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Bar Mouth Storm Surge & Large Swells Captured By Drone - October 28th 2020

A series of deep low pressure systems would be impacting UK and Ireland over the next few days bringing with them heavy rain and windy weather. There wasn't much on offer as the wind was none severe inland or at the north coast and the post-frontal air mass was mostly stable with no convection. However there was one unexpected area of interest. Despite Sly winds coming off the land there was much interest among the surfing community regarding an unusual set up which could produce decent swells and waves at the Co. Antrim coastline on October 28th, this had me interested as normally Sly winds don't produce wave action for us here, however if the surfers were interested then I knew the situation was worth monitoring as these guys really know their stuff.

The wave potential even made it onto the evening news and at this stage I was honestly 50/50 on going to document the action. For me there needed to be decent waves to justify the drive and also I would rather get rare drone footage of the show rather than DSLR video, but in most of these situations it was either raining due to the passage of a cold front or the local wind was simply too strong for aerial filming, as much as 98% of these good wave set-ups are unflyable due to weather conditions. I checked the 22.45 GFS run on the 23rd/24th and suddenly I got interested, a frontal system would cross the country but it was early in the morning and it once it moved E it would leave in its wake clear skies and a few scattered showers before cloud moved in with more frontal rain after sunset. Furthermore despite being a breezy morning the wind was expected to ease off to 10mph by mid afternoon, this was indeed a rare opportunity to get in the air and film the ocean, however I was still skeptical that the ocean would deliver and held back on any plans just yet.

After midday on the 28th I was in my Mother's house in Maghera fixing the central heating boiler which had flooded. As I worked on the boiler I had already decided not to go to the coast, perhaps I was feeling tired, or worse, a rare lazy fit had come over me, so I let it go. Once the job was over my phone began to ring, it was my good mate from AerialVisionNi, a fellow photographer and highly experienced drone pilot. He had rang to tip me off to the latest, he said he had documented the surfers earlier in the morning and got chatting with them, apparently the big waves where breaking far off shore so it was taking too much energy to paddle out to ride them, so after their morning adventure many were exhausted and had went to sleep for an hour or two. Nigel was unsure if they would return in time for sunset or not. With only four hours until sunset and the fact that it would still take me an hour to get there I would in theory have less than three hours of light if I did go, I figured I would let it go.

Then my mate pulled up at Castlerock and there was a significant change in his tone, he said there were big waves crashing against the pier at the Bar Mouth, I could hear him ''wowing'' and ''ahhing' over the phone so I knew it must be impressive. I decided I would go after all, he informed me that the wind was light and more than doable for drone filming. With that I was on the road in an instant and made my way to Castlerock on the north coast. When I arrived a heavy shower was just clearing and behind it on the precip core was a huge rainbow over the Bar Mouth with it's base seemingly on the distant white buildings along the sea front at Portstewart. I saw huge swells barrelling in one after the other and immediately felt a rush of adrenaline, this was perfect, the sea was showing off for real and the sky was clearing behind the rain with blue skies and nice warm light from a lowering sun angle and there wasn't a breath of wind.

I made my way along the beach at a fast walking pace, I couldn't wait to get to the pier and experience everything up close and personal. I had the drone on my back and I carried the 600D and 100-400mm lens in hand as I rushed over the deep sand, I noted the small amount of sand to walk on as the sea was so much higher than usual and as I walked I constantly checked the sky for threatening clouds and kept regular checks on the wind. I stopped often to grab quick snaps with the long lens, this was one of them.

I made it to the pier, it seemed the dramatic waves had attracted many others who stood captivated by the waves, some had brought the entire family out to enjoy the spectacle while others busied themselves with selfies. This is the famous Bar Mouth which marks where the River Bann leaves Coleraine and flows out into the Atlantic Ocean. This transition zone from River to Ocean is flanked on both sides by two long stone piers with marine lights on each end. To the east on the other side is Portstewart Strand and to the west where I stood was Castlerock Beach. If your'e reading this and don't know the area its difficult to describe how different this place looked today in comparison to an average day. The piers are very dangerous, on a calm day you can walk out to the end, which I have done so on many occasions, however even on such tame days rogue swells can brew up and over spill sections of the pier which is why you need to be very careful and stay switched on, it can be quite intimidating. However on a stormy day like this one it would be considered completely insane to walk out because the chances of being swept to your death are extremely high. I watched the ocean for a while and took DSLR images and video until I could get a feel for the rhythm and flow of the sea, it seemed like non stop trains of big waves would surge in at high speed then explode around the end of both piers, the water itself covering much of the walk way all the way to the beach, it really was an awe inspiring sight.

This is the entrance to the Bar Mouth, I have exited here onto the ocean a few times by boat and I can tell you the swells you can encounter on a calm day are quite frightening which often lift boats high in the air before crashing into the deep trough between peaks, you suffer this for perhaps 100m or more before you finally reach the sea which is often more sedate. Today the white waves surged into the river with vicious force, at times they looked like a small tsunami approaching.

From my position on the beach I was getting a perspective at head height with the DSLR which gave the impression of small mountains towering in from the Atlantic. I loved the green breakers rolling over before assaulting the Portstewart pier end.

Boommmmm, a wall off high speed water packed with who knows what tonnage per square foot exploding against the pier, you wouldn't stand a chance if you where standing out there. I got the drone up and had a wonderful first flight in great light, the experience was beyond words, this was once again one of those times I was glad to have a drone and using nothing more than my own imagination I felt like I could move through the air effortlessly over the crashing waves and around the pier in complete freedom with no photographic limitations whatsoever.

Later it clouded over for a while which created a mood of its own for the waves seemed to glow with an extra green brilliance against the battleship grey sky.

It was approaching golden hour then the clouds began to break so I got the drone up for a second flight. The light was fantastic, at times the surf and breakers looked gold in the low sunshine and from the aerial perspective the sea looked like it was generated tsunami trains in some unseen ocean factory which then fired them continuously towards the pier, it was a show which never ended.

When I landed I was delighted with the experience and by what I had witnessed on the tablet's LCD screen, the two flights were an absolute buzz, I was glad I had made the trip after all. You might want to check out the footage below where I have combined footage from both flights into the one video, it's this footage which is the heart and soul of this image report.

As the light dropped ahead of the next front two guys walked a fair distance towards the end of the pier, they were clearly defiant towards nature and were either very brave or very stupid. Personally speaking I would not put my life on the line for a few mobile phone snaps, if these guys got swept in they would be goners, no one could swim against the power of that sea and furthermore they would get pounded into the large rocks at the side of both piers, it would be a terrifying way to go. At one stage the sea did surge along the pier which sent one of these guys running back who almost slipped in the water, it was a close call, you can watch this moment on the video below.

Full footage of the two drone flights and several DSLR ground clips combined. I hope you enjoy it, make sure to open in a new window and view at 1080p HD for the best experience, it will look even better on a smart tv. When I stopped recording the beach had vanished, the sea had literally engulfed everything so we had to make our way back across the sand dunes, the sky was dark and it began to rain heavily as the next front arrived, talk about perfect timing for the two hours I had spent here was an unexpected treat in what so far has been a very quiet Autumn for weather action, perhaps this day has broken the element drought. Thanks very much for watching.


Martin McKenna

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