The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record, with its highlight being hurricane Epsilon, crashing onto Europe’s shores with a monster swell that made headlines across the surfing world. From Cornwall to the south coast of England, Brittany and Ireland, we get a flavour of the windsurfing that went down in Epsilon and afterwards.
Photos John Carter, Ian Butt, Hanno Kinkel, Darragh Gorman / @lighthouse.industries, Conor Flanagan / Red Bull Content Pool, M.Rozic.
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John Carter – “Back in October 2020, Hurricane Epsilon generated a huge blob of black swell which launched massive, potentially record-breaking waves to a myriad of spots all over Europe. The likes of Mullaghmore in Ireland and Portugal’s Nazaré were both firing on all cylinders, as the swell caused surfing headlines on the Internet.
As for windsurfing, it was a tough call to know where to be for the outfall of Epsilon. With travel restrictions rife due to the pandemic and certain countries in total lockdown, the right thing to do was to stay close to home and work with whatever nature delivered locally. Cornwall was forecast to have west winds on the biggest day with a massive 7 metre swell, while the south coast was also expecting a chunky groundswell up the channel combined with west / southwest winds.
In a normal year, for sure I would have loved to bomb over to the biggest and most spectacular spots possible, but with all that was going on in the world, I opted for staying local and hitting England’s south coast and after a bit of deliberation, I decided to settle on Boscombe and Avon.
On arrival at Boscombe, we looked set for some decent action, with logo high ramps looming up in front of the stormy dark skies in the background and a good thirty-knot plus breeze to fuel the take offs. From the get-go, the action was fast and furious with ramps galore and plenty of meaty sections to hit as the long period swell brought with it some heavy sets in front of broody skies out to sea. A sign of the times were several cruise ships anchored helplessly out offshore, but at least they provided some background interest for my camera’s shutter.
Jamie Hancock has been devoting a lot of time to his successful filming career, but today was a windsurfing day and an escape from being behind the camera. As normal he was boosting some huge back loops as well as picking up the chunkiest sets in search of a glory wave 360. Coxy was ripping as normal, dicing with Boscombe pier as if it didn’t exist! Showing off his local knowledge he seemed well in tune with finding the best ramps to fly into some huge stalled forwards and bowls to smack without remorse.
Matt Wemms had driven down from Avon purely for some banter on the beach and persuaded me that I should be shooting from the vantage point of the end of Boscombe pier, which didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time. I ran up the promenade and onto the rafters of the pier, only to witness Coxy bust out a sick aerial just as I was setting up my camera; gutted!
Shortly into the session Nic Hibdige joined us on the water, looking for some more frantic action than at Avon and you could say he definitely managed that! Within twenty minutes of his short and sweet session, the wind did its lull in the sequence just at the same time he smacked a lip perilously close to Boscombe Pier. As he frantically swam after his kit on the inside, all he could do was watch helplessly as it was swept beneath the concrete pillars and through to the other side, luckily all intact!
Well that was my experience of the outfall of hurricane Epsilon! No, I was not down shooting huge waves in Cornwall, in awe on the cliffs at Nazaré or clinging onto the back of a jet ski at Mullaghmore, but it has been one of those years when you have to settle with what you have close to home. I enjoyed my day on the south coast, with no pressure, a bit of banter with the boys and home early enough to say goodnight to the family. Who knows how 2021 will pan out, but 2020 has been one where you have to adapt and make the most of what is on your doorstep! Let’s see what 2021 will bring!”
James Cox – “I received a call from JC saying he was keen to come over to take some local shots. A quick check of Southbourne confirmed what I suspected – total doom closeouts. So we wrangled our way to Boscombe Pier to play with something less carnivorous. Cross to cross-on head high plus waves and solid 4.7m weather greeted us. Let the games begin! The jumping was awesome and there were some meaty wave rides to be had, with Jamie Hancock and Hunty leading the charge. I was watching from my hilltop parking space, frantically trying to gather my gear whilst cursing Bournemouth council’s policy of height restrictions on their beach car parks.
I eventually launched quite near the pier and luckily had enough power to force my way out past the end of the jetty without getting dragged under by the current. The next few runs were spent dallying with positions close to the pier, where some lovely waves were breaking, but a fall and separation from kit would have meant terminal carnage and a keelhauling through the pier structure! The swell began picking up and some waves were breaking off the end of the pier, giving an opportunity to risk full power bottom turns, as worst case scenario you would end up on the safe side of the pier. The boys were amped and smashing it.
Particularly psyched I smacked into a lip that launched me into a glory aerial. I nearly made the exit but got swallowed by a ball of whitewater. I dragged my wretched self onto the beach and never had so many props from the boys about a move, even Matt Wemms was saying it was great! He has never said a good thing about my windsurfing before this, even when he ‘sponsored’ me! Of course, it was a ruse. They shot me down by saying that JC didn’t get it on camera because he was changing position, but continued to tell me how it would have been a front cover shot. This reminded me that there are no limits of the efforts of true friends to snap a fellow chum.
About this time Nic Hibdige turned up. A short period of him ripping was terminated by a drop of wind and Nic then swimming frantically under the pier after his gear. At this point we decided to derig and depart. Apparently the wind picked up again afterwards, and Avon Beach turned on for a magic late session, with the likes of Andy Chambers and Clyde Waite having it by all accounts. It was too late for Hunty though, he was already on his way home, probably halfway through his KFC bargain bucket and the rest of the crew had dispersed too. I also had to head back into the carnage of work and parental duties. My session was short but sweet; looking forward to the next storm!”
Finn Mullen – “As surges swirled round my feet in the normally sheltered harbour, the morning of Epsilon’s arrival dawned with the reality that this was one swell that was going to live up to the hype. In the preceding days, the forecasts had been rock solid on the exceptional swell size, it’s rare to see such consistency. Red Bull took note and put together a plan for one of their sponsored surfers, Conor Maguire, to surf Mullaghmore, a famed big wave in County Sligo. As for wind, the forecasts said there would be some, but enough to windsurf or too much to mess with the surf, that was hard to say. The projected force 5-6 was the sort of strength that could fall either way, or the headland could block it completely, as it often does.
I was tasked with putting together the safety for Conor, having had experience of doing a similar role for the Red Bull Storm Chase. At the time Ireland was in a very strict ‘level 5’ Covid-19 lockdown, with only certain work and activities permitted, so from the outset it was clear that whilst our operations could be performed under the ‘level 5’ guidelines, our procedures and plans would have to be very robust. And so on that morning of the 28th October 2020, ‘Big Wednesday’, a team of 6 jet skis and operators, 2 spotters, 3 paramedics, 1 E.M.T. and a private ambulance assembled, along with 4 photographers and videographers to capture the action. Tow-in big wave surfing is very much a team effort and the size of the team reflected the level of support we knew it would take to keep Conor safe. If he was feeling any pressure to perform from the level of investment made by Red Bull, he didn’t show it, but if you know Conor, that coolness permeates into everything he does. And perform he did, thanks to both his insane surfing skills, but also those of his jet ski driver, Barry Mottershead, who had the hardest job of the day, picking the waves for Conor to ride and putting him in the right spot to whip into some of the largest waves ever surfed in Ireland – no easy feat. Conor caught the biggest wave of his life so far and the resulting footage broke the internet, with Barry and Conor receiving deserved accolades for all they achieved. Offshore, Epsilon spawned a monster wave measuring 98.4 feet, one of the highest ever recorded by a wave buoy in Irish waters. It was a truly incredible day and I couldn’t have been happier for it to end successfully for two very humble and deserving humans.
As for windsurfing, on these sort of forecasts I’d normally keep things pretty mobile until the last minute, as you never know what the day will actually bring; weather in Ireland is unpredictable, as any local will tell you. And sure enough, true to form, the forecast wind never showed, and spray you see in the shots or videos of Conor’s waves was due to the ferocity that the wave breaks with, creating in effect its own wind on the face, as water is sucked up from the reef and spat out from its famous tubes. Normally as a windsurfer I’d be gutted about no wind, but after a few long days planning the safety, and sleepless nights with a toddler, I was only thinking about looking at the inside of my eyelids for a few hours. I didn’t have to wait too long for my wind fix though, as hot on the heels of Epsilon, came storm ‘Aiden’ three days later, the first named storm of the 2020/21 list compiled by Met Éireann, the UK Met Office and the Dutch National Weather Service (KNMI). It was nothing like the size of swell of Epsilon, but it was a great way to start the winter. Since then, it’s been an invigorating mix of wind, waves and relatively mild temperatures; a welcome antidote to the rest of 2020’s ills!
AVON BEACH, ENGLAND.
Clyde Waite – “Avon is a popular place to sail because of how accessible it is, both in terms of parking and easy wave riding conditions. Not many places on the south coast provide down-the-line wave riding in a southwesterly. Even when it’s small, the wave peels for a long time, so whether your level is a wave wiggler or looking for a lip to smash without too much of a comeback, there is usually something on offer. Avon has a mellow local scene of all ages, so there is always plenty of decent banter on the beach. It’s not without its risks though. West-southwest winds are the best for wave riding, but the wind is normally very light on the inside in that direction. If the wind dies or your kit breaks, in the worst-case scenario there is a conveyor belt current that takes you to Highcliffe down the coast.
The forecast for Storm Epsilon had all the makings for a classic day of long, smooth wave riding at Avon Beach. It needs a wave period of above 11 seconds and a decent swell to turn on. Epsilon had this and more. The fact that it came during half-term, in the middle of a week of already good conditions, meant I was stoked even before hitting the water! One benefit of local knowledge at Avon is knowing where the sand bars are, when to hold back, stay on a wave, or gun a flat section for the inside reform. Avon can make your day or break it if you get it wrong! There are so many ripping at Avon these days that it is a pleasure to watch when it is firing. Usually because I am in a rush to balance family life, I don’t get a chance to sit around and enjoy the vibe. Avon is a great place to watch, as the beach is very sheltered from the wind. It was a treat to watch waves on the low tide sandbar getting dismantled by the local boys and girls. After the morning chunky high tide session, I was waiting for the evening session, which had the peak of the swell arriving with a pushing tide. ‘Big Wednesday’ didn’t quite live up to the hype, but it was still pretty good!”
Timo Mullen – “Storms….I love to hate them, they always over promise and under deliver. So with such an unnatural air of pessimism from me, I am usually pleasantly surprised if I score epic conditions! I hope that makes sense!!
The general consensus on every forecast I looked at was hurricane Epsilon would break the record books for swell, with NW Ireland very exposed to it. However I was landlocked to England courtesy of Captain Covid-19 and regardless, Ireland was in a strict lockdown with travel only allowed within 5 km of your house, meaning all the big wave spots I windsurf were out for me.
It was pretty clear the swell was going to max out most of the Cornish beach breaks, so I had to look outside of the box, maybe some of the wrap round spots that only work in big swells would be an option. Sometimes that can feel like a cop out as your instinct is telling you to hit the biggest spot, but experience has taught me that you can spend the whole day chasing your tail and end up at ‘that wrap round spot’ just at the wrong time when you should have been there 3 hours ago!!
So, my plan was set – 100% focus on Daymer Bay. I’ve been sailing there a lot lately and the banks have been insanely good, in fact that week I reckon I had the best windsurf of my life there, so the stars were kind of aligned.
As predicted the storm brought the promised swell, but the wind was not really playing ball. On arrival at the beach it was pretty light, maybe 5.0m for me, certainly not the promised 40 knots! The car park was packed, as Daymer is a pretty safe bet for all surfers and windsurfers in a big swell. Lots of the local Cornwall crew had the same idea as me – Blacky, Meardon, Thorpy, Muzza, Kingy, they were all there!
I rigged my 5.0m Severne Blade and Nano 92, as it pretty much has the biggest wind range of all my sails, powerful in the lulls and you can still survive if 40 knots did come through. I’d say the swell on the far side was about mast high on the good sets, and those sets were absolute perfection; it was super cross-offshore and just reeling. I had one wave that I will remember for a long time, full tilt high-speed top to bottom turns running for 500 metres with a huge aerial at the end, my best wave I’ve had in England for sure, and at Daymar Bay! Maybe I shouldn’t be so pessimistic about these storms in the future!
‘Post Epsilon’, Cornwall has had one of the best runs of conditions I have ever witnessed there. Lots of great days at Marazion, and one stand out day at Gwithian, which was just flawless. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, getting photos has been difficult, so big thanks to Ian Butt for getting down early to catch this aerial at Gwithian!
Leon Jamaer – “We were on a road trip through Europe and with the Atlantic on the boil we decided to go to Brittany, a region which neither my brother Leif or I were particularly familiar with. The forecast promised a massive low pressure area with a lot of wind and a lot of swell, but for windsurfing in Brittany, a third factor has to be right, the tide. The range of high and low water is on average five to eight metres and plays a big factor on whether a spot is on or not.
Prior to coming, we’d studied ‘The Kite and Windsurfing Guide Europe’, and spoke to two French people we’d met in Ireland last year. Three spots stood out, the ever-popular Le Dossen, Île aux Vaches (made famous by Thomas Traversa’s numerous missions) and Mélédan, a mysto big wave spot at Île Vierge, home to the tallest stone lighthouse in Europe, but nobody seemed to really know whether you could windsurf the wave there or not. We had a few good days in Le Dossen. The large sandy bay works with southwest winds, almost all wave sizes and even different tides. Depending on the tide, different banks work sometimes better, sometimes worse. There can be a lot of windsurfers here, but they are spread across the bay, so you have plenty of space. We meet Adrien, one of the people we had met in Ireland. On his van are the words, “Rendez nous la mer”, meaning, “Give us back the sea”. In the spring lockdown, practicing watersports was a punishable offense. Adrien is all the happier now that the first autumn storms are approaching and you can move freely again. Many French come to the coast and enjoy being outside and in the fresh air despite the autumnal weather.
The wind is turning northwest and we drive towards Audierne in the evening to get on the water at Île aux Vaches; the island of the cows has long since ceased to be a secret spot. We want to be on the water before the spot gets too crowded and we get up about an hour before sunrise. While the coffee is still brewing, a long haired skinny guy and his buddy rig their sails in the dark. It’s Thomas Traversa and he explains to me he only has about an hour, then he has to go back to check out of the holiday home he’s rented and pick up his family, so he has no time to see if there is enough wind or not, he’s just going no matter what! When Leif and I arrive at the break, Thomas has already ridden up to a dozen mast-high waves. The sun rises, Thomas disappears, and the ocean is suddenly flat again. Luck or expert knowledge – probably both.
Shortly before the end of the trip, the long-awaited giant swell from hurricane Epsilon arrives and brings Mélédan to life, somewhere my brothers and I have wanted to surf for ages. It looks a tricky spot to sail, but Leif and I try our luck. After our session, we still don’t feel like we really know the wave, the mystical character of this stretch of coast remains.”