Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Oh, watch out for that electron avalanche storm", with apologies to Jimmy Buffett.

This is a cautionary vignette about lightning awareness. I had a salesman call me on a Saturday morning, who said "He has a client on a brand new boat (24’ Boston Whaler) who had called him, stating his boat was badly shocking him, and would I please call him ASAP". I called the owner on his cell phone, and he was both scared, and very upset. He claimed his brand new boat, was severely shocking him, it was obviously very defective, and what should he do?


The boat was about one mile off Sarasota’s New Pass channel. I calmly started to ask him questions about what was going on. I was calm, because it wasn't me on the boat being shocked. I first asked what he was doing when he was first shocked, and he said he was fishing. The tip of the (graphite) fishing rod touched the water, and he got a jolt. The shock freaked him out, and he reeled in the line, and started to hang the rod in a rocket on the T-top, and a large spark jumped from his hand to the rocket jolting him again. His colleague, had also gotten shocked when he touched the T-top frame.

The owner also said he was hearing a crackling noise coming from all around the boat, and the digital instruments were not reading correctly. Now it was my turn to be scared. My instructions, were short and succinct. Take the boat back to the dock immediately, now, and I mean right now, do not pass go, do not collect $200, shocks or no shocks! And now for the rest of the story, page two.

On the way to met the owner. I noticed the enormous thunderstorm just to west, was quickly moving inland. When I got to the dock I did a quick check of the boat and could not find a single thing wrong with it, other than the engine's digital instruments said the maximum speed of the boat had been 2456 MPH, which I think is about mach 3. I suggested to the owner that he may have encountered an electron avalanche, and he took great umbrage to the idea, stating the shocks continued until he almost got to the dock, and insisted that the boat was defective, he wanted a new one, and the dealership would hear from his attorney.

So what did happen? I suspect it was an electron avalanche, which is a close relative of St. Elmo’s fire. I suspect, had this happened at night, the personnel on the boat might have seen a bluish cast all over the boat. The edge of thunderstorm was just overhead, and carried a huge negative charge. Positive electrons from the surface were wanting to stream off the boat aided by the nice points on the outriggers up to the thunderstorm. The entire boat had taken on a positive charge, including the people aboard, the fiberglass surfaces, and plastic surfaces of the boat.

This positive charge attached to the people onboard was being discharged whenever someone on the boat touched anything that was grounded to sea water including the tip of the fishing rod. The outriggers were isolated from the T-top by fiberglass, and the T-top and welded rod holders were bonded to the zincs. Just shuffle your feet on a carpet, and touch the door knob, and you have a similar situation. Why did this last for about a half hour after leaving the area? Rub a balloon on your sweater, and stick it on the wall. The balloon will hang there for the period of time it takes for the charge to naturally dissipate.

The electron avalanche can be the precursor to a direct lightning strike, and it was very fortunate that this did not occur, because conditions were certainly perfect for this to happen. The positive electrons want to stream up to meet a negatively charged stepped leader coming down from the storm providing a downward/upward path for a strike (there are a variety of opinions about the up down stuff).

There are two points to this story. The first was the thunderstorm was moving quickly towards the boat, and they should have left the area just as soon as they saw it. The good lord does not always watch over fools, but I think he does watch over drunken sailors.

The second point is that whether you are on a golf course, or on a boat, and the hairs on your head and arms start to stand up, or you are getting shocks. Take immediate cover, and not under the closest tree, or we will have to change your name to Zapped.

In the end, the owner, after doing some research agreed that this is what happend, and will not go fishing if thunderstorms are in the area.

There are lot of good sources for learning about Electron Avalanches, St Elmo’s Fire, and Lightning available on the Internet. Be informed!

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