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Mullaghmore Severe Weather & Sunsets, Co. Sligo - March 26th 2016

It's Spring and our first storm chase of the season was planned for March 27th when the first decent CAPE of the season was being modeled, in fact, the updated charts were showing two or perhaps three days in a row of convective potential for this period. March 27th would be the first true inland chase for most people however I decided that my first chase was going to be a day earlier on March 26th during a low risk set-up. It was to be an unsettled day with SWly flow with very little instability however GFS was showing a period of 200-400 CAPE along the W coast during the afternoon so I decided I would go chasing anyway, I wasn't expecting much at all however I just wanted an excuse for a road trip to blow off the cobwebs and perhaps get lucky with an unexpected photo opportunity, RTE mentioned strengthening winds during the evening along coastal areas however I was more interested in cloudscapes and good light so I hit the road SW from Cookstown to Mullaghmore in Co. Sligo in pursuit of storms.

However let's just back track a little to March 16th a week earlier when once again I found myself driving all the way to Mullaghmore in Co. Sligo to take in the sights. I began in Fermanagh castle hunting to the S of Lower Lough Erne however cloudy skies moved in and just when I was thinking of calling it a day I looked to the W and saw a clear section along the horizon where the sun was shinning, I decided on an impulse to drive W in the hope of beating the incoming cloud from the E incase there was a nice sunset, I had a good 40 min drive ahead of me and the sun would be setting in 60 min's so it was going to be close. With good fortune I made it in good time with 20 min's to spare, the sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, it actually felt mild outside and pleasant so I set the Phantom 3 Advanced drone airborne and filmed a beautiful golden glitter path extending the entire way across the sea from horizon to the shore upon where I stood, it seemed to be pointing straight at me which felt like the sky was acknowledging me. I realised there was going to be a spectacular sunset and I reckoned I had five min's before the sun vanished below the horizon so I landed the Phantom as quickly and safely as I could then grabbed my DSLR and attached the 100-400mm lens with trembling hands then I got a number of good stills with minutes to spare, here's one 400mm frame slightly cropped showing the solar disk complete with sunspot setting over a perfect flat ocean horizon with limb distortion due to atmospheric effects, it was a stunning sight to the naked eye and on the LCD screen.

The northern limb of the sun seconds from vanishing, the clean air and stable conditions thanks to the recent high pressure weather made viewing conditions and clarity exceptional for shooting scenes like this so close to the horizon. I watched while holding my breath taking numerous stills on continuous shooting just in case I saw a green flash which never appeared however the lack of one took nothing away from this beautiful moment. The aerial flight and this precious moment of the setting sun over the ocean more than made up for the hours spent on the road so I began the journey back a happy man.

Back to March 27th and Roisin and I where making good progress on our chase until we arrived onto the main road for Sligo before Ballyshanon, suddenly the van began to get buffeted by strong gusts of wind which took me by surprise, it was like stealth wind because there where no trees to give a visual indication of wind in the first place as everything was roads and flat fields, then suddenly it went from breezy to gusty, I hadn't felt anything as strong for a long time, I had to grip the steering while tightly to stop the wheel from getting yanked from my hands sending the van across the road. Once we reached Mullaghmore Head it was an utter shock, it felt like we where in an entirely different atmosphere, at least in comparison to the inland journey on the way down, we were experiencing sustained severe winds for the rest of the day.

We stopped at the edge of a high cliff to watch the sea which was impressive with nice breakers and tops getting sheared sideways at high speed, it looked like a full-on Atlantic storm with the ocean in a general state of frightening agitation. The wind was hitting the side of the van with such force that it shook us in an alarming manner, so much so in fact that Roisin was getting scared and was worried for our safety. I turned the van head-on into the wind to present a smaller surface area which helped only a little and after the recent tragedy at Bundoran we decided to not take any chances and re-positioned further along the road away from the edge. I spent a good 30 min's filming the sea with the telephoto lens through the open window then we went back to the exposed area once again for further observation.

Mid way through the shoot Roisin and I where getting hungry, we had packed flasks of tea and snacks for this very scenario however the wind and weather was so severe that we decided to leave the supplies in the back of the van because of the hassle of making tea in these winds was simply not worth it so we stuck with water and nuts for energy and spent the rest of the day trying to get images. We got hit by countless convective showers of rain and hail stones accompanied by vicious squalls, many of which were falling from non photogenic clouds however towards golden hour during the early evening things began to change.

We where parked on the coastal road, nose of the van facing W, my window was briefly down and up for a few min's each time to I could quickly shoot stills then get the window up again for shelter so it wasn't easy doing photography at all. The wind had veered to a Wly and I was shooting W towards the incoming squalls, this one was very dramatic visually which was difficult to portray on camera. A big cell appeared on the horizon and rapidly headed straight for us with dark base and dense mottled curtain of hail stones, the sun suddenly appeared back-lighting the hail curtain turning transforming it into into a surreal curtain of yellow and golden light, at this moment the sun itself could be seen in unison with the hail curtain as severe winds whipped across the ocean. The above image looks peaceful, serene, almost heavenly however I can assure you it was wild out there.

The first cell passed over us producing an intense squall of hail stones blowing sideways, they came through the window hurting our faces and filling the interior of the van forcing me to put the window up again. The cell moved into the E with golden fall streaks and a brief rainbow then we spotted another cell out to see in it's wake making a beeline for us, the base was black with an equally black hail curtain that was so well defined on its southern edge it looked like it had been cut with a razor. Suddenly a light appeared adjacent to the blackness, it was the sun trying to come out and as it did so it lit one portion of the hail curtain into dramatic orange while the northern portion remained black under heavy clouds, the scene was dramatic as hell so I began shooting again with the 100-400mm however it was difficult with the van shaking and rain and hail drops hitting the lens in low light, as I was looking through the viewfinder when I pressed the shutter for the above image I was thinking how amazing it would be if two waterspouts were touching down against that pre-sunset glow, what a scene that would have been.

The sky varied from battleship grey to metallic blue as heavy squall showers of hail brewed with intent during last light, the sun was min's from setting and looked nice peaking out from under this new cell. I decided to take a chance and run outside across the grass to get an image with the coastline in the foreground, this was 10mm wide angle with sun and storm in the same view. This had great potential, had it been calm I could have tripod mounted the camera and got short exposures with the aperture stopped down a little for more depth and stability but that was the stuff of dreams out in this environment, I got a couple of frames before the camera and myself got lashed by wind driven rain so I ran back to the van after feeling the wind cut clean through me. I struggled to open the door, the wind was blowing into the side of the van so hard, I used all my strength then the door tried to pin me against the frame when I was half way in but I made it just in time as the door slammed shut.

I removed the 10mm and attached the 100-400mm and shot that same sunset under that menacing hail squall with min's to spare before it was gone. This is a deep crop from a 400mm still, I really like this image with the solar disk setting over the ocean horizon with storm clouds framing the scene, check out the sun illuminating the wave at centre, that was miles away so must have been a considerable height in the air.

Goodbye sun, what a way to end the chase with yet another epic sunset from Mullaghmore, the black clouds engulfed the sun and it was gone then the light dropped so quickly it was as if a vast curtain had been drawn across the sky joined by more strong wind gusts and sideways hail then Roisin and I called it a day and began the two hour drive back home. I was eager to get back to charge the batteries and study the latest model run to see what the storm potential was like for the following day.

Video footage of the rough sea and several of the hail squalls however this footage doesn't do justice to what it really looked and felt in the flesh however I hope it conveys to some degree of the essence of the day. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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