How To Handle A Lightning Storm In A Pontoon Boat | LakeWizard

Key Takeaways

  • Boating during storming weather can cause serious physical injury and boat damage
  • Avoid storms-especially electrical storms, when boating
  • You can use apps from NOAA, NASA, and other agencies to track weather patterns
  • If caught in lighting, lower high-flying objects, get a life vest on, and head to shore
  • Lightning protection systems can be helpful, but are not foolproof or perfect solutions

Lightning storms can have dire consequences for boaters. In this article you’ll learn what to do if caught in a lightning storm in your pontoon boat.

If you find yourself in the middle of a lightning storm on your pontoon boat, take the following steps: ensure everyone is wearing a life jacket, move towards the middle of the boat, and, if able, start heading towards shore. Lower any highflying objects such as biminis, flags or fishing poles.

I’ve been boating for several decades and one of my largest stressors is inclement weather, so much of this article is born from tough experiences. However, I’ve also looked at official government statistics and consumer research including the information provided by the CDC and the United States Coast Guard.

Table of contents


Importance Of Boating Safety

Do you remember the day you bought your boat? I bet you were so happy to show your kids, or your buddies and could just picture the long summer days, fishing trips, or family picnics. You probably were taking the boat out for a spin before you knew it.

Because you’re responsible you’re probably careful in how you operate the boat, following traffic rules, monitoring your speed, being responsible with alcohol, and watching for other vessels. Good for you for good boating safety. As a conscientious boat owner, you’ll avoid most injuries, at least the ones under your control. But what about factors that aren’t under your control like the weather.

Dangers Of Lightning While Boating

What does thunderstorm research say on the dangers of lightning strikes while boating? Per the CDC, on land or water there are only about 25 deaths per year due to lightning in the United States, and approximately 90% of people struck by lightning survive. Boats do seem to be struck by lightning more than people. Infact, the American Boat Owners Association analyzed insurance claims and revealed  lightning strikes about one in every thousand boats in a given year. Sometimes the damage is significant, while other instances produce little or no effects.

Not all boats are equally likely to be hit by lightning. Multihull sailboats with their multiple, tall masts are significantly more likely (about 70 times) to be hit than a pontoon boat because lightning strikes high objects, typically a mast or lightning rod.

According to a 2020 analysis by the U.S. Coast Guard, about 700 people die and over 4,000 people are injured each year in boating accidents. The use of alcohol was the leading contributing factor in most fatal accidents.  However, storms, much less a lightning storm, also known as an electrical storm, did not play a major factor in boating accidents.

Out of the approximately 5,000 boating accidents in 2020, poor visibility and/or wind in excess of 25 mph were only present in about 200 or fewer incidents (pg. 28 Recreational Boating Statistics, 2020). And this report doesn’t even mention lighting at all. Still, the presence of lighting can be concerning especially if you are surrounded by a lot of water floating on a metal boat with metal fishing rods.

Next we’ll look at what to do if caught in a lightning storm, how or why to avoid the storm if possible, and what steps of preparation you can take against the eventuality you may be in a storm.

What To Do In The Lighting Storm

As in all emergency situations, it is important to stay as calm as possible. Decisions made in fear are rarely good decisions. There is no sense in rehashing decisions that got you into the storm, or whose fault it was. It is action time.

The first thing you should do if you are on a pontoon boat in big lightning storms is take down any high or vertical items such as a fishing rod or metal objects or gear, vanity flags, and biminis. You’ll want to have maximum control of your vessel and reduce your footprint for being hit since lightning seeks and finds high objects.

Second, ensure everyone is wearing a life jacket. Whether that person is hit by lightning or just falls off with the commotion and increased waves, they’ll want whatever assistance comes with a jacket. Third, make sure everyone knows where the first aid kit is. Hopefully you can complete the above steps in about two minutes.

In lightning storms, you’ll next want to head back in or beach the boat as soon as possible where you can seek shelter. Note you need to avoid technical landings with major rocks because this can complicate an already difficult and dangerous situation. Instead, head into the closest soft landing beach. If the above options are available, you should avoid the temptation to drop anchor and let the weather blow past.

On other, larger vessels, sometimes the recommendation is to stay low and at the center of the boat. While with pontoon boats this may be less possible, you may still wish to maximize every possible strategy in protecting human life.  One on the shore, seeking shelter.

What To Do If Your Boat Was Hit By Lightning

If there were a lightning storm near where you store your boat, you may be concerned it was hit by lightning. If you expect your boat might have been hit by lighting you should follow a number of steps. First review the weather history of that area and ask other boat owners if they have any reports of lightning strikes in that area. Were there any fires or confirmed strikes on another boat?

Second, you should perform a visual inspection of the hull. A lightning strike can damage even metal objects. Third, check all your communication systems and your boat’s electrical system including power leads and electrical outlets. Do any of your fishing rods show damage?

If you were hit, take pictures and notes and contact your boat insurance company to discuss any options.

Avoid Storms While Boating

Every worthy sailor and boat captain cares deeply about the weather, and not just the daily weather forecast or television weather reports. They study patterns, have weather apps, listen to radio chatter and keep weather journals.  No one likes operating a boat in a storm because they can be so dangerous. So the first rule of surviving a lightning storm is to not be in one.

Delay the launch a few hours, head home a bit early, or reschedule the buddy’s trip for another day. You got the boat to have fun, and trust me, no one will have fun with a lightning strike.

Perhaps you aren’t worried about your physical safety, but if you care for your boat, avoiding the storm is still the best policy so your boat doesn’t suffer lightning damage. Lighting can cause havoc to stereo and radio equipment and cause electrical fires.

Resource For Monitoring Weather Patterns

You may consider downloading the app for the national weather service or checking in with the NOAA weather radio. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also has an app to track lightning. NASA also has a lightning tracking app if you want to track a distant storm or better understand the storm’s path. Several other boating safety apps are available.

Preparing for the Unexpected Storm

Even if you try to avoid all inclement weather, if you boat long enough, you’ll likely have a few unintentional run-ins with Mother Nature. Can you picture the following: It was the perfect day for taking the boat out for a quick spin. But that perfect weather didn’t last long, and while you were grateful for the clouds at first, a thunderstorm just rolled in. And just like that, you are on your pontoon boat, surrounded by lightning.

When a storm can’t be avoided, you can still be prepared. There are several things you can do to prepare yourself and your boat from a lightning strike.

First, you may wish to install lightning rods, sometimes called lightning dissipators, or a lightning protection system. A protection system starts at approximately $1,000 and can quickly become more expensive. If you want the best lightning protection system, it can be over $10,000.

It is important to note that because these lightning protection systems often haven’t been tested or proven in lab settings their efficacy is debated within the boating community. Further, to ensure you receive the intended protection, one must install these lightning protection systems perfectly, and some of these systems can be somewhat complicated to install.

Another thing you can do to prepare against lightning strikes is to have a well-stocked first aid kit. You will likely use it for a myriad of other injuries before you ever use it in a lightning strike, but no boater should be without one. If you or someone you are with gets an indirect or direct strike by lightning, you’ll likely need to pursue one of two first aid responses to . First, you may need to start CPR. Second, you may need to treat the person for shock. Delayed medical attention can result in a possibly serious injury.

The third thing you can do is have a functional radio and practice using that radio. You’ll want to know what other boats are doing or experiencing, and where a distant storm may be headed.

Finally, you may also wish to look at your boat insurance policy. What does your boat insurance cover and not cover? Does it only cover a direct hit? What resources or training does it provide? You can consider adding insurance contact information into your phone ahead of time.