Lightning Protection: The Truth About Dissipators

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About this time of year, when lightning strikes become frequent occurrences, we receive a good deal of mail asking about static dissipators such as the Lightning Master. These are the downside-up, wire-brush-like devices you see sprouting from antennas and rooftops in cities and towns, and more frequently, on sailboat masts. When these devices first appeared on the market, we did a fair amount of research to find out whether they realistically could be expected to spare a sailboat’s mast from a lightning strike. The following Special Report first appeared in the July 15, 1995 issue of Practical Sailor. Sailors also will be interested in reading about our discussion of conventional lightning protection systems in Getting a Charge Out of Lightning.

All sailors-except those who sail exclusively in the most northern but still liquid reaches of the Arctic Ocean, or most southern parts of the Antarctic Ocean-are well aware of lightning and its inherent risks. Lightning awareness generally takes one of two forms: (1) aware, concerned, resigned, do nothing or (2) aware, concerned, do something, and hope what was done will be more beneficial than harmful. In many ways, our ability to deal intelligently with lightning is little advanced from Benjamin Franklins approach. Most boats are built in compliance with the safety grounding and lightning protection recommendations of the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC). The highest mast will be well grounded to the sea through a copper wire of suitable size, which connects to a metal plate mounted on the hulls exterior surface. There may be a lightning protection air terminal mounted at the masthead. The terminal may take the form of a vertical spike with a sharp point or some more exotic shape and construction.

For years, a number of companies have started to aggressively market on-purpose lightning protection devices for use on boats. Although the devices appear to be little different from the forms that have been used on both aircraft and stationary constructions, some of the marketing claims have been rather innovative. Are these claims reasonable in light of what is known about lightning? Is the cost of protecting a vessel with one of these devices a good investment? Can you really placate Thor, the god of lightning?

How Lightning Occurs

First, let’s examine what we know about lightning. Lightning is a final result of the natural creation of an electrical charge imbalance in the Earths atmosphere. Simply put, the imbalance can occur due to the movement of the air, which like the movement of a person across a carpet, can cause electrical charges to be moved from one place to another. Imbalance in electrical charge causes a potential gradient to develop. This gradient can be measured and is usually expressed in volts per meter. The normal electric (E) field averages about 150 volts per meter. The field can exceed 1,000 volts per meter on a dry day. At this intensity, the potential difference from the head to the toe of a person 6 foot, 3 inches tall can reach 1,800 volts!

Since this is a static charge, it won't electrocute anyone, but unfortunately, it also can’t be used to power the electrical consumers on a boat. The ability of the atmosphere to withstand or prevent a flow of electrical current when a voltage gradient exists can also be measured.

If, or when, the voltage gradient created by the charge imbalance exceeds the ability of the atmosphere to prevent a current flow, something will happen. In some cases, the charge will be dissipated harmlessly as a flow of ions. This flow may cause a visible affect under some conditions. Seen at night. St. Elmos Fire, an ethereal blue flamelike discharge, may be seen around any sharp points on the boat’s rig. In an aircraft, the blue glow may trail from wing tips and static discharge wicks (those round, pencil-like tubes seen protruding from the trailing edges of wings and control surfaces). An adventuresome pilot may be able to draw electrical arcs from the windscreen to his outstretched fingers. This type of electrical discharge won't hurt you because the small electrical current moves through the surface of the skin, not through the internal organs of the body.

On some occasions, the build-up of charge gradient occurs very rapidly, so rapidly that little if any effective dissipation of the charge can occur before the stress applied to the air by the charge overcomes the ability of the air to resist. When this happens, the charge imbalance is relieved very quickly, by what we call lightning. Lightning is always occurring somewhere on the earth. The planet is always losing electrons. Although the current is very small, less than 3 millionths of an ampere per square kilometer, it amounts to an average global current flow of about 2,000 amperes. Nature balances this current flow by creating about 150 lightning strikes per second.

Lightning occurs both within the atmosphere, cloud-to-cloud lightning, and from the atmosphere to the earth, sky to ground lightning or the reverse, ground to sky discharge. Regardless of the direction of the lightning stroke, a great deal of energy is released as the electrical charge balance of the atmosphere-earth is restored. An average lightning strike consists of three strokes, with a peak current flow of 18,000 amperes for the first impulse and about half that amount of current flowing in the second and third strokes. Typically, each stroke is complete in about 20 millionths of a second. Once the lightning strike occurs, the air becomes a conductive plasma, with a temperature reaching 60,000 degrees. The heating makes the plasma luminous; in fact, it is brighter than the surface of the sun.

Measurements made of the current flow in the lightning strike show that 50 percent will have a first strike flow of at least 18,000 amperes (18 kiloamps, or kA), 10 percent will exceed 65 kA, and 1 percent will have a current flow over 140 kA. The largest current recorded was almost 400 kA.

Current flows of this magnitude are serious stuff and cannot be dealt with lightly.

The Risk to Structures

People who have boats and those who have towers or tall buildings share a common concern about lightning. Due to the altitude distribution of the air movement in the atmosphere that gives rise to the charge imbalance, things that are tall and stick up into the atmosphere are likely to be attractive targets as nature tries to rid itself of the charge imbalance. Since there are more tall towers than seriously tall boat masts, and since lightning-strike records are kept for these towers, we can use this data to ascertain the affect of tower height on attractiveness for lighting strikes.

The Westinghouse Co. obtained data for isolated, grounded towers or masts on level terrain, in a region that experiences 30 thunderstorm days per year. The number of strikes per tower or mast did not reach two until the height of the tower exceeded 500 feet. With a tower 1,000 feet high, the strike frequency was about nine. Towers more than 1,200 feet high were struck more than 20 times. Although the data may not be accurate for very small towers or masts, it appears that the chance of a typical 60-foot sailboat mast being hit will be quite close to, but clearly not zero. We know that there is always a chance of being hit by lightning; after all, people walking on beaches have been hit.

The ground wire, usually the topmost wire in an electrical power transmission line, is frequently hit. Trees are hit very often, sometimes exploding due to the instantaneous vaporization of moisture within the wood. Concern about lightning strikes on golf courses is sufficient to cause the Professional Golf Association to take special measures to ascertain the level of a threat of lightning and to stop play when the local electrical field strength and other indicators show a probability of lightning.

Charge Dissipation

Some people believe that by constantly discharging the charge build-up on an object, the magnitude of the charge imbalance can be controlled and kept to a level where a lightning strike will not occur. Continuous dissipation of static charge potentials is used in every electronics laboratory that works with sensitive integrated circuits and transistors. The workers wear wristbands of conductive material that are connected to the rooms electrical ground. Charges bleed off before they reach levels that might destroy the electronics.

Unfortunately, what works in a laboratory, with very modest static charge quantities, does not work in nature. Let’s look at the facts that govern the charge dissipation approach to undoing what Thor wants to do-blast us with a lightning bolt.

We can begin with some interesting evidence in nature. Trees have many thousands of reasonably sharp points. These points should operate somewhat like man-made charge dissipation devices. The evidence shows that trees, even small trees, are constantly being hit by lightning. Although trees are not terribly good conductors of electricity, they do in fact conduct to some extent, as witnessed by the lightning strikes they suffer. Suppose we substitute a carefully designed set of sharp points for the branches and twigs of the tree. We will make the sharp points of a material that conducts electricity very well, perhaps metal, or graphite (used in aircraft static wick systems). The idea is to take the electrostatically induced potential in the ground system and convey it to the sharp points where it can create ions in the air.

Sharp points create the greatest possible voltage gradient, enhancing the creation of ion flow. As the ions are created, they are supposed to be carried away by the wind, eliminating or greatly reducing the total potential difference, thereby reducing or eliminating the chance of our object being hit by lightning.

The problem with this approach is that the earth can supply a charge far faster than any set of discharge points can create ions. A bit of math will show that a carefully designed static discharge wick or brush can create a current, in an electrical field of 10,000 volts per meter, of 0.5 ampere. This is equivalent to a 20,000 ohm impedance (R=E/I: R=10,000/0.5 = 20,000). The impedance of a site on hard ground is typically 5 ohms. The ratio of the ability of the earth to supply a static charge is inversely proportional to the impedance of the conductor. In this example, the ratio of impedances is 20,000 : 0.05 = 4,000:1.

The earth can supply energy 4,000 times faster than the rate at which a static discharge brush can dissipate the energy! The impedance of saltwater is a great deal less, on the order of 0.1 ohms, making the theory of protection from use of static wicks even more suspect.

Another concept quoted by advocates of lightning prevention through the use of static discharge devices is that the wind will carry off the ions being released by the wicks or brushes. Not only will the wind-blown ions not prevent a strike, they may present a converse affect when there is no wind. In this case, they may migrate upward, making the air more conductive and possibly creating an attractive point of attachment for a step leader which is lurking above looking for a place to strike. Data indicates that step leaders, the precursor of the main lighting strike, don’t pick out a point of attachment until within about 150 feet of an object.

Scientific evidence of the behavior of the step leader indicates that it moves in steps about 150 feet long. This indicates that objects more than 150 feet above the surrounding terrain are more likely to be hit than those which are shorter (most sailboat masts). Until 1980, it was assumed that a grounded mast would provide protection against a direct lightning strike for all objects within a 45-degree cone whose apex was at the masthead. From that date the National Fire Protection Association has advocated that a different assumption be used (NFPA Code#78). This code recommendation assumes that a 96-percent protected volume exists adjacent to a grounded mast, with the boundary of the protected volume described by a curve having a radius of 150 feet (the length of one step in a step leader).

Guarantees

Makers of static discharge devices often quote evidence of many installations that once equipped, have never been hit by lightning. Unfortunately, these reports must be considered as anecdotal, not scientific proof of the value of the system. The fact is that the chances of a given mast or tower of the dimensions of a typical sailboat mast being hit by lightning are exceedingly small. The willingness of some makers of these systems (notably Island Technology, maker of No-Strike devices) to offer to pay the deductible amount on an insurance policy, or a fixed amount if there is no insurance coverage, is good financial accounting on their part rather than proof of the scientific value of their device.

For example, if you assume that the chances of an equipped vessel being hit by lightning are 1 in 1,000 (much higher than actual probability) and you charge purchasers as little as $10 more than normal for the product, you will have accumulated a $10,000 reserve from which to pay the $1,000 deductible amount on an insurance policy.

This income to cost ratio of 10:1 is somewhere between very good and wonderful. Given the price being charged for some of the devices, which offer to pay up to $1,000 toward the deductible in the event of a lightning strike, the ratio of income to probable cost for payout in the event of a lightning strike is more on the order of 100:1, or greater.

Recommended Practices

What should you do to protect your boat from lightning? The best advice available today is to follow the practices recommended by the ABYC for both lightning protection and grounding. Installation of a good lightning protection system won't hurt. If you like the idea and appearance of a particular kind of static discharge device, sharp points, brush or whatever, install it.

When in an active thunderstorm area, you may wish to have all personnel stay as far from shrouds and the mast as practical, and refrain from using electrical equipment. Some skippers may wish to disconnect electronic devices from all connections to the boat, power and antennas, although in the event of a direct strike, even this may not protect the increasingly sensitive solid-state devices used in this equipment.

And If You Play Golf…

The real risk from lightning appears to be greater for those who play golf than for sailors. The practice at most golf tournaments held in areas where lightning is common is to employ various weather monitoring systems to provide some advance warning of a coming storm or likelihood of lightning. A company appropriately called Thor Guard offers a lightning prediction system that monitors the electrostatic field in the nearby atmosphere. The system compares the monitored data with a stored data base and predicts the probability of a lightning hazard in an area up to 15 miles in radius from the monitor. This system is really not practical for use on a boat, although it could be used to provide warning for an area in which a small boat race was being sailed. It would appear reasonable that, with the very large amounts of money involved in delaying a major golf tournament due to the chance of lightning, static dissipation devices would be sprouting from the fields and woods if they could be shown to work.

The chances of being hit by lightning are very low. There is really nothing you can do to dissuade Thor if he takes a liking to your masthead. You might install an electrostatic field strength meter, or calibrate the hair on the back of your head. When the needle indicates a high enough field strength, or when your hair stands up straight enough, give everyone except the helmsman their favorite drink and invite them to watch the show.

For more on on board electrical systems, grounding, and lightning protection see our ebook Marine Electrical Systems – The Complete Series available in our online bookstore.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

23 COMMENTS

  1. I remember reading about this stuff from the Florida Lightning Research Laboratory back in about 2005. We were living on a Catalac 10M at the time and debating with a “licensed” Marine surveyor who thought the little whisk brush like devices were the Cat’s Meow.
    But even grounding the mast on the catamaran is questionable due to the bridge deck and high energy not liking to turn corners.
    In 10years cruising never heard a good answer. 🙁

  2. When I was leading the design of an aircraft antenna for Inmarsat communications which was to mount under the fibreglass fairing at the top of the vertical stabilizer we were concerned about lightning strikes. We could not use the heavy aluminum straps used on nose radar domes as this would have degraded the performance of the antenna. We found that a strip of copper shim washers which were not touching each other and supplied as a self adhesive strip could provide lightning protection without interference with the antenna. I understood that this was something invented by a Boeing engineer. The theory was that at very high voltage the strip would be conductive enough to discharge the air near it so that lightning would not conduct near it.

  3. watched a boat hit by lightening in a race. The strike took out the UHF antenna; twirling it like a baton. The boat was chasing us. When we returned to the clubhouse at the Bristol, RI yacht club, the captain was unaware his yacht had been struck. Taking down the mast revealed the entirety of the top of the mast work was melted. No injuries.

  4. Does it make sense to store electronic devices like computers, tablets, or smart phones in the oven during a thunderstorm?

  5. Thanks for the great academic review. I guess many of us are really interested in the ‘practical’ (sounds familiar? :)) bottom line recommendations for sailboats, not so much for golf courses… And somehow the clear message got lost within the text; what works and to what level, the costs, other means of protection and damage prevention while cruising and at the dock/mooring.

  6. This might sound a bit naive but does attaching heavy duty battery cables to the upper shrouds at the deck and letting them dangle in the water help dissipate a lightening strike to the top of the mast? Or, prevent one for that matter? I tried this while crossing the Tehuantepec in Southern Mexico, Pacific side, when I went through a lighten storm where lightening was hitting the water all around me at a rate of about once every second, believe it or not. It lasted for a good two hours. I was the only sailboat out there. Does anybody know if the cables might have made a difference, maybe by dispersing ions or something like that? Or, if hit by lightening, would the cables be able to direct the charge to the water? Thank you

    • I have heard the same thing and I do attach heavy duty cables to my shrouds and drag them in the water (shrug) no idea if it achieves anything as I’ve never been struck by lightning I figured it can’t hurt ! Or can it ?

  7. I agree the article left me hanging with no course to follow. How deadly are lightning strikes on sailboats? Should we just rely on insurance to replace damaged equipment? What steps can we take during a storm to protect life/property?

  8. Steve not sure what protected your boat in that storm,,,,frightening . I am an engineer but no lightening expert.

    Here is my lightening story. We have an Islander 30 MKII in an end slip at McKinley marina in Milwaukee. Our neighbor was a visiting catamaran from Africa about 45 feet long on the face dock across from our boat. The masts were about 30 feet apart. Prior to the storm I recall talking to the cat owner as he had a serious cable from the mast into the water. Said it was for lightening protection with a large copper plate in the water. That night his mast was hit by a lightening strike. The next morning we went to check things out. The strike destroyed everything electrical or electronic including appliances etc. on the catamaran. Melted portions of his masthead that rained down on his deck left burn marks. After hauling the cat there were hundred black soot holes at the waterline. All needed to be repaired. The only thing that happened to me was the circuit breaker on my boat was tripped. Breakers on the dock were tripped also. No electrical or electronic damage for me. Essentially the neighboring boat took a hit for me. The strike must have created quite an electromagnetic field to trip breakers. Got lucky on this one.

  9. Can a well-grounded mast actually attract a strike? Our 41′ Morgan O/I was anchored at Cape Lookout NC with more than a dozen others, our mast just average height but grounded to a bronze plate. We were the only boat hit, and the water under the hull boiled orange!

  10. An experienced surveyor, who had seen a number of lightning-damaged boats in the course of his career and made note of the protection measures in place on each, said to me, “Bottom line, lightning’s gonna do what it wants.”

  11. A couple of thoughts on boats and lightning and the lack of specific recommendations. Me; live in low lightning area, trailer sailor and amateur radio operator. I installed an outdoor antenna a year or so ago on the house. A child of the Midwest, I took lightning protection seriously. Found a bunch of info on line, some good and some,….well, less so.

    Key things that stood out;
    + kinda like Descarte’s argument for believing in God. the liklihoods may be small, but the consequences can be grave.
    +there are maps of lightning liklihood out there on line
    + Electricity follows the path of least resistance. Lightning is so electrically huge that it will explore all possible paths. Provide the easiest, most direct path possible for a lightning strike to reach ground that guides the current away from people and sensitive gear. Here that meant two stranded 2/0 leads (about 3/8″ diameter) from the antenna bracket directly to individual ground grounds which were then “bonded” to three ground rods serving the house wiring with about 90+ feet of #4 solid copper (smaller diamater #6 meets code but, some of the literature recommended #4 to be on the safe side). The antenna coax where it enters the house in a metal junction box was separated from the jumper that attaches to the radio by a “lightning arrestor.” The arrestor and surrounding metal box are directly grounded (#4 solid copper) to one of the antenna rods located directly under the box.
    + the concept of path step distance; if I am standing outdoors close enough to a ground rod or down wire, and the antenna takes a hit, the current in the soil or the wire may be strong enough to kill simply by going up one of my feet and down the other or grounding through my body. See pictures of dead cattle standing next to a barb wire fence that was hit by lightning. If I am standing out on the wet hull of a sail boat and the mast takes a hit…..maybe the same would apply. Moral here; stay as isolated as possible from the paths lighting might follow.
    + more ground rods are better than fewer for disapating the current into the surrounding soil. How this translated into ground plates on boats, dunno, but more might be better than fewer there as well.
    +British and European lightning structural protection standards have been regarded as more robust than our NFPA standards. Dunno about boats, but might be worth investigating.
    +soils vary in their ability to absorb electrical current; probably the same holds with fresh vs salt water. Ground rods do corrode in the soil over time. Pouring salt around a ground rod increase electrical transfer to the soil and also decreases ground rod life. Not recommended. Better to add more ground rods.
    +if an electrical storm is on the way, and I happen to be on the premises, I disconnect the radio from its coax antenna lead _and_ its power source (two paths for lightning). Also, unplug the power source from the wall outlet. A surge protector might not block juice coming in on the ground wire.
    +I have not placed the radio in a microwave. That solution I have seen offered for EMP protection, provided that the power cord is cut off to avoid acting as an antenna for high voltage RF input.

    That’s about all I can think of of terms of main points. My fellow hams do not use the same level of lightning protection, but seem to regard mine as along the lines of the way to do it. Good luck on coming with with systems for sailboats

    Hope useful, Full sails, Ole

  12. A couple of thoughts on boats and lightning and the lack of specific recommendations. Me; live in low lightning area, trailer sailor and amateur radio operator. I installed an UHF/VHF outdoor antenna a year or so ago on the house. A child of the Midwest, I took lightning protection seriously. Found a bunch of info on line, mostly good and some,….well, less so.

    Key things that stood out;
    + kinda like Descarte’s argument for believing in God. the liklihoods may be small, but the consequences can be grave.
    +there are maps of lightning probabilities out there on line for land masses, perhaps also for the oceans
    + Electricity follows the path of least resistance. Lightning is so electrically huge that it will explore all possible paths. Provide the easiest, most direct path possible for a lightning strike to reach ground that guides the current away from people and sensitive gear. And even then, keep your fingers crossed. Here, that meant two stranded 2/0 leads (about 3/8″ diameter) from the antenna bracket directly to individual ground grounds which were then “bonded” to three ground rods serving the house wiring with about 90+ feet of #4 solid copper (smaller diameter #6 meets code but, some of the literature recommended #4 solid Cu to be on the safe side). The antenna coax where it enters the house in a metal junction box was separated from the jumper that attaches to the radio by a “lightning arrestor.” The arrestor and surrounding metal box are directly grounded (#4) to one of the antenna’s grounding rods located directly under the box.
    + the concept of path step distance; if I am standing outdoors close enough to a ground rod or down wire, and the antenna takes a hit, the current in the soil or the wire may be strong enough to kill simply by going up one of my feet and down the other or grounding through my body. See pictures of dead cattle standing next to a barb wire fence that was hit by lightning. If I am standing out on the wet hull of a sail boat and the mast takes a hit…..maybe the same would apply. Moral here; stay as isolated as possible from the paths lighting might follow.
    + more ground rods are better than fewer for disapating the current into the surrounding soil. How this translated into ground plates on boats, dunno, but there as well, more area might be better than less.
    +British and European lightning structural protection standards have been regarded as more robust than our NFPA standards. Dunno about boats, but might be worth investigating.
    +soils vary in their ability to absorb electrical current; probably the same holds with fresh vs salt water. Ground rods do corrode in the soil over time. Pouring salt around a ground rod increase electrical transfer to the soil and also decreases ground rod life. Not recommended. Better to add more ground rods. How lightning grounding plates on a salt water boat might interact with Zn anti-corrosion plates…..dunno.
    +if an electrical storm is on the way, and I happen to be on the premises, I disconnect the radio from its coax antenna lead _and_ its power source (two paths for lightning). Also, unplug the power source from the wall outlet. The surge protector might not block all those Amps coming in on the ground wire at high Voltage.
    +I have not placed the radio in a microwave. That solution I have seen offered for EMP protection, provided that the power cord (now an antenna) is cut off to isolate the metal case from high voltage RF input. Probably work for lightning as well.

    That’s about all I can think of of terms of main points. My fellow local hams do not use the same level of lightning protection, but seem to regard mine as along the lines of the way to do it. Good luck on coming with with systems for sailboats

    Hope useful, Full sails, Ole

  13. Last point; ground (earth) rods are recommended to be spaced horizontally at least 2x the length of the rod, to better maximize current transfer to soil (minimizing overlap of the electrical fields emanating from each rod). For standard 8 foot rods, that equates to 16 foot spacing. How that translates into size, shape and spacing of grounding structures on a boat electrically connecting to the surrounding water might be a useful question to explore. Again good luck on coming up with systems for sailboats.

  14. Thank you. Best explanation I’ve read about lightning. Shame there’s no definitive answer, but I think there’s not much we can do about lightning. Been through Tehuantepec at the wrong time of year (July), bolts everywhere, but never hit.
    My best story was in Costa Rica, early ’70s, aboard our Lodestar Trimaran ketch, wooden masts with S.S. masthead fittings, lightning all around, and close, and I hear a buzzing sound, look up and we have a glowing ball on both mastheads. Saint Elmo’s Fire. Basketball size on the main and grapefruit on the mizzen. Every close strike made them flare up and buzz louder, then they would return to “simmer”. This went on for over an hour. Finally, everything died down and they went out. It was extraordinary and colorful to watch, but I was pretty nervous steering with our S.S. tiller.

  15. High altitude mountain climbers are supposed to try and get off the peaks before the lightening begins; usually by noon. If you get caught in a storm with lightening and can’t get down below treeline or into some type of depression, you are taught to keep away from your ice ax and for sure don’t leave it attached to your pack with the spike pointing up. Then crouch down as low as possible with legs and boots touching each other so you don’t have as convenient a way for the strike to go across your heart from one leg to the other. Maintain a low crouch and only touch the ground with the two boots together. No hands. Then between strikes, run down-hill like the devil is after you.

    I don’t think that would work on my Catalina 27 though.

  16. As a life long sailor, golfer, and electrical engineer who has a more than average understanding of lightning and potential protection from it, here is the 10% you need to know as a sailor:

    – Mast top static dissipaters are worthless and, as the article points out, could have a negative effect.
    – Proper bonding of your mast and shrouds to a hull mounted grounding plate is a worthwhile project. With that said, a large strike will overwhelm even a well designed and installed grounding system.

    This has usually been an academic subject as most of my sailing has been done is areas not prone to lightning storms. However, on 8/15/2020 we got caught in the most hellacious lightning storm I have ever been in off the coast of Big Sur after leaving Carmel, CA. It is the same storm that created the massive wildfires still ravaging northern CA. Had the most extreme lighting bolt I saw that night make a direct hit our boat, a 36′ cutter, it would have likely destroyed our boat and killed the crew. The good news is the odds of getting hit in a bad lightning storm are likely better than the 1 in 1,000 actuarial odds per the insurance companies but are probably not 1 in a million either.

    Finally, this is as well written and article on this subject that I have seen.

  17. reading all of this it made me question why proper grounding should be a positive thing to do ?!
    …since electricity always follows the path of least resistance, why should I create a perfect path to ground and even attract a lighting? within a storm cloud negativ electrons are seperated from positive charged ions. The lightning is a visible path of current. On the boat, it is suggested to insulate yourself … so why not insulate the boat? instead of creating a path to ground? Or why not even give the mast and rigging a low positive charge on purpose? As far as I could understand, St. Elmo’s fire is a visible corona discharge. A positive charged object leaking charge. That means if you see St. Elmo’s fire on your masthead you are protected ?, since your equipment is not negative charged and the lighting would not be drawn into it?
    I might have completely wrong, but I could not find proper answers, yet. Most of these articles repeat the same stuff. I found the comments here more interesting.

  18. Interesting.

    But are you ignoring voltage gradient in this analysis? The voltage difference between the source (the cloud) and the sea creates a volts/metre gradient. Your ion dissipation doesn’t have to reduce the charge to the voltage of the cloud. It just has to reduce the voltage by more than the voltage gradient over the height of the mast, to make the top of the mast appear less polarised than the sea around it, (or less polarised than the boat anchored 100m away). It just has to do a better job than the dissipation of the surroundings. Happy to be corrected if I’m missing something.

    I suspect that dissipators work better on catamarans as the masts swing less, and don’t move out of their own ion cloud. Am I visualising this right?

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