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06/30 2011

Lightning

Each year at our training camp in Erba (northern Italy) we have at least one big storm, which usually includes lightning.  It’s welcomed though because the accompanying rain cools and clears the air, which is usually a humid 36 degrees.  Coming from the west coast I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been faced with lightning there while rowing.  The one that stands out most in my memory happened in Seattle:

It was my freshman year at UW and the legendary John Parker was my coach.  We were about a kilometer from the boathouse, at the finish-line end of the Cut, when a storm rolled in.  John saw the first flash of lightning and hit the throttle of his wakeless launch.  Only as an afterthought did he yell back at us over his megaphone to: “Take the boats back to the Conni!”  His fear of lightning endeared him to us, as that was the first sign of emotion he’d shown us all year that wasn’t perfectly calculated.  Later that year when we painted our class motto on the side of the Cut we remembered John and that stormy day, painting: “Every move is like lightning”.

So here’s my question: How much of a risk is it to stay on the water during a lightning storm?

I started rowing in 1992, 19 years ago, and I have never heard of a case in which a rower has been killed, let alone hit by lightning until today.  When I Google searched it 10 minutes ago I found one story, from last year, of a 16 year old rower being killed by lightning in China.  Before that incident the only rowing specific article I could find about lightning came from The Rowing News in 2000, and listed no specific injuries due to lightning.

Reading through the article in The Rowing News it seems a rower has just as likely a chance of being struck by lightning as a cow does in the middle of a farmer’s field.  As the ‘high point’ on a body of water, even if it is only by 1 meter, a rower will become the target of a lightning bolt – if a lightning bolt so desires to strike.  But what determines if it is going to strike?

If anyone out there has insight into the physics behind lightning strikes, or knows what the odds of a rower being hit by lightning are, please step forward and enlighten me.  In the mean time, as the article in The Rowing News suggested, I will use the ’30-30′ rule.  What’s that you ask? It assumes a rower is safe as long as (a) the gaps between seeing lightning and hearing thunder remain 30 seconds or greater, and (b) that you wait 30 minutes after a storm passes before you head back on the water.

I find the discussion interesting.  Most rowing clubs follow a strict rule that no rowing is to be done during electrical storms.  Is that what keeps us safe?  But missed workouts, even just here and there, have the potential to add up; even in colligate rowing multiple missed workouts can spell disaster for a crew.  Was John too quick to hurry back to the boathouse?  Or is there a real threat to staying on the water during a lightning storm?

I do know this: it would be impossible to win any kind of championships if you were dead.  I didn’t google search the number of cows killed by lightning each year.

Dave

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