Off My Dock: One In a Million

The importance of watching weather while on the water.

Off My Dock: One In a Million
Off My Dock: One In a MillionTim Bower

They say lightning never strikes twice, but when it strikes my good friend Chuck Larson, the story gets told over and over again, and never gets old.

Chuck really was in a boat that was electrified by a bolt from the heavens. A little later he showed up at the Lake View Inn wearing a T-shirt reading “One in a Million” as a conversation starter that would allow him to retell his tale of survival, but the statement turned out to be too vague. That’s the kind of shirt little kids give Grandpa on his birthday.

And the odds are actually 1 in 1.083 million in any given year, according the National Weather Service. Sounds like a long shot, but in an 80-year life span those odds increase to 1 in 13,500, which seems more probable. You are just asking for trouble if you spend that lifetime on the water because 34 percent of those struck by lightning are engaged in water-related activities, like boating and fishing, as compared to relatively safe sports, like golf (14 percent). If you spend a lifetime on the water in Florida, good luck getting life insurance. The “Sunshine” State records more lightning strikes than any other — 20.8 per square mile annually — and more fatalities — 54 since 2007 and counting. That makes me feel ­pretty safe in Wisconsin — eight deaths since 2007 — and willing to visit Tennessee, where only two lightning fatalities have occurred in that same period.

In fact, an impoundment of the Little Tennessee River was the site of the lightning strike that nailed Chuck some 20 years ago. Chuck and his cousin, Andy, and two bikini-clad friends were back in a cove when they heard thunder and rightly decided to head for home port, but when they wheeled out onto the main lake, they discovered the storm was almost upon them and coming from the direction of home. Plan B was to motor to a big marina around the next bend, but as they approached those docks, a huge bolt crashed down right on the bait-shop roof. Yipes! A second later, Chuck says there was a bright flash, and he felt himself rise about 2 feet off the boat seat.

They might all be dead, except they had the good fortune to be in Andy’s MasterCraft MariStar equipped with a ski pylon that acted like a lightning rod and channeled the strike to the bronze tracking fins and from there, I guess, into the water. It blew a hole in the bottom of the boat. Everyone was dazed, but other than some first-degree burns, there were no injuries.

I am not making this up. Chuck has photos, which he’ll show you if you ask about his new T-shirt, which reads “Lightning Survivor.” But don’t ask. We don’t want to hear the story again.