Boating Safety

Boating Safety During a Thunderstorm, with Video Tutorials

Picture a large body of water with a boat floating on it. Now envision a thunderstorm approaching. Knowing that lightning strikes the tallest point of least resistance, where is that lightning going to strike? Many boats contain large amounts of metal and other conductive materials, making them great targets for a strike. With a sailboat, this might be the mast, and with a small bass boat, this could be a pedestal fishing chair. No boat is completely immune. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figure out that water, electrical wiring, and lightning do not mix well!

Before you head out on a fishing trip or pleasure cruise, check the current weather and the weather predictions. It’s not worth taking a chance. That’s boating safety 101. If you get caught by surprise while on the water, head back to port. If the storm is between you and your home marina, reach another safe area on shore if possible.

What can lightning do to a boat and boaters?

No boat is totally immune to lightning damage. Any boat can be struck, and in fact, smaller boats are more susceptible to extensive damage because there are fewer places for the lightning to go. They’re also usually more dangerous for their passengers during an electrical storm.

Lightning can completely wipe out a boat’s electrical system and destroy the engine. It’s even been known to blow holes in the hull, which could cause the boat to take on water and eventually sink.

Of course, the worst outcome of a lightning strike is the loss of human life, and unfortunately, this is entirely possible.

Can I lightning-proof my boat?

There is no way to completely lightning-proof a boat. A vessel is a potential target for lightning any time it’s on the water. You can, however, make your boat safer during a storm with a bonding system.


Bonding is the process of electrically joining all your underwater metal fittings together. A bonding system can help direct the lightning’s path away from passengers and hopefully away from major components to prevent or to at least decrease the amount of damage done.

How does bonding work?

Lightning always takes the easiest path to a ground. On the water, the easiest ground is the water’s surface. If the lightning strike is jumping from conductor to conductor in its search for a ground, it could easily travel through humans and anything else on board. There’s no way to predict which way it will go. The bonding system sends the strike via the main conductor to an underwater metal plate, which is usually constructed of copper or some other non-corrosive metal.

A good bonding system uses arrestors to protect electronic equipment, while providing a safe path for the lightning strike, as well. The bonding system should also include an air terminal, protective gaps, and connectors.

For sailboats, the protective system should have heavy cables attached to the tallest parts of the boat, like masts, outriggers, and antennas. The wires should run to the grounding strips that are in the water.

What if I’m caught in a thunderstorm?

If you’re caught in a thunderstorm out on the water, seek shelter in your boat’s cabin, if it has one. Close all windows to prevent taking on water from high waves and rain. If the vessel doesn’t have any sort of shelter, remain as low as possible, in the lowest and most central part of the boat. In either case, avoid touching any electrical components or metal. Also, stow away any fishing rods that might act as lightning attracters.

Make sure everyone on board puts on a life jacket, and decrease the speed of the boat. Also, you’ll need to unplug any electrical appliances or devices.

Remember, if you can hear thunder, lightning is in the area, even if you can’t see it.

If you’re encountering high or rough seas, aim the bow into the waves at a forty-five degree angle.

Boats can also be struck by lightning while docked, so don’t think you’re safe just because you’re in a slip. Leave the boat and take shelter in a building.

What if my boat is damaged? Will my boating insurance cover it?

If your boat is damaged by lightning, your boating insurance should cover it. Boat insurance covers damages done by fire, theft, lightning, wind, vandalism, and other events. Depending on your specific marine insurance policy and on the extent of the damages, the boat will either be repaired or replaced. No boat owner should be without boat insurance, no matter how small the boat is.

Boat insurance or marine insurance policies generally cover vessels up to 26 feet in length. Vessels over 26 feet long usually have to be covered by yacht insurance.

What if someone is injured in the storm? Will my boat insurance cover that?

Boat liability insurance should cover any injuries passengers on your boat sustain. Each boat liability insurance policy is a little different, however, so you might want to check the caps set by your boat insurance company and by your specific marine insurance policy.

Boat liability insurance usually starts at $100,000 worth of coverage and ranges up to $1 million in coverage. This type of marine insurance is usually sold in $100,000 increments.