When spending a day on the water weather is often taken for granted. Boats are launched when there isn’t a cloud in the sky and a good amount of the time we are off the water by the time conditions change too much. Occasionally our luck with the weather runs out, and at that point level headed thinking and teamwork will be your best method for staying safe.
A couple weeks ago Asya and I launched our kayaks into Casco Bay in southern Maine. The day was gorgeous, a few high wispy clouds, light winds and perfect temperature for a day on the water. We paddled out to Whaleboat Island an uninhabited island a couple hour paddle into the bay. After lunch and a little exploring on the island we started thinking of making our way back to the camp ground we launched from. Casually we started talking about clouds and weather associated with cumulus clouds building overhead. For work I need to know a bit about weather and how it develops so I saw the potential for convective activity but wasn’t really concerned. The give away that I was wrong was when I spotted lightning in the distance, in the direction of our return trip. So, our perfect weather day had changed, and thrown a thunderstorm our direction.
While on land we weighed our options, stay on land and wait out the storm that might or might not hit us, or start back and hope we could paddle the three miles before being overrun by the storm. Realistically the second option wasn’t going to happen, so we had to decide where the best place to weather the storm would be. The part of Whaleboat Island that we were on didn’t have a lot of shelter available, at least not that we could get to easily and quickly. So we decided to paddle over to neighboring Little Whaleboat Island where I had spotted a more sheltered and more accessible area when we paddled past it earlier. We dragged the kayaks out of the water and over turned them so we wouldn’t have to pump a bunch of water out of them later. As the rain started we arrived at our chosen shelter under a small tree. That particular spot was chosen because it offered protection from the wind, a view of our kayaks (not critical but comforting), and most importantly it was not the tallest point or object on the island.
Looking back on the experience I’ll admit that when Asya and I saw the first bolt of lightning we had no idea what the correct course of action was. We had enough provisions with us to spend a night on an island if we HAD to but we weren’t sure how to deal with the threat of lightning. Since there were no buildings or cars that we could duck into for the duration of the storm I believe that we made the best decisions that we could given the options that were presented. And we did that by working together! I recognized that we were going to get hit by the storm and needed to find better shelter and Asya applied the lightning safety information that she knew and helped mitigated our danger from that. Neither of us panicked, denied the storms inevitability or acted without talking things over with the other person. That team work is what helped keep us safe on the water that afternoon. We didn’t do everything perfectly, for example huddling together under a tree is breaking lightning safety rule number one. But, the tree wasn’t the tallest on that part of the island, and we decided that is was better than being out in the open on the wet rocks. What I do think we should have done differently was not huddle together. If one of us were to be injured the odds are that both of us would have been injured making the situation worse. If we had been separated by 10-20 feet that likely hood would be reduced, but we didn’t think of that at the time and now know for next time.
I welcome comments and suggestions on this topic, I’m personally more familiar with thunderstorm safety in terms of aviation not boating so would like input. And, hopefully sharing experiences and knowledge with others will mean that more people who enjoy boating will be able to stay safe when danger looks their way.