An approach to a modern sailboat lightning protection system

When lightning strikes, and it does, having a lightning protection system can save your life
When lightning strikes, and it does, having a lightning protection system can save your life

We were lucky when we were struck by lightning on our small 35’ GRP cruising sailing boat in Turkey in 2013, but without an LPS. All the plastic and some of the metal gear at the top of the mast exploded (see photo below) and simultaneously the headlining in the saloon exploded downwards with a loud bang. So much smoke that we initially thought we were on fire; but my wife and I survived unscathed to tell the tale.

The most likely discharge exit was through the propeller shaft, but practically all electronics were violently destroyed and, as an electrical and electronic engineer, my assessment for our insurance claim afterwards showed that most devices had experienced severe arcing with small electronic components having exploded internally (see photo below).

An lightning protection system is a bonding, grounding and shielding arrangement made of four distinct parts: Air terminals, down conductors, a low-impedance ground system and sideflash protection.


The best lightning protection system cannot guarantee personal protection, or protection from damage to sensitive electronic equipment. Also it is not a lightning prevention system. I knew the private owner of one large blue water catamaran which has been struck three times in its life and it is not an old boat. Fortunately no one was hurt on any occasion, but many electronic systems on that complex boat were effected and had to be replaced on each occasion. Unfortunately catamarans are many times more likely to be struck than mono-hulls and records in the USA, where certain locations are particularly prone to electrical storms (e.g. Florida where boat ownership is high), show that mono-hull sailing boats are about 25 times more likely to be struck than motoryachts.

Lightning is very hard to study and to accurately predict its behaviour is almost impossible, but it is driven by the simple fact that a massive potential difference (voltage) exists between the highly charged clouds of a brewing thunderstorm and the surface of the Mother Earth. Eventually, a path is found through the atmosphere down to ground for some of the accumulated charge to discharge and the creation of a discharge path first requires the creation of so called ‘streamers’ [1],[2]. Bear in mind that air breaks down at 3 million Volts per metre, and you get some inkling of the enormous voltage differences involved.

In the middle of a large body of water, with your sailing yacht in it, the top of the mast, being the highest point around, looks like a handy point to discharge through. So the LPS is designed to control the first point of discharge and then make the onward path to ‘ground’ – in this case the sea – as direct as possible and capable of conducting very high currents for a very short time during the discharge.

In 2006, the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) technical information report TE-4 [3], [4] recommended the following:-

• lightning protection system conductors must be straight and direct and capable of handling high currents. The main ‘down’ conductor is recommended to be 4AWG, or 25mm2 in European sizing; see diagram.

• A large enough area ground must be provided between the vessel and the water to offer an adequately low resistance path (ABYC recommends 1sq.ft. {0.1m2} in salt water; much larger in fresh water. NB this is not adequate for acting as the SSB counterpoise). Metal-hulled vessels naturally offer a large ground contact area with the sea, but the connection between the hull and all other electrical systems needs careful consideration.

• Heavy metal objects such as fuel tanks and engines must be bonded to the ground bonding arrangement to reduce the risk of ‘side flashing’ where the lightning literally can jump from one conductor to another, seemingly better path. Similarly, it can jump out of corners in cabling, so if bends must be made, then they should not be more than 90° and with as large a bend radius as possible.

The basic arrangement is as depicted in the diagram, where the ‘air terminal’ is a rounded end (circled in photo) metal wand mounted at the top of the mast to ‘attract’ lightning to it and, most importantly, to stand at least 6” (15cm) higher than anything else e.g. above the VHF or other antenna. Providing the air terminal is securely electrically bonded, presenting a high surface contact area, low resistance path to an aluminium mast, the mast itself can be used as the down conductor at least to the deck or keel, depending on where the mast is stepped. In the case of wooden, or carbon composite masts they present too high electrical resistance and a 4AWG cable must be run straight down the mast as the main down conductor. From the bottom of the aluminium mast or down conductor, the 4AWG onward path needs to be as direct and short as possible to the ground plate, or the metal hull.

The size of the ground plate as the main electrical discharge route out of the vessel is important and there is evidence that the shape is important as well: A long, 1ft2 {0.1m2} area copper strip, in contact with the water is believed to be more effective than a square of copper of 1ft2 as it is believed lightning will exit from the edges rather than the face of the ground plate.

It is actually better to leave through-hull metal fittings electrically isolated if they are already insulated from the rest of the boat by dint of their attached rubber or plastic hoses and their insulating mounting plates – decent quality bronze alloy seacocks and engine intake strainers will not unduly corrode if left submerged for extended periods of time without needing connecting to the vessel’s earth bonding. However, in the US it is more normal to bond everything metal below the waterline, use a tinned copper bus bar running the necessary length of the vessel, above any bilge water level, to connect each through-hull fitting to, which is then connected at one point only to the main grounding route out of the boat. This bonding arrangement is gaining in popularity outside the US with consideration of a lightning protection system.

Note in the diagram that all tie-ins, including fore- and back-stay (unless insulated) must use at least 6AWG (16mm2 European) cable. All large metal objects within 6ft (2m) of the lightning down path also need tying in with 6AWG (16mm2) cable. Examples are metal fuel tanks, main engines (despite them usually already being connected to the water via their prop shaft) and generators; this is to minimize the risk of ‘side flashing’ where lighting can literally jump from conductor to metal object, looking for a better path to ground, even if one does not exist.

In considering of the creation of a ground plate of sufficient size, a metal hulled vessel is ideal, but nevertheless only one electrical connection point to the hull should be made from the main 4AWG down conductor. This same point should have all the other earth bonding made to it alone. The DC main negative bus in turn should be connected to the earth bonding in only one place, though European boats generally have their DC system isolated from any bonding system to discourage DC earth faults, the US differs in this respect, preferring direct bonding. One solution to this dilemma is to use a suitably rated surge capacitor between the DC negative busbars and the bonding system for the LPS. In the case of a non-metal hulled sailing vessel, the attraction of using the keel as a discharge point should be resisted as it is in contact with the water some distance below the surface where already a lot is going on with respect to charge balancing, so an alternative point is likely to be sought out by the discharge, nearer the surface. It seemed clear to our very experienced (and ancient) marine insurance surveyor that, during our own strike in Turkey, the discharge was out through the propeller shaft.

So far, so good, but recent thinking and good practice [5],[6] has modified the above ideas to take into consideration the danger of side flashing much more. A side flash is an uncontrolled spark that carries current to the water and can do extensive damage to hulls and equipment. The good practice and standards for a lightning protection system relating to marine situations, such as they exist (see NFPA 780, latest version, especially chapter 8, ‘Protection for Watercraft’, [7]) are tending to treat a boat more and more like a building to exploit those well tried and tested techniques used in a land based situation. Rather than a ‘cone’ below the air terminal, the ‘zone of protection’ is now more reliably envisaged to be formed from a ‘rolling sphere’ of 30m radius, as shown below for a larger yacht [7],[8]:-


Diagram of Boat with Masts in Excess of 15 m (50 ft) Above the Water; Protection Based on Lightning Strike Distance of 30 m (100 ft).

With a large building, the down conductors from the various air terminals run down the outside of the building to a number of grounding stakes; not so with a yacht where, as we have described, we’ve now concentrated the discharge right in the middle of the boat, where the danger of side flashing into other metal parts is very real; if these parts are not bonded and protected by a properly designed, low impedance path there’s are very real further danger of the side flash finding its way onwards and out through the side of the boat to the surrounding water surface. This has indeed been experienced by an American friend of mine on a high-tech, all carbon racing sailing boat on its way back to Newport, which after being unavoidably struck several times in a violent storm, put in to New York and immediately hauled to find literally a thousand or more tiny holes around the waterline when the discharge had exited! Apparently lightning does not always take the straightest path to the water, but rather has an affinity for the waterline.

The latest version of this NFPA 780 standard recognises this danger and, in a departure from the older versions, provides for multiple grounding terminals to provide the shortest path to the surrounding water surface. These ‘supplemental grounding electrodes’ conduct lightning current into the water in addition to that conducted by a main ground plate. The new standard provides for a continuous conducting loop outboard of crewed areas, wiring and electronics. Placing the loop conductor well above the waterline, outboard, and with grounding terminals below it retains the advantages of an equalization bus, whilst correcting for its weakness with side flashes having nowhere else otherwise to go.

Finally – what does an lightning protection system do to protect sensitive electronic equipment? The simple answer is very little. The huge potential difference between sky and Mother Earth in a thunderstorm can cause an electrical discharge of immense energy, with huge current flows, but only lasting fractions of a second. If that current is running down your aluminium mast and safely out of the ground plate and supplemental grounding electrodes of your boat through the Lightning Protection Scheme measures you have taken, without blowing a seacock off the bottom, without starting a fire and without injury to anyone one board, that is the primary consideration and what the system is most hoped to achieve. However, in the controlled (as much as possible) passage of that enormous current, your electrical cables connected to sensitive electronic equipment should be as separated as possible from the discharge route, and if you can ensure those cable runs are at right angles to the discharge path direction to minimise large induced currents, then you are beginning to understand the correct philosophy. Some additional measures are offered on the market – for instance surge arrestors, and special in-line VHF aerial suppressors – but the best insurance of all is to completely isolate the most sensitive electronic devices when a thunderstorm is brewing i.e. turn off and completely disconnect such devices from any installed piece of wire or cable on the vessel.

Protection of electronic equipment by a hermetic system on larger yachts

So much electronic equipment on board a yacht struck by lightning is very susceptible to permanent damage. The only safe way to fully protect electronic equipment is to have it completely disconnected from all other circuits when thunder and lightning are nearby, and I still to this day do that as much as possible, but how practical is complete protection really?

A recent idea I had whilst discussing the problem with a 30m ketch owner may have some merit, and I call it a ‘hermetic system’, so suggesting that it is sealed from the outside world: If the most critical and/or sensitive electronic equipment can be enclosed within its own quite separate power and cabling set, separate from the rest of the boat’s electrical and electronic wiring, then it is possible that it could be saved in the event of a lightning strike. One way to do this would be to run all those systems required to be protected effectively off an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS), powered from the AC bus (via the generator), then down converted to the necessary 24/12VDC electronics supply. In the event of a lightning storm, all AC connections to the UPS and any signals, power or ground returns outside the hermetic system must be open circuited by large clearance contactors. The electronics contained within the hermetic system can still continue to operate, for a limited time (depending on the capacity of the UPS batteries) and further choices can be made about what to shut down within the hermetic system to extend the battery life, leaving for example just the absolute minimum electronics to continue to safely navigate e.g. Depth, GPS, Chartplotter. Very careful consideration must be given to cable runs.

The VHF antenna on the main mast may be protected by a surge arrestor from one of several suppliers e.g. No guarantee is likely to the effectiveness of this as a protection device in all cases of lightning strike and the manufacturers should be consulted for further information.

I certainly now resort to the marvel of a GPS chart plotter on my mobile phone when there’s a nasty electrical storm about and I’m out at sea!
References: –

1. Top 10 best lightning strikes (USA) by Pecos Hank, with rare photo of an upward streamer.
2. for a graphic showing the formation of negative streamers
3. ABYC (US) technical report TP-4 “Lightning Protection”.
4. Nigel Calder – “Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual: How to Maintain, Repair, and Improve Your Boat’s Essential Systems”
5. “Complexities of Marine Lightning Protection”, By Ron Brewer, EMC/ESD Consultant, April 2011
6. “A New Concept for Lightning Protection of Boats – Protect a Boat like a Building” Ewen M. Thomson, Ph.D.; published in the October 2007 edition of Exchange
7. National Fire Protection Association (US) document NFPA 780-2014 “Standard for the Installation of Lightning Protection Systems” – see especially chapter 8 ‘Protection for Water craft’.
8. “Evaluation of Rolling Sphere Method Using Leader Potential Concept – A Case Study” P.Y. Okyere, Ph.D & *George Eduful – Proceedings of The 2006 IJME – INTERTECH Conference

Feature article written by Andy Ridyard. Andy Ridyard has been a professional electrical and electronics engineer for more than 35 years and started SeaSystems in 2008. His business is dedicated to providing troubleshooting, repair and installation services to superyachts internationally, specialising in controls and instrumentation. He lives with his wife in Falmouth, UK, but works mostly in the Mediterranean. SeaSystems has fixed countless intractable problems with marine control systems, marine electronics, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) and marine electrical systems. For more information visit

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