unexpected lightening and thunder

I got myself into a situation this past weekend that frightened me, and I’ve not been able to find an answer. I’m hoping someone can give me some informed insight.

I went onto the water on a large open lake on a beautiful sunny morning. I had listened to the weather radio before taking off and the forecast was “slight chance of rain.” A good mile from where I’d put in the sky turned dark almost instantaneously and I did start for home. Within moments a sprinkle started followed by a pelting rain. I still wasn’t worried - I laughed at what I must look like - a huge yellow bird paddling like a mad-woman through squinting eyes. I did get frightened when the lightening and thunder started. I was totally exposed in a wide open, deserted lake. All I could think of was that MY HEAD was the highest point on the water.

What would be the proper thing to do in this situation? I thought of heading for ANY shore and getting out of the water - but the shore is thickly tree lined. Should I be under a tree in a thunderstorm? I eventually opted to get myself at the shoreline and paddle as best I could under the cover of the trees, but still moving. I was really glad to get back to the put-in.

Any input would be appreciated.

One thought…

– Last Updated: Jul-30-09 11:34 AM EST –

Carry a decent weather radio, leave it on Weather Alert setting. That'll emit a signal when a pop-up storm has formed and is moving in your area. It might not be much time, but it's some, to take action.

The easiest thing to carry is a VHF radio with weather that has a decent submersible rating. That way you can just clip it somewhere on the boat and not worry if it gets rained on. That is not the cheapest though, the radios that can't get wet do cost less. But you have to keep them in a dry bag, so they can also be harder to hear or get to the buttons.

As to what to do on landing - conventional wisdom is to crouch down with hands wrapped around knees in a squat, so that only your feet are on the ground but you are still low. Away from trees. In the situation you describe, you may have to deal with trees on hard land as a better alternative than being the tallest thing on the water.

I think you did the right thing.
Lightning does bounce on the water and if you were in a aluminum canoe getting out might be a better option. Yes you want to be under the trees in a forest not the highest point on a body of water or in an open field. Not under a lone tree on a hill. I would have done what you did. Experts might suggest getting out and curling up as small as you can on the ground but I think you did perfectly.

A good article here

– Last Updated: Jul-30-09 9:01 AM EST –


In that article:

"Avoid contact with dissimilar objects (water & land; boat & land; rock & ground; tree & ground). Avoid open spaces."

Obviously, it is impossible to avoid open areas when in the middle of a lake, but paddling along shore might not be so good either.


4. We should get off the water when boating, canoeing or sailing…

Truth: tall trees and rocky outcrops along shore and on nearby land may be a more dangerous place.

SEEK: Seek clumps of shrubs or trees of uniform height. Seek ditches, trenches or the low ground. Seek a low, crouching position with feet together with hands on ears to minimize acoustic shock from thunder.

We had the same thing happen during our local kayaking club paddle after work the other night. The group leaves the boat ramp at 6:30 pm, and I checked the radar before leaving my house at 5:45 pm. All was clear on the radar when I left home and when we launched, but at the halfway point we heard thunder and noticed a large thunderhead developing to our SW. We quickly headed back but the squall line hit when we were still about 1 mile from the boat ramp. In our case, we didn’t actually experience any rain or lightning while we were out on the lake, but it very quickly got very gusty. I stuck to the shoreline that was most protected from the wind and beat most of the other paddlers back to the landing.

In the case of local pop-up storms, I don’t think a radio would do much good because a lot of these storms are too small to warrant a special warning from the NWS despite their intensity if you are right in one. However, a radio would be helpful if you encountered a really large storm, but that should be clearly visible on radar for a while ahead of time. My strategy is to check the radar just before heading out during the summer, paying attention to the directional movement of any storms. Pay close attention to conditions (behind you as well) and head back at the first sign of any storms (thunder, lightning, dark clouds on the horizon). Then paddle like crazy.

Getting off the water is good…

– Last Updated: Jul-30-09 9:40 AM EST –

The article referenced above is good, and here is another one: http://www.seakayak.ws/kayak/kayak.nsf/1/CB02D3404D1702EC85256C0D007F5FD9

It sounds like you took the right action, but getting off the water is usually the best course of action. The water/land interface is especially hazardous if there are tall trees at the shoreline. It is especially common to have summer storms suddenly develop when kayaking in coastal areas even though the threat may be low. Finding a building is ideal, but if you are outside in a remote area, the best you can hope for is a good natural defense. Staying in the water or right along the shoreline is not usually the best option.

I was leading a seakayaking trip on the Ches Bay this weekend and our group also got caught in a very sudden storm. VHF information indicated storm activity some distance to our north that we could see but that was no immediate threat. However, we began paddling closer in to shore. Another storm spawned very quickly over land in our vicinity. The first indicator was a slowly increasing wind shift from the opposite direction. We had about 5 minutes to find a suitable beach landing spot before the lightning started, lots of low scrubby trees, some granite rip rap and a number of tall isolated pines some distance away that would hopefully attract any lightning to them rather than us! If you see a summer pattern Tstorm that is not an immediate threat to you, stay on your toes, for there may be another rushing upon you soon!

Get off the water, it is far more danger
It is far more dangerous to be on water than on shore. Most deaths and severe injuries come from strikes that spread out from the bolt by conduction through water, wet ground, tree roots, fences, and so on. The main point is to realize that it does not take a direct strike to kill you. Unless there is a boat nearby with an enclosed cabin get off the water.

Bolts out of the blue occur because a storm produces energy up t 3-5 miles before the rain hits you.

If on shore you are under trees, get just high enough to be OFF WET ground and NOT on tree roots.

Do not get in a ravine especially if wet, nor a cave unless it is larger than say 30 feet. Lightening spreads through the ground and jumps across these places if they are wet.

If under trees find a place that is under similar height trees and get off roots on dry soil.

The crouching with ankles together and hands on ears is a researched method that does significantly reduce severity of an indirect strike. You are much less likely to have severe damage and you will be able to likely not have your eardrums ruptured.

Radio & More

– Last Updated: Jul-30-09 11:24 AM EST –

Radio does not help with local small scale storms - these pop-up and go away fast and are really local but not less violent. The weather channels do not typically tell you one is coming, only that one "may" come.

The alternative is to check local Dopler radar - they are very good at showing what's cooking locally but you need internet...

A few weeks ago I just put in at a local reservoire and I saw a storm come my way. Lightning was wayy off where I was so I chose to stay in the water but ready to get out at any moment if things get worse. Lightning aside, I've never seen wind so violent on the water from that up close - probably 50+ miles per hour easily. The water was churning in an area that had only minimal fetch, spray was flying off the caps of the waves and tiny "tornadoes" sucked water up, while the wind was really howling in the tree tops... Real scarry.

It all happenend almost instantaineously but passed within 15 minutes and I hugged the shoreline in relative calmness while this was going on. There is nothing you can do to avoid it if that hits you in more open water ...

Kneel on your PFD
in the most moderately tall forest in the area and not on roots.

If you take shelter in old ruins such as forts be aware that some of them have reinforcing metal rods.Two of my kayaking friends were electrocuted on an old ruin off Kittery ME

I have been in three bad ones that …
I can recall where we were way to far to get back to land, so we enjoyed the show and figured if it was our time, then so be it.

Other times when we are close enough to shore we usually try to find a bank that is higher then us and just sit below it.

Never use large tree roots to sit on.



Where do you get that stuff?

Storm Warning
Around here (upstate NY) the weather radio, or TV or whatever else may be turned on, regularly broadcasts the progress of strong storm cells. Those broadcasts are pretty good about trying to give you time - if they are far enough west you can get 20 minutes of warning. Not a ton of time, but that’s a mile closer to shore at a not-hard paddling pace. For many lake paddles, you’ll be closer than that to shore.

Whether they are officially pop-up storms or something different, there is a pretty reliable relationship between these alerts and having rain and lightning.

The open water situation is enough
of a risk that one might take steps to avoid being out on open water in a thunderstorm. But does anyone think the risk is great enough to just stay home in the living room (NOT THE SHOWER) on days when there might be some pop-up thunderstorms?

In my childhood home town, we used to run outside in the middle of thunderstorms so we could wade in the water. Hundreds of kids over many years, and nobody ever got struck. Those who got struck were people sitting next to a metal fence at Little League games, or golfers who took shelter in sheds stupidly placed on the tops of hills.

Think back on your PERSONAL experience and ask how many people you knew were killed or seriously injured by lightning, versus how many you knew who drowned, or were killed in auto accidents. Are we getting a distorted picture of risk?

The NOAA wants us all to stay inside our houses until half an hour after we last hear thunder. This is certainly the best way to minimize the risk of being struck. But I’m 66 years old now, and I’ve seen and heard enough lightning to set my own risk levels.

That wasnt the original question
Which was dealing with a t storm when there is no “inside”

Its a good question and the radio is a little of a laugh to me.

Yesterday we had several bad storms and nada a NWS warning. They popped up right here.

You cant rely on a weather radio out in the wilderness. No stations.

Prayer helps…I remember many years ago being in an aluminum canoe in the middle of a nine mile long swamp in a thuderstorm.

Unexpected? Not down here!
Not this time of year. I can hear thunder at some point every day, and can see T-Storm tops in the area pretty much all day every day.

I do paddle less this time of year, but that’s all about the 90 degree water.

We rarely get any rainy days w/o thunder, which sort of sucks as that’s some of the best paddling weather.

Wilderness Medical Training for Paramedics

Read my first paragraph again.

Yeah - no panacea
No question that a weather radio has failings. But a lot of people paddle in situations where the warnings would be useful, especially newer paddlers who tend to be in smaller venues and may not have thought about it enough to check out the idea.

I hate to diss the things without knowing the specifics of the paddler’s situation.

> But does anyone think the risk is great enough to just stay home in the living room (NOT THE SHOWER) on days when there might be some pop-up thunderstorms?

I live in Florida. The days you described are: every day from May to November.

So yeah, you pretty much have to deal with the potential for getting hit by lightning. Such is life.

Wearing yellow always helps
Even if not, I think you did well.

I go to the nearest shore with trees. If the lightning doesn’t seem too close, I’ll paddle along the shore in my intended direction. If the lightning seems close, I get out on land and follow the precautions others have listed.