My last storm chase of 2011 and an exciting one it was too. My plan was actually two fold, the first chase would be focused on a deep Atlantic depression located to the NW of Ireland where severe wind gusts were expected in the 70-80mph range across coastal areas of Ireland accompanied by convective showers of rain, hail, sleet and isolated thunderstorms. That same evening, and again the following night, I was waiting on the impact of two CMEs which were expected to generate geomagnetic storms and hence aurora displays so I was committed to 48 hours of potential sky action. On December 28th the strongest wind fields would be hitting the coast during the afternoon so I decided I would be chasing in the hope of experiencing severe gales, big waves, and perhaps even cool storm clouds and mammatus displays. My girlfriend, Roisin, and I intended to hit the road during the late morning so we busied ourselves preparing snacks and hot drinks with appropriate layers of clothes and despite rushing against daylight and peak wind speeds it was time well spent, as the old SAS saying goes...''fail to prepare, prepare to fail'', and I certainly intended on succeeding. A quick last check on the net showed that a wind gust had been recorded at 80mph (technically 79mph) in Co. Derry near Eglinton which is not that far away from my home and even closer to our target area.
We left Maghera rapidly and it wasn't long before we entered the prime risk area along the Co. Antrim coast, our destination was Ballintoy Harbour - a place already famous for its storms - and as we descended the steep winding road the raging Atlantic came into view through the windscreen. I was expecting it to be bad however I wasn't prepared for the complete onslaught which we ended up witnessing over the next few hours. By good fortune we arrived during the storm's peak which was evident the moment we stopped the car and felt the body rocking on its suspension. Our entire line of sight from NE to NW was dominated by huge white waves crashing over the ancient rocks and shoreline as they pounded the coast with a force that was both awesome and frightening in equal measure. This was by far the most violent ocean I have witnessed for many years and I simply couldn't wait to get out into the heart of the action, a quick glance around showed that we were not the only observers keen to document the action, there seemed to be many people situated around the harbour with camcorders taking their own video footage, some stayed within the safety of their own vehicles while others risked standing outside which was a battle in itself for balance and comfort - because there simply wasn't any on offer.
I got out from the car and positioned myself on the large rocks beside the ocean and began taking video footage, I was currently working on acquiring video footage of storms for a BBC programme so I was delighted to get the camera out in the field in truly severe conditions to capture nature at its best. Taking footage was an extreme challenge because the wind was unrelenting with regular unpredictable gusts between 70mph and 80mph which almost completely blew me over on to my side, at times it felt like an invisible hand was grabbing the camcorder and trying its best to yank it out off my hands, then the flick-out LCD screen kept blowing shut against the side of the camera body while my hat was getting yanked off my head by those same invisible hands, it was hectic trying to focus on what I needed to do. I found that leaning into the wind in a kind of martial arts-type stance with 70-80% of my weight on the lead leg with 20-30% on my rear helped to combat the force of the wind, however it wasn't a constant force so I kept having to re-adjust to accommodate the difference pressures I was battling with.
There was so much going on all around us that it was difficult to decide what to shoot first, however when I looked over my right shoulder nature had already made that decision for me. Aside from the huge breakers exploding sky-ward behind the cottage cafe there was a section of the harbour that looked like it was covered in a lane of snow, upon closer examination I found out that this was actually suds/foam!. The foam covered the entire ground from harbour shore and over the wall back into the sea. When a severe gusts of wind came it blew large quantities of foam from the ocean and through the air along this lane at tremendous speed, I couldn't resist it so I ran into the lane just as another magnificent gust hit, I turned my back to the wind and got hammered by 70-80mph airborne foam, it was absolutely surreal in the extreme, it actually looked and felt like a snow blizzard. I took still images and some great video from within this 'foam blizzard', the above is one of them. Check out the big section of foam to the RHS, many of these lumps were the size of base balls and looked stupendous blowing across the sky, despite wearing two layers of clothes the back of my legs and back were soaked to the skin within sec's but I didn't care, this was fabulous fun and most definitely not a sight one would see on a regular basis.
I then went to the other side of the blizzard and got a brief break in the shelter behind the cottage so I could dry out my lens with some kitchen roll. Here's Roisin now braving the elements after leaving the car and heading towards me through the blizzard, the foam was blowing from R to L at high velocity. Roisin was a fabulous help to me this day because I needed to obtain storm footage for the BBC and some of that footage needed to show me in the frame out in the storm so Roisin threw herself into the deep end and put up with severe winds, flying foam, big waves, and extreme discomfort in order to help me get that footage.
I ran back into the foam blizzard again as Roisin got new video of me in the middle of it all, although I hadn't seen the clip I'm quite certain it looked great. Here's a shot taken in the middle of the mayhem looking down at my boot covered in foam. At one stage I had 10" of foam wrapped around my legs at the bottom, the big hazy patches on the lower L and upper R of the image are suds which hit the camera lens.
This was a little later, we were that busy shooting the waves, taking stills, and fighting the elements that we lost all track of time and realised we were loosing daylight and that our chase would soon be over. This was taken at the other end of the harbour facing NE, look at the tortured sea, those waves would roll into the narrow harbour in a manner which looked more like a tsunami rather than a surface wave, one min we would see the water at a certain height, the next it had grown dramatically in height and threatened to come over the walls, it all happened fast and with no warning which made this section of the harbour a frightening place to be. Roisin did fantastic despite these concerns, here she is taking video, note the foam flying through the air again (another base ball above her head) and where the stone path of the harbour ends to her RHS and look how close the sea is, the entire depth of that water was rising and falling to an alarming degree so she took quite a risk to get that footage. I was on the other side of that wall shooting big waves and at one point I was standing up to my knees in foam! (image).
It was at this stage when things started to go wrong, the camcorder we were using suddenly malfunctioned, one min it was working and the next it just shut down, it didn't even get a good soaking other than a few whacks by flying foam which must have been enough to dampen the device so with the video camera not working we came up with a contingency plan of using Roisin's new Samsung Galaxy S2 smart phone which has a built-in HD video recorder. We were both getting cold and tired in the unforgiving wind chill so we decided to head back to the car to warm up and change location, as I was walking I heard a smacking sound, I looked down to see that my new Canon 50mm F/1.8 lens had fallen from my kit bag and hit the concrete quite hard, it's protective cover had come off however the lens was OK despite the encounter, that was close.
We drove back up the winding road near the top of the cliff then pulled over on the steep inclined road to check out the stormy sea below. The view to the N was spectacular with monster waves exploding over the rocks spraying high into the sky in all directions. I used the 100-400mm lens for these captures which is a fabulous piece of glass which did exceedingly well in such low light. There where two young men standing on a tall outcrop of rocks dangerously close to the waves, they made for a great sense of scale for the images so I took advantage of that while trying my best to press the shutter just as a wave majestically filled the frame, it was all about timing.
I was taking these from the driver's seat looking out the open passenger window past Roisin's head as the powerful winds outside rocked the car.
It was good fun watching these two enjoying the gales, here they are leaning into the wind as the Atlantic Ocean showed off in all its glory.
I'm sure they would love to have these images for the memories, just a shame I don't know who they are. Shooting waves is fantastic fun, every time you catch one on the frame you can feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction and excitement.
I opened the car door to go outside for some shots and it was like that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind when all the junk inside the car went into the air. One of my expensive wind proof gloves shot out from the car and into the sky never to be seen again and my tax disk ripped completely off the window and got lost somewhere in the car which demanded a fast search to find, thank goodness it didn't go out the window. I then went outside with the zoom lens and got buffeted all around the place and found it impossible to even hold the lens up for a shot, I glanced towards the car and saw Roisin's favourite woolly hat getting swiped from her head and watched as it went on a high speed trajectory over the cliff into the sea, I got back into the car again while Roisin tried her best to close the door, the force of the wind was that strong that we had to use both our strength to pull it closed, it felt like the door was going to come off its hinges at any second.
After struggling with the door we got it closed and we felt relieved to be in the sanctuary of the car again. I turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened, I tried again, and again, then it became obvious that the battery had gone dead, we where stuck on this steep road as darkness approached and the gales seemed to howl in triumph. The air felt gloomy as we both sat there pondering the thought of spending the night here miles from home, we waited a moment then spotted a jeep coming up the same road we where on, I waved him down and explained what had happened. Thankfully the driver was a true gentleman and he immediately came to our aid and after a tricky bit of reversing on his part we got the crocodile clips on both batteries and the car started first time and we were back in action. I would like to take this opportunity to thank that man and his girlfriend for saving our day and to go about it in such a calm generous manner while refusing any money for their trouble, it was great to see that there are still great people out there!.
We didn't dare turn off the ignition incase the battery played up again so we had to keep the engine turning and decided to head home. However the photo opportunities were not over yet because just as we passed the Causeway Hotel I spotted a stunning cell over the sea against the dark blue dusk sky, it was so impressive looking that I had get an image, and quick, we pulled into the side of the road near The Smuggler's Inn and I snapped off a series of shots as the cell moved from sea to land, in fact it was a train of cells one behind the other moving R to L with multiple anvils sweeping high into the sky. This image was taken hand held through the open driver's window at ISO1600, 18mm, aperture wide open, it was so dark that it was difficult to get an image at all, it required a shutter speed of 250/sec and the result was very accurate because this was exactly how it looked with the naked eye at the time. The structure was completely solid from top to bottom and it simply looked brutal as it dropped a dense black curtain of hail across the land once it came on shore, I was expecting a close range bolt of lightning at any moment but surprisingly the cells didn't become electrified.
We drove on punching through the hail core as we did so and just when I thought the day was over I glanced out the window and saw a stunning mammatus display high overhead, I put my window down and stuck my head out for a better look, the mammatus bags where hanging from the anvil of that cell and covering the entire zenith, I quickly pulled over at the side of the road between Bushmills and Portballintrae to get a few images but since it was so dark it was very difficult to shoot yet again. These are hand held, ISO1600 at a shutter speed of 1/50 of a sec, I had to brighten them further to bring out the detail. Both these images are 18mm wide angle so you can appreciate how extensive the show was.
The udders hanging down had great depth and contrast and glowed an eerie dark blue colour in the moody dusk sky. I saw Roisin getting out and taking her own images with her mobile phone, this was her first mammatus display and what a good one it was too, these images don't do it justice at all, just a shame it wasn't at sunset, what a sight that would have been. I'm kicking myself now that I didn't get any video of this with my own camcorder but I simply didn't have time to set it up, it was either stills or nothing so I have no regrets. The drive home was a period of relaxation as we sipped a takeaway hot tea and watched another black cell in the distance over Donegal with the first stars of the night switching on as twilight blended into night, it was a successful chase and my last of 2011, and I for one feel delighted that it ended on a high note.
This is a youtube slide show I made in the form of a month by month format featuring all the best events which happened during 2011 from January to November, I had to leave some material out, not to mention all of the December chases, however there is still plenty to see in the form of thunderstorms, funnel clouds, moonbows, sunsets, gorse fires, NLCs, snow, and night sky images which sums up the year very nicely. 2011 has been a great year for me, I have completed the greatest amount of storm chasing and photo shoots I have ever done so far and I have no doubt that I will only exceed this effort in 2012 which I am certain is going to be an action-packed year with remarkable sky events, and when they happen I intend to be there to catch them on camera!. Thanks very much for reading and a happy new year to you all!.