Safety in a Thunderstorm

"Dee," I heard Maggie's voice from a distance. "Dee, wake up." I opened my eyes to see Maggie squatting in the tent door. "You better get up, a storm's coming." She said. "A storm?" I asked, yawning. Kaboom - thunder filled my head. I scrambled out of the tent and stood shivering in my nightshirt. "Here," Maggie handed me a steaming mug, "I got the coffee made just before the storm started." I held the warm mug in both hands and looked around.

We were camped on Eden Island, a tiny islet, just south of Reid Island, in the Central Gulf Islands of British Columbia. The evening before, we lugged our kayaks up a ten-foot rock shelf and set up our tent on a tiny patch of grass. Though primitive, our site offered panoramic views of lush green islands and sparkling seas. But, that was yesterday.

This morning, a dark mantle of cloud obscured the Southern sky. The wind bent the grass at my feet and rustled the leaves of an arbutus tree nearby. Steep waves smacked the shore. We dressed quickly in warm, rainproof gear then packed up the camp stove and dishes. The wet tent flaps whipped around our faces we stowed the kitchen equipment under the fly and placed large stones on the tent pegs.

The sky lit up. Seconds later I heard a deep rumble and a powerful bang.

"It's coming straight for us." I said. We looked around for shelter but could only see some shrubby junipers and a spindly arbutus tree.

"Let's go down to the beach," Maggie said, "It's the lowest spot on the islet."

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We scrambled down the rock shelf to the shore below. The 'beach' consisted of a small sandstone shelf striated with jagged edges and one large piece of driftwood. We sank down behind the thickest part of the log, squashing ourselves between it and the cliff behind. Wood doesn't conduct electricity. We knew that much.

As the storm moved closer, we watched. A double-pronged, lightning bolt struck Galiano Island, a mile and a half away, and was followed by a shattering blast. Minutes later, Galiano Island's fire hall alarm sounded. We looked at each other with wide eyes.

The time between the flashes and crashes shortened as the tempest closed in on us. My stomach fluttered as the sky darkened over our islet. We lay down behind the log, shut our eyes and ignored the boulders poking our ribs. Brilliant flashes penetrated our eyelids and thunderous booms echoed in our ears. Sheets of rain pelted down. We waited. As quickly as it arrived, the storm moved on, northward over Reid Island, then died down.

When the thunder waned into distant intermittent grumbles, we emerged and stumbled up the rocky trail to our campsite. It was just as we left it.

"Wow," Maggie said. "That was lucky."

"Good thing, we weren't on the water, in the middle of a crossing." I said, "Now, can we have breakfast?"

The grey wet weather persisted through the morning then cleared by late afternoon. The day's end brought violet skies laced with soft orange streaks. Our morning's adventure seemed distant and unreal as we enjoyed the peaceful evening and stunning sunset.

"We need to buy a weather radio and find out what we should do in a thunderstorm." Maggie said. "Absolutely." I said, nodding my head in agreement.

Did we take the right actions?

Well, we didn't do too badly and we were lucky. We picked the best shelter on the islet; however, we took too long getting there. We were within lightning strike distance the whole time we watched the storm and tidied the campsite. We handled metal and graphite which conduct electricity. We lay down when we should have crouched to minimize contact with the ground.

Lessons learned? We no longer take the weather for granted and we always watch for thunderstorms. Now we understand the importance of finding shelter first and worrying about equipment later. We've learned that lightning is the most deadly aspect of a thunderstorm. While most lightning victims recover, twenty percent don't survive.

Adequate planning, the right equipment, weather knowledge, and vigilance will help keep you and your paddling partners safe when lightning strikes.

Five Things to do to Before You Leave Shore: Plan and Prevent

  • Check marine weather forecasts before you leave home, each day before you leave camp, and before major crossings. If thunderstorms are predicted, stay ashore or change course.
  • Buy a weather radio     - A VHF Marine radio allows you to listen to forecasts and alerts, and to call other boaters or the coast guard. A Marine Radio Operator's Certificate may be required in some areas.     - Small, inexpensive weather radios pick up forecasts but can't be used to send messages.
  • Learn basic weather reading to supplement forecasts. Invaluable if you lose or break your radio.     - Purchase a weather identification guide and pack it with you.     - Identify and watch cumulous clouds. If they darken and grow upwards rapidly, a thunderstorm may be brewing.     - Learn about cloud formations, fronts, barometric pressure, and humidity. Determine how these interact with tides, currents and swell to effect wind speed, and wave size.
  • Pack warm clothes, raingear, and tarps - year round.
  • Take a first aid course including CPR. Pack a first aid kit and survival gear.

Five Things To Do in a Thunderstorm: even if you don't see lightning.

  • Get off the water     - A boat is the tallest object on the water making lightning strikes likely.     - If you are fishing or swimming, get out and move away from shore.
  • Seek shelter     - If possible, get in a vehicle, roll up the windows, and avoid touching metal parts; or, get in a building, staying away from electrical appliances and wiring.     - Don't shelter under tall isolated objects like trees or poles. Instead, look for a dense group of trees or shrubs of a similar height.     - Look for a natural shelter in a deep cave, against a cliff, in a valley, or a ditch.     - If no shelter is available, crouch down, feet close together with your head tucked down and your hands over your ears. Spread out, keeping people several yards apart. Minimize your contact with the ground - don't lay down.
  • Avoid objects that conduct electricity such as graphite and metal, ( paddles, tent poles, camp stoves, fences, power lines, umbrellas, etc).
  • Monitor the storm     - Lightning has been known to strike 10 miles away, though; the usual strike distance is 3 - 5 miles. Thunderstorms move swiftly.     - After you see lightning, count the seconds until you hear thunder. Every five seconds equals a mile in distance. A count of five means lightning is overhead. If the time increases, the storm may be moving away.     - If you see lightning but don't hear thunder, the storm is probably 15 miles away. If you hear thunder, the storm is within 10 miles - lightning strike distance.     - If you see a blue glow around metal objects, smell ozone, hear buzzing, feel your scalp tingle or your hair stands on end - dive for cover or crouch down. The movement of electricity, just before lightning strikes, creates these sensations.
  • Apply First Aid to victims     - Call or send for help ASAP. Don't cause another casualty by exposing yourself to lightning. Wait until danger is past before helping victims. Remember: people don't hold a charge, so touching them can't hurt you; victims without a pulse can be revived with CPR; and, 80% of those struck by lightning survive.


This storm caused waterspouts, South of us - near Victoria. Waterspouts develop when the bottom of a large thundercloud sags down towards the water, forms a funnel, and lifts the water. They can grow to 33 yards high and 22 yards in diameter. Waterspouts look and act like a tornado and, while they are not as severe, they are dangerous to kayakers. The average life span is fifteen minutes and they fizzle out once they move over land.

Dee Kinnee is an avid paddler, and outdoor recreation enthusiast. She lives near the ocean in Chemainus, Vancouver Island, with her partner, 3 cats and 2 kayaks.

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