While kayaking down the Hudson River one summer afternoon a few years ago, midway through a two-week, 300-plus-mile voyage from the Canadian border to the Statue of Liberty, my buddy Dan Bendor and I glanced nervously at the darkening sky.
“Don’t like those clouds,” I said, quickening the pace.
Dan nodded. “Better start looking for a place to hole up.”
“How about that island?” I replied, waving my paddle toward a pile of rocks less than a mile away.
As if we needed further encouragement, a low rumble of thunder reverberated through the river valley, and by the time we reached land 10 minutes later rain pelted in sheets.
We dragged our boats out of the water and hunched helplessly while the first flashes of lightning pierced the growing blackness.
“Sit on your PFD!” Dan cried.
I tore off my life jacket and tried to balance with my feet in the air.
We counted the seconds between flashes and thunderclaps. Five seconds – a mile away … four seconds – uh-oh, definitely heading our way – two seconds … FLASH/BAM!
We never saw the strike, but it had to be less than 100 yards away.
FLASH/BAM! FLASH/BAM! FLASH/BAM!
Bolts exploded all around us.
I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears.
FLASH/BAM! FLASH … BAM! FLASH ……. BAM! FLASH ………… BAM!
One second – 1,000 yards. Two seconds – 2,000 yards. Three seconds, more than half a mile.
I opened my eyes and looked over at Dan. We smiled.
“Don’t move yet,” he ordered. We held our uncomfortable poses for another 15 minutes, and then dared to stand up so we could watch the storm recede north.
I never confirmed definitively that sitting on a life jacket protects you from electrocution during a lightning storm, but as far as I was concerned on that terrifying afternoon, it worked.
At any one time the earth experiences some 2,000 thunderstorms generating 100 lightning strikes per second, and according to the National Weather Service those bolts, which each carry charges of more than 100 million volts, kill an average of 73 people in the United States each year.
Those odds may seem to confirm the old “as likely as getting hit by lightning” analogy – but that’s a bet you don’t want to take when you’re out there in a storm.
Fellow adventurers who spend a lot of time outdoors, often far from shelter, can follow a few rules to reduce their chances of becoming a smoldering heap of cinders.
– If you can’t get inside a closed building or car, find a low spot away from trees and crouch down. Obviously, if you’re paddling miles offshore, you’re screwed.
– If you’re in a group, split up and stay as far apart as practical.
– Don’t use a cellphone, radio or other electronic device.
– Wait at least 30 minutes after the lightning and thunder stops to resume paddling, hiking, running, biking or whatever else you were doing outside.
If you’re like me, several times a year you will have to take such evasive maneuvers.
Just the other day a friend and I had to paddle like crazy to get ashore from Long Island Sound when a single dark cloud not in the forecast materialized off New London. As if it had eyes the cloud swerved directly toward us and we had to veer to Avery Point in Groton to avoid it. Luckily, we had enough time to change course.
On other occasions I’ve dodged bolts while climbing mountains, camping in forests, swimming in lakes – that’s a particularly scary situation – and running on country roads.
Once a fellow runner and I hunkered down in a barn for an hour or so, and when we finally loped back home passed a smoking tree that had just been struck.
There’s no question the National Weather Service has the best advice:
“There is no safe place outside when thunderstorms are in the area. If you hear thunder, you are likely within striking distance of the storm. Just remember, When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!