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Is Kayaking in a Thunderstorm Dangerous? (With 6 Tips for Your Safety)

At least 24000 people die from lightning every year. According to other estimates, the true number is even higher. Most deaths occur in developing countries where there are fewer buildings to stay safe.

However, water sports enthusiasts in affluent industrialised countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland also belong to the high-risk group. According to a study, there were seven injuries and three deaths of kayakers from lightning in America alone in the period from 2010 to 2014. In addition, four impacts in the vicinity of kayaking were documented.

In July 2014 a dramatic scene took place at the world-famous Venice Beach in Los Angelos. A single lightning struck near the shore. One swimmer was killed and 13 others injured. Eight of the injured had to be treated in hospital. Some of the injured were even in the water, but were caught by lightning over the sandy ground.

Kayakers often endanger themselves. A thunderstorm far away seems harmless and not enough to stop the trip. Lightning usually strikes under the thunderclouds. In some cases, however, the lightning runs horizontally and touches the ground up to ten kilometres away from the actual storm. Especially since the direction in which the thunderstorm moves is difficult to predict. Even a thunderstorm in the distance can quickly move to your position. Within minutes you’ll find yourself in the danger zone.

A lightning strike has an enormous energy that can break bones and melt sand into glass. If the lightning hits a tree, there is not much left of it and of the ground nearby. Dangerous injuries, which in the worst case could lead to death, can occur up to a distance of 10 metres from the point of impact. This value refers to solid ground. In wet conditions, especially in water, there is still a great danger at much greater distances. If lightning strikes in the water, first injuries can occur within a radius of 100 metres. This is also the reason why so many people were injured by lightning in Venice Beach in 2014.

Additional danger threatens kayakers, because lightning usually hits the highest objects. Outside on the smooth water, however, your boat and often the metal paddle is the highest point. Especially carbon kayak paddles are excellent lightning conductors. But what should you do if you get into a thunderstorm?

#1 Goes ashore immediately

At the first small sign of a thunderstorm due to distant thunder or lightning, your group must immediately turn around and paddle to the next shore. Once there, you can take your time to sound out the direction of the thunderstorm. Don’t do that while you’re still on the water. There you simply don’t have the time. The storm clouds can move quickly. Before you know it, you’re already in the middle of the danger zone.

As you head towards the shore at top speed, you can follow the distance to the thunderstorm. Simply count the seconds between lightning and thunder and divide by 3 to estimate the distance in kilometres. If you hear thunder before you reach 30, you are in danger.

At best, there is a building on land where you can seek shelter. A car is the second best choice. In any case, drive up the car windows and keep away from metal. If there is no building in sight and you are still a long way from the parking lot, you simply have to make yourself as small as possible in a low location. Pull your knees and feet to your body and hold them with your hands. Don’t seek shelter from the rain under a tree. Keep at least ten meters away from trees and other structures. The shore is not a safe place either. Especially the transition from sea to coast attracts lightning.

Also create insulation between your body and the ground. Put on shoes, sit on your life jacket and use other clothes in the drybags as extra insulation. Do not sit directly on the ground. You should have no contact at all with the ground to reduce the risk of injury from a possible lightning strike.

Umbrellas or small huts with metal roofs protect you from rain, but increase the risk of being struck by lightning. Also create a distance of about five meters between you. If you’re all sitting on the same spot, a lightning bolt would hit the whole group.

#2 Creates distance between group members

If the shore is too far away and you have to endure the thunderstorm on the water, take special care.

The first thing you should do is spread out over a large area. Keep at least 30 meters away from the next group member. If one is struck by lightning, the others are probably not affected, but still close enough to help quickly.

Next, take the paddle out of the water and stow it inside the kayak or place it on the ground (in the case of a sit-on-top kayak). Isolate yourself from the boat as much as possible. There should be no contact with the kayak other than your buttocks and feet.

#3 Call for help

If a member of your squad is caught by lightning, you must call for help immediately. Simply use your mobile phone, which you should always take with you on tour in a waterproof case. Contrary to the popular myth, mobile phones don’t attract lightning. The use of the Smartphone is therefore harmless. Alternatively, an FM transmitter can be used to call for help.

Before the call it is important to know the own position. A GPS device can help, but map services on modern smartphones also display the GPS data. If you are more often on the move on certain waters, you should also check out the mobile phone reception. However, this should be the case for most inland waters. Before the kayak trip you only have to think about recharging the phone.

#4 Provides first aid

If a person is struck by lightning, it is best if only one person helps out. The danger of further lightning strikes still exists. For this reason, you should remain dispersed. The person hit is likely to suffer from shock and burns, broken bones. A big problem is that the lightning probably threw this person out of the kayak. Without the help of the injured person, it will be very difficult to lift the person back into the boat.

At a close impact, the person may be unconscious. First check the breathing.  In the worst case a resuscitation is necessary, which is not easy on the water and has anyway a small probability of success. Despite the high challenge and the low probability, all measures should of course be taken to save human lives.

Whether you should paddle the injured person ashore immediately or wait for the thunderstorm is not an easy decision. The statements of the emergency call centre, the condition of the injured person, the swell, the wind conditions, the strength of the thunderstorm and the distance to the coast all play into the decision.

In the case of a slight injury, however, you should continue to stay on the water. The paddles would increase the risk of further lightning strikes. Listen best to the sound of the thunder. If it slowly becomes quieter and moves away from your location, this is a good sign. But also make sure that more thunderclouds are moving in your direction.

#5 Stay away from high objects

In canals and small rivers you are slightly safer than on the open sea. However, you shouldn’t weigh yourself in a false sense of security and want to complete the trip as normal. The trees and high structures on land act as magnets for lightning. If lightning strikes nearby, the electric shock can reach you even on the water. The water is an excellent conductor of electricity, so you can still be injured at a distance of 100 metres from the point of impact. So it’s best to wait for the thunderstorm on land. The rule of thumb is that after half an hour of no thundering you can continue the trip.

#6 Be prepared for the trip

Furthermore, you should never go kayaking alone. If you want to paddle on the open sea, you should at best look for several buddies who come with you. The bigger the group, the more people can help in an emergency. Each of you must also wear a life jacket. The vest must not only be somewhere in the boat, but must be worn all the time.

In the event of a lightning bolt catching you and catapulting you out of the boat, the lifejacket will keep you afloat. Unlike simple life jackets, which only provide extra buoyancy, real life jackets prevent you from drowning by keeping your head on the surface.

Also equip your kayak with a first aid kit. A mobile phone has also become standard equipment. It can be safely transported in a waterproof mobile phone case. In an emergency you can use it to determine your exact position and alert the emergency services.

The completion of a first aid training is especially important for tours far away from civilization. If you don’t use the emergency call near a city, you may have to wait more than an hour for help. The knowledge about first aid can make the difference.

Also discuss emergency procedures with your group. If everyone knows how to react if you are caught by a thunderstorm during the kayak tour, this will reduce the risk of someone getting hurt.

The chance of being struck by lightning is extremely low, but due to the great danger it poses, the small chance should not be neglected. It would not be smart not to take precautions. With the safety tips presented you can minimize the risk, but flashes are ultimately unpredictable. There can therefore be no hundred percent guarantee of safety.

Besides following the tips, the best precaution to take is to check the weather forecast before setting off on your next kayak trip. If there is only a chance that a thunderstorm will hit, you should rather cancel the trip and repeat it on another day. In this sense we wish you lots of fun and safe kayak trips!

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