation and maintenance.

>Even armed with the knowlege that most boats with aluminum

>masts have a ground strap, I wouldn't seek them out in a

>thunderstorm as safe against lightning. In part this is my

>own internal risk-evaluation. The odds of something going

>wrong is small, but the consequences are huge.

I agree completely.

-Dee

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