National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

On the Bay in a Boat


What a day! The sailing was great, in the morning we went to Marina Bay, enjoyed a nice lunch on the boardwalk and saw some good paintings at an art show. So far, so good, right? Sounds like our usual fun and relaxing time on the waters with friends. Yes, until we got the thunderstorm above us. Ah yes! But what were we doing on the water at that time? The skipper (that would be me) must be nuts, right?

Yes, we knew there were going to be potential thunderstorms in the afternoon. We called the sailing club and heard the latest radar and Doppler predictions in early afternoon from Marina Bay. We were told the front was coming and was going to stay probably until late evening. That’s why we decided to make it back as quickly as we could. It is really a quick sail. It started to rain on us when we were passing the JFK library. We were entering the harbor, passing Castle Islands when a heavy, thick fog hit us while the rain went on.

Unfortunately we didn’t have a horn on our boat; nevertheless we put up our radar reflector and stayed as close to the coastline as we could safely. We also saw several ferries in the middle of the channel and none of them were using their horn either! Anyway, we were passing the World Trade center, the ICA and the court house when the fog cleared a bit and finally we had the vision of the Boston marina. We were so happy to have made it almost home. Then the first lightning touched nearby the courthouse on the seaport district. We heard the thunder at the same time the lightening struck the ground, prompting me to say “Wow, the thunderstorm is really close, let’s not touch anything in metal.” I then stopped touching the railing at that point and was only standing on the plastic benches, holding the helm while trying to maintain my balance.

The second lightening came very quickly. Louise got hit on her hand and arm via her finger touching a piece of metal. I got hit as I was holding the tiller against me for stability, and the extension of the tiller is metal and it was folded on the wood part of the tiller and was thus touching or close to my soaked wet body.

A burning pain spread through my front torso that was excruciating. I screamed in agony while collapsing, letting go of the tiller. I felt a tremendous burning sensation coming from deep inside my body and I couldn’t breathe anymore. Three times at least I was trying to inhale air but nothing was reacting within my chest while my brain smelled my own flesh burning. All I was thinking was, "We’ve been hit. I’m burning, but that’s OK, people can live even if they are badly burned. I need to breathe. I can’t give up. I need to breath.”

It would have been so easy then to just let go instead and no longer suffer the agonizing burning pain. After the 4th try of breathing, it came back, the lung muscles were responding again. I then fell on the plastic bench on my left side, adopting a fetal position, no longer hearing from my right ear, the side facing the tiller. My hearing came back later in the ER. I got lucky this time.

We are still debating whether the lightening made contact with the mast and thus got to Louise and me via the metal connections within the boat, which probably diffused some of the magnitude within the mast and the rigging or the main contact was with water instead. The mast standing up so high is the most likely hypothesis. There is a type of lightening which is called staccato lightening. Maybe this is what hit us. It is a very short lightening from clouds to ground and has considerable branching and maybe that minimized the amount of the electric discharge we got on boat. Louise and I were staying behind the mast and Louise now recalls seeing a lightening bolt in front of her with an angle to the mast.

Both Louise and I got taken to the ER at Mass General Hospital. They ruled out any serious damages to vital organs. Everybody there admired the “fern” patterns on my torso where the electrons entered my body. I was told it’s apparently very rare to observe such patterns on live survivors of lightening. I found a very striking one (no pun intended) on the Internet (mine is not as big I think) but it will give you an idea:

Louise and I were released in early evening. Life is about taking risks while trying to balance everything so the risks can be minimized as much as possible especially when we play against Mother Nature.