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Small boats – wind, lightning and safety




Last week was “Safe Boating Week” across the United States. To promote safe boating practices of the recreational small boater, NOAA’s National Weather Service emphasizes the importance of weather awareness and planning whenever you decide to take to the water.

Eastern Kentucky is home to some of the most beautiful, and the largest of lakes east of the Mississippi River (not counting the Great Lakes). Buckhorn Lake, Cave Run Lake, Paintsville Lake, Carr Creek, Laurel Lake, and of course Lake Cumberland, the largest of these Kentucky jewels which covers over 50,000 acres. These lakes have a superb reputation for excellent fishing and water recreation that draws residents and visitors alike each year. To get to those fish, many fishermen choose to use a boat. The lakes of eastern Kentucky are large, but they are not an ocean. Every boat plying the lakes of east Kentucky is classified as a small boat, even though they range from a fairly largelooking houseboat, to the sleek bass boat.

Weather can pose a serious threat to any boater, but especially to those who are unprepared.

As a small boat operator, it is sometimes easy to overlook the obvious. You can easily be beyond a half hour from any marina, and oftentimes, the distance is even greater. Weather can be both friend and foe to the recreational boater. Calm winds and seas make for enjoyable power boating, water-skiing, and fishing. A fresh breeze and a light chop provide an invigorating sailing or wind surfing experience. But the sudden emergence of dark clouds, shifting and gusty winds, torrential downpours and lightning can turn a day’s pleasure into a nightmare of distress.

Wind is tricky because it can vary widely over just a few feet. The best example is to look at tornado damage where one house is blown apart, and the house next door has a few shingles blown off – or no damage at all.

There have been many studies of wind effect on various structures in wind tunnels. The National Weather Service uses wind gusts of 58 miles per hour as a basis of warnings with thunderstorm wind because a 58 mph gust will start to blow shingles off a normal house. It can uproot a tree if the ground is fairly wet. And a trailer that is not properly tied down can roll over. Aged or poorly constructed sheds can also be toppled if the wind hits broadside.

But a boat on open water is much different than anything based on solid ground. Winds can make boating difficult at much lower speeds than produce hazardous conditions on land. The National Weather Service takes this into account, and issues a “lake wind advisory” whenever winds create a hazard to boating conditions on the area lakes.

Between April 1 and October 31 of each year, which is the peak boating season for east Kentucky, a lake wind advisory is issued when the sustained wind speeds are between 20 to 29 mph for at least one hour, or wind gusts are 35 to 44 mph for any duration. Higher wind speeds require a wind advisory or high wind warning which also has an impact over the land. The lake wind advisory is issued for winds that are not associated with thunderstorms.

In addition to creating choppy water conditions, winds in the range of 20 to 29 mph can create hazards for small boat operators in maneuvering on the open water, or in trying to dock safely at the local marina. Wind gusts of 34 knots or more can easily capsize a small boat, especially if the boater is unprepared.

Lightning also presents a serious danger to boaters. The best course of action a vessel operator can take to reduce the risk from a lightning strike is to return to safe harbor and seek shelter inside a sturdy, enclosed building. If caught on the open water, remember that one does not have to be struck directly by a lighting bolt while on deck to receive severe injuries or be killed. Tall masts, antenna booms and fly decks are all high profile targets for a lightning strike, and frequently strikes to vessels produce extensive damage to navigational and communications equipment.

All on board should stay away from all ungrounded metal objects. But most importantly, the boat owner should have the boat properly grounded. That involves having a special cable running through to the boat’s bottom, allowing a path for the lightning strike to travel directly through the boat and discharge into the water, without the electric charge traveling over most of the boat surfaces.

Perhaps the boat operator’s most important tool is NOAA Weather Radio. In addition to the forecast and current weather conditions in the area, NOAA Weather Radio gives the greatest advance warning that strong winds approaching the area. You can purchase a NOAA Weather Radio at a local electronic dealer or at most major retailers.

Knowing what to expect will allow everyone to enjoy the resources offered by the area lakes, and also allow for important decision making that can save your life, and the lives of your family.


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