Lightning travels the path of least resistance, striking the highest object in the area. When your yacht is docked in harbor, or particularly, out in open water, your vessel, particularly if it is a large motor yacht, may very well be that highest object!
Protecting your boat from a damaging lightning strike is serious business, especially here in South Florida, one of the “lightning capitals of the world.” According to providers of yacht insurance who have processed lightning strike claims, even what is officially termed a “mild strike,” can cause major damage.
We have had to refit boats that experienced such strikes, and I can tell you, usually you can expect all of the electronics to be fried, and rendered inoperative. Generators and engines can be severely damaged by lightning, as can transmissions, requiring replacement or extensive repairs.
Remember, your yacht does not have to be out in the middle of a storm to be a potential target for a lightning strike. Lightning has been known to hit boats from as far as 10 miles away!
Lightning Protection Systems
There is no “fool proof” system that can prevent your motor yacht from being struck by lightning, or to totally prevent any damage if it is, but there are steps you can take to minimize the damage.
Most modern luxury motor yachts have some sort of lightning protection built into them. These systems entail what is known as having all of the electronics and components of your yacht’s electrical system “bonded.” Having your yacht properly bonded means that all of the metal fittings and large metal objects are tied together electrically. Bonding in this way protects people on board the yacht by collecting and routing the lightning’s energy safely underwater. Usually the end or “ground point” in a bonded electric lightning protection system, is your yacht’s propellers. Props with their large surface area and sharp edges, are ideal for dissipating electrical energy. However, the lightning is drawn to them, passing through the transmission and the engines, often damaging critical electronics and sensors along the way.
That is because bonded electronics are really designed to protect you and your passengers from harm during a lightning strike, and not your yacht’s critical electric components. There are, however, some additional steps you can take, to better protect your electrical system and electronics.
Proactive Lighting Protection
The key to additional lightning protection is to create other pathways to a ground for the lightning to pass through. Doing so, should theoretically leave critical electronic components unharmed. To conduct a lightning strike safely to the water, you, or more likely your yacht’s engineers will need to create a low-resistance path from the highest point on the yacht to a metal “grounding plate” that is attached to the exterior of the hull in contact with the water. A well maintained bonded lightning protection system should do as it was designed to do, protect your passengers from harm, and your yacht from fire or structural damage.
Adding an additional layer of protection as described, could also minimize damage to your engines and sensitive electronics.
If you do find yourself out in the open ocean during a lightning storm, you should try to clear the area, and head for shore if possible. In addition you should:
- Lower all antennas, fishing gear etc.
- Pull in any wakeboards, tenders, etc.
- Disconnect all power, antenna and other cables to the electronics and electrical gear.
- Keep your hands away from any metal surfaces, (engine controls, a railing, helm, etc.) or you may become a convenient conducting path yourself!
- Get below decks in a center cabin.
How Common are Boat Lightning Strikes?
It is interesting that people often equate the likelihood of certain events happening to “the chances of being struck by lightning.” While it’s true that the odds are better of you winning the lottery than they are of you getting randomly hit by a bolt from the blue, those odds increase significantly if you are on a boat!
Some boats are more likely to be struck than others. As you can see in the video above, sailing yachts with their long mast, are at greater risk than your motor yacht, but that does not mean you are not at risk.
According to a 2015 study done by the Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS), the national average for the probability of a boat lightning strike insurance claim for all types of boats and sizes is about 1 in 1,000. Where boats are more prevalent and thunderstorms more active, like here in Florida, those odds increase significantly.
Operating a motor yacht can be costly. You can reduce your expenses, and avoid costly repairs by keeping her well maintained. On Demand yachting from FYM can help. If you would like to learn more, or if you have any questions or comments about this blog post, do not hesitate to contact our Yacht Management specialists, or call us at (954) 900-9968.