Guest Column  
By Alan S. Glos - Cazenovia, New York - USA

An Encounter with Lightning

Here is a short scenario that has always left me wondering if I did the right thing in response to novel circumstances.

For several years, I vacationed at Crystal Lake, Michigan in the upper part of the Lower Peninsula near Frankfort, Michigan. At about 12 miles long and about 6 miles across, Crystal Lake is one of the premier small boat sailing venues in the Midwest. The water is a deep cobalt blue, and being only a mile or two inland of Lake Michigan, the wind is usually a steady west to east flow in the teens for most of the summer months. Sailing a small boat on this lake was about as close to nautical perfection as I ever encountered.

click to enlarge

Crystal Lake is one of the premier small boat sailing venues in the Midwest.

On the August day in question, I was sailing an old Super Porpoise, a Sunfish clone a little bigger than its Sunfish ancestor. The boat sported a short mast and lateen sail along with a self-bailing cockpit. On this particular day the wind was light and the atmosphere was uncharacteristically muggy. After an hour or so, I found myself completely becalmed near the center of the lake. Knowing that calms were rare on this lake, I resigned myself to wait it out before wearing myself out paddling for my home beach several miles away. Count this decision as mistake #1. I should have read the ominous signs and paddled to the nearest shore.

The calm persisted. I had a clear view toward the west side of the lake and to my horror I saw a classic line squall bearing down on me and my becalmed boat at an alarming rate of speed. The leading edge of the squall line was jagged, full of rain and possibly hail, and looked grey/white in color – like the underbelly of a Great White Shark (all negative connotations intended!) I had been in several squalls like this before, and while rather exciting, they didn’t strike me as all that dangerous. However, this squall was full of lightning with many full cloud to ground strikes occurring every few seconds. I have a healthy respect for lightning but as the squall approached, that respect starting changing to fear. I knew that life was about to get very interesting in the next few minutes.

Thinking back to my Boy Scout days, I recalled that lightning is likely to strike the highest object on a surface, and at this exact moment, the highest object on my patch of Crystal Lake was the peak of the aluminum gaff on my boat! I considered lowering the sail and unsteping the mast but at the rate the squall was bearing down on me, I wasn’t sure I had enough time, and even if I did, I would still have a partially furled, wet sail and a lot of metal spars on the deck. Abandoning the first plan, I decided to intentionally capsize the boat with the sail still fully hoisted. By standing on the side of the deck and pulling on the mast, I got the boat on its side. I then continued to push the rig down until the hull “turned turtle” and was completely upside down. The lake was over 100 feet deep at this spot, so there was no danger of getting the rig stuck in the bottom and with the boat turtled and the dagger board and rudder retracted, the hull was almost awash or at best a few inches above the surface. I was wearing a good PFD, and swam to the windward side of the hull looping the mainsheet around my waist. I hunkered down low in the water near the hull and braced myself for the onslaught.

click to enlarge

Given the short interval between each flash and report, I knew that the lightning was virtually on top of me.

The squall hit only seconds after I got in the water, and it was quite a show. The sky turned black as night, rain and hail pelted the surface of the lake and I estimated the wind at somewhere between 50 and 60 mph. The lake surface went from flat to whitecaps in a matter of seconds. The black sky was punctuated with flashes of lightning, and given the short interval between each flash and report, I knew that the lightning was virtually on top of me.

The squall enveloped me for about 5 minutes, but within minutes, the leading edge of the squall had moved off to the east, the sun came out again, a gentle wind returned and about the only evidence of the storm was noticeable temperature drop of several degrees. I righted the boat, scrambled back in sheeted in to the new wind and returned home without incident.

In retrospect, I have to wonder if I did the right thing. Having a good PFD in the boat and wearing it (which I always do when sailing single handed) was the first good decision. I also knew that I had to reduce sail one way or the other as an exposed sail in a 60 mph wind would have been violently dangerous. But the important question was the lightning factor, specifically was I safer mostly submerged in the lake or by being in the lake was I more prone to the ill effects of a surface strike?

I would be interested in reader comments, so feel free to chime in below.