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Lightning on the Water: Personal Watercraft Safety

Buzzle Staff
A Maryland man was recently electrocuted and killed when a lightning bolt struck water near where he was riding his jet ski. How can one be safe? Let's find out...
With the explosion in popularity of personal watercraft in the last two decades, those of us who live near large bodies of water are familiar with seeing throngs of people riding jet skis and wave runners.
The crafts themselves are relatively safe when operated wisely, and the most pressing concern is often from environmentalists who are displeased with the amount of fuel and by-products that the small crafts leave in their wake. But another major concern has emerged for personal watercraft enthusiasts―and that is lightning.
Most of us are going to get out of the water when we have an indication that a storm is approaching. If you are swimming near a shore or a boat, simply getting out of the water will be enough to ensure your safety from a water strike. But those riding personal water crafts, it may be difficult to get completely out of the water before lightning approaches.
With the speed and ferocity with which storms can develop―especially in coastal areas―sometimes, boaters and others near the water are simply caught off guard. If you are in a boat, however, you are going to be safe from a lightning strike of the water around you.
And getting out of the water if you are swimming is usually reasonably accomplished as well. But those on a jet ski or a wave runner may find themselves rather far from land or any place that might prevent them from being electrocuted.

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Many people are comfortable taking their personal water crafts far from shore, and sometimes ride them in areas or during times of the day when there are few other boats on the water. If a storm materializes while someone is far from shore, they may be in trouble.
The way many personal water crafts are built does not allow for a rider to completely remove himself from the water. Even on a wave runner, a rider's feet are still in contact with the water at various points.
If you find yourself in a situation where you believe that a thunderstorm may be approaching while on a personal water craft, the first thing you should do is determine the shortest distance between yourself and a point at which you are completely out of the water.
That point may be land or a nearby boat. Make your choice and move immediately and as fast as possible in that direction. It's important to maintain speed as that will probably keep as much of you out of the water as possible while you approach your destination. Once there, get out of the water completely until the storm has passed completely.
It's important to note that lightning strikes can occur up to 10 miles away from heavy rains and thunderstorms. So don't take any chances when out on the water. Another thing to note is that water is not an excellent conductor of electricity, so lightning strikes will probably dissipate within a fairly small area.
That means, lightning will have to strike very close to you in order for it to be a real danger. At least, that's the case in freshwater.

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The greater the salinity of the water―ocean water has very high salinity―the further the electric current from the lightning will probably travel.
Regardless of where you are or what type of water you're in, there is no point in taking any chances with lightning while on a personal water craft. Make the smart decision and move immediately to safety.
Even if the craft must be abandoned while you board a nearby boat, it's still a reasonable sacrifice to ensure your safety. And although it is very unlikely that you will be struck or killed by lightning while on the water, the water itself makes you a much larger target than you would be on dry land.