Lightning Strikes and Paddling

-by Jay Murdock, SDKC Safety Editor

Vlissingen, the Netherlands (©Francis Schaefers and Daniel Burger)

Vlissingen, the Netherlands (©Francis Schaefers and Daniel Burger)

On August 20, 2014 a lightning storm moved through San Diego County in the morning, resulting in a few north county beaches being closed for some time. The lifeguards told everyone to get out of the water, and even off the beaches. One month before, a swimmer was killed at Venice Beach in LA by lightning, and 13 others around him were injured, with 8 of those going to the hospital. The current even injured some through the sand to those standing up on the beach. There is a Wednesday morning kayak paddle group each week out of Mission Bay that stayed in the bay the morning of the 20th, but remained on the water because the lightning was “14 miles away”. While this may appear safe to some, here are a few things to consider as canoeists and kayakers:

Lightning kills at least 6,000 people each year world-wide, and some reports put that number much higher. Most occur in developing countries where people are outdoors, or take shelter in unsafe structures considerably more than in the US. As water sport adventurers, we are actually included in that higher-risk category of incidents (we spend a lot of time outdoors, and we sleep in tents). In the past four years throughout the world, there have been at least 7 injuries, 3 deaths, and 4 near-misses involving lightning strikes to kayakers and canoeists (river rafting incidents not researched).

While lightning usually strikes immediately below the cumulonimbus cloud, it sometimes travels horizontally over 10 miles before finding a “Strike Point” (my terminology). If the storm is moving toward you, the next strike will be closer, and could be within that 10 mile higher-danger zone. Since we can usually hear thunder only about 10 miles out, once we hear it, we are in danger. While a strike will most likely hit the tallest object, there are several cases where it has not. I know someone who was hiking in the mountains of Baja, and a bolt killed his friend when they were in a meadow going through a small valley with trees not far away. The sky above them was cloudless, and the bolt came from a storm over the hill, several miles away.

A typical lightning bolt has tremendous energy, and is why it can break bones and melt sand into glass. When it hits a tree it radiates out, in and along the ground surface, and can injure or kill you up to 30 feet away (and further, if the ground is wet, or has certain geological features). A friend and I were standing 30-35 ft from a pine tree in the Sierras that was struck, and we were knocked off our feet and peppered with bark (the bolt spiraled to ground, peeling off bark). When lightning hits water, it radiates out across the surface, and that killing and injury radius may be up to 300 feet out (why so many were injured at Venice Beach).** This tenfold land-to-water ratio difference is why you are safer on land. While that radius distance is under debate (some say a max of only 20 ft out), the area in which injuries occurred at Venice Beach, by looking at the videos taken of the rescues, had to be at least 200 ft across. Some injuries occurred at water’s edge, on the beach in the “transition zone”, while others were injured out where the surf begins (and it is not known where the bolt hit within, or even outside that “lightning impact zone” area of injury). Of the two knocked unconscious by the lightning, one was a swimmer (who died), and the other a surfer. Both were out where the waves form, in deeper water. Given the severity of their injuries, the bolt may have struck close to them, and not in the middle of the injured group. The distance from shore to where the waves formed that day was somewhere between 150 ft and 250 ft. Also, since swimmers and surfers are kept apart, and swimmers tend to stay spread-out in the surf, this would seem to support an “impact zone” of at least 200 ft wide, parallel to the shore line. I hope somebody studies this event in depth.

The majority of injuries and fatalities with boaters from lightning on the water occur on small vessels without a cabin. If you are on open water in a kayak or canoe, your body is the tallest object in your area, and may become the Strike Point. To compound this, we are usually holding a carbon fiber paddle, an excellent lightning rod. Fishermen have been killed by lightning while waving carbon fiber poles (adding a whole new meaning to “getting a strike”). So what should we do as paddlers?

Taking Action

  • At the first sight of lightning, or sound of thunder, get off the water immediately, because you may not know which way the storm is moving, or if a “quiet” area of the storm will start to generate lightning. You simply do not have the time to wait and see what the storm may do. Years ago I was hiking with my son in the mountains east of San Diego, and we were at the top of Stonewall Peak when we noticed clouds in the distance. Within a few minutes the metal guard railing around us started to “hum”, and the hair on my arms “stood up”. We immediately started down the trail, and within a minute of leaving, lightning struck that railing. All this occurred before the storm was directly overhead.
  • When you see lightning, count off the seconds until you hear the thunder, and divide that number by 5 to get the distance in miles the lightning is from you. If you hear thunder before you reach 30, you are in immediate danger. When you get off the water, if there are no substantial buildings to go in (safest place to be, or in a car for second choice, as long as you don’t touch metal, and the windows are rolled up), find a low point and crouch, feet and knees together, hands covering your ears, and ideally no closer than 30 feet from any tree (at least the taller ones). Stay away from the shore edge (the “transition zone” that attracts lightning) and open areas, and make yourself low and insulated, using your life vest under your feet (better a wet PFD than nothing). Do not sit, lie down, or place your hands on the ground. If lightning strikes nearby, it is less likely that the current will flow through your body. Avoid rocky areas if you can, especially overhangs and shallow caves, as lightning can “arc” across the opening. Do not hunker down close together as a group, but stay spread out 20 ft apart to prevent mass casualties. Stay out of small sheds, especially those with metal roofs or siding (see Mt Whitney hut accident). Covered patios, palapas, or umbrellas offer no protection. Put your shoes on, as they add insulation between you and the ground. Avoid places where water may run. Best place to be on a slope, hill or dune is half way up.
  • If you are out on the ocean or large lake and cannot get off the water before the storm is over you, spread out, and stay at least 100 feet away from others in your group, and place the paddle across your lap, on the spray skirt (or under your knees on the boat, if on a SOT). Do not touch your paddle, and keep your hands out of the water, placing them over your ears (to lessen acoustic shock). Try not to touch your boat other than your buttocks and heels. Insulate yourself from the boat as best you can. The reason you want to be 100 feet apart, if one gets hit, the others may be spared, and can then come to the aid of that person.

Communications

  • Immediately after a strike to someone, call for help on your VHF or mobile phone. Having a radio or phone may be the difference between life and death, so never paddle without one. Know your exact position on the map before you make that call. With a GPS, you can give the Lat/Lon, which is best for rescue.
  • Check the area where you are going prior to the trip to see if a phone or VHF works better. Inland waters may not have anyone monitoring channel 16 on the VHF, so mobile phones are best. And it is critical that you charge the batteries the night before a paddle.

First Aid

    • Check for breathing if the person is unconscious, giving CPR if needed. Treat for trauma, burns, broken bones, and shock. The problem with all this is that you will most likely be dealing with a person who is in the water at this point, so you may need to raft up and pull the victim across your kayaks in front of you, or in your canoe. Attempting this is very difficult, and giving CPR on the water is extremely challenging. Knowing the low probability of reviving a person with CPR, it is still better to try, and fail, than not to try. It may require hard work for considerable time, but each life is worth that effort.
    • If lightning is still in the area, the safest action is to stay spread out and have one person, who is the closest to the victim, paddle over and hold on to the person, keeping the head above water while tilting it back to keep the airway open. The critical evaluation must be made regarding the risk to the group in light of concentrating your resources to save a life. But the primary safety rule is to not raft up for 30 minutes after lightning stops, or if lightning is within 10 miles away. You can tell if the storm is moving on, when the sound of thunder is fading. But you must also look around to see if more clouds are approaching. You will also need to evaluate other factors in all this. High wind, cold water temperature, size/condition/capability of your group, how close help is, and distance to land all affect the outcome. The trick is to size all this up quickly, and make the right decisions.

Safety Considerations

      • Never paddle alone, and consider not paddling in groups of less than 4. The larger the group, the larger the “Margin of Safety” (the more resources you have to deal with emergencies).
      • Always wear a PFD, fully buckled and cinched up so you cannot slip out of it. A lightning bolt can throw you out of your boat, and if you are unconscious, you are likely to drown without that PFD.
      • Take all your safety gear, first aid kit, signal flag, and a tow line. Know how to tow an unconscious person to shore in kayaks when help is delayed and cold water and/or air temperature threatens hypothermia to the victim. This is where having a group of 4 or more really makes a difference.
      • Go over safety procedures within your group before you launch, and leave your itinerary with someone on land. Have a back-up plan for everything, and know where the closest medical and rescue help are.
      • Become competent in first aid. One of the best things I’ve done was take EMT training at the Naval Hospital in San Diego. You will also need to know what to do if help is not within an hour away. Typical first aid training teaches what to do until help arrives in a short time. With a radio or VHF, help is often within an hour away, if we are near civilization. In the mountains and remote areas on water, help is most likely more than two hours away. That is a huge difference for a medical emergency. Knowing what to do in those cases may make the difference in the outcome.
      • Don’t assume you are safe if you are paddling on a river, with tall objects close by. If lightning hits a tree on the bank, the ground current can transfer to the water, and radiate out for some distance.
      • Never assume what a storm may do. It is critical that you wait the 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder to continue your activity. When that Wednesday morning paddle group finally exited the water, and were sitting together outside at a patio, lightning came within 1000 ft of them.
      • When the threat of lightning is not present, stay together as a group. Getting spread out, and not having communication often compounds emergencies, and may lead to tragic situations, both in the mountains and on the water.
      • The biggest risk to your safety could be having a cavalier attitude toward a safety issue. It is ultimately up to you to decide what is the most safe and prudent action to take in any situation. The person who disregards safe procedures and warning signs may not be the person to follow or paddle with. Although your chances of being hit by lightning are extremely low, not taking precautions is unwise. Even by following all the safety advice, because lightning is so unpredictable, no positive outcome can ever be guaranteed. Only the probability of a safe result increases.

One last thought, which should really come first in all this: Always check the weather report. If there is any chance of lightning, avoid kayaking or canoeing that day. I believe one can take on life at full throttle, while also paying heed to safety issues. You can go a lot further that way. The following quote, while written for the mountaineer, also applies to the paddler.

In his classic book “Scrambles Amongst the Alps,” Whymper wrote: “There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Stay safe on the water, and look out for each other.

**-Update on 9/19/2016: According to the Weather Channel, a lighting strike on salt water can radiate out well beyond 300 ft. It also can do more damage to your body if you are even out of the water, but have salt water on you, so rinse with fresh water, and dry off immediately.


Resources for statistical and other data:
NWS Lightning Safety, Accuweather-Know the Risks of Lightning, National Lightning Safety Institute, National Electric Code-Lightning Questions, National Geographic-Death by Lightning a Danger in Developing Countries, NOLS Backcountry Lightning Safety Guidelines, Outside Magazine-Lightning Injuries and Deaths by the Numbers, Wilderness and Environmental Medicine-Wilderness Medical Society Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Lightning Injuries.

– contributed by Jay Murdock