Shock and Awe

edited June 2014 in Beginner Questions
Last night I got pulled from the pool as a lightning storm passed overhead. Apparently it is NYS law. I struck me as odd in that Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod some 250 years ago now, and I would have expected my gym to have that latest of technologies mounted on their roof.

But what else struck me was that I don't know. (An unknown unknown became a known unknown, in the reasoning of Rumsfeld) You see I was planning on river swimming soon and ocean swimming as well (a swell) and I don't know what I should and should not do if the weather turns while I am so engaged.

Assuming I'm swimming alone, unescorted, am I better off swimming for the nearest land or am I safer in the water given that I'm not "grounded" if I'm not touching the ground? If I'm in the water am I grounded if I'm standing on the ground, or is the "Desert... with the perfect disguise above" also not grounded until bedrock?

If I'm escorted, is it safer to get on the kayak? Is my kayaker safe? Is my Kayaker in peril because (s)he's the highest point (which, if I understand it correctly, is what lightning strikes)?

The saying in Maine is "If you don't like the weather, just wait 5 minutes, it'll change." (I'm sure they say that elsewhere, not So. Cal where you have just two weather forecasts, Rain for 3 months, and Sunshine for the other months.) And a sunny day on the Casco bay can (and likely will) turn into a torrential rain/lightning storm in the late afternoon for about an hour, then "wait 5 minutes." Point being, that time and tide wait for no man and if the tides are right such that the swim starts in the late mid afternoon and is not likely to be finished by the late afternoon storms do I have to worry?

So the question is, what do you do? How concerned should I be?

Thank you.


  • gregocgregoc Charter Member
    Your kayaker is in greater danger of being struck out in open water because they would be the highest point. From what I have read, a lightning strike in water can be leathal for about 20 feet (plus or minus who knows how many feet. If the shock doesn't kill you, the sound wave will make you deaf. The charge disapates on top of the water and there is not much of a differance between fresh and salt water.
    Here is a good Reddit link.
  • ssthomasssthomas DenverCharter Member
    We have an indoor pool here that isn't 'grounded', so they make you get out if the storm gets bad. Drives me bonkers.

    I'm known to swim through some pretty knarly stuff.... I feel like I'm safer in the water alone (though I would worry for a kayaker). When lightening strikes a lake, fish don't float up to the top. Why should I be any different? Also, the wind and waves from a good storm are great training.

    Maybe I'm not a good, sane person to answer this question....
  • gregocgregoc Charter Member
    @ssthomas, fish do get killed by lighning strikes in the water, but not often because the charge radiates along the surface. You are at greater risk than any fish.
  • Thank you, gregoc.

    So what do you do? Do you just keep swimming and dream that any lightning hits the shark that you know is just around the corner?

    Are you (and by "you" I mean all of us) inclined to not swim at times when there might be lightning? Are you just figuring that the chance of getting struck by lightning is 1 in 3000 over your lifetime, and 1 in 700,000 in any given year? lightning facts But, like the lottery, You gotta be in it to win it!

    And that's the point. You're IN it! So your chances of "winning it" are dramatically higher.

    OK. I guess I feel better knowing that I did know. Stay the eff out of the water in a lightning storm. If I'm in the water stay closer to the shore so that there is stuff that is higher than me. (Assuming there's no way to get out.) And beyond that, just know that it is a risk of the sport.

    I can't imagine that people here haven't had this situation, tho'.
  • gregocgregoc Charter Member
    With long training swims in lakes and along the shore, it has come up several times and I always got out.
  • Fish%204%20-%20320.gif

    From NOAA, it shows "why" fish don't die from the strike, but Gregoc's link brings up the point that some fish will poach if they are right under the strike and others will die from the thunder.

    I guess the calculus is pretty straightforward. If you are being escorted, the escorts are at risk and in being so their increases your risk commensurately. They could leave or pull away by 100 feet, but they are still at risk (BTW Florida leads the nation with lightning deaths, not non coincidental to the number of people out in boats) so they should protect themselves by going ashore ASAP. You are at less risk, however, you are at greater risk of being lost at sea! Ergo, get on the boat and get out of there.

    I hate to give myself an excuse for cutting a workout short.
  • TimDexTimDex Member
    At our local outdoor pool the lifeguards are constantly listening for thunder, however distant. At that point its everybody out for 10mins unless we hear another clap. We're in Colorado and afternoon storms are pretty regular but, I'm convinced they are hearing the coal trains rumbling by so they can slope off for 10mins.
  • Turns out Colorado is the Number 1 state for lightning strikes. However it is number 10 for lightning deaths, because, while it is an extraordinarily "active" state. The activities aren't as exposed as the Florida activities. and there are less people and lots of places for lightning to strike where people aren't.

    I was in the beach house one pre season night and the place was being lit up by lightning! I mean, every window in the house was blindingly bright at the same time. And then the thunder. It rolled for ever and the entire house shook while it did so.

    The weird thing was that the time between the flash and the thunder was upwards and beyond minute(s). 5 seconds per mile these strikes were 10 to 20 miles away (and more) and yet they were lighting us up like they were right outside, and they were physically shaking the house!

    I just got a flash flood advisory, so it's likely the pool will be shut down again!
  • bobswimsbobswims Santa Barbara CACharter Member
    edited June 2014
    The need to get out of a pool because of lightning is just an old wives' tale. When Thomas Edison harnessed electricity he and his assistants ran numerous tests to determine the safety and risks associated with high voltage current. In the beginning people were very afraid of having electricity in their house. Edison knew he had to work hard at alleviating their fears if his dream of large scale power plants was to come true.

    Ultimately, he devised a test whereby a lightning strike could be harnessed and sent along a power line. The line ran throughout a house, and people seeing that it did not catch on fire, were reassured that electricity would be safe in their homes.

    What is not well known is that things almost went very wrong for a couple of Edison's assistants. In order to ensure the success of their experiment, they had to find a way to maximized the likelihood that lightning would strike in the right place. It was decided that the lightning rod should be placed in the water, with the power line held out of the water by stringing it along a row of small boats to the shore. Considering the difficulty in setting up the experiment it should not have come as a surprise that something would go wrong.

    As Edison's assistants were transporting the lightning rod out into the water, the weight of the rod shifted suddenly in the boat. This caused the boat to rock violently with the lightning rod falling off into the water. A couple of Edison's assistants jumped in the water and attempted to get it back in the boat. Just before they reached the lightning rod a bolt of lightning struck only 25 ft away from them. The shock wave tossed the remaining people out of the boat. As they all scrambled back in they were astonished to find that both of assistants who jumped in after the lightning rod were ok. Apparently, they were both outside the 20 ft dead zone, and felt no effects from the lightning.

    It was uncertain why the wives' tale had survived all these years, so a small group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute did a study examining the dangers of lightning around water and people's fear of it. In their report they exposed a disturbing conspiracy among lifeguards. Apparently lifeguards for years have been intentionally misleading the public to get extra time off from sitting in their uncomfortably hard chairs. To make sure the myth survived, and their bottoms remained soft, the powerful Lifeguard Union International quietly bought off legislators and got them to pass laws requiring people to get out of a pool if they hear thunder or see lightning.

    The absurdity of those laws is quickly exposed when these "safety laws" were applied to indoor pools. For example, people are required to get out of the pool when lightning is striking nearby even though they are allowed to drink water from a drinking fountain, or take a long hot shower. Nevertheless, the myth survives even today because of the lightning safety deniers. The deniers claim that the science is unsettled, and is based on a single experiment conducted over a hundred years ago. The deniers position is further bolstered by the unanimous agreement among lifeguards that getting people out of the water has saved thousands of lives. Frankly, I have never been one to succumb to claims resting on the testimony of a group of people who have a vested interest in the outcome. But that's just me.
  • dpm50dpm50 PA, U.S.Senior Member

    Oh, I'm all about conspiracy among lifeguards. Have had more than my share of perfectly good swims indoors (okay, I know that "perfectly good swim" and "indoors" are contradictory terms, but bear with me here). If kate, if there's any chance of a thunderstorm on a day I have a long swim scheduled, I try to get I such a swim early in the day when storms are less likely. Arguing with lifeguards and pool management, even presenting scientific research has proven futile.

  • wendyv34wendyv34 Vashon, WASenior Member

    As a lifeguard/pool manager, I have to say, most of our rules (other than those mandated by the health dept.) come from situations where people did something and got hurt/killed doing it, then the pool/municipality got sued. It's all about not getting sued. You would be amazed at what people will do to hurt themselves/their children/others, then blame us for not stopping them. You can't really fault lifeguards or pool managers for enforcing rules, it's their job and they can get fired for not doing their jobs. Scientific evidence should be presented to the governing health/safety authorities, because they would be the ones responsible for changing the laws/rules.

    As for lightning, there are a bunch of tall light standards and big trees around the outdoor pool that I manage. From what I've read, people can be injured/killed just by being near an object that is hit by lightning. Even if being in the water is perfectly safe during a thunderstorm, I wouldn't sit in the lifeguard tower (nor would I ask anyone else to) during one. When my staff are sent home due to a storm, they don't get paid, so they would prefer that we stay open, people swim and they get paid. We also issue free passes if a swim is cancelled and swimmers are asked to get out. This obviously hurts our budget, so I hate to have to close the pool for any reason.


    It's always a bad hair day when you work at a pool.

  • pavlicovpavlicov NYC USASenior Member
    edited May 2016

    This is a bit an off-track story but it might have a point at the end. It might.

    My mom likes swimming - she swims the old grandma breast stroke with her head above water but she has no problem to cover mile or two. She is also by profession high school physics teacher (who turned into a software coder). We spent summers in Southern Bohemia camping around a lake with a small island about half mile in the lake. My mom used swim to the island and back. Once, there was a quick and very violent afternoon thunderstorm while she was swimming. She got scared because water, lightening and some old physics education got mixed into some very scary imaginations. She swam as fast as she could. She put her head in the water (no googles, no cap) and was breast stroking to our camp. As kids we were sitting in the tent maybe 200 yards from a tiny beach, when she finally appeared and completely breathless leaned against this huge tree that had a swing build on one of its branches. She was breathing hard. It was raining, so after a minute or so, she started walking towards our tent. When she was about half way to our tent, the tree got struck by lightning and cut in half.

  • dpm50dpm50 PA, U.S.Senior Member

    Wow, @pavlicov -- glad your mother was safe! Makes me shiver just thinking about that incident

  • FlowSwimmersFlowSwimmers Polson, MontanaMem​ber

    Here's what a kayak looks like that gets hit by lightning.Kayak Lightning

  • swimmer25kswimmer25k Charter Member

    I did my Masters thesis on death and injury from high-tension (AC) electricity and lightning (DC). I couldn't find any documented instances where lightning hit a pool and killed swimmers. I became interested in the topic after being pulled 500M into an 800 at my first LCM NJO meet in 1986. We (the third heat of the meet) Had to re-swim after the fast guys who were in the low 8:10s did their race. My second swim was a bit slower.

  • pavlicovpavlicov NYC USASenior Member
    edited May 2016

    dpm50 said:
    Wow, @pavlicov -- glad your mother was safe! Makes me shiver just thinking about that incident

    Thanks. I remember that both of my parents got super drunk that night! :D

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